Faith in the Age of Reason

In the spring of 1754, American theologian Jonathan Edwards anxiously awaited the impending publication of his Freedom of Will (often referred to as Freedom of the Will), which he called “my book against the Arminians.” The Arminian quarrel with Calvinism hinged on the question of free will—on the extent to which humans depended on God for their goodness—and lit up transatlantic religious circles during the middle third of the eighteenth century. Edwards attempted to reconcile human free will with an almighty God by distinguishing between the cause of a person’s inclinations, which was always God, and a person’s freedom to carry out those inclinations. The Scottish philosopher Henry Home, Lord Kames, whose copy of the Freedom of Will is shown here, thought he saw a kindred spirit in Edwards. Edwards disagreed. His devastating response to Kames’s interpretation of his work appeared as a pamphlet in 1758 and then was added to editions of the Freedom of Will starting in 1768.

While theologians clashed in the stratosphere, ordinary Americans expressed their faith by turning to hymn books such as John Newton’s Olney Hymns (1779), shown here in a 1795 edition that has been loved nearly to death (the binding has been repaired with gingham cloth). Newton originally worked as a slave trader, but after he survived a storm at sea in 1748, he converted and became an ordained minister in the Church of England. Newton’s survival and conversion formed the basis for his most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Like Edwards’s Freedom of Will, the six verses of “Amazing Grace” address the role of God in human life, but with a warmth and humanity that have endeared them to Christians and non-Christians for more than two hundred years. “Amazing Grace” is the only page in this book that has been dog-eared.

Charles Thomson, sometime Latin teacher, is best remembered as the recording secretary of the First Continental, Second Continental, and Confederation Congresses from 1774 to 1789. Opposed by powerful political enemies and convinced he was being targeted by assassins, Thomson quit public life and retired to his wealthy wife’s estate near Philadelphia. There he consoled himself by returning to the classics, producing the book you see here: an English translation of the Old and New Testaments. The year after it was published, Thomson—then eighty—gave this volume to his niece. It contains extensive commentary and emendations throughout. In Genesis 36:15, for example, a tipped-in note explains the use of the word emir rather than the common translation of duke, a change intended to more accurately “convey the idea of a chieftain or head of an Arab clan.”