Centuries later, Jonathan Edwards still igniting ‘hot spots’ around the world
In 1716, a 13-year-old Connecticut native named Jonathan Edwards entered Yale College, where he passionately studied contemporary issues in theology and philosophy, wrote about the natural world and metaphysics, and engaged with Enlightenment thinking. Four years later he graduated valedictorian of his class of approximately 20 students, delivering what is now Yale’s earliest extant graduation address.
The young scholar received his Master of Divinity degree from Yale in 1723 and went on to become America’s premiere theologian. He was part of the Great Awakening that swept Protestant England and British America, and his writings influenced debate on freedom and determinism for the next century and a half.
In 1741 Edwards penned one of his most well known works, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” now part of high school and college curricula the world over. He died in 1758 in Princeton, New Jersey, just a few months after accepting a position as president of its fledgling university. One of Yale’s residential colleges is named for him, and in 1938 Edwards’ descendants donated his papers to the university.
More than 250 years after his death, Edwards continues to influence scholarship around the world through The Jonathan Edwards Center (JEC) at Yale. Housed in the Divinity School, the JEC supports research into the life, writings, and legacy of Edwards through its online resources and international outreach. To date, the JEC has affiliates in 11 countries, allowing it to connect with students and researchers from Brazil to Japan to the Republic of South Africa.
YaleNews sat down with JEC’s directors and editors of the “Works of Jonathan Edwards,” Ken Minkema and Adriaan Neele, to discuss the relevance of Edwards’ work today, the center’s global reach, and the latest research on the theologian.
Who is Jonathan Edwards to you, and why is it important to study his work?
KEN MINKEMA: Jonathan Edwards is a central figure not only in the early-American narrative of religion and intellectual history, but also in the modern Christian canon. He ranges across a number of topics and disciplines, as he was a philosopher, theologian, rhetorician, and a key figure in the missionary movement.
There’s a vibrant interest in Edwards now and he’s being engaged on many different fronts. The scholarly community tends to approach him more historically and contextually. But there is also a very large audience that approaches Edwards for issues of individual and collective faith, revivalism, and devotion.
At the JEC we try to serve the needs of this diverse and worldwide audience. We have half a million unique visitors to our website every year from more than 100 countries. Each region brings its own interests, challenges, and questions to the subject of Edwards.
What does an 18th-century American philosopher and theologian have to teach us in the 21st century?
KM: Many of us are first exposed to Edwards in high school, in essays such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In many ways that text is a proxy for Edwards and for puritanism. We try to explain and contextualize that sort of content at the JEC. For example, “Sinners” isn’t about fire and brimstone, but about the uncertainty of life. We also try to drive people through that sermon into the larger corpus of Edwards’ work.
ADRIAAN NEELE: A doctoral student we’re working with right now, Michael Keller, is doing a quantitative analysis of Edwards’ rhetoric. He’s finding that in terms of language, Edwards’ emphasis is on beauty, virtue, and holiness.
Why are there global affiliates and how did you decide in which countries to establish them?
AN: After we launched the digital online archive, we started to get a lot of international research inquiries. Using web metrics we were able to identify “hot spots” around the world where people were reading the material and making inquiries, such as in Australia, Brazil, and Poland (our first affiliate). We thought it made sense to partner with universities and divinity schools in those areas to give us a broader perspective.
Today, more than 40% of our website’s users are returning visitors, and we can trace that to the global affiliates that promote the dissemination of the teachings of Edwards.
Were you surprised when you went online how quickly interest grew worldwide?
KM: When we went online we were able to democratize Edwards. This is a place where Yale’s open access policy is really working. Relatedly, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is currently scanning the entire Edwards corpus. That should be done very soon and all those images — approximately 65,000 — will be available on our website. We’ll link from our transcripts to the scanned images so that users can engage all the different views.
What kind of research on Edwards is taking place around the world?
AN: Over the last five years we’ve seen each global affiliate develop its own area of interest. For example, Edwards and philosophy in Poland; Edwards and the history of missions in South Africa; and Edwards and The Revival in Brazil. We’re given digital copies of what students and faculty publish and have it available here for researchers to use.
We’ve also developed digital projects through our website. There are a number of transcripts of Edwards’ sermons that are available online, but have not yet been edited. To expedite the process, we started a global sermon-editing project. Volunteers are trained to edit a sermon by Edwards and are then assigned a text online. They also edit and submit it to us online. This project has really taken off. We currently have 85 active editors in 13 countries around the world who submit on a regular basis.
KM: We still have 650 texts left to edit, but this method helps us serve our audience and do it in a way that keeps the bottom-line low. We call it the confederate model. It’s very decentralized, but it works well and maintains the editorial quality. Ultimately, it allows us to fulfill our educational mission to help people engage historical sources and learn about these texts.
There are more theses and dissertations on Edwards being produced outside of the United States than within it. Why is that?
KM: Because of the worldwide interest in Edwards, and because the global affiliates are attracting scholars.
AN: When the primary source material is in English, it is very advantageous. You don’t have to send your students to Latin class, for example. The centers are pushing out the material and have power to convene research and graduate studies around a figure like Edwards.
Where else would you like to establish global affiliates?
AN: We’re not looking for dramatic expansion, but we’d like to be on the West Coast of the United States, probably California. Another place is South Korea, where Edwards is studied significantly, but we want to find the right partner. We’re very selective.
KM: China is also long-term goal, but it is a place we’d like to be.
In addition to research, how else do you interact with the affiliates?
KM: We help advise students, teach abroad, and serve on theses and dissertation committees. I recently taught in Germany.
AN: I just came back from Brazil. I’ve also taught in South Africa.
KM: We organize workshops and conferences. We’re having a big congress in Australia next year, which will involve representatives of all the global affiliates coming together. The gatherings take place every four years, and this will be our seventh international conference. It’s an opportunity to share what each of the centers is looking at and researching.
How is the Jonathan Edwards Center important to Yale?
KM: This is a really special project for the university. We also cooperate with other projects at Yale and beyond, such as the Yale Indian Papers Project, located at the Divinity School; the George Whitfield Project in Wales; and the Congregational Library and Archives Church Records Transcription Project in Boston. We share our materials with these research centers, make our web platform available at no charge, and offer advice and guidance based on our own experience.
AN: The JEC falls in line with the international aspirations of the university. We open up primary-source historical material that wasn’t available even 10 years ago. And in regions like Africa we are seeing an increasing number of students. It’s been very beneficial.
The Jonathan Edwards Center: From letterpress to online
Founded in the 1950s as the “Works of Jonathan Edwards,” the project evolved from producing traditional, multi-volume, letterpress editions of Edwards’ work to moving entirely online in 2003, with offices at Yale Divinity School. The JEC website features a comprehensive searchable online database, “Works of Jonathan Edwards Online,” that includes both the author’s edited published works and raw manuscripts.
The JEC also publishes a journal, “Jonathan Edwards Studies,” presents online exhibitions, offers online courses and syllabi, supports visiting researchers, organizes conferences and workshops, and has even designed a Jonathan Edwards Tour that takes Edwards enthusiasts through key sites in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
Most recently, it announced a new monograph series, “New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies,” to be published by the German academic press Vanderhoeck and Ruprecht.