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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Edwards’

A Brief Conversion Narrative

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Christianity, Essays, Writing on September 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The conversion narrative is an important genre in American history, one that played an indispensable role in the formation of our cultural and religious identity during the seventeenth century and the First Great Awakening.  The genre as a practiced form hardly exists today, although its iterations are evident whenever a Christian states his or her “testimony.”

Allow me to share mine.  The conversion narratives of two eighteenth-century American writers in many ways reflect my own Christian experience.

John Woolman, a Quaker, recorded his narrative in a series of journal entries.  As a young boy, Woolman intuited the existence of good and evil and felt the manifest presence of a superintending God in his everyday experience.  He learned of his own propensity for wickedness and felt shame and remorse whenever he sinned.  He came to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, through Whom he found love and repentance.  The teenaged Woolman, however, gradually abandoned his pious obedience to God.

“Having attained the age of sixteen years,” Woolman laments in his narrative, “I began to love wanton company, and though I was preserved from profane language or scandalous conduct, still I perceived a plant in me which produced much wild grapes.”  Only through God’s grace was Woolman saved from his backsliding and led back to the path of truth and repentance.

When Woolman began to backslide yet again, God visited sickness upon him.  “I was filled,” Woolman writes, “with confusion, and in great affliction both of mind and body I lay and bewailed myself.  I had not confidence to lift up my cries to God, whom I had thus offended, but in a deep sense of my great folly I was humbled before him, and at length that Word which is as a fire and a hammer broke and dissolved my rebellious heart.  And then my cries were put up in contrition, and in the multitude of his mercies I found inward relief, and felt a close engagement that if he was pleased to restore my health, I might walk humbly before him.”

Jonathan Edwards, a New England Calvinist and one of the last prominent American Puritan ministers, wrote what he styled a “Personal Narrative,” which opens with an account of his boyhood inclination for religious matters.  The young Edwards experienced an “awakening” in his father’s congregation.  “I was then very much affected for many months,” he says in his account, “and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul’s salvation; and was abundant in duties. I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys, and used to meet with them to pray together.”  The power of God energized the exuberant, young Edwards.  “I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion,” Edwards intones about these early years.

Like Woolman, however, Edwards began to backslide as he grew older.  “But in the process of time,” he says, “my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin.”  Also like Woolman, Edwards was struck with illness, pleurisy, which riled him with inner conflict and compulsive introspection.  Edwards emerged from his illness both healthier and spiritually rejuvenated.  Although still immature in his faith, he “felt a spirit to part with all things in the world, for an interest in Christ.”

My grandmother led me to believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior when I was in the third grade.  She instilled in me an understanding of God’s grace and an equally important fear of his divine judgment.  As I grew older, I, like Woolman and Edwards, suffered from my own forms of backsliding.  I fell into the company of other boys who were not interested in religious matters.  During my freshman year of high school, my appendix ruptured, and I nearly died after waiting two days to visit the hospital.  At this time, fear for my life and the state of my eternal soul caused me to consult scripture and to pray to God with a renewed sense of urgency.

I was for a few years devout once again, attendant to God’s teachings and careful with my thoughts and actions.  Still I found myself in college—and the immediate years thereafter—drifting from God’s teachings even as I acknowledged their authority and believed that departure from them was sinful.  I delighted in Bacchanalian parties and festivities of a degree I can only imagine to have been comparable to those described by Augustine in reference to his own youth.  My immersion in unholy and rambunctious activity was so complete that I continue to struggle to witness to others, afraid they may discount my message in light of my past sins.

It was not until law school, when I was diagnosed with melanoma and treated with major surgery, including the removal of two lymph nodes, that I truly turned back to God, but even then the process of regeneration involved backsliding and psychological intensity.

Since my marriage and the birth of my two children, I have sought after the Lord with more discipline and seriousness.  I have matured in Christ and seek daily to understand the scriptures and God’s nature.  I have learned that sanctification is a complex process that requires correction and tenacity, and I have found joy in my relationships with other believers and in the awesomeness and enormity of life itself.  Like everyone, I am susceptible to certain sins.  But I believe in the power of God’s saving grace, and, after much study and prayer, attempt to exercise the ability he has provided me to overcome my inherent limitations and innate propensity for sin.

American Literary History and Pragmatism

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Walt Whitman, Writing on August 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

American literary history, even before C.S. Peirce named “pragmatism” as a philosophy, validates much of what pragmatism has to offer.  Joan Richardson speaks of “frontier instances” whereby certain writers become aesthetic outposts from which we can trace continuities of thought and artistic representation.  She treats literature as a life form that must adapt to its environment; similarly, Richard Poirier looks to a tradition of linguistic skepticism in American literature to show the role that artistic influence and troping have had on American culture.  Long before Richardson and Poirier, George Santayana exercised his own literary flair in his celebratory, summative essays about American culture and experience.  If American literary history can undergo operations of tracing and mapping, it might be because—as Richardson, Poirier, and Santayana have suggested—the unfolding and development of an American literary canon have been processes of evolution.  Literary texts and movements have shown a tendency toward growth that is responsive to the natural and changing circumstances of the time.

Richardson begins A Natural History of Pragmatism with 17th century Puritan ministers and then quickly moves to Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards is representative of the Calvinist notion of limited disclosure, the idea, in other words, that God reveals his divinity to us through the shapes, forms, and outlines he provides to us in the phenomenal world.  From this idea (and others like it) began the uniquely American insistence on the value of nature and the physical universe to thought and the spiritual or psychological realm.  As Americans sought to make themselves culturally and intellectually independent from Europe, both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they used the New World landscapes and vastly unexplored (by Europeans at least) terrains as objects of their fascination and as sources of inspiration.  Even figures like Jefferson insisted upon the scientific study of the natural world in order to authorize theories about law and politics, which he wished to distinguish from European ways.  Jefferson, like William Bartram, another naturalist, lionized Natives as being more in tune with nature and hence more “lawful” in the sense that their communal governments were in keeping with the laws of nature.  However problematic we may consider these romanticized depictions today, we should at least say of them that they inspired further attention to sustained observation of nature as a critical component of what was intended to be a new way of thinking divorced from the Old World of Europe.

Santayana says that when orthodoxy recedes, speculation flourishes, and accordingly it is no surprise that as Puritanism solidified into an orthodoxy of the kind against which it once defined itself, there was a resistance among artists and writers and thinkers.  Emerson, for one, adapted the thinking of the Calvinists while maintaining their commitment to the natural world as a means for realizing higher truths.  Instead of God revealing himself to man through the forms of the natural world, God, according to Emerson, was realized within the person with a poetical sense, who was inspired by the natural world to discover the divinity within himself.  To become one and to see all—that is, to become a “transparent eyeball”—was something of a religious experience for Emerson.  Read the rest of this entry »

Joan Richardson on Emerson, the Pragmatist

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, Creative Writing, Information Design, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics on December 9, 2010 at 9:22 pm

If pragmatism is, as Joan Richardson claims, “thinking about thinking” (79), and if Emerson is, as Richardson claims, a pragmatist, then we might ask ourselves what intellectual tradition Emerson appears to appropriate and modify.  What are Emerson’s “moving pictures” (the title of Richardson’s chapter on Emerson), and how do they receive and transmit thought and theory?  Richardson seems to suggest that, for Emerson as for Jonathan Edwards, nature and imagination are mutually reinforcing and inextricably tied concepts.  Emerson works out of Edwards’s paradigms while altering them to fit his own historical moment.  Emerson mimics not only Edwards’s intellectual framework—his theories—but also Edwards’s diction and syntax (63).  Put differently, Emerson imitates a concept while imitating the vocabularies through which that concept passed down to him. 

What makes Edwards and Emerson unique is their turn to nature to make sense of the “transcendent.”  Just as Edwards looks to spiders and light to aestheticize his theology and exhilarate his congregation, so Emerson looks to nature to spiritualize the human mind.  Both men observe and then internalize the natural world to refine their thinking about thinking.  For Emerson, however, the human mind is itself an organism—one hungry for knowledge.  The mind is not so much “the room of the idea” as it is a living being with an appetite for thought (67).  Emerson employs and seeks out metaphor to organize this thought—one might say to satiate his ravenous intellectual appetite—and he does so because he realizes “the seminal role played by image” (68).  The world, for Emerson, is full of semiotic possibility, and one can arrive at truths about reality through the study of metaphor.  Science, after all, uses signs and symbols—i.e., metaphors—to test and decode the natural world (see, e.g., Richardson on the “metaphor intrinsic to biology’s emergence as a distinct field”) (69).     Read the rest of this entry »

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