Today, in my course on "Jonathan Edwards's Life, Thought, and Legacy in American Religious Culture," we discussed some of the excerpts in A Jonathan Edwards Reader. Students came to class having read Edwards's "Personal Narrative" (pp. 281-96), "The Spider Letter" (pp. 1-8), "Beauty of the World" (pp. 14-15), "Miscellanies" (pp. 35-48), "Diary" (pp. 266-74), and "Resolutions" (pp. 774-80). We spent most of our time, however, discussing Edwards's "Personal Narrative."
For many of the students, reading Edwards's "Personal Narrative" changed the way that they viewed him. Most of the class admitted that before today's readings, they assumed Edwards was consumed with the subject of hell--the kind of preacher who took pleasure in telling people that they were going to suffer eternal punishment. After reading the "Personal Narrative," students were shocked to find multiple references to God as "sweet." They were amazed to read that Edwards seemed obsessed with the God's beauty, as opposed to his wrath.
After struggling to find consistency in his devotion to God, Edwards eventually found a "new sense," which he described as "quite different from anything I ever experienced before" (284). Once receiving this new sense, Edwards went on to refer to just about everything having to do with God as beautiful, excellent and, especially, sweet. Edwards wrote that "God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature." He saw thunder and lightning, which formerly terrified him, as sweet (285), and even sickness as a "sweet" time of connection with God's Spirit (290).
In our discussion today, I made the case that regardless of whether you like Edwards or share the same beliefs, he is at the very least a fascinating person, who is often misunderstood as the quintessential fire-and-brimstone preacher.