Last year, I wrote about presenting students with a different view of Jonathan Edwards. Rather than just showing him as a religious figure, it is important to highlight the varied places where religion and science overlap in his writing. This semester, I taught Edwards’ Personal Narrative (1739) again, and while I stressed the intersections between science and religion, I also discussed Edwards use of language throughout his conversion narrative, which, in many ways, recalls the metaphysical poets, specifically John Donne. Today, I want to look at Edwards’ language as he describes his conversion and relate it back to Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” and to the biblical representation of Christians and the church as the Bride of Christ.
When reading Edwards’ narrative, his sexually symbolic and descriptive language stands out. Writing about 1 Timothy 1:7 and about the “sweet delight” that he feels in God, Edwards intones that he wants to “be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him” (emphasis added). Later, he writes that another verse provided him with an “inward sweetness” and he felt like “sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapped and swallowed up in God” (emphasis added). Within these examples, Edwards paints God as both a sweet companion but also as an all consuming entity.
Edwards presents his relationship with God as one between lovers; he has “vehement longings” to be with God and pants after the divine. These phrases conjure up the image of Edwards not solely as a convert but also as a lover longing for reciprocal affection from the object of his affection. Edwards seeks to “spend [his] eternity in divine love and holy communion with Christ.” When he ponders this “divine love” and holiness, Edwards recalls it as something “ravishingly lovely” that could clear away the “filth and defilement” of the fallen world.
At numerous places in the narrative, Edwards deploys some form of the verb “ravish” when describing his relation with God and the divine. This verb carries with it, of course, connotations of passionate love and even forceful love. Describing holiness, Edwards precedes to comment that it brings peace and “ravishment to the soul” before launching into a sexualized metaphor describing how God’s holiness is like the sun “vivifying” flowers.
In other words, that it made the soul like a field or garden of God, with all manner of pleasant flowers; all pleasant, delightful, and undisturbed: enjoying a sweet calm. and the gently vivifying beams of the sun. The soul of a true Christian, as I then wrote my meditations, appeared like such a little white flower as we see in the spring of the years; low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom to receive the pleasant beams of the sun’s glory; rejoicing as it were in a calm rapture; diffusing around a sweet fragrancy; standing peacefully and lovingly, in the midst of other flowers round about; all in like manner opening their bosoms, to drink in the light of the sun. There was no part of creature holiness, that I had so great a sense of its loveliness, as humility, brokenness of heart and poverty of spirit; and there was nothing that I so earnestly longed for. My heart panted after this, to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and that God might be all, that I might become as a little child.
Even though Edwards compares the holiness of God upon him as the sun falling upon a garden of flowers, he constructs the metaphor is such a manner that resembles sexual intercourse as the “vivifying beams of the sun” shine down while the flower opens “its bosom to receive the pleasant beam’s of the sun’s glory.” Edwards’ “heart panted after this,” again conjuring up Edwards as a lover seeking a paramour.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Edwards’ choice of language throughout the narrative, and while sexually charged, it does not appear totally out of character or the ordinary. I say this for a few reasons. First, Edwards appears to directly draw from the line of metaphysical poets, specifically John Donne. We know that Puritans such as Edward Taylor also drew from this lineage, so it is not far of stretch, in my mind, to make this connection.
The continual re-occurrence of “ravishment” in Edwards’ narrative draws me back to Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” which describes God as a lover taking and “ravishing” the speaker. The poem ends with the speaker asking God to separate him from the grasps of the Devil and wrap him up within the holiness of God.
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body.[a] 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Edwards directly draws upon this image when he writes, “It has often appeared to me delightful, to be united to Christ; to have him for my head, and to be a member of his body; also to have Christ for my teacher and prophet.” Ephesians 5:23 almost reads word for word along with Edwards. Later, in verses 26-27, the images of husbands (i.e. Christ) cleansing wives (i.e. the Church) sounds similar to the ways that Edwards describes his interactions with God. In 1737, Edwards writes about alighting from his horse and encountering Christ in the woods. He falls on the ground and becomes “perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity.” Christ cleanses him as He does the Church in verses 26-27.
This, of course, is far from all that can be said on these connections. Truthfully, I am still thinking through them right now. Hopefully, though, this discussion provides you with yet another way to think about Jonathan Edwards and his writing.