Book Chapter

The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards in Britain


Bebbington DW (2017) The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards in Britain. In: Bezzant R (ed.) The Global Edwards: Papers from the Jonathan Edwards Congress held in Melbourne, August 2015. Australian College of Theology Monograph Series. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, pp. 1-21.

First paragraph: The name of Jonathan Edwards does not loom large in histories of theology in Britain. The American is usually ignored, as in Bernard Reardon’s study of Religious Thought in the Victorian Age, or relegated to a single allusion, as in Tudur Jones’s Congregationalism in England, 1662-1962. By contrast, accounts of parallel developments in the United States give Edwards pride of place. That is true of general overviews such as Mark A. Noll’s America’s God and E. Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America as well as more specialist works such as Allen C. Guelzo’s Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate and Joseph A. Conforti’s Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition & American Culture, both of which examine the subsequent reputation of the theologian. It is not surprising that American authors should lay stress on a home-grown product, but it is more culpable that writers about Britain should neglect him. The lacuna may be laid at the door of multiple presuppositions. One is a certain insularity, the silent assumption that Britain was self-contained in its doctrinal concerns, or, if affected at all, then swayed almost exclusively by influences emanating from Germany. Another is that the Church of England led the way in Christian intellectual affairs to the extent that patterns of thinking in other denominations were of little or no importance. And a third is that what mattered in Anglican thought in the nineteenth century was the emergence of the Oxford Movement and of liberal theology because they shaped the developments of the twentieth century, a belief that has discouraged the scrutiny of Evangelical thought at the time. All these notions may be detected in Reardon’s lucid book on Victorian theology, the standard work of the last generation. Yet in reality British readers frequently absorbed American texts, which after all were written in their own language. Many of these readers were outside the Church of England, for at mid-century nearly half the population at worship in England and Wales was Nonconformist and Scotland was overwhelmingly Presbyterian. And Evangelicalism, though it was to be eclipsed during the twentieth century, was in the ascendant in British society at large during much of the nineteenth century. Hence at that period an American who was a non-Anglican Evangelical was likely to enjoy a wide influence. Despite the general neglect of Jonathan Edwards in the literature, his legacy to subsequent generations in Britain is amply worth exploring.

Title of seriesAustralian College of Theology Monograph Series
Publication date31/12/2017
PublisherWipf and Stock
Publisher URL
Place of publicationEugene, Oregon