Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders


June, 2016


Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Leaders in America today come from a variety of arenas – politics, business, science, technology, entertainment, media, academia. Occasionally, someone excels in more than one sphere, say when a sports superstar becomes a successful politician or an inventor is also an effective entrepreneur. We admire their capacity for doing many things well, knowing that the skill sets required for outstanding service may vary considerably from one domain to another. This explains why we remain rightly astounded by eighteenth-century predecessors like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson whose lists of substantial accomplishments ranged across government, science, business, education, philosophy, philanthropy, architecture, technology, and more. They were not simply “jacks-of-all trades”; they were proverbial “Renaissance Men,” gifted to the point of genius. Few persons then or now could match their brilliance or versatility.

One who did was colonial pastor Jonathan Edwards. Living at a time in the first half of the eighteenth century when ministers were not only the spiritual but also the intellectual leaders of their communities, Edwards’s fertile mind produced an immense corpus of writings that made him the greatest theologian of his day, and arguably the greatest theologian in American history. As strange as it sounds to modern ears, in early America theology was considered the “queen of the sciences,” a foundational discipline for all other human inquiry. From that base, Edwards wrote works on history, psychology, biology, and philosophy. He engaged rigorously with the latest thinking of his day, most of it coming from the intellectual ferment in Europe collectively known as the Enlightenment, and modeled for colonial Christians a vibrant life of the mind.

But he also entered deeply into the nitty-gritty of colonial life as pastor, preacher, missionary to Indians, social critic, publicist for and defender of the widespread religious revivals called the Great Awakening, promoter of advancements in medicine (e.g. smallpox inoculations), and president of the College of New Jersey (today’s Princeton University). Along with two other remarkable ministers of his day, Englishmen George Whitefield and John Wesley, Edwards helped foster evangelical Protestantism, with its cross-denominational emphasis on the Christian’s need for true conversion and a vibrant personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Like Franklin and Jefferson, his influence lasted far beyond his own passing, carried forward by generations of pastors, missionaries, and theologians. Much of American literature and philosophy also bears the mark of Edwards’s impact. Employing the language of Westmont’s mission, few historical figures provide a better example of someone who was a thoughtful scholar, grateful servant, and faithful leader.