“Informing of the child's understanding, influencing his heart, and directing its practice”: Jonathan Edwards on education
Minkema, K. P.
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This article examines the role of education in Jonathan Edwards’ life and legacy, both the education he received in early eighteenth-century New England and his activities as a teacher, among the other vocations he followed. In particular, the methods and principles he employed as a teacher, both of English and Indian children and young people, are distinctive. Next, the essay turns to some selected figures within the Edwardsean tradition to show pedagogical changes and continuities. In one of his “Miscellanies,” Jonathan Edwards, pastor of Northampton, Massachusetts, described a physics lesson he gave to a local thirteen-year-old boy, in which he asserted “that a piece of any matter of two inches square” was “eight times so big as one of but one inch square, or that it might be cut into eight pieces, all of them as big as that of but an inch square.” The boy suspected that his pastor was playing a joke on him, but, Edwards wrote, “I took considerable pains to convince him that I was in earnest,” whereat the lad “cried out of the impossibility and absurdity of it.” To prove his point, Edwards led the boy to the woodshed, picked up a saw and cut “two cubes, one an inch and another two inches square, and let him examine the measures and see that the measures were exact, and that there was no deceit.” He then “cut the two-inch cube into eight equal parts” and handed them to the boy,” who “took the parts one by one and compared them with the one inch cube, and spent some time in counting and comparing.” With the proof in his hands, the boy was still “astonished[,] as though there were some witchcraft in the case.” He could not understand it, Edwards explained, “for he did not yet at all see the reason of it” – that is, no one had taught him the larger concepts of volume and mass behind the seeming paradox (Chamberlain 2000: “Miscellanies” no. 652, 192). This story, meant to convey that there are even more difficult mysteries in religion than in this mathematics puzzle, gives a rare glimpse into Edwards teaching by experience, observation, and demonstration, much the same spirit of investigation that informs his youthful compositions such as “The Spider Letter” (Anderson 1980:163-70). The role of education in Jonathan Edwards’ life and legacy is something that scholars and devotées often mention but have not discussed in anything like a concerted manner. In order to ascertain Edwards’ influence on pedagogy among the community of New Divinity adherents, we must first look at Edwards himself, his educational formation, and the methods he employed as a teacher himself. Next, we shall turn to some selected figures within the Edwardsean tradition to show pedagogical changes and continuities.