The eighteenth-century American evangelist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was one of the two most prominent figures associated with the First Great Awakening of the 1700s (Mormonism is considered to be part of the Second). Edwards was a fascinating personality — a compelling preacher, a missionary, and an insightful theologian, whose thinking and writing engaged head-on the contemporary philosophical Enlightenment (with its challenges to revealed religion). Reading his religious writings, in particular his Religious Affections (an examination of spiritual experience, which concluded, in essence, that it was not the intensity, novelty, or uniqueness of an experience that evidenced its truth, but its effectiveness in motivating a person to Christian life) opens a window on a religious landscape much different from our own, where matters of faith so often seem to be discussed either at a level of megachurch-style Oprahfied oversimplicity, or arcanely, by credentialed specialists working more or less out of sight of the general public.

In 1737, Edwards wrote a “Personal Narrative,” ( setting forth an account of his conversion and spiritual experiences. It ought to be of interest to Mormons for several reasons, including its more or less superficial resemblance to aspects of Joseph Smith’s conversion narrative, canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price, but also for its in-depth discussion of personal religious experience — which present Mormon teaching holds to be the critical basis for faith within the Church.

First, a taste of the parallels:

From Edwards’ Personal Narrative:

The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, I Tim. 1:17. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever, Amen. As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of scripture seemed to me as these words did.

From Joseph Smith-History, 1:11-12:

“While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine.

Edwards often found it difficult, despite his intellect and education, to find words sufficient to describe the powerful spiritual experiences he recounted. I see parallels with how Latter-day Saints often describe the witness of the Holy Ghost — as something hard to describe. Mormons will often describe a “burning in the bosom,” an unusual clarity of thought, a sense of well-being, unexpected ideas, and so forth. Here is Edwards:

Not long after I first began to experience these things, I gave an account to my father of some things that had passed in my mind. I was pretty much affected by the discourse we had together; and when the discourse was ended, I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father’s pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together; it was a sweet, and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.

I very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, on the banks of Hudson’s River, at some distance from the city, for contemplation on divine things and secret converse with God: and had many sweet hours there. Sometimes Mr. Smith and I walked there together, to converse on the things of God; and our conversation used to turn much on the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world, and the glorious things that God would accomplish for his church in the latter days. I had then, and at other times, the greatest delight in the holy scriptures, of any book whatsoever. Oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt a harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.

Sometimes, only mentioning a single word caused my heart to burn within me; or only seeing the name of Christ, or the name of some attribute of God. And God has appeared glorious to me, on account of the Trinity. It has made me have exalting thoughts of God, that he subsists in three persons; Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced, have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my own good estate; but in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel. When I enjoy this sweetness, it seems to carry me above the thoughts of my own estate; it seems at such times a loss that I cannot bear, to take off my eye from the glorious, pleasant object I behold without me, to turn my eye in upon myself, and my own good estate.

Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception … which continued as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have, several other times, had views very much of the same nature, and which have had the same effects.

How do Mormons’ spiritual experiences differ, if they do, from Edwards?

Before an answer comes that God may inspire non-Mormons to embrace the true aspects of their traditions, one aspect of Edwards’ conversion account particularly stands out:

From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God’s strewing mercy to whom he will shew mercy, and hardening whom he will.

Edwards’ basic sense of justice rebelled at the strict predestinarianism of his Calvinist background, just as many Mormons’ sense of justice may have rebelled at the past doctrines involving racial restrictions on Priesthood. Something happened, though, to reconcile Edwards’ mind with a doctrine that he once felt was unjust (and which Mormons probably still do). What was it? How could Edwards have had his mind changed by inspiration, if the doctrine he was inspired to accept is fundamentally untrue?

So what was it that Edwards was perceiving as inspiration, when it led him to embrace doctrines counter to the Church’s doctrine? And how does a Mormon know that what inspires him to embrace his own beliefs, is more real or more true than what Edwards experienced?