Papers from Hillsdale College (1998)
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

The Young Edwards: Lockean Influence

by Benjamin A. Fisher

Not many will dispute the supremacy of Jonathan Edwards during America's eighteenth century. He is recognized as a penetrating, original thinker in theology, philosophy, natural science, and metaphysics. His logical and reasoning skills were second to none during his time and those skills are still regarded today as resplendent. It would be an inexcusable error, however, to judge Edwards solely on his own merits, as if he stood alone in his originality. Certainly no great thinker arrives at his greatness without the aid of his mentors. One would be remiss not to consider predominant influences upon Edwards to better understand the man himself. Although he demonstrated exceptional ingenuity as a child in self-motivated observation, credit is extended to Edwards's parents for giving him a superb education. During this time, the writings of both historical and contemporary figures shaped his mind. That forming influence is the topic of a debate among students and scholars of Edwards. Perry Miller, the distinguished professor at Yale who revived intelligent study and conversation on Edwards, argues that English philosopher John Locke dramatically affected the thought of Edwards to the point that readers should have a copy of Locke when reading Edwards. William Morris maintains that although Locke did inspire many of Edwards's thoughts, Edwards was not a Lockean disciple (Morris xiii). From a different perspective, Iain Murray, in his 1987 biography of Jonathan Edwards, claims that the effort to "reconstruct the whole of Edwards's outlook in terms of Lockean philosophy has long since been abandoned as untenable" (64). Similarly, Norman Fiering maintains that too much attention is given to Locke as framer of Edwards's thought and more attention should be given to other British thinkers who just as well had and impact on Edwards's philosophical considerations (14). These and other scholars on this subject will be consulted as this paper seeks to discover the true impact of Locke on Edwards. I contend that through examination of sensation and words, substance, and Edwards's early writings, John Locke's profound impact on Edwards's philosophy, though sometimes argued and discarded, can be clearly seen.

Jonathan Edwards's genius was first discovered through his father, Timothy Edwards, who was responsible for the majority of his early education. Mr. Edwards stressed young Jonathan's advancement in Latin and in his writing skills (Murray 14). This intensive educational training showed its fruition in 1715, at the age of twelve and only a year before he entered Yale, when he wrote his famous "Of Insects," describing the flying spider. This essay first demonstrated young Edwards's ability for meticulous observation, precise description, and logical application of the world around him (Carse 185). At Yale, however, Edwards would truly begin to shine. He became enamored with the writings of Locke to the point that he once said that he acquires more delight in the Englishman's works "than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold" (Murray 64). The impact and significance of Edwards's delight in Locke is most certainly the question.

Sensation and Words

The idea and nature of words are very important to Locke and consequently, Edwards. In a note written down in his copy of Locke's Essay on Human Understanding, Edwards writes: "He that uses Words of any Language without Distinct Ideas in his Mind ... only makes a Noise without any Sense or Signification." This Lockean idea is practically important to Edwards because if someone waxes eloquent concerning their own moral sincerity or religious piety, he has made "no profession at all of Gospel Holiness." Edwards believes the Lockean principle that language is the codifying element of society and words are only held up by the their customary use and understanding in society. Edwards attempts to save the precision of words not only to bring clarity to philosophical issues of the will, the mind, true virtue, and original sin, but also to correct everyday misconceptions about God, which influence the spiritual condition of his parishioners (Grasso 20).

This idea of Lockean influence on Edwards in the area of words is best demonstrated by Perry Miller. Locke's theory of words and sensation, as revealed in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, revolves around the notion that language is does not have any inherent sense of identity outside of the arbitrary meaning given to them. Without the paradigm of certain ideas propagated by common understanding and social convention, words are nothing more than incomprehensible noise ("Rhetoric" 121). The avenue for establishing meaning to words, according to Locke, is through the more concrete vein of ideas. Locke theorizes that one must reason by way of ideas and not by arbitrary words. To further explain this notion, Locke divided words into two categories: simple and complex. Simple words are governed by simple ideas based on a notion of one's (or society's collective) experience of sensation ("Rhetoric" 121). Complex words are built on the framework of the sensation of the simple words. Complex words, which are actually ideas, are adaptations of simple words, not based on a new experience perceived through the senses, but developed through "putting together those which the mind had before" (Errand 173). Locke's defines his mission in his Essay: that he might engage "some service to truth, peace, and learning, if, by any enlargement on this subject, I can make men reflect on their own use of language .... It is the mind alone that collects them [sensual ideas which form words], and gives them the union of one idea: and it is only by words enumerating the several simple ideas which the mind has united, that we can make known to others that their names stand for (Errand 173). In his "Miscellanies," Edwards basically repeated Locke:

Jonathan Edwards understood this concept and seriously incorporated it into his own thought and writings. Edwards emphasized to his congregation that "ideas and certain marks upon paper, such as any of the twenty-four letters, in whatever order, or any sounds of the voice, are as much external ideas, as of any other shapes and sounds whatsoever" (Errand 177). In his early writings, Edwards demonstrates his allegiance to the Lockean understanding of sensational rhetoric. In "Miscellanies, No 288" Edwards dichotomizes the word and the actual reality the word represents in a piece on love: One man's experience of love for a woman dictates his understanding of another man's love for woman and this molds his understanding of the word love. So the actuality of love is governed by several sensual experiences, giving the mind the opportunity to form a complex rendering of love.


Along this same theme of sensation and understanding truth behind the words that are employed, William Morris documents Edwards's adherence to Locke's assumption that the sensual faculties provide the vehicle for the perception of knowledge. In his notes on "Things" Edwards writes: Morris explains that this follows Locke's theory very closely as Locke insisted on the lower level of sensitive knowledge compared to the higher level of reason and abstraction. To Edwards, immediate senses can "give us self-evident truth" but can also be the perpetrator of error as experience leads people astray. He emphasized man's prejudice toward sensation: how certain paradigms govern the receiving of data supplied by the senses and "continual care and pain" must be taken to "keep clear of [the] entanglements" those prior understandings provide (Morris 425). Here Edwards emphasizes reason as the method to counter-balance the sometimes-wayward nature of the sensual. He warns: "The world seems so differently to our eyes, to our ears, and other senses, from the idea we have of it by Reason, that we can hardly realize the latter" (424).

An example of a Lockean concept that the young Edwards considered and rejected is the notion of "substance." Locke maintained that a substance existed which was responsible for the sustaining of the properties of bodies. Locke simply called this a "something." Edwards grasped the idea of substance, but was specific as to what the substance is: "That 'something' is he by whom all things consist.... There is no proper substance but God himself" (Holbrook 42). In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke explained substances as only externally knowable. When humans attempt to uncover the reality of the substance, there can be no answer given because sense data only reveals the exterior "skin" of the substance. He explained this understanding utilizing the metaphor of a "magic onion." We can know the effects of the substance through the exterior skin, but never can we know the reality of substance itself. The senses reveal that there are effects of the substance, but not that there actually is a substance underneath the skin. Locke emphasized that we know the world around us through sensual faculties, but that we know God through reason. Locke saw truth as it agrees with reality (Carse 37).

Edwards contemplated this theory of knowledge and substance and began to slowly formulate his answer to Locke. The result was a systematic breakdown of Locke's understanding. As I mentioned before, to Edwards God was substance. And God can be known not only through reason, but also through the senses, the natural world, which corresponds to reason. Edwards held that the reason's responsibility is to assist man in digesting what they already know through their senses. As he said in his essay on "The Mind," "God and real existence are the same" (Carse 39). In Carse words, Edwards was stating that "our relationship with God, and our knowledge of him, is made up out of the stuff of life" and does not just exist in the mind as Locke asserted in his famous Essay. In his work "Of Atoms," Edwards wrote:

God is the self-subsisting substance who can be discovered through this natural world as it is with the guiding assistance of reason.

Freedom of the Will

In book two of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke struggled with the concept of free will. It can be argued that his struggle with the question of determinism proved extremely invigorating for Edwards as Locke's penetrating influence can be seen in Edwards's Freedom of the Will (Fiering 288). Carse explains that when Locke undertook the study of the soul, he did so under the paradigm the Middle Ages had set. Locke questioned this understanding and concluded that the distinction and dichotomy of the understanding and will were emphasized too much. This was his response from his famous essay: Edwards relied on this notion to refute Arminianism on the basis of self-determination. To Locke, the argument that suggests that the will can demonstrate self-determination is self-refuting. Carse points out that if the will is to determine itself, two wills must exist, or the will must have some kind of super power to affect itself (54). As Edwards states in The Freedom of the Will, "If it [will as determiner and determined] be so ... it is a cause that acts and produces effects upon itself, and is the object of its own influence and action ... thus, this Arminian notion of liberty of the will consisting in the will's self-determination, is repugnant to itself, and shuts itself wholly out of the world" (Carse 55).

This is not to say that Edwards is relying upon Locke for his complete predestination argument. Nor is it to say that Locke was a Calvinist. In fact Edwards is very specific in his disagreement with Locke on what causes the will to choose. Locke emphasizes that the will responds to the anxiety that comes from wanting to elude the worst evil. Edwards objects quite vividly to Locke in one of his Miscellanies:

As Morris explains, Edwards holds that the will is determined by the "greatest good apprehended" (414).

Although John Locke's influence upon Edwards extends far beyond the three areas covered in this essay, enough has been presented to make the argument valid. If one is to believe Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards was "wholly changed by the New Learning [Locke]" to the point that one should read and study Edwards's theology "philosophically and artistically" (Mind 176). Iain Murray would have one to believe, however, that:

Norman Fiering counters that Edwards is a philosopher, but, although he read Locke, "Edwards himself was no Lockean" and rarely ever follows Locke on any point (37). I disagree with all of these interpretations. Based on the short, yet representative account given in this essay, I would concur with William Morris who aptly concludes that the although Edwards's greatest philosophical influence is undoubtedly Locke, "he was by no means slavish in his following even of Locke. As Hopkins said, 'he called no man master'" (Morris 366).

Works Cited

Carse, James. Jonathan Edwards & The Visibility of God. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.

Fiering, Norman. Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1981.

Grasso, Christopher. "Misrepresentations Corrected." In Jonathan Edwards's Writings. Edited by Stephan J. Stein. Bloomington: IU Press, 1996.

Holbrook, Clyde A. Jonathan Edwards: The Valley and Nature. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1987.

Lee, Sang Hyan. The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Miller, Perry. "Edwards, Locke, and the Rhetoric of Sensation." In Critical Essays on Jonathan Edwards. Edited by William J. Scheick. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980.

---. Errand in the Wilderness. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.

---. The New England Mind. New York: Macmillan, 1939.

Morris, William Sparkes. The Young Jonathan Edwards. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1991.

Murray, Iain H. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Edinburgh, England: The Banner of Truth Trust (The Bath Press), 1987.

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Last updated: 25 May 1998