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Jonathan Edwards & Transatlantic Print Culture

by Jonathan Yeager
May 2017 | Review by Roy Mellor
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • ISBN: 978-0-19-024806-2
  • Pages: 236
  • Price: 47.99

This is a must-read for every Edwards aficionado. It is a treasure trove of eighteenth-century publishing and the activities of booksellers. Some might be tempted to dismiss the garnered facts as mere minutiae, but we soon capture the theme undergirding this seminal and exciting work.

Who could fail to be moved when reading about the Connecticut farm woman, Hannah Heaton? After being spiritually rejuvenated by reading Edwards’ newly published Life of Brainerd (1749), she said, ‘It was the means to strengthen me and invigorate me in my journey. I see many of his tryals [sic] to be exactly like mine’ (p.68). She could read it because it was widely available.

Edwards and many of his contemporary evangelicals published for the glory of God and the spiritual benefit of readers. They longed for their message to be disseminated. It was not done primarily as a profit-making enterprise. In fact, Edwards did not always see what would make most financial sense. For that, he enjoyed the help and cooperation of ministerial friends, especially Thomas Foxcroft of Boston and printing/publishing entrepreneurs Daniel Henchman and Samuel Kneeland.

Strategic as Boston was for the eighteenth-century publishing world in colonial America, it was events in London that really put Edwards on the map as a key writer. The 1737 London editions of Edwards’ A faithful narrative (Edwards’ early telling of the 1734-5 Connecticut River Valley awakening) was published cheaply by Isaac Watts and John Guyse, along with their strong commendation.

It could be bought for as little as 1s or 1s 6d. Despite Edwards’ annoyance at some of the editorial mistakes in this edition, its publication ensured the global reach of Edwards’ voice. Soon editions followed in Germany and the Netherlands.

Back in Britain, the London edition of Edwards’ Yale Commencement Address, given in September 1741 and entitled The distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God,was published quickly and reprinted in 1742 by Lumisden and Robertson of Edinburgh, and sold by John Traill, making this become a well known work of Edwards.

Following Edwards’ untimely death in March 1758, John Erskine of Edinburgh was to become a prime mover behind the republication of many of the titles we know best. This includes the never-out-of-print Life of Brainerd (1749) and History of the work of redemption (1774).

In this ‘transatlantic print culture’, famous names are intimately involved. George Whitefield, John Wesley, James Hervey, Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, Howel Harris, John Ryland Jr, James Robe, William McCulloch and others are often cited.

Yeager is always keen to push his conclusion: Edwards is so well known, not just because of his own ability, but because of the coterie of patrons, printers, booksellers and publishers around him. They were dedicated Christians and wanted Edwards’ message to be heard widely.

Their own actions should not be underplayed. Certainly, God’s providential oversight is highlighted in this book, but we should take care not to underplay the amazing gifting and calling of Edwards.

For all of us, living in the digital age with all its opportunities, this superbly documented book is a timely publication, as we commemorate Luther and the Reformation. Luther, like Edwards, exploited all the print possibilities of his generation, ensuring that as many as possible could hear the Word of God.

That was the motivation of this amazing transatlantic fellowship of co-workers in the gospel, which this book tells so ably. A challenge awaits all who read this superb book.

Roy Mellor

Bicester

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