George Marsden. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale, 2003. 640 pp. $25.00.
George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, and his biography of Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, is his tribute to students of Edwards, a generation of scholars, seminal to the development of the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, available in print for a price but digitally for free as well. This biography—released in commemoration of the tercentenary of Edwards’ birth in 2003—provides the most comprehensive sketch to date of Edwards’ life, one whose feasibility is due to this last generation of scholar’s earnest effort to make the Edwards’ corpus legible and accessible to anyone with interest in this great colonial evangelical pastor and theologian.
Marsden ventures forward in his portrayal of Jonathan Edwards telling readers that this study, methodologically, is built from a sympathetic position. Marsden says, “In writing this life of Edwards, one of my goals has been to understand him as a real person in his own time” (2). Doing so gives one the advantage of learning from the subject by building an honest perception of the subject. For Marsden, Edwards’ religious outlook is a critical facet, one that undergirds and guides his thinking and leading, and it is his view of God’s sovereignty that is the keystone. This conclusion, I believe, Edwards would be pleased to hear. It resonates well with Edwards’ self-attestation in his Personal Narrative, which declares:
The doctrines of God’s absolute sovereignty, and free grace, in showing mercy to whom he would show mercy; and man’s absolute dependence on the operations of God’s Holy Spirit, have very often appeared to me as sweet and glorious doctrines.
Edwards, as a person, is an integrated whole, and to splice out the religious component from him, rather than presenting the man as a comprehensive whole, would do injustice to his story, and, of course, the goal is to tell his story as it was.
So in Jonathan Edwards: A Life—we see Edwards, the slave owner; Edwards, the recluse; Edwards, the ambitious; Edwards, the materialist. But this depiction is juxtaposed to Edwards, a man of conviction; Edwards, the missionary; Edwards, the philosopher; Edwards, the preacher; Edwards, the lover and father. Marsden’s portrayal of Edwards is hardly flat. Rather, we have a rounded man that reflects his own theology: a man cursed with original sin and a free will to follow his appetite to what he loves most—sin— apart from the saving, transforming grace and vigor to lean upon Christ, who gives it, in order to mortify base desires. Likewise, he is a man redeemed by Christ, affected by Christ, and caught up in raptures of delight over Christ. Edwards says in his Personal Narrative: “I have sometimes had a sense of the excellent fullness of Christ, and his meetness and suitableness as a savior; whereby he has appeared to me, far above all, the chief of ten thousands.” This is the Edwards that Marsden portrays.
Thankfully Marsden does not leave us with a solitary glance into a window of Edwards’ Northampton home, just as he’s passing by. Rather, like any good historian, we are drawn into the broadened world of Edwards, struck both by the frontier fears of native attacks (chapter 24) and the impending and eschatologically cataclysmic collision of French Roman Catholic interests in Colonial America and Britain’s interest to protect its fledgling settlements (chapter 25). We are caused to wonder whether Edwards might have lived to be a revolutionary or continue on as a loyal subject to the Hanoverian kings of England (chapter 16).
Reading this massive biography causes me to reflect on the kind of historian I want to be. I appreciate Marsden’s meticulous and sympathetic study. I accept that, for the most part, Marsden swerved away from making unfair interpretive decisions on Edwards’ life. For instance, when discussing contributing factor for Edwards’ ejection from Northampton, Marsden non-prejudicially discusses the hypothesis of Edwards’ family leaning towards aristocratic pretensions, a possible stressor considering the reality that Edwards seemed to be locked in perpetual disputes over fair remuneration for his ministry to the people there. Did Sarah Edwards possess a few fine things and might have wished for a few more? Perhaps, but it might just as well have been that Edwards needed to feed a large family and tend to a farm. Marsden sympathetically points out: “[At] the time of Jonathan’s death in 1758, the inventory of his estate did not reveal many luxury items” (302).
Jonathan Edwards: A Life provides varied vignettes of historiography. Some chapters appear to be biographical, other chapters feature cliometrics, social history, political history, and even military history. Marsden’s implementation of multiple historiographical sequences has helped me better see and understand these techniques as they come into play in the process of studying and telling the story of history.
All the while, it is humbling to recognize that I fair better with exegesis and theology than I do functioning as a historian. I fear that I am a frequent visitor to the shop of historical fallacies. This observation helps me distinguish my naiveté from actual historical knowledge and wisdom and fosters more of the sort of sympathy and generosity that Marsden promotes.
Overall, Marsden’s work succeeds in stimulating greater intrigue in the life and works of Jonathan Edwards. Marsden does not leave us with an enigmatic man, but a rounded, whole man—with foibles and merit—whom could be studied for a lifetime.
 Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn and Harry S. Stout, vol. 16, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1998), 799.
 Jonathan Edwards, WJE16, 801.