If there is a prevailing commonplace about the Romantics it is to associate them with a close and tender regard for nature. And it is true that the relating of human being to being generally considered was so central in their minds, that many interpreters have seen it as central. As one might expect, therefore, Jonathan Edwards also in this respect anticipated an important tendency in modern thought. His own youthful conversion experience became itself a provocation, and his reconstruction of those times of rapture reveals the central concern and tendency of his life and thought.
Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so. The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward delight in God and divine things .. .was on reading those words of I Tim. 1:4: Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever Amen. . .. After this my sense of divine things gradually increased and became more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars, in the clouds and blue sky, in the grass, flowers, trees, in the water and all nature, which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for continuance, and in the day spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky to behold the sweet glory of God in these things.
When he wrote these words Edwards could hardly know that his testimony would earn him a place in an anthology of Romanticism; but he did know very well that experiences of this sort had no place in the Puritan literature on conversion and this led him to a long process of rethinking the whole problem of the religious affections. For present purposes, however, it is more important for us to see in this experience the origins of his life-long concern for the beauty of true virtue and thus to the ethical corollary which he expounded in one of his last writings.
Virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them. . . . This is the same as to enquire what that is which renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful. . . . When we are enquiring wherein this true and general beauty of the heart does most essentially consist, my answer to the enquiry: True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general. … It is that consent, propensity and union of heart to being in general which is immediately exercised in a general good will. . . . What can it consist in but a consent and good will to being in general? Beauty does not consist in discord and dissent but in consent and agreement. And if every intelligent being is some way related to being in general, and is part of the universal system of existence, and so stands in connection with the whole, what can its general and true beauty be, but its consent with the great whole? 17
Giving special meaning to this counsel was Edwards’ conviction that this “whole system of existence” was the continuing creation of God and that this creation was the emanation of God’s fulness, “… a fountain flowing out in abundant streams, as beams from the sun.” Responding thus to the demands for a new mode of thinking about nature made by Descartes, Newton, and Locke yet committed to the Westminster confession, and living entirely within a pre-critical view of Holy Scripture, Edwards had marked out the road which possibly unbeknownst to him had been already traveled by Spinoza, and which had been rendered aesthetically more pleasing by Shaftsbury’s Hymn to Nature. This road would become in due course a great Romantic highway. The signs of this new tendency of thought were everywhere during the later eighteenth century. More than anyone, Jean Jacques Rousseau awakened Europe to the joys of the natural world (as against the artificial pleasures of rococo civilization); but he also conveyed a profound religious dimension to the whole system of nature generally considered.
Sydney E. Ahlstrom, “The Romantic Religious Revolution and the Dilemmas of Religious History,” Church History 46.2 (1977), 158–59.
17. Personal Narrative. David Levin, ca., Jonathan Edwards: A Profile (New York, 1969) contains an excellently edited version. Edwards’ Dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue is in many editions of the Works and in anthologies. I quote from the early pages of the first chapter.
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