The famous 18th century evangelist and revivalist Jonathan Edwards as well as the famed 19th century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up in highly religious atmospheres. Edwards was of a more conservative mindset while Emerson was a great deal more progressive in his thinking. There were times, however, that each of their ideas seemed to align perfectly with one another. Their other ideas were radically conflicting from one another. In Edwards’ and Emerson’s claims and comprehensions of human beings, God, and nature there were three major issues. Though they both grew up in highly religious and traditional homes their ideas on these three subjects were radically different yet closely related.
Jonathan Edwards was born in the year 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut and was raised in a devoutly Puritan family which reflected the core theological religious beliefs of the state. Edwards is called the Child of the Enlightenment because of his superior intellect. Edwards was highly educated and studied at Yale University exploring and looking into a vast array of subjects. He thoroughly enjoyed the in-depth learning and educational experience that he obtained at Yale. Edwards brought together the ideas of the Protestant Evangelical and Enlightenment movements of his day. Succeeding his grandfather, who came from North Hampton, he later became a minister. Edwards later published a vast array of materials regarding the numerous revivals that he heard and that occurred around him. He also wrote a great deal about many fascinating issues and topics that he happened to find interesting and thought provoking. By a vote of 253 to 23 Edwards was overwhelmingly voted out and was eventually released from his occupation as a minister for believing that stricter qualifications were necessary in order to receive the sacraments and membership of the church. The church eventually found a replacement for him fifteen months later.
Jonathan Edwards was a Calvinist who believed that mankind was predestined for hell and unless he repented he would be doomed for eternity. Calvinism was founded by John Calvin in 1610 based on the belief in the predestination and election of humanity. It came out of a split of the Lutheran church during the Protestant Reformation. Evidence of this thinking by Edwards can be seen in his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; when Edwards speaks of God dangling individual’s over a fire like a spider where at any time God could let go. In Edwards’ sermon God is portrayed as vengeful and is willing and able to destroy unrepentant sinners and nominal Christians in hell for all of eternity. God is seen as someone to fear and is angered by the sinfulness of man. One must be “born again” to escape God’s wrath and the endless pit, fire, and pain that comes with rejecting Him. Out of fear of this vengeful God people converted in the masses to escape this dreadful torment.
There were many people at that time who criticized his preaching and style of evangelism. They were disappointed, dismayed, and shocked at the detailed and horrifying descriptions of Hell and its punishments that seemed to frighten many of his congregants and those who came to attend his many sermons. His critics were particularly concerned with the effects Edwards’ style of teaching was having on the children who were present which they saw as innocent. His critics argued that children did not need to hear about eternal damnation or God’s wrath because they had not come to the age of accountability or were too young to even properly comprehend all of the teachings by Edwards. Edwards did indeed include even small children within his frame of thinking and when challenged about his position he responded in his writing titled, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England”. Edwards responded that Scripture declares all are doomed and destined for destruction and wrath if you don’t believe. He argued that when it says all it means all. The Bible said what it meant and it meant what it said, according to Edwards’ way of thinking. In his mind children needed to hear this message of God’s wrath and judgement just as much as the older congregants needed to hear it. None were immune or excused from doom and destruction unless they repented.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in the year 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. This was approximately one hundred years after Jonathan Edwards was born in the year 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut. Emerson was born into the Transcendentalist era of thinking. His family descended from Puritan as well as Unitarian ministers. Emerson studied at Harvard and soon afterward became a Unitarian minister himself. He later resigned, however, to transition into the Transcendentalist movement. He made his living giving lectures to mass audiences and intellectuals. He was a product of Enlightenment thinking as well, which focused more on rationalist thinking instead of divinity, religion, and the supernatural. Edwards began to believe that people were too deferential to the past and that various institutions, including but not limited to religious institutions, were doing a great disservice to mankind. He felt that people looked to the past as a foundation for building and expanding upon old ideas without attempting to be original in their thinking. He believed it was a crutch for man and that he could not and would not progress any faster or further if he continued to hold so strongly to the men and ideas of eras gone by.
In his book “Nature” he describes what he believes to be the character of man and it is completely contrary to what Edwards taught and believed. Unlike Edwards, Emerson did not believe that people were born naturally morally depraved and separated from God. He states in his essay “Nature” that, “Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination, and the like.” (82) He argues that man is a glorious creature and that he can strive to be virtuous on his own. He further believed that man had complete and total access to the mind of the Creator and did not need a mediator to get to Him. Emerson stated that man should become in synch with his intuition and have absolute confidence in it, and doing so would allow a person to understand what it means to be virtuous and be able to become virtue itself. He argues that by doing this man will please God. People should not be held back from discovering new things and venturing into the unknown. Emerson believed that man should not be made or coerced into taking upon the religion of their birth and thus becoming automatons, but rather people should be allowed to make their own thoughtful and educated decisions about the world that surrounded them.
Both Edwards and Emerson believed in God, but they each had different ideas about the Divine. Edwards believed that God sent a mediator in Jesus Christ to atone for the sins of mankind and appease the Father’s wrath. Emerson held to the belief that no mediator was necessary and that God could be spoken to directly without Christ. Emerson contended that man had not paid attention to Christ and His teachings. He argued that Christ was trying to teach His followers how to be one with God without Him. Emerson even delivered a speech at Harvard University titled simply, “Harvard Divinity School Address” in which he boldly told his audience to, “Dare to love God without a mediator.”(181) In his sermon “Excellency of Christ” from the book “The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards” on page 168 Edwards describes and praises the meekness and humility of Christ as well as His ability to forgive the enormous violence inflicted upon Him. To Emerson, Christ was not God, but only a good moral teacher. He stated that God, whom he called the Oversoul, was in everything and everyone and even beyond that. He would be said to be “spiritual, but not religious” in today’s terms. He believed that being virtuous would allow you to be in harmony with God and that religion held man back from doing just that.
Jonathan Edwards believed that nature pointed the way to God. In his sermon “Pleasantness of Religion” he noted that honey and its sweetness was used as a metaphor for wisdom in Proverbs 24:13-14. Edwards believed that if someone sought out wisdom in Christ then they would experience the same effects as if they were searching for honey, but much sweeter. Nature, and man’s ability to sense it, was a gift from God that pointed man towards the Divine. Edwards maintained that God had given man his five senses for a reason, to enjoy the gifts that he bestowed upon the earth, but that one should not be indulgent and allow them to take the place of the one who gave them in the first place. Nature was a testament to the handiwork of God and evidence of His handiwork could be observed everywhere one looked. Just as a house pointed to an architect so too did Nature guide one to the Divine and the truth of God and His character. To the contrary, Emerson believed that man was connected to nature and that he could become one with it. He saw everything as intricately connected without hindrance. Emerson believed nature was a teacher or a guide which led to the truth and that the reality or essence of nature did not matter in the great scheme of things.
Famed Great Awakening revivalist Jonathan Edwards as well as essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had numerous ideas about mankind, God, and nature that either tended to affirm or contradict one another. Edwards believed that God sent His Son to save hell bound man from destruction and the Father’s wrath because of humanity’s depravity. Emerson believed that man needed no mediator to get to God, Christ was not divine, and that religion placed undue burdens on humanity who he saw as glorious. He said that man should become one with his intuition and have absolute confidence in it, which when doing so would allow a person to understand what it means to be virtuous and able to become virtue itself. He argues that by doing this man will please God. People should not be held back from venturing into the unknown and discovering new things for themselves. Both Edwards and Emerson believed in God, but Edwards believed that man needed to accept Christ as the Son of God to be one with God the Father while Emerson said that man needed only to be virtuous to be one with the Divine. Emerson contended that man had not paid attention to Christ and His teachings. He argued that Christ was trying to teach His followers how to be one with God without Him. On nature, both Edwards and Emerson believed that nature was a teacher that pointed towards truth, but they disagreed about what or who that truth was or might be. Edwards maintained that God had given man his five senses for a reason, to enjoy the gifts that he bestowed upon the earth, but that man should not be indulgent and allow those senses to take the place of the one who gave them in the first place. Edwards believed that truth was Christ while Emerson held that truth could be discovered individually. Both men had their similarities and their differences, but their marks on history and the impacts on the world and especially in American religious culture and life will not soon be forgotten.
Calvinism Soteriology Topics. 2016. Reformed.org. Web.
“What Was The Reason For Jonathan Edwards Dismissal From The Church?”. 2013. Meganslit201’s Blog.
Edwards, Jonathan, Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney. “The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader”. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. 13-14.
Edwards, Jonathan, Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney. “The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader”. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. 57.
Edwards, Jonathan, Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney. “The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader”. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. 168.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature and Other Essays”. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2009. 82.
Griffith, R. Marie. “American Religions: A Documentary History”. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 92.
Griffith, R. Marie. “American Religions: A Documentary History”. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 181.