For my write-up today on George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I'll use as my starting-point something that Marsden says on page 195, as he talks about a long sermon series that Jonathan Edwards gave about the history of redemption, which went through the Old Testament, the New Testament, church history (i.e., Constantine, the Reformation, etc.), the Second Coming of Christ, and the Last Judgment:
Edwards' series was long and much of it retellings of familiar biblical
stories, he was able to sustain a theme and the cumulative impact could
be compelling. One Northamptonite, Nehemiah Strong, who was only ten
and a half at the time of the sermons, recalled the series as a great
event in his life. Strong, who became a professor of mathematics and
natural philosophy at Yale, reportedly told Edwards' grandson Timothy
Dwight how as the sermon series proceeded he became 'more and more
engaged.' At last when Edwards depicted Christ's second coming, the
boy's 'mind was wrought up to such a pitch that he expected without one
thought to the contrary the awful scene to be unfolded on that day and
in that place...'"
I should say a few words about Edwards' sermon
series before I address the question of why it was so powerful. First
of all, Edwards' series centered on Christ, as it maintained that there
were things in the Hebrew Bible that were types of Christ or Christ's
redemption. Second, there was an optimism to Edwards' series that
contrasted with Augustine's more pessimistic depiction of tension
between the City of God and the cities of the world. Edwards
believed that history was "marked by increasing revivals and
culminat[ed] in the millennium", and that God worked through "national
religious wars and revolutions [to] facilitate the preaching of the
Gospel" (page 197). I seriously doubt that Jonathan Edwards
was a post-millennialist, one who believed that, over a long period of
time, many people throughout the world would become Christian and set up
a Christian society before Christ came, for Edwards held that the world
was on a timetable (according to numbers in the Book of Daniel) and
that there was a Beast, namely, the papacy. My impression is that
Edwards was probably a premillennialist, but there was some optimism in
his premillennialism when it came to the events preceding the Second
Coming of Christ. I think of the times when I listened to some
of my relatives discuss biblical eschatology, and they said that the two
witnesses of the Book of Revelation would pick up a lot of converts in
the United States. Granted, things would get bad before the end, and
yet God would have some triumphs before the Second Advent.
was Edwards' series powerful? Was it because of Edwards' delivery?
Marsden talks some about Edwards' style of delivery on page 206, as he
contrasts it with that of George Whitefield
(and Marsden talks at length about Edwards' relationship with
Whitefield, as well as Whitefield's friendship with Benjamin Franklin,
who differed significantly from Whitefield when it came to theology).
Whitefield did not use notes when he was preaching, his voice was loud
and could extend a great distance, he was emotional and wept, and he
tried to portray "the feelings of biblical characters or lost sinners"
(page 206). Edwards, however, used notes and was not extemporaneous in
his delivery (though Marsden says earlier in the book that Edwards over
the years came to rely less on his notes), depicted "powerful
images...but...seldom sustained them", rarely "referred to himself or
his own experiences", and held audiences spellbound with his "personal
intensity" yet had a "weak voice" (page 206). But Marsden does
state that the "power of [Edwards'] preaching came from his relentless
systematic delineations of all the implications of his theme" (page
Edwards was powerful in terms of the content of his messages. There
are some preachers who can beat a biblical text to the ground as they
seek to exhaust its meaning, and they end up boring their audience,
perhaps because it feels that the preachers are stating the obvious.
But there are other preachers who can plummet the depths of the
Scriptures and leave their audience feeling satisfied or fed, or with
the impression that they learned something. Edwards was most likely an example of the latter kind of preacher.
like to suggest another reason that Edwards' series about the history
of redemption was powerful, especially to ten-year old Nehemiah Strong:
it told a story. A lot of children, and even many adults, love
stories. I remember a pastor's son telling his father that he should
preach more about the stories in the Bible----such as that of
Joseph----since kids enjoy that, as opposed to delivering an abstract
discussion about the Second Coming of Christ.
When I read about
Nehemiah Strong's reaction to Edwards' series, I wondered if there was
ever a sermon series that was a great event in my life. I'll admit that I have heard some good sermon series----Ron Dart's series on history and prophecy, Dart's series on the epistles of Paul (see here
for both Dart series, but I can't vouch for the website, for I don't know much about it), David
Antion's series on Job, Antion's series on Galatians, etc. One series
that I'll bet is really good is Malcolm Smith's series
on the blood covenant. I only heard the first and the last of that
series----at church when I was a child----but someone told me that the
middle part goes into the blood covenant throughout the Bible. What I
heard was quite powerful. I wouldn't call listening to these series
life-changing, but they were enjoyable----cozy, if you will, since there
was a story-telling quality to them.
By the way, if you ever want to read Edwards' series on the history of redemption----and I may do that someday----click here.