Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 3, 2003|Volume 32, Number 5















In this portrait by Joseph Badger, 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards wears a wig, "a symbol of authority that was quickly becoming obsolete," writes Ken Minkema in the exhibition catalogue.

Exhibit honors theologian who
helped shape American psyche

Portraits of the wig-bedecked theologian and his wife, the manuscript of his first-ever public address, the desk where he probably wrote many of his sermons -- these are among the objects from the life of Jonathan Edwards featured in a new exhibition at the Yale residential college that bears his name.

The "Jonathan Edwards Tercentennial Exhibition" will open on Tuesday, Oct. 7, as part of a week-long celebration at Yale marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of the theologian who has been called "the most important religious figure in American history."

Jonathan Edwards College (JE) will mark the opening of the exhibition that day at 4 p.m. with a talk by Ken Minkema, executive editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards publishing project at the Divinity School. His topic will be "Jonathan Edwards at Yale." The event is free and open to the public.

The exhibition includes items -- from portraits and other artworks to manuscripts to 18th-century artifacts -- gathered from the collections of JE, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Manuscripts and Archives, and the New Haven Colony Historical Society.

Writing in the forward to the exhibition catalogue, Gary Haller, master of JE, notes that the show represents "the most diverse selection of objects" featured in any exhibition at the college during his tenure there. He writes:

"It ranges from the priceless Joseph Badger portraits of Jonathan and Sarah [Edwards' wife] to a small Decorated Box that might have been purchased in a Scottish tourist shop; from what we now believe to be an authentic desk of Jonathan Edwards to a collection of furniture that was accumulated by his descendants, with a bed sheet and a bit of a wedding dress thrown in for good measure. My first description of this exhibition had to be discarded because it sounded like a yard sale description, but, of course, it could have been an 18th century yard sale."

The catalogue also includes essays by Minkema, curator of the exhibition, and George Levesque, dean of Berkeley College.

In his essay, "Jonathan Edwards, American Theologian," Minkema notes that 100 years ago, the celebration of the minister's bicentennial was marked throughout the nation with speeches, readings and exhibitions.

"For those celebrants of a hundred years ago," Minkema writes, "the artifacts they viewed had achieved an almost talismanic stature." Today, he adds, "If the objects retain an aura for some, for most of us they have become, less mystically, means of understanding Edwards, the world in which he lived, and the way he has been remembered. For these reasons, they are worth assembling and contemplating. They provide a valuable complement to Edwards' other, more famous legacy: the reams of manuscripts and the dozens of printed works he left behind that have shaped America's intellectual and spiritual life."

One of the lesser-known manuscripts featured in the JE exhibition is Edwards' Valedictory Oration, which he presented in 1720 upon completing his undergraduate studies at Yale and which is the earliest extant Yale Commencement address.

In his catalogue essay, "Jonathan Edwards at Yale," Levesque notes that the honor of being selected to deliver an oration at graduation "surely elicited equal amounts of anxiety and excitement in the habitually nervous and ambitious young scholar, for though college commencements were festival occasions, they were also public examinations, designed ostensibly to allow the trustees and the general educated public to verify the learning of the new graduates."

Furthermore, notes Levesque, Edwards "not even 17 years old, and on public display for the first time ... would of course need to compose his disputations and address in Latin, the language of instruction in the college."

The original Latin text of Edwards' address is included in the exhibition catalogue, along with a translation by Levesque.

"Jonathan Edwards Tercentennial Exhibition: Selected Objects from the Yale Collections" will continue through Oct. 31. The exhibition is open to the public free of charge most Thursdays or by appointment. For information, call (203) 432-0356.

Other events being presented at Yale as part of the Edwards tercentennial celebration include a reading by Austin Flint titled "The Flaming Spider: Jonathan Edwards at Northampton" on Sunday, Oct. 5; a book party for George M. Marsden, author of "Jonathan Edwards: A Life" and editors of recent volumes in The Works of Jonathan Edwards on Wednesday, Oct. 8; a lecture titled "Jonathan Edwards in the 21st Century" by George M. Marsden on Thursday, Oct. 9; and a lecture titled "Jonathan Edwards: Tehologian of Divine Immanence" on Friday, Oct. 10. See Calendar, page 6, for details.


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