Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Write-Up: One Holy and Happy Society

Gerald R. McDermott.  One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards.  Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

This was Gerald McDermott’s first book about eighteenth century American pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards.  See here and here to read my blog posts about other books by McDermott.
One Holy and Happy Society is about Jonathan Edwards’ public theology, his view about how God wanted society to be, and the role that Christians should play in society.  McDermott is arguing against certain prominent narratives about Jonathan Edwards: that Edwards was a recluse who did not care much about society, or that Edwards was a conservative who rubber-stamped America (or his part of America), including the bad things that America did.

McDermott portrays Edwards as one who indeed cared about society.  Edwards contended that Christian love included good citizenship, particularly concern for the poor.  Edwards supported the government giving to the poor and also private charity, believing that neither was sufficient by itself.  Moreover, Edwards gave a lot secretly to the poor, which was remarkable, in light of his own large family’s economic needs.  According to McDermott, Edwards was also not afraid to criticize the influential and the powers-that-be, and Edwards also spoke about Africans and women in a dignifying manner that was unusual in that day.  McDermott speculates that Edwards could have been kicked out of the Northampton Church because he challenged an influential and well-off family, and that Edwards may have been supported by those who had no vote concerning his removal: the women. McDermott also goes into Edwards’ views about patriotism: Edwards was for it, as long as it did not lead to a clannish mentality that disregarded the rest of the human race.

Because Edwards was unafraid to speak against magistrates, McDermott interacts with the question of whether Edwards could have set the stage for the American Revolution, which would occur after Edwards’ death.  McDermott seems to lean in the “yes” direction, noting Edwards’ continuing post-mortem influence and popularity, which was one reason that John Adams thought that Edwards’ grandson Aaron Burr (remember, the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton) had a decent political chance.

McDermott also has a chapter about Edwards’ views regarding the millennium, the thousand year rule of Jesus Christ mentioned in the Book of Revelation.  McDermott argues in this chapter that Edwards did not center Christ’s millennial rule on America but had a more global perspective, and that Edwards did not believe that the second coming of Christ (or actually, it would be the third coming, since Edwards believed Christ returned, in a sense, when Rome was destroyed) was imminent, but envisioned it occurring in a couple of centuries.  Edwards’ views about the millennium shed light on what he believed a perfect society would look like.  Edwards even predicted that, in the millennium, people across the globe would be able to interact with each other easily, and Edwards wrote this before the time of telephones, let alone the Internet.  If I had a favorite part of the book, it was actually a footnote, which quoted Edwards’ daughter Esther saying that she looked forward to the millennium because that hope gave her solace as she was dealing with difficult people.  She said: “What a charming place this world would be [if] it was not for the inhabitants—-O I long for the blessed and glorious when this World shall become a Mountain of Holiness” (quoted on page 46).  I can identify!

While there are thinkers and scholars who have highlighted the more regressive aspects of Edwards’ views—-on slavery, for example—-McDermott’s book is important because it goes into the progressive elements of Edwards’ thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog