The Anachronism of Jonathan Edwards

by H. Richard Niebuhr

H. Richard Niebuhr, for many years Sterling Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School, was one of mid-century’s most respected teachers and writers.

The following article was adapted from an address he delivered in Northampton, Massachussets, on March 9, 1958, to commemorate the bicentennial of the death of Jonathan Edwards. It was excerpted from Theology, History and Culture: Major Unpublished Writings, by H. Richard Niebuhr, edited by William Stacy Johnson, with a foreword by Richard R. Niebuhr, published by Yale University Press in 1996. It appeared in the May 1, 1996 issue of The Christian Century Magazine. The Century can be accessed online at This document was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Niebuhr asks us–in light of what has happened in this century–to re-consider Edward’s understanding of the holiness of God.

A highly popular, widespread impression of Jonathan Edwards is the one expressed in verse by Phyllis McGinley: "Whenever Mr. Edwards spake / In church about Damnation, / The very benches used to quake / For awful agitation." A somewhat less impressionistic portrait, though drawn also from folk memory more than from life, was offered by Vernon Louis Parrington in his Main Currents in American Thought. In that history of the liberal mind Jonathan Edwards is described as the great "anachronism."

He was an anachronism to Parrington because in him the conflict of ancient dogma with the new liberalism was re-enacted and resolved in favor of the old. The brilliant idealist metaphysician warred in him with the traditional theologian; and the theologian won. The Emersonian mystic "consciousness of the divine life flowing through and around him, making him one with the Godhead," fought in him with the Calvinistic theocrat; and Calvin won; the new churchman, opening the doors of the sanctuary to all seekers after peace, contradicted in him the loyalist to ancient discipline, for whom the company of the faithful was the selected band, the trained shock troops of the kingdom of God in a rebellious planetary province.

Parrington concludes his account in these words:

"Cut off from fruitful intercourse with other thinkers, drawn away from the stimulating field of philosophy into the arid realm of theology, it was his fate to devote his noble gifts to the thankless task of reimprisoning the mind of New England within a system from which his nature and his powers summoned him to unshackle it. He was called to be a transcendental emancipator, but he remained a Calvinist."

Later writers, notably Professor Perry Miller, have corrected this account in certain respects. College students, introduced to Edwards via other routes than the sermon on "Sinners in the hands of an angry God," can set Phyllis McGinley right. But in the main the judgment stands in America, in American Protestantism, in literary and academic, even in most theological circles: Jonathan Edwards was a great man, but he was wrong on almost every issue for which he contended -- the gloriousness of inscrutable, almighty, universal, majestic, wrathful God; the depravity and corruptness of the human heart; the need for the reconstitution of the church not as catholic and all-inclusive but as the selected group of the convinced; the determinism, the unfreedom of human existence; the glory of God as the chief and only end of being, which in reconciliation man serves willingly as a "cosmic patriot," but will serve in his unwillingness by his destruction, as Hitler's patriots in their catastrophic ending may be said to glorify the rule of justice.

Since the judgment stands, and is no doubt explicitly represented in the thoughts of many of us as it is implicitly represented in the value standards of the great dominant majority of Americans, of American Christians and of American intellectuals, we must ask by what right, with what rightness can we honor Jonathan Edwards today?

By what right do we join the funeral procession, stand beside the grave, intrude ourselves into the company of those who mourn him? When we think of his exile from Northampton and his more inclusive exile from the company of all right-thinking modern men, we must apply to ourselves on this occasion the indictment that Jesus made of "hypocrites" who "build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets"' (Matt. 23:29-30). We are quite sure we would have been less gentle with him than our neighbors or forebears.

When we read the story of his dismissal from the Northampton church and then think of the temper in other New England towns two centuries ago, we cannot honestly say that he would have fared better elsewhere. The Cambridge and New Haven that offered him no alternative to life at Stockbridge would probably not have suffered him as long as Northampton did, had he been pastor there. If smallpox had not removed him quickly from Princeton, how long would he have remained an honored head of the college in New Jersey? When we move from the 18th century down to our present time we cannot really convince ourselves that if Edwards now lived among us he would be more respected than he was in the 1750s.

The issues on which he was then tried and found wanting seem to have been so universally decided against him by the court of American and Christian opinion that they scarcely remain issues today. What hearing could he gain if he stood in this pulpit today, or in any pulpit in America, and spoke to us now about our depravity and corruption, about our unfreedom and the determination of our lives, about the ineffable gloriousness of God, and about the awfulness of his wrath? About the necessity of reconstituting ourselves a holy community?

By what right do we, who seem to disagree with him more strongly than his contemporaries did, now honor him? Can this commemoration of his death be an honest gesture of respect or does it merely express the desire to be in the company of the great, for the sake of sharing in a superficial and reflected glory? This question a speaker at such an occasion as this must ask himself even more than his fellow celebrants.

Let us raise in another way the question of our right to honor Edwards. If we met in his spirit today, if we wanted to honor him in a way that would be acceptable not to his human vanity, for which he would need to do bitter penance, but to his central purpose and will, how would we go about it? His own conduct. at the time of David Brainerd's death -- his son-in-law, missionary to the Indians -- gives us a clue. We cannot honor him at all except we do so in the context of honoring what he stood for, of honoring the cause to which he wanted above all else to be loyal. Have we any right to honor him otherwise? To exalt him as a great thinker, as though he could take delight in being praised for having honed his mental tools very sharp, no matter what they cut; to speak admiringly of him as an excellent orator, as though adeptness in the use of images were an enviable thing, no matter what they imaged; to do him reverence as a great student who learned from Newton and Locke and the Platonists, from nature itself, no matter what he learned -- to honor him thus is to do him no honor that he could accept -- or which, accepting, he would not thereafter bitterly rue.

So to honor him would be as though we commemorated Nietzsche as a great Christian, or praised George the Third as a great American. It would not only be irrelevant, it would be contradictory to the intention, the understanding, the spirit of the man. To Edwards the desire of man to be great in himself, and to be honored for his eminence, to stand out in comparison with his fellows, to be more loved than his companions -- even by God -- this is man's pettiness, his perversity, his pustulant sickness, as he might have said.

There is no really honest and consistent way of honoring Edwards except in the context of honoring, of acknowledging and renewing our dedication to his cause. That cause was nothing less than the glory of God. I do not know whether this is the audience which can hear the summons to think in the terms of that theme, to lift up mind and heart into regions of thought and imagination so majestic, to dedicate itself to a cause so tremendous. I only know that your preacher is not adequate to preach upon the text that Edwards himself would have chosen for this occasion:

"Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to the only wise God be honor and glory, forever and ever. Amen." (1 Tim. 1:17)

Since it lies beyond the scope of my mind and spirit to direct your meditations so to honor Edwards in the only context in which he can honestly be honored, we may venture to try to do him less adequate justice by letting him, or rather our imagined reincarnation of his spirit, speak today to his detractors.

The first charge against me, he might say, is this, that I have demeaned man in order to glorify God. "You charge me with having said that our experience teaches us the truth of the scriptural saying, 'There is none righteous, no not one'(Rom. 3: 10). 'They are filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.' You charge me also with saying, again pleading the support of the scriptures, that though we humans have many kindly affections, love of children, love between men and women, love of country, all these too are corrupted and defiled; and that though we have very agile minds, able to penetrate into the mysteries of nature, we put this gift and attainment to ignoble uses."

Some, Edwards could say, have dismissed my indictments as wholly false. Particularly from the men of the generation that succeeded his, he could have heard much praise of men. Using Shakespeare instead of the scriptures as the source for their text, but without reading the passage to the end, they said with Hamlet:

"What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form, and in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!"

But a strange thing has happened. A later generation has revised the judgment of the romantics. Its experience of the extent to which human brutality can go, of the fury that can be unleashed when the human animal is attacked, its acceptance in wry cynicism of the venality of great and small; its acceptance, too, of a psychological analysis that tends to show how slight the power of reason, how great the strength of obscure passions; how corrupting of children the possible love of mothers and the wrath of fathers; its portrayal of men and mankind in bitterly disillusioned novels and in shuddering chronicles of man's inhumanity to man -- in all this the 20th century has perhaps gone beyond anything that Edwards said in dispraise of men, individually and in the collective. But though on the surface this generation seems to accept something that is like the Edwardsean estimate, it still rejects Edwards no less than the Emersonians did, though for other reasons.

How would Edwards speak to this situation? He might answer something like this: "'With what measure you mete you shall be measured.' You resented my measuring man by the standard of his position before God; you resented that I said: as a loathsome insect is to man, so man is to the Holy One that inhabits eternity. You applied the standard of man's position before other men; or before himself, and having begun by saying: man to himself is like a god, you are now tending to say, he is like a devil to himself; he will destroy himself."

Now who demeans humanity? The one whose standard for man is small or the one whose standard is very great? The one who judges him as a domestic lover or as a citizen of a universal commonwealth? The one who looks on him as faithful or unfaithful administrator of lawns and stores, of stocks and bonds, or the one who sees in him the steward of eternal riches? What is greater, a neatly painted, well constructed five-or eight-room house or the ruins of the Forum or the Parthenon?

What Edwards knew, what he believed in his heart and with his mind, was that man was made to stand in the presence of eternal, unending absolute glory, to participate in the celebration of cosmic deliverance from everything putrid, destructive, defiling, to rejoice in the service of the stupendous artist who flung universes of stars on his canvas, sculptured the forms of angelic powers, etched with loving care miniature worlds within worlds. In the light of that destiny, in view of that origin, because of the greatness of that calling, it depressed him, angered him that men should throw away their heritage and be content with the mediocrity of an existence without greater hope than the hope for comfort and for recognition by transient fellow men. Man who had been made to be great in the service of greatness, had made himself small by refusing the loving service of the only Great One; and in his smallness he had become very wicked, covetous of the pleasures that would soon be taken from him. But in the end, man could not make himself small, Edwards knew, for the way of man is not in himself.

That leads us to the second charge against Edwards, namely that his understanding of the sovereignty of God left no room for human freedom. This charge, like the previous one, is frequently so understood by unbelievers who cannot follow the logic of belief that they equate theocracy with priestliness. They think that Edwards, believing in government by God, must have derived from that premise the conclusion that therefore preachers were his lieutenants on earth and should be recognized as gods. This is about as illogical a deduction as one can imagine. The consequence of the premise that God rules is, for the believer, "therefore I must obey," not "therefore I must rule." Because his will is to be done, therefore my will is to be denied. I believe that any reading of Edwards's life, including the story of the sad controversy in Northampton, will make quite clear that he was no self-willed man talking the name of God in vain to fortify his wishes. But this is the minor point of the charge. The major complaint was that in Edwards's world of determinism no room was left for human freedom.

How would he reply today to this charge? I think it is quite possible that, zealous student of philosophy as he was, he might admit that the way he argued his position was somewhat overly indebted to the mechanical thinking of his time and of the Reformers. But his main point would stand; and as in the case of the charge about demeaning man, time has reversed the opinion of his antagonists, though it has not reversed men's opinions about Edwards.

You were concerned, Edwards might say, about the freedom of the will, to choose its goods, to choose good or evil, God or the devil. You were concerned to say that man was somehow the master of his fate, so that without his will God himself was unable to save him from disaster.

Look now, he might go on to point out, how you have conceded my point that man is determined by his strongest motive and that his strongest motive is so much the love of self, self-interest, that there is no way of moving him to anything at all save by touching this spring of his action. Regard your society, the free-enterprise system, the operation of the hidden persuaders and of the open ones. Who is free? Man is free to follow his self-interest. But is he ever free from his self-interest? Is he free to follow any road but that of self-interest?

Or consider your international politics. Do you not recognize that national self-interest is a law the nations obey with such invariableness that you must base all your calculations on how to maintain your own nation on the assumption of that law? Or consider your freedom of religion; is it not the freedom to be religious or irreligious, to worship or not to worship, in accordance with your self-interest, whether you think it is good for you or not? Your free religion of self-interested men has made God into an idol. How are you free to love God, since you are bound to love yourselves, even in religion?

The will is as its strongest motive is and its strongest motive is self-interest, and so man is determined and cannot by any new freedom at his disposal change his determination by self-interest.

After 200 years there are very, very many who agree with Edwards on the proposition about our freedom and our bondage. Many who accept this determinism still think, however, that self-interest will continue to ensure for us the enjoyment of our civil liberties. We have seen other nations, to be sure, in which self-interest has made itself felt as an invincible motive for the giving up of what we call such freedoms. And when we think of this we begin to wonder whether civil and religious liberty can indeed be based on the position of Edwards's opponents or only on the kind of foundations he provided not in but in connection with his determinism.

Edwards on human unfreedom is not so anachronistic as he was. Yet for some reason we do not dare to follow his logic even when we accept some of his premises, such as this one of our determination by our strongest motive.

A third count of the constant indictment against Edwards has also lost something of the persuasiveness it once had. The threat of destruction, of hell, which Edwards used to stir his people toward, that revolution of thought and conscience which could be the occasion for the entrance of new freedom has always called forth strong reaction. Preaching about hell is always resented by men of so-called liberal mind. How could the infliction of torment be rhymed with the rule of a merciful God? What human wickedness deserved such a consequence?

Yet on this point also in some ways Edwards seems less anachronistic than he did. If you will read again "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" you will note that the emphasis lies not on hell but on the terrible uncertainty of life. "Thou hast set their foot in slippery places" --that was the text. There is no guarantee anywhere, he points out, that this comfortable life of ours will go on and on and on. What awaits us is death, and it may come at any moment -- and death is not nothing. It is the beginning of another state of being.

Now we find it difficult to accept the mythology of Edwards, though we may need to accept again something like it, when we come to the full acceptance of the realization that as we did not and cannot elect ourselves into existence, so neither can we elect ourselves out of it, if the inscrutable power that cast us into being wills to keep us in being after our biological death. But aside from that, we have a mythology of our own. We see before us in social if not in personal terms the real possibility of a future hell. Of a state of existence in which surviving souls, condemned to live, crawl about scrofulously among the radiations of insidious poison, among emanations of noxious gases, on a planet unfit for habitation which they must nevertheless inhabit. Or we envisage the possibility of that anarchy in which every man's hand is raised against his neighbor -- where there is no truth but only deception and lies. Or the hell we envision is that of Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's 1984, or the culmination of the life of Organization Man.

The mythology has changed. The possibility that Edwards saw before man is now our possibility, though in a different setting. Those critics of his who saw no other alternative before man than progress toward perfection and heaven on earth have become rather quiet. They are not even greatly stirred by the prospect that we shall export our wars with our machines to other planets and re-enact on a larger scale the kind of history with which we have become too familiar.

We tend to agree more with him also on the tenuousness of the hold we have on ordered life. Our feet, we know, are set in slippery places. A single trigger-happy or nervous bomber, flying now with a load of destruction in the vitals of his plane, can inaugurate at any moment the beginning of our end. A missile gone astray by the failure of a tiny and fragile device may shoot us into the inferno. Or a statesman's unthinking remark may begin the debate that will end not in death for us but in an unforeseeably long process of destruction.

Edwards is not so anachronistic on this point as he was, not so anachronistic as his 19th-century critics now seem.

But at the central point he remains alien to us as to them, more alien than he was in the 18th century with its Benjamin Franklins. And because he is alien at that point the sorts of agreement we may be able to achieve with him on other ideas seem superficial and unreal.

We will concede perhaps that man is as wicked as Edwards said. What we do not know -- or do not yet know -- is that God is as holy as Edwards knew him to be. We have in our wisdom substituted for the holy God a kind Heavenly Father. A holy God will not suffer his plans for a vast, stupendously intricate, marvelous creation and the men designed to be his sons to be flouted and destroyed by self-willed and proud little delinquents, aged 60 as often as 16, called nations or civilizations as often as persons. Or we have substituted for the holy God, the sovereign source and determiner of being, Being simply considered, the Constitution of the universe, a wildly running chance. Our feet are standing in slippery places, to be sure, but we are not being held this side of destruction by holy power and determined will; it is chance that keeps us from slipping. There is no wrath in heaven directed against us, because there is no holiness, no will for wholeness, for integrity and for glory. And since there is no holiness there is no hope for us except the hope that we'll get by a little longer with our compromises and our superior animal cunning.

Edwards used to say that the trouble with men was not that they had no ideas of God, but that they had little ideas of God. We might add that they are ideas about little Gods. The anachronism of our Edwards celebration is not so much that we try to honor him in a time of atheism, when men do not believe in God, but that we seek to know and respect a servant of the Almighty, of the Lord, the Source of Being itself, of Power beyond all powers, in a time when our God is someone we try to keep alive by religious devotions, to use for solving our personal problems, for assuring us that we are beloved. He is without wrath, because we have made this image wrathless; his love is not holy love because we have painted the icon without holiness.

If Edwards's God is not with us, what meaning is there in our agreement with his propositions about human wickedness, human determinism, about the threat of destruction? Our sense of wickedness is without repentance, our sorrow over it is not a godly sorrow leading to life, but cynical and accepting, leading to death. Our knowledge of our determinism is without struggle, because we know of no power that can set us free to be free indeed; our visions of possible life amidst destruction are unaccompanied by visions of possible life in the presence of glory and everlasting joy.

But now a possibility presents itself to us as we remember Edwards and remember man's remembrance of him. We have changed our minds about the truth of many things he said. Or rather, our minds have been changed by what has happened to us in our history. We have seen evil somewhat as he saw it, not because we desired to see it, but because it thrust itself upon us. If that has happened, why shall we not hope -- and fear -- that what has not yet happened will also occur. That once more, by no sudden event it may be but by the same kind of accumulative experience that has made us aware of the evil emptiness that surrounds us, we shall be lifted to see and know -- in our time -- the Holy One that inhabits eternity and yet is near to the humble and contrite in heart. Then we shall be able to meet in the presence of Edwards, saying

"Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible,

to the only wise God --

be honor and glory, forever and ever. Amen."