A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George M. Marsden is exactly what it sounds like: a short biography on the life of Jonathan Edwards. I was initially attracted to this book because of its cover. What I mean is that the cover looked, well, “cool” for lack of a better term. It had a modern, minimalistic style, which led me to believe that it was most likely a newer book. Not that an older biography on Edwards would have been a bad thing, but I’m typically intrigued by new books. And it so happens that this was in fact a new book, just as the cover had subtly suggested, so I bought it. Side note: I actually went into my local Christian bookstore (which shall for the time being remain nameless) to look for a biography on Charles Spurgeon. And while I found biographies about Chuck Norris, Sarah Palin, and even Ladainian Tomlinson – none of whom happen to be Baptist (the denomination of the aforementioned bookstore) – I failed to find even one biography about the great Baptist preacher. Sad, I know. But Edwards – whom was also not a Baptist (but honestly who cares) – was a worthwhile substitute for the time being.
In 2003, Marsden wrote what I believe is THE definitive biography on Jonathan Edwards, entitled Jonathan Edwards: A Life. In A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards he took the information from that longer treatment, shortened it, added some new research, and wrote in a style that reads more like a short novel. As far as I can tell (since I am no Edwards expert), this is a wonderful introduction into the life of a man whom was at the helm of the First Great Awakening and who probably is America’s greatest theologian.
The last third of the book, which goes into some of the trouble that Edwards faced as a pastor in the latter parts of his life, was especially encouraging to me. Edwards faced hardship at the end of his pastorate at Northampton, suffering at the hands of his people. Pastoring is simply not easy, and Edwards knew this firsthand. It’s nice to know that one of the greatest men in the history of Christendom dealt with crazy church people too. The other facet of this book that I really appreciate is the comparison that Marsden makes between Edwards and his contemporary, Benjamin Franklin. Both men had similar Puritanical upbringings, but each responded in very different ways to the changing American climate. Franklin embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment and lived long enough to see the American Revolution. Edwards on the other hand, held fast to his reformed upbringing, fighting to critique unbiblical Enlightenment ideas, and died before the American Revolution began. In the twenty-first century, where it’s very en vogue to critique modern Enlightenment-influenced church forms, Edwards is a sure guide to lead us back to the Bible. He can do this not because he saw beyond modernism to postmodernistic ideas, but rather because he is in many ways pre-modern and wisely ignored many of modernism’s pitfalls altogether. As Marsden says in the end of his book, “Maybe the best way to sum up Edwards’s character is to say that he had God-centered integrity. Having integrity suggests not only honesty, firmness of principle, and soundness of will, but also that the various elements of one’s life and thought are integrated…I can simply testify to the remarkable consistency of his life and thought” (141).