The Great Awakening in American history was this moment in time, before we were a nation, before we were manifest destiny, where we found religion and it set our course all the way until today. In other lands on this planet, religion does not hold so much sway over public discourse. In ours, it does. For this reason, it is a very good idea to travel back and trace the source of the influence to those tiny towns in New England, that experienced a religious fervor that resonates with familiarity even to us, today.
Jonathan Edwards, famous for his sermon about sinners in the hand of an angry god, a fire and brimstone, unforgiving purist towards a faith that is fearful and trembling, and his tenure during the height of his fame at Northampton, Massachusetts. The little town of farmers and traders, at first, adores their famous preacher. Then, after the strict theology pushes too hard on the town’s sense of public order, Edwards and his family are cast out. These are historical facts, not spoilers. Jonathan Edwards will be rejected by his parish. He makes bad choices that are theologically correct.
The light of this novel is not Jonathan Edwards, but the women of the town who endure the weight of the men upon them. Sara, the wife of the famous minister, is maybe holier than him. Their daughter, Jerusha, doomed to die young from consumption, embraces fully her father’s faith. Martha Root, a young woman in the town, is seduced and abandoned with twins by a relative of Jonathan Edwards, who will not marry her. Their endurance, and acceptance, and quest for joy and union with God are magnificent in contrast to the arrogance of the men. Also, Jonathan Edwards was a slave owner. His slaves are the soul of the novel. Leah, Saul, and Bathsheba are all wrestling with faith in their own way, survivors of the middle passage and trapped between worlds. Leah converts with great faith and feeling, and carries her mother’s memories in Africa, her painful middle passage, and her place in Northampton, while also falling into the realm of the spirit and faith. Saul quietly and stoically longs for freedom, and until the death of someone he loves, he does not find it. He flows out into the vast woods beyond civilized places, and is assumed by many in the novel to be going native with the Indians. Bathsheba remains with the family, enduring all that she has lost along the way, living with that haunting past inside of her, of her good friends gone, her place in the world narrowed, her future a stark and unforgiving place, without freedom from her burdens.
The men form the plot of the novel with posturing. In religious fervor, Edwards’ brother-in-law commits suicide, and this man’s sons become the future of the country, each betraying the Edwards clan that ultimately caused their father’s darkness consumed. For this reason, I will not discuss them here. Just know that it is well-done, in the text, and forms what I would consider an excellent example of the “Great American Novel” form, wherein a hefty tome about America, containing a multitude of characters each representing some influence or direction of things to come, speaks to us from the shadows of history, illuminated by brilliant writing.
And, when Jonathan Edwards speaks to the world, steals the natural world for his metaphors and his certainty, the world itself looks back and speaks. Spiders correct the sermon, unheard. A mayfly speaks. Everything speaks. The clumsy tool of Edwards’ theology is not enough to contain the wondrous beauty of the world, and his greatest failure is his inability to see exactly that. A tragic, beautiful novel, and highly recommended to anyone interested in American history, religious fiction, and/or fantastic writing.
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