Some Notes Concerning Affections and the Sublime in the Work of Jonathan Edward
Jonathan Edwards’s attention to the separation of the body from the soul combined with his efforts to account for the spirit of revivalism during the “Great Awakening” implicates the sublime as both a rhetorical tool and psychological experience that, in either case, foregrounds the relationship between an individual’s perception of the self and his or her relationship to a community. Comparing Edwards’s personal writing to his public writing , an exploration of the phenomenon of conversion is clearly developed. Sublime experiences represent potential moments for conversion to Christianity because such events are moments that define the self in absence from the community. Edwards himself insisted that conversion testimony be required for admittance to the Puritan community. Rarely argued in Edwards scholarship, his focus upon philosophy and theology may be an attempt to both scientifically explain the moment of possible conversion and theologically typify the conversion experience. Whereas he wasn’t seeking to standardize conversion, he was attempting to normalize it, to make it practical. In this way, Edwards is a pioneer in American pragmatics.
The moment of conversion, whether or not it is genuine, is a monumental moment because it builds community by uniting an individual’s self-concerned state of being with the Puritan community’s dependence upon the conversion narrative. Each conversion strengthens the community; however, the community has no control over the conversion experience. Hence, the desire to justify, to authenticate, each conversion. For, unless shared through narrative, sublime moments are strictly private affairs. What a community witnesses of an individual’s conversion is always the emotional response through reflection after the event. As witnessed through the anxiety concerning the “Great Awakening,” such private and intimate moments were considered dangerous.
In his “Faithful Narrative,” Edwards attempts to justify the “unusual” number of conversions in his community. He begins his narrative about “the Surprising Work of God” by explaining the geography of the town of Northampton in conjunction with a discussion of the general state of mind of its people. He notes, in introduction,
The people of the country. . .are as sober, and orderly, and good sort of people, as in any part of New England; and I believe they have been preserved the freest by far. . .from error and variety of sects and opinions. Our being so far within the land, at distance from seaports, and in a corner of the country, has doubtless been one reason why we have not been so much corrupted with vice. . . . (57)
We being much separated from other parts of the province, and having comparatively but little intercourse with them, have from the beginning till now, always managed our ecclesiastical affairs within ourselves: ‘tis the way in which...