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Evangelical Thought: John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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Historians suppose that men are ultimately to be understood in terms of their own time. If the age in which people live makes no difference to the way we perceive them, then historical explanation becomes superfluous. The evangelical revival, however, is often regarded as a event that occurs out of its proper time. It is the step-child of eighteenth century studies. For Peter Gay it belongs not to the eighteenth century but to the twelfth. Leslie Stephen denied all affinity between the evangelicals and their enlightened contemporaries: “There could scarcely be said to exist even the relation of contradiction.” To be sure, an affinity with the age was not a claim that the evangelicals insisted upon. No one would wish to number Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley among the philosophes. The merit claimed by the evangelicals was the merit not of thinkers but of believers. Yet, like it or not, the revival is still one of the facts of eighteenth century history. It cannot be wished away or passed off onto some other period. It started in the eighteenth century and it prospered in the eighteenth century. In any census of the times, it is a fair presumption that the saints will out-number the sceptics. Moreover, the revival is something that has to be analyzed in contemporary terms. What John Maynard Keynes once said of ranting politicians in the twentieth century works for ranting preachers in the eighteenth: “Mad men in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Faith, like thought, is an historical event that occurs in a specific historical context and ultimately it must be explained in terms of that context. It may be our deepest wish to think like St. Paul, but it is hard to do so in ways that St. Paul would have understood. Few men can insulate themselves against the intellectual influence of their time. In the case of John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, the recognition of that influence is critical for the interpretation of their thought.

The 1986 Denis Bethell Prize Essay of the Charles Homer Haskins Society
Albion , Volume 19 , Issue 2 , Summer 1987 , pp. 177 - 192
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1987

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An abridged version of this essay was read at the conference of the Southeastern Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, February 28, 1986.


1 Gay, Peter, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 vols. (New York, 19661969), 1:254Google Scholar; Stephen, Leslie, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (1902; reprint ed., London, 1962) 2:369Google Scholar; Keynes, John Maynard, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (London, 1936), p. 383Google Scholar.

2 Wesley, John, The Works of John Wesley [hereafter cited as Works], ed. Jackson, Thomas, 14 vols. (1872; reprint ed., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1979) 10:179Google Scholar; Wesley, John, The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., Sometime Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford [hereafter cited as Letters], ed., Telford, John, 8 vols. (London, 1931), 3:235Google Scholar; Edwards, Jonathan, The Works of Jonathan Edwards [hereafter cited as Yale Works] ed., Miller, Perry and Smith, John E., 6 vols. (New Haven, 1957–), 2Google Scholar, Religious Affections, ed. Smith, John E. (1959) p. 295Google Scholar; and Edwards, Jonathan, The Works of President Edwards, ed. Williams, Edward and Parsons, Edward, 10 vols. (1817; reprint ed., New York, 1968), 8:105Google Scholar.

3 Edwards, Jonathan, Yale Works, 3Google Scholar, Original Sin, ed. Holbrook, Clyde A. (New Haven, 1970)Google Scholar; Wesley, , Works, 9:192464Google Scholar; and idem, Letters, 4:48.

4 Edwards, Jonathan, Yale Works, 4Google Scholar, The Great Awakening, ed. Goen, C.C. (1972), p. 341Google Scholar; Wesley, John, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. … [hereafter cited as Journal], ed., Curnock, Nehemiah, 8 vols. (London, 19091916), 2:84Google Scholar; Green, Richard, ed., The Works of John and Charles Wesley. A Bibliography …, 2d ed., rev. and enl. (London, 1906), pp. 37, 163, 172, 174, 176, 253Google Scholar; Wesley, John, ed., A Christian Library: Consisting of Extracts from … the Choicest Pieces of Practical Divinity, which have been Published in the English Tongue [hereafter cited as Christian Library], 30 vols. (London, 1827), 30:91379Google Scholar.

5 Wesley, , Works, 10:381–82, 418–20Google Scholar.

6 Cf. Wesley, , Christian Library, 30:93, 111, 114Google Scholar, and Edwards, , The Great Awakening, pp. 152, 175, 182Google Scholar.

7 Cf. Wesley, , Christian Library, 30:313, 323, 326, 340Google Scholar, and Edwards, Jonathan, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections …, abridged by William Gordon (London, 1762), pp. 8, 28, 34, 60Google Scholar; John E. Smith has discovered that Wesley's edition of the Religious Affections is derived not from Edwards' original text but from William Gordon's abridgement (Edwards, , Religious Affections, p. 79Google Scholar).

8 Cf. Wesley, , Christian Library, 30:246, 277Google Scholar, and Edwards, , The Great Awakening, pp. 277, 509Google Scholar.

9 Cf. Wesley, , Christian Library, 30:184, 186Google Scholar, and Edwards, , The Great Awakening, pp. 379, 383Google Scholar.

10 Cf. Wesley, , Christian Library, 30:236, 248Google Scholar, and Edwards, , The Great Awakening, pp. 483–88, 513Google Scholar.

11 Wesley, , Christian Library, 30:308Google Scholar.

12 Wesley, , Works, 10:463, 7:226–28, 231–32Google Scholar; for a more extensive discussion of Wesley's commitment to empiricism see Dreyer, Frederick, “Faith and Experience in the Thought of John Wesley,” American Historical Review 88 (1983): 1230CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Brantley, Richard E., Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism (Gainesville, 1984), pp. 1102Google Scholar.

13 Wesley, , Works, 10:471, 14:301Google Scholar; Letters, 3:105Google ScholarPubMed.

14 Edwards, Jonathan, Yale Works, 6Google Scholar, Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. Anderson, Wallace E. (1980), p. 370Google Scholar.

15 Ibid. pp. 202–03; Edwards, Jonathan, Yale Works, 1, Freedom of the Will, ed., Ramsey, Paul (New Haven, 1957), p. 182Google Scholar.

16 Edwards, , Scientific and Philosophical Writings, pp. 29, 204Google Scholar; Miller, Perry, Jonathan Edwards (New York, 1949), pp. 57, 62Google Scholar; Edwards, , Freedom of the Will, p. 264Google ScholarPubMed; and idem, Scientific and Philosophical Writings, pp. 356–57.

l7 Locke, John, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Yolton, John W., 2 vols. (London, 1961), 1:284–90Google Scholar; Edwards, , Scientific and Philosophical Writings, p. 386Google Scholar; and idem, Original Sin, pp. 404–05.

18 Wesley, , Letters, 5:200Google Scholar; and Works, 5:111, 144Google ScholarPubMed.

19 Wesley, , Works, 8:78Google Scholar; and Letters, 2:383Google Scholar.

20 Edwards, , Religious Affections, p. 504Google Scholar.

21 Ibid., pp. 266, 502, 479.

22 Edwards, , The Great Awakening, p. 386Google Scholar; Religious Affections, pp. 147, 229.

23 Ibid., p. 250; Wesley, , Letters, 3:106, 332, 370, 4:97Google Scholar.

24 Ibid., 3:106, 110, 222.

25 Edwards, , Religious Affections, pp. 243, 246Google Scholar.

26 Wesley, , Journal, 2:202, 3:59–60, 4:367–70Google Scholar; Works, 9:13Google Scholar, and Letters, 5:6Google ScholarPubMed.

27 Edwards, , Religious Affections, pp. 252–53Google Scholar.

28 Wesley, , Works, 10:471–72, 350, 229–30, 473Google Scholar.

29 Wesley, , Letters, 1:64Google Scholar; Works, 6:214, 215Google ScholarPubMed.

30 Ibid., pp. 326, 311; Letters, 4:220Google ScholarPubMed.

31 Edwards, , Scientific and Philosophical Writings, pp. 388, 363–64, 398Google Scholar.

32 Ibid., pp. 388, 370.

33 Edwards, , Freedom of the Will, p. 220Google ScholarPubMed.

34 Edwards, , Original Sin, pp. 123, 380–81Google Scholar.

35 Ibid., pp. 125, 135.

36 Edwards, , Freedom of the Will, pp. 45, 261–64Google Scholar.

37 Ibid., p. 374.

38 Ibid., pp. 278, 380, 392.

39 Edwards, , The Works of President Edwards, 1:465, 469Google Scholar.

40 Ibid., p. 460.

41 Edwards, , Freedom of the Will, pp. 267–68Google Scholar.

42 Wesley, , Works, 6:226–27, 326Google Scholar; Letters, 3:139Google ScholarPubMed; Journal, 4:28, 326Google ScholarPubMed.

43 Wesley, , Letters, 7:4546Google Scholar; Journal, 6:155Google ScholarPubMed; Works, 10:361–63Google ScholarPubMed.

44 May, Henry F., The Enlightenment in America (New York, 1976), p. xivGoogle Scholar; and Gaustad, Edwin Scott, The Great Awakening in New England (1957, reprint ed., Gloucester, Mass., 1965), pp. 23Google Scholar.

45 Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin, Port Royal, 3 vols. (Paris, 19531956), 1:169. My translationGoogle Scholar.

46 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, n.d.), pp. 318–19Google Scholar.

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