The 2005 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion has been given to University of Notre Dame professor George M. Marsden for his masterful biography of colonial preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, entitled “Jonathan Edwards: A Life”(Yale University Press, 2003). Edwards was considered by many to be the first great American religious thinker during the pivotal period between Puritanism and the emerging Enlightenment.
Edwards is most famous for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but that sermon is often misunderstood and taken out of the context of Edwards’ complex life and thought, said award coordinator Susan R. Garrett, professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Marsden offers a much more rounded and nuanced picture of Edwards, from his precocious childhood as the son of an esteemed clergyman, through the faith-struggles of Edwards’ youth, his years as prominent advocate of international religious revival, his service as pastor to a contentious local congregation (which eventually fired him), his work as missionary to the Indians, and his brief tenure as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).
Besides its important subject matter, the merits of the winning book include Marsden’s use of newly available historical sources, rich portrayal of how Edwards fit into the early 18th-century historical and social contexts, inclusion of important elements of Edwards’ theology, and engaging style of writing. Garrett remarked, “Marsden draws one into a fascinating and conflict-ridden world that seems, at once, both distant and not so very different from our own.”
The point of historical scholarship, Marsden says, is not simply to take the past apart and show its complexity, but also to help people see how to put things back together again. “We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from great figures in the past—both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings. Otherwise we are stuck with the wisdom of the present.”
The biography stands easily on the shelf next to other recent biographies of great colonial figures (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton). Indeed, it complements them by showing the integral role of religion in shaping the common sensibilities of the day. “Marsden portrays Edwards as exemplifying the tension between the Puritan evangelical heritage and the secular world and mindset then emerging out of the Enlightenment,” said Garrett. “This central cultural tension of Edwards’ era surfaces today as the ongoing struggle between evangelicalism and intellectual inquiry in American Christianity and in the American political process.”
Since 1992, Marsden has served as the Francis A. McAnaney professor of history at Notre Dame. He is an expert on the history and present state of fundamentalism in America and the culture of American university education and has published more than a dozen books in these areas.
The annual religion award, which includes a cash prize, is given jointly by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville. Earlier this week, the university presented awards in the fields of music composition, education, psychology and improving world order.
About George M. Marsden
George M. Marsden is a renowned expert on the history of Christianity in America. He holds degrees from Haverford College and Westminster Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Yale University, earned in 1965. He has taught at Calvin College and Duke University, and since 1992 he has served as the Francis A. McAnaney professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.
Marsden is author or editor of more than a dozen books, more than 60 articles and book chapters and numerous other editorials and published interviews. His areas of expertise include, among others, the history and present state of fundamentalism in America and the culture of American university education. He once served as an expert witness testifying against the Arkansas “Creation-Science” law (Maclean vs. Arkansas, December 1981).
Marsden’s recent publications on these various topics are “Religion and American Culture” (Harcourt Brace, 1990), “Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism” (Eerdmans, 1991), “The Soul of the American University” (Oxford, 1994), and “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship” (Oxford, 1997).
Marsden has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Pew Freedom Trust and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Before being chosen as winner of the 2005 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, Marsden’s book, “Jonathan Edwards: A Life” (Yale University Press, 2003) was also named one of ten “Books of the Year” for 2003 by Atlantic Monthly, one of eight “Best Religious Books of 2003” by Publishers Weekly, and one of twelve “Notable Religious Books of 2003” by Richard Ostling of the Associated Press.