Teaching Historical Thinking in High School: A Case Study Using Jonathan Edwards


I recently had the opportunity to teach a group of 11th grade students about Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening. Due to their Christian backgrounds (and the school’s ties to Reformed Theology), most students possessed basic prior knowledge of the topic. A short PowerPoint presentation in a traditional lecture format served to refresh their memories.

However, my efforts then turned to the task of engaging the students in a deeper understanding of Edwards through the practice of historical thinking, a term popularized by Sam Wineburg’s book of the same title. My goal was to at once reveal the complexities of historical understanding and also to shed light on the difficulties involved in the work of a historian.

To do this, I began by explaining how historians use primary and secondary sources to construct a narrative about a historical person or event. Next, I divided the students into pairs and gave each group a worksheet. At the top of the worksheet were two paragraphs:

Calvinism and Human Nature:

Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice of John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians. … Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Reformers used the term “total depravity” to articulate what they claimed to be the Augustinian view that sin corrupts the entire human nature. This did not, however, mean the loss of the imago Dei (image of God). … John Calvin used terms like “total depravity” to mean that, despite the ability of people to outwardly uphold the law, there remained an inward distortion which makes all human actions displeasing to God, whether or not they are outwardly good or bad. Even after regeneration, every human action is mixed with evil.

The Enlightenment and Human Nature:

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. … John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of the Enlightenment.” … In Locke’s philosophy, tabula rasa was the theory that at birth the (human) mind is a “blank slate” without rules for processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one’s sensory experiences. … As understood by Locke, tabula rasa meant that the mind of the individual was born blank, and it also emphasized the freedom of individuals to author their own soul. Individuals are free to define the content of their character—but basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be altered.

I read through each of these paragraphs with the entire class and emphasized their major points. Next, I turned students’ attention to the primary source excerpts by Jonathan Edwards printed at the bottom of the page. I instructed them to read these excerpts and answer the following questions:

  1. What words does Jonathan Edwards use in his depiction of children?
  2. How would you describe Jonathan Edwards’ writings about children? Is he harsh or gentle?
  3. Do you think that Jonathan Edwards had more of a “Calvinist” view of children, or an “Enlightenment” view of children? Why?

After giving each pair of students sufficient time to complete this task, I brought the class together again to review the answers. The discussion began slowly and with little interest. The students clearly thought that this task was too easy.

I called on a group to answer the first question, and they gave the following answers: “vipers,” “miserable,” “wicked,” “wild.” There were some confused looks. A different group responded. “Innocent,” “harmless,” “simple,” “white paper.” More confused looks.

I moved on to the next question. A group raised their hand and suggested that Edwards was mostly gentle in his description of children and seemed to deeply care about them. A boy in the back row retorted, “What? How can you say that? He called them ‘the devil’s children,’ and ‘stupid.’ He was very harsh to them.” Another student interjected, “Where do you see that? That’s not what my sources say.” The students began to exchange papers.

Quickly, I moved to the third question, asking students to raise their hand if they believed Edwards had a Calvinist view of children. Half of the students raised their hands. The other half of them believed that he was undoubtedly an adherent of an Enlightenment view. Questions began to pour forth. At first, students asserted that I must have given them the wrong worksheets. Half of the pairs received a different set of primary sources than the others. This was true. However, I affirmed to them that this was intentional, and that all of the excerpts were directly from Jonathan Edwards. Shocked at this realization, a student raised his hand. “So, why did Edwards change his mind?” “He didn’t,” I responded, “At least not as drastically as you may think.”

And so the question became: How can all of these excerpts be from the same person? Is it possible to explain them or reconcile them together?

Historical thinking.

Here are the excerpts that the different groups received:

Jonathan Edwards Excerpts:

As innocent as children seem to be to us, yet if they are out of Christ, they are not so in God’s sight, but are young vipers, and are infinitely more hateful than vipers, and are in a most miserable condition, as well as grown persons; and they are naturally very senseless and stupid, being “born as the wild [donkey’s] colt” [Job 11:12], and need much to awaken them. (“Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival: Ten Criticisms Answered,”)

There are multitudes of kinds of wickedness that children are guilty of. They serve the devil and behave themselves like the devil’s children. God is very angry with them for their sins. He is very angry to see their hearts so full of sin, to see them of such a wicked disposition. (“God is Very Angry at the Sins of Children,”)

Jonathan Edwards Excerpts:

Little children are innocent and harmless: they don’t do a great deal of mischief in the world: men need not be afraid of them: they are no dangerous sort of persons: their anger don’t last long: they don’t lay up injuries in high resentment, entertaining deep and rooted malice. … Little children are not guileful and deceitful; but plain and simple: they are not versed in the arts of fiction and deceit; and are strangers to artful disguises. (Religious Affections)

When they are young, they are newly come into the world and their minds, as to any prepossessions or prejudices of any judgement already formed or habit contracted, are like white paper: you may write or lay what colors you will upon it – though when once it is colored or written on, it is not so easily altered afterwards. (“Don’t Lead Others Into Sin”)

Although there is not enough room for an in-depth explanation of these documents (check out my M.A. thesis on Edwards and Puritan Childhood), the deeper issue remains clear. Edwards was a complex man living in a complex time. His writings and sermons had specific purposes and were developed in response to particular events. Edwards also drew on allegory, typology, and biblical imagery to emphasize his points. He was at once a strong proponent of Calvinist orthodoxy, but also an avid reader of the “Father of the Enlightenment” John Locke. We must view Edwards – and all of history – through this lens of understanding. True history cannot be simplified, and we must be weary of “scholars” who try to do so.

The students in the classroom caught on quickly to these truths. They came away not only with a better understanding of Edwards’ context and complexity, but also the context and complexity surrounding all people. After all, historical thinking is not only for history, but for today too.




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