Together Again

Together Again

If you know Jonathan Edwards at all, it’s probably because of his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” A staple of American literature textbooks, it includes lines like this one:

If God should only withdraw his hand from the floodgate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God, would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power…

When I mention this sermon, Ken Minkema rolls his eyes. The executive editor of the Jonathan Edwards Center & Online Archive at Yale, Minkema (pictured above) has devoted his career to the study and compilation of Edwards’s work. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” from his vantage point, is the “most ‘known’ and the least read text, maybe, in American history and literature textbooks.” In other words, casual readers think they know it—and, by extension, Edwards—and summarily use it to “legitimate our caricatures of Puritanism.” But the sermon, which Minkema sees as “brilliant,” “controversial” and “misunderstood,” represents “a very small sliver” of the work of the man whom he calls “the premier Protestant theologian to come out of North America.”

sponsored by

Yale School of Music presents Arturo Sandoval

Born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut Colony, Jonathan Edwards spent most of his career as a philosopher and preacher in Massachusetts. Yale University has held the bulk of his papers since around 1901, when his descendants, after nearly 150 years, decided it was time to give them up. Edwards was a 1720 graduate, so Yale was an obvious place to send them. But about a century earlier, another cache of Edwards’s papers, collected by another descendant, had already found its way to Andover, Massachusetts, and Andover Theological Seminary, which later became Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts.

Now, for the first time in the centuries since his death, the Edwards papers have been reunited. Last year, Andover Newton affiliated with and relocated to Yale, bringing its entire library, including the Edwards collection. Having the papers together makes them easier to care for and to access, but there’s also a “feel-good factor,” says Minkema, who had often traveled to Newton to work with the collection there. The seminary was “a very close partner” in the making of the 26-volume series The Works of Jonathan Edwards, which Minkema helped compile.

Steve Crocco, director of the Yale Divinity School library, puts it another way: “It was like Christmas morning” when Andover Newton’s library arrived. The Edwards papers were immediately whisked away to the Beinecke, where the rest of his collection was already housed, but the divinity school’s library now includes the papers of many Andover Newton professors who were “trying to hammer out Edwards’s true legacy,” Crocco says. Andover Newton’s collection also included the papers of the preacher’s son, Jonathan Edwards Jr., a colonial-era abolitionist. Their contribution brings “a lot of things together in Edwards’s intellectual legacy. That’s the great thing,” Crocco adds.

Although the Edwards papers are together again, it’s possible there are more to be found. Recently, one of his working notebooks and an account book that had belonged to his father, Timothy, surfaced. “There are still items, here and there, out there,” Minkema says, but “as far as we can tell, 95% or more of materials that exist pretty much accounted for.” However, he adds, “I’m always ready to be pleasantly surprised.”

Scholars who don’t need to see the physical Edwards documents can visit them—100,000 pages’ worth—at the Beinecke’s website. From the desk in his cozy Yale Divinity office, Minkema pulls up a digital image of the first page of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” written in Edwards’ abstruse hand. “Up until the time these were all done, in 2014, I worked on the originals,” he says. But reading them on the screen is far preferable to reading them on their original pages, which Minkema says are not much bigger than the square, yellow Post-Its on his desk.

Edwards’s writings date back nearly 300 years, but one of the remarkable things about him, Minkema says, is that his work has continuing relevance today. He continues to be “one of the main fountainheads of modern evangelicalism” with lasting ideas on church growth, ministerial training, religious revivals and the process of conversion. As a historian, Minkema became interested in Edwards in part because of this influence. “Usually, figures become purely the subject of historical or retrospective interest,” he says, but Edwards is “one of those few that has found a real resonance today.”

He’s also—for Minkema, at least—fun to read. “However much I don’t agree with what he says, he’s always original,” Minkema says. When asked for an example, he quotes Edwards: “Matter, properly speaking, is not matter.” In other words, nothing you can see and feel and touch around you—“even the atoms in our bodies”—is what it seems to be. “For Edwards, it’s all an emanation of the mind of God. All reality is recreated by God moment to moment by divine will.” It’s a deeply “intimate” view of God, and one that makes us entirely “dependent,” Minkema explains. It’s also a far cry from the Deism of Edwards’s time, which saw God as a creator who “sets universal laws in motion and then just steps back and lets things go.”

Beyond being original, Minkema says, Edwards is “always incredibly cogent and challenging, and he’s also… a window on his time”—all excellent reasons for devoting a career to the man’s work. But for Minkema, it may be simpler than that.

“You just don’t grow tired of being in his company,” he says, then laughs as if he realizes he’s said something that may be hard to believe. Or maybe it’s just a scholar’s delight at the prize of a well-loved project.

Jonathan Edwards Collection
Held at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library – 121 Wall St, New Haven (map)… |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image depicts Ken Minkema.

More Stories