After reading some biographies, the reader comes away feeling like they know more about the subject. As I turned the last page of George M. Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards, A Life, I felt like I actually knew Jonathan Edwards. So in-depth and personal is Marsden’s treatment that there is no doubt the author knows his subject very well. The only way it could have been more personal would be if Marsden had actually sat down with Edwards for a one-on-one interview.
Not content with a simple blow-by-blow of the events of Edwards’ life, Marsden goes to great lengths to paint an accurate and vivid historical/philosophical background of the times that surrounded and precipitated said events.
In the first chapter, we learn in great detail about the influential and colorful family into which Edwards was born. Marsden details their involvement in the politics and wars which punctuated Edwards formative years. The fact that politics and religion were so tightly meshed gives us insights into the formation of Edwards’ later theology. As Marsden puts it when describing the French-English conflict, “The real war was among spiritual powers, a nation God had favored with true religion versus peoples in Satan’s grip, Catholics and pagans.”
We also learn in the first chapter about the household in which Edwards grew up, the temperament of his father, the prominent role played by the women in Edwards’ early years, and how “the household was an economy in which everybody shared.”
Despite a Puritan background, we find that the legendary preacher’s family had its share of skeletons. As Marsden points out,
Edwards is sometimes criticized for having too dim a view of himan nature, but it may be helpful to be reminded that his grandmother was an incorrigible profligate, his great-aunt committed infanticide, and his great uncle was an ax-murderer.
The following chapters continue in this vein, faithfully tracing the spiritual, theological, and philosophical development of the man who, perhaps more than any other, shaped American Christianity.
The book is long (505 pages, not including the appendices), but the potential reader should not be put off by this. Marden’s writing is in no way superfluous, and his style is engaging, to say the least. He includes so many things that are of tremendous interest (Did you know, for example, that Edwards worked among the Indian tribe immortalized in James Fennimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohecans”?) that I found myself devouring each page. In fact, this reading was my second, and it was as fresh to me as the first time I read it, roughly five years ago.
I also found Jonathan Edwards, A Life to be quite challenging on a ministerial level. There were many times when I came under conviction of areas in my own spiritual life and ministry that need to be developed.
Marsden has written what will perhaps become the definitive biography of one of the greatest theologians of all time. He has come as close as any one author can to doing justice to his subject.