‘America’s greatest theologian’ beyond America

Jonathan Edwards had more than a little influence on Reformed theology in Great Britain, according to the organizers of an upcoming conference, which they believe to be the first devoted to Edwards in England.

Roy Mellor, a minister of the Church of England, William M. Schweitzer, a minister of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales, and Christopher Schroeder, an IT analyst and a Presbyterian, are planning a conference on Edwards’ in Durham next year. They say “it is at least possible that the qualitative influence has been greater here than it has been among the American Church.” The three cite the influence of Edwards work on the ministries of Thomas Chalmers, Charles Spurgeon, A.W. Pink, John Murray, and D. Martin Lloyd-Jones to support the claim.

Edwards, they say, was key to “the recovery of the Reformed faith in the United Kingdom.”

Whether or not Edwards was quantitatively more important or useful to ministers on one side of the Atlantic than the other doesn’t seem particularly important to us at the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany. What is very much of interest, though, is the ongoing effort to put Edwards in transatlantic context. In his own time, he was not strictly a New England figure, but was situated in ongoing theological, philosophical and political discourses that connected Continental Europe, the British Isles, and the new world. As Prof. Peter Thuesen said in his keynote address at the inauguration of the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany, a quick look through Edwards’ library confirms this transatlantic thesis.

According to Thuesen, “Edwards’ book world was profoundly transatlantic. If we were to remove the complex web of connections linking him to the British Isles and Continental Europe — connections involving economic, political, cultural, and intellectual life — his book world would almost completely disappear.”

This is also an important part of the history of the reception of Edwards’ thought. His work was read and was influential far beyond the shores of the land where he lived. This was true in his own time, and in the centuries since, as well. In Germany, we have been quite interested in the reception and translations — linguistic and theological — of Edwards works by the German Reformed and the Pietists.

The broader contexts of Edwards and Edwards’ work are important, and have been overlooked or underplayed for too long. The history of “America’s greatest theologian” is not strictly an American history.

As might be guessed from the profiles of the conference organizers, the gathering in Durham will emphasize the theological and ecclessiological usefulness of Edwards, in addition to his influence on British theologians. They write that “this conference is unashamedly for the church,” “a forum in the UK for ministers and other interested Christians to share the riches of Jonathan Edwards’s astonishing ministry.”

More information is available at www.edwardsconference.org.

— Daniel Silliman

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