Those of us who believe Jonathan Edwards's life and work are relevant for theology, church and Christian living today will be excited about George Marsden's latest work. Following his definitive biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003), Marsden tailored his research into a "fresh retelling" (not an abridgement) of Edwards's life. The most relevant detail about this work is that, unlike the definitive biography, it is much shorter, making it accessible to those who are only curious, vaguely interested or otherwise ambivalent about Edwards. The brevity also opens up avenues for use in both church and classroom settings. Particularly relevant for the latter, most junior high or high school students continue to read "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God" in their American history classes, often with little understanding of Edwards's larger corpus or circumstance.
Marsden's "fresh retelling" includes a parallel between Edwards and Benjamin Franklin. The move to juxtapose Franklin's and Edwards's lives as "opposing reactions" and prototypes of the American story aims at an audience familiar with the life of Franklin but not necessarily Edwards. These two stories-one grasping the Enlightenment enterprise of complete trust in self, and the other, a recasting of complete trust in God-run as parallel programs of equal importance for understanding American history and the American identity.
After developing his parallel with Franklin, Marsden turns to develop more specifically the life of Edwards (chapters two through four). Here the reader comes into contact with the familial, spiritual, intellectual, and ministerial life of Edwards. Chapters four and five particularly look at the Great Awakening through a lens of both history and theology. George Whitefield appears here, becoming a thread between Franklin and Edwards. Chapters six and seven look more specifically at Edwards's home and church situation in the shadow of the revivals, briefly addressing Edwards's relationship with his parishioners, slavery, and traditional authority, as well as the larger wartime situations, conflicts, and spiritual malaise in Northampton, Massachusetts. Chapter eight focuses on Edwards's life after Northampton, including description of frontier life for Edwards and his family. The volume concludes with lessons to be learned from Edwards's life and theology.
Marsden's work will serve as a helpful tool to understand Edwards within his broader context, as well as to understand America's "paradoxical heritage." A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards is highly recommended as a way to engage the seedbed of the American identity, and to learn more about America's "greatest theologian."