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A letter from an alum about Princeton president Johnathan Edwards

October 22, 2003

As an old-timer I could easily have missed something. But I do not recall seeing any PAW reference to the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), minister, thinker, prolific author, and third president of Princeton. Since even as a Yale graduate Edwards and his family became intimately involved with Princeton this somehow seems a strange ornission.

Princeton faculty can evaluate Edwards far better than I. Simply as an interested alumnus who happens to be one of his many descendants I have found myself reflecting on this complex, remarkable man. It appears widely agreed that he and Benjamin Franklin were the two most brilliant intellects of our colonial history. Understandably Franklin continues to fascinate us. But Edwards, too, keeps turning up. Especially on college and university campuses scholars are repeatedly attracted by his spiritual, philosophical, and psychological insights. Not long ago a study showed that during the previous 40 years the number of Ph.D. dissertations on Edwards had doubled every decade. Now at the dawn of the ultra-modem 21st century Yale has gone to great lengths to publish a massive multivolume edition of Edwards's works. An important new biography has come out, several well-attended conferences on him have been held in different States, and a national symposium at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Most people know Edwards mainly as the preacher of the too famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Yet any examination of his writings indicates that he stressed more often the beauty, love, and glory of God than God's severity. Though at times he could be remote his contemporaries generally found him to be a hospitable, lovable man with an unbelievably pressured but exemplary family life. We might also celebrate the fact that he labored to educate frontier American Indians when so many English and French forces were exploiting them. His lifelong interest in science is well documented. ironically his early death was to a degree the result of scientific concern. Smallpox being prevalent in Princeton and vaccination still unknown, he risked having himself inoculated as a protection and perhaps encouragement to others. After only a few weeks on the job he suffered a bad result and choked to death at 54.

Prior to his presidency Edwards often attended Princeton commencements. One of his daughters married another Princeton president, Aaron Burr, Sr., and his three sons all went to Princeton. Edwards Hall is a campus fixture and a prestigious endowed chair in American history bears his name. When we look at his portrait in Nassau Hall we do not see a president who did much to shape the college. He died too soon for that. Certainly, though, we are looking at one of the greatest figures ever to hold the office. If he does not rate a PAW cover story, my thought would be that his 300th birthday deserves honorable mention.

Robert L. Edwards '37
West Hartford, Conn.

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