It has been rightly noted that, while three centuries of scholarship on Jonathan Edwards has revealed much of his philosophy, theology and epistemology, yet we know very little of the person himself. Using insights from philosophical and literary disciplines as applied to the field of persona, this thesis examines a representative selection of the writings of Jonathan Edwards, in order to trace and assess the evolution of Jonathan Edwards’s persona in the context of eighteenth-century New England. In particular, it shows how the Edwards persona was developed not only as a result of a carefully crafted intentional strategy on his part but also in response to the unplanned but inevitable conflicts that plagued his ecclesiastical career. The tension between his innately contemplative nature and the active demands of public office as he executed his professional role was a constant source of internal and public strife for Edwards. He was, as he termed it, “born to be a man of strife.”
This tension was a major factor in the self-fashioning which Edwards progressively underwent, and so the motif of persona development through conflicts and crises runs through the thesis. While such tension caused him to be ousted from his public office, it also led ultimately to a personal liberation in which his authentic self was expressed. Early in his adult life, Edwards’s personal experiential religion had laid the groundwork of his essential theological message. While constantly seeking to master this message, he was in turn mastered by that message and came to embody the truths he thought important to communicate. It was in his mature writings rather than his ministerial practice that we see revealed the essential personal Edwards. Consequently, while Edwards is often hailed as a great practitioner and apologist of religious revival as experienced in the Great Awakening, it is as a writer that he has made such a great contribution to religious thought and practice.
The thesis begins by locating the study of Edwards’s persona within the investigative parameters of philosophy and literature. Thus it establishes a base for the analysis of Edwards’s self-fashioning of his persona in terms of the many conflicts in which he was engaged, the critical turning points in his life, and the strategies he crafted for managing these conflicts and crises (Introduction). After analysing the fundamental theological grounding of Edwards in his developing concept of and submission to the absoluteness of God in his sovereignty (chapter 1), the thesis traces his many conflicts, both universal and local, which were instrumental in shaping his persona (chapters 2-4). It was these conflicts that determined not only the focus of his battles but also the literary means by which he would counter and control those alien forces ranged against him. Progressively, the fully developed persona of Edwards as a self-assured authoritative theological and ecclesial leader became clearly manifest. His growing mastery of literary forms is analysed in chapter 5, which focuses on this literary aspect of Edwards, not as a study of his literary talents per se, but as a study of his use of literature as a deliberate tool in the crafting of his public persona. The thesis then reviews Edwards’s vocational life in several stages which demonstrate the formation and consolidation of his public persona to the point of its mature expression at Stockbridge (chapter 6), The concluding chapter 7 brings together the various strands of the foregoing chapters in an overall assessment of the significance of Edwards’s self-fashioning for an appreciation of his overall contribution to the history of Christian thought and practice.
Finally, when he became relatively freed from the constraints of ecclesiastical politics and social distractions of office, Edwards attained the self-assured quasi-apostolic status of one who believed not only that he had the right to be heard but indeed that he must be heard. Ultimately, the public face and the essential person became merged into one integrated whole. This is the development of that persona that he worked so consistently, so strategically and so successfully to fashion. In summary, the Edwards persona was shaped definitively not by his praxis but by his writing. In some ways a somewhat pedestrian active practitioner, Edwards stamped himself as a superlative contemplative apologist and theorist of experiential spirituality.