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Inauguration report

The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany was inaugurated on July 11 with an international conference of Edwards scholars at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies.

The Center is a partnership between Heidelberg University’s Department of Theology, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies and the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale Divinity School. Edwards (1703 – 1758) was a pastor, philosopher, scientist, missionary and college president. He is widely regarded as the greatest North American theologian, and has inspired intense and prolonged scholarly interest. The Center seeks to contribute to the study of Edwards and Christianity in Colonial America by supporting and encouraging examinations of this pivotal figure and his world from a transatlantic and comparative perspective, that sees the American revivals as part of a much larger Protestant awakening, which included the English evangelical movement and the Scottish Cambuslang Wark as well as Dutch and German Pietism.

Another interest of the Center is Edwards’ continuing legacy, and the ways in which his ideas are adopted and adapted in contemporary evangelical discourse, especially as recent years have seen a resurgence of religious interest in this Puritan thinker.

As Prof. Jan Stievermann, director of the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany and Professor of the History of Christianity in North America, said at the inauguration, Edwards work serves as a window onto a whole vista of subjects.

“We conceive of Edwards’s voluminous works,” he said, “as an entry point to study, both in a critical and in an interdisciplinary manner, the whole cosmos of early American religious and cultural history …. Edwards is also a great source to explore a great variety of topics that are not primarily religious/theological, including the history of slavery, Indian-white relations, history of education, reading culture, the tradition of New England letters and literature. Moreover, as one of the founding fathers of the tradition of American revivalism, Edwards is a key figure for understanding the history of evangelicalism, so important to U.S. culture.”

A keynote lecture was given on one of those topics by Prof. Peter J. Thuesen, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of the acclaimed Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine. Thuesen examined what is known of Edwards’ expansive library, from there constructing the “mental world” in which Edwards lived, arguing that he has to be thought of in the context of a web of transatlantic ties.

Calling Edwards’ library a confirmation of the “transatlantic thesis,” Thuesen told the international audience gather in the HCA atrium from prestigious universities in the United States Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, that “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.”

A day-long symposium following the inauguration explored new avenues for the study of Jonathan Edwards, building off of the idea that Edwards should be thought of in an international, transatlantic context.

Prof. Hermann Wellenreuther, of the University of Göttingen spoke of how “Atlantic transfers” worked in the Early Modern period to affect religion, Dr. Sarah Rivett, of Princeton, examined the cultural exchanges at work in missionary linguistics in colonial New England, and Prof. Reiner Smolinski, of Georgia State University, spoke of Edwards’ approach to the philosophical materialism being advanced in Europe at the time.

Prof. Stievermann said the symposium served as a foundation for one of the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany’s main missions, to serve as a hub for a research network connecting institutions and projects.

“We already see the fruits of that growing network,” Stievermann said.