George Marsden loved to study history (I guess he still loves because he is still alive) by comparing major historical figures. In, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, George compares Ben Franklin with Jonathan Edwards. Over the next few days I want to highlight some of the comparisons the Marsden makes:
Jonathan and Ben’s Pious Upbringings
Ben grew up in the typical colonial Calvinist family. He grew up going to church, he grew up learning about the bible, and he grew up saying his daily prayers. Ben’s father had high religious aspirations for him. Ben’s dad was a pious tradesman, and he hoped and prayed that his son would one day enter ministry. In hopes that he would one day become a pastor, Ben’s dad sent him to learn Latin at Harvard. At one point he had to withdraw Ben because they could no longer afford it. As you probably know, Ben never became a pastor. What happened? Well we really don’t know, but there is one episode in Ben’s life that gives us a glimpse into his attitude towards piety.
So one day Ben and his family were at dinner together, his dad prayed for the food. Ben, ever the pragmatist, suggested to his dad that they pray over the pantry (which held their entire supply of food) rather than pray over the food each time. That way they would save some time.
Maybe this story doesn’t reveal much about his spiritual condition, but what it does reveal is that at the outset Benjamin had a mechanistic view of religion. It seems as though he never thought of God in a very personal way…
Jonathan Edwards was much like Ben early on. He also grew up in a pious Calvinist family. In fact pretty much every man in his family held some sort of ministerial position, his dad Timothy Edwards was a famous preacher and revivalist and his Grandfather Solmon Stoddard was the most influential preacher (and political figure) in New England at the time. Jonathan grew up in a household with 10 sisters, so his dad had very high expectations for his only son. He expected him to join the family business and become a pastor. Early on Jonathan learned Latin and Greek, which was natural because his dad was an excellent teacher of these ancient languages. Jonathan was a natural born student, succeeding in anything and everything academic, even these difficult languages.
Even though Jonathan and Ben shared a lot of similarities when it came to their intellect, Jonathan’s piety was radically different from Benjamin’s. Jonathan was excessively pious as a child. At the age of nine, little Jonathan built a secret prayer fort in the woods. As a kid Jonathan was very much affected by the revivals going on in his dad’s church. However he struggled a lot with his faith. He always doubted his conversion, almost to the point of neurosis. Eventually he came to be secure in his conversion… and the Edwards we know today was “born.”