Personality, Grace and the Awakenings: Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley

Jonathan Edwards: the quintessential Pastor Theologian

Can introverts be effective pastors, leaders, or evangelists? What are some of the challenges for extroverts in ministry? Does struggling with depression, anxiety or being obsessive prevent us from doing great things for God?

Just over 10 years ago I had returned home to UK after a failed attempt to serve God as a missionary far from home. I wanted to serve God with all my heart so why did he make me an introvert who struggled to relate to people? How would God ever use someone like me? But then I heard a talk on Jonathan Edwards by J.I. Packer that pulled me out of my discouragement.

Many years later I can’t remember much of the talk but the introduction. He compared the life and personality of Edwards with John Wesley a fellow leader of the revival movement on the other side of the Atlantic. The life of Jonathan Edwards made me realise I had nothing to apologise about for being quiet and shy – and that God can use people even like me. It also made me appreciate my extrovert brothers and sisters who can serve God and bless people in a way that I will never be able.

I want to build on Packer’s brief comparison between Wesley and Edwards that encouraged me so much. Like us they were flawed people, aspects of their personalities were a hindrance to their ministries and relationships but by God’s grace they were phenomenally effective servants of God. I hope their lives will encourage you the way they have me.

The influence of Edwards and Wesley

Jonathan Edwards

The life and achievements of Jonathan Edwards are extraordinary. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest American theologians, philosophers and preachers. Three of his many books – Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will, The Nature of True Virtue – standout as classics of Christian literature. His writings were also popular with non-academic audiences. For example, his biography of David Brainerd was a best-seller in the 19th century inspiring many to engage in missionary service.

Edwards was a central figure in the most important religious and social movements of his day. He spent 21 years as a pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. The revivals witnessed in his small town church influenced similar movements around the world. He spent seven years as a missionary to Native Americans. His final post was as President of a college later known as Princeton University.

George Marsden, a historian of American culture, argues that Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin are the two key figures in the development of modern America. Franklin’s immense influence on American life and politics is incontestable. However, a history of America must also account for the importance of Christianity on every-day life. Edwards more than anyone accounts for why Christianity went on to have the intellectual and cultural significance it did in America.

Along with all these achievements he was a family man who loved his wife and children well. Below is an excerpt of a letter from Sarah Edwards after his death at 54 years of age in 1758:

My very dear child, What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands upon our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us!

George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A life, p494

Jonathan and Sarah had 11 children that contributed to the development and flourishing of America over many generations.

John Wesley

John Wesley: the preacher

Few Englishmen of the 18th Century left their mark on history like John Wesley. The Church of England at the start of the 18th Century was in serious decline:

Sir William Blackstone visited the church of every major clergyman in London, but “did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero.” 

Diane Severance, Evangelical Revival in England

England was also facing serious moral and social crisis:

Morally, the country was becoming increasingly decadent. Drunkenness was rampant; gambling was so extensive that one historian described England as “one vast casino.” Newborns were exposed in the streets; 97% of the infant poor in the workhouses died as children. 

Diane Severance, ibid

It was in these far from favourable conditions that John Wesley preached. In total, he traveled over 250,000 miles proclaiming Christ. He often met with hostility from clergy and was harassed by violent mobs. But his preaching profoundly impacted England – spearheading the English Revival. As well as a fine preacher, Wesley was a charismatic and sometimes domineering leader. He led the Methodist societies which grew to 120,000 members at the end of his lifetime.

Wesley was not a ‘theologian’s theologian’ his primary concern was with communicating the Gospel in the most effective and faithful manner:

His chief intellectual interest, and achievement, was in what one could call a folk theology; the Christian message in its fullness and integrity, “in plain words for plain people.” …it took its characteristic form under the heat and pressures of the Revival and its needs.

Outler, Wesley, preface

Five Factor Model of Personality

Five Factor Model of Personality

Why the Five Factor Model?

To understand how our personalities differ from one another and impact on our service to God we have to work from some model of personality. As I’m sure you’re aware there are a lot out there. Why go with the Five Factor Model, isn’t Myers-Briggs more widely known? I have some sympathy for Myers-Briggs and there is overlap with the Five Factor Model. However, there are two main reasons I’ve not gone with Myers-Briggs:

  • Although it is very popular its still lacks empirical evaluation whereas the Five Factor model is the most extensively evaluated model empirically, over time and across cultures
  • Myers-Briggs focuses mainly on positive traits but does not include neuroticism -this trait is found in most personality models and is a good predictor of functioning

What is the Five Factor Model?

The Five Factor Model breaks down the major components of personality into five categories (Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) which are sometimes given the acronym OCEAN. These five factors can be subdivided further in a number of different ways: this widely cited empirical study found the five factors were subdivided into 10 factors and we’ll be using these below (click on the link and see if you spot an author you may recognise before they became famous!).

Openness to Experience

  • Intellectual: intellectual sharpness, creative thinking, and people good at generating ideas.
  • Openness: imagination, reflection, and appreciation of aesthetics.

Conscientiousness

  • Industriousness: people who are industrious, highly self-disciplined, efficient, competent and organized.
  • Orderliness: appreciation for order, rationality, and a tendency towards perfectionism.

Extraversion

  • Enthusiasm: friendliness, warmth, positive emotions, and self-disclosure
  • Assertiveness: leadership, assertiveness, provocativeness, and high levels of activity

Agreeableness

  • Compassion: sympathy, understanding, tenderness
  • Politeness: cooperation, compliance, straightforwardness

Neuroticism

  • Volatility: unstable, lacking calm, impulsive
  • Withdrawal: self-conscious, tendency to depression and anxiety

What do Edwards and Wesley score on the Five Factors?

Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley shared many similarities. They were both sons of Christian ministers from the elite of society. Both were academically gifted, well read, and had sharp intellects. They worked tirelessly in their ministries and shared a passion for revival. Wesley’s interest in revival was first kindled by reading Jonathan Edwards’ A Faithful Narrative of the Remarkable Revival of Religion.

But they were also very different, Wesley spent his life on the road preaching up and down the country. While most of Edwards’ ministry was spent serving in Northampton, New England in a church where the previous pastor had been his grandfather. How might their personalities account for their different lives?

Since Wesley and Edwards died hundreds of years before the development of the Five Factor Model any judgment we make on their personalities will inevitably include some speculation. However, the historical and biographical data is sufficiently detailed for these giants of Church history that we can make a fairly educated guess on where they might fall on the five factors.

Table 1 summarises my judgments. I think they were similar on most personality traits with the exception of extroversion.

Table 1 Summary of Edwards and Wesley on the Five Factors


Openness to
experience
Conscient- iousnessAgreeable- nessExtrovers- ionNeurotic- ism
EdwardsHighHighMedium-to- low LowMedium-to- High
WesleyHighHighMedium -to- low HighMedium-to- High

Edwards and Wesley would clearly score highly on the trait openness to experience. They both had prodigious intellects, were wide readers and prolific authors. But also had a great appreciation for music, the beauty of nature, and literature.

Similarly, Edwards and Wesley would almost definitely score high on conscientiousness. They were tirelessly efficient, hardworking and productive. Wesley famously preached on average two sermons a day over five decades as well as leading a huge network of Methodist societies. While Edwards would plan to spend 13 hours a day in his study preparing for sermons and writing. Holiness was also a vital priority to them and they lived lives of dedicated self-discipline.

They clearly differed on extroversion. Wesley was an extrovert and Edwards was an introvert. This is summed up nicely by Packer:

Edwards was tall, gaunt, grave, taciturn with strangers, and always somewhat withdrawn, while Wesley was short, slight (regularly weighing 128 pounds, so he tells us), cheerful and outgoing to everyone, and a chatty conversationalist in all company

J.I. Packer, p82 (In: Jonathan Edwards: A God Entracted View of All Things; John Piper and Justin Taylor )

Edwards and Wesley most likely would score medium to low on agreeableness. They were effective leaders of the revival movement that swept through North America and Europe. So they knew how to cooperate and work well with people. But there is plenty of data to suggest this was sometimes a great effort and may have been in conflict with their personality. For example, we see indications of this in the conflicts and simmering tensions between Edwards and his congregation which will be discussed further below. For Wesley, we see evidence of the tendency towards a lack of agreeableness in his marital struggles which also will be developed further below.

They most likely would score medium-to-high on neuroticism. Both had a tendency towards perfectionism and could be obsessive in their self-discipline. They were both known to have experienced depression a number of times throughout their lives. Edwards was often withdrawn and shy to outsiders. Although Wesley was warm and talkative, his diary shows an interesting combination of self-consciousness and emotional detachment.

In what ways were Edwards and Wesley similar?

A useful way of applying the Five Factor Model is to look at styles of interaction, attitude, wellbeing etc that are driven by particular combinations of personality traits. Here I’ll use some of the categories proposed by Costa and McCrae authors of the NEO-PI probably the most used questionnaire for measuring the Five Factors.

Style of Attitude: Free thinkers (O+ A-)

Both Edwards and Wesley were both high in openness to experience and were somewhat lower in agreeableness. Costa and McCrae term people with these two traits ‘free thinkers’: they consider all views and make their own judgments. Truth is important to them and they are willing to disregard the feelings of others to be faithful to their convictions.

Edwards was a leading spokesman for the revival movement but also a trusted member of the elite and a former student at Yale. For these reasons, he was invited by Yale to address their students on the subject of revival. The preaching of George Whitefield had caused an awakening among some of the students which caused tensions between them and the rather lukewarm staff. Therefore Edwards was expected to dampen down the’enthusiasm’ of the students and restore order to the college. However, in characteristic fashion stuck to his own path:

Edwards preached a sermon called “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God,” and totally disappointed the faculty and staff. He argued that the work going on in the awakening of those days, and specifically among the students, was a real spiritual work in spite of the excesses.

John Piper, Oh, That I May Never Loiter on My Heavenly Journey

Similarly, Wesley was not afraid of contention. He was a minister of the Church of England (Episcopal Church) but often flouted church regulations on who was entitled to preach in which parish – famously considering ‘the world my parish’. He also included dissenters (members of churches outside the Church of England) within his ranks of Methodists.

For Wesley’s brother, the famous hymn writer Charles, the tensions were too much to bear:

John Wesley recognised the complexity of the issue, but he stood equally unmoved by the pressures of the Dissenters from the one side, or from the other, the pained outrage of his brother Charles and other ordained clergymen. But the pressures did not relax and, finally, Charles began to tire of the struggle and to fear its outcome…But his [John Wesley’s] chief concern in the whole matter was that the ecclessiological tumult over separation not be allowed to enfeeble the Revival or to distract Methodists from their distinctive mission and witness.

Albert Outler, John Wesley, p21-22

Not only were some members of the Church of England clergy offended. Wesley and his team were often pursued by violent mobs whilst preaching. For example:

The screaming mob pulled Wesley, Joan Parks, and the faithful Edward Stitch, who never let go, toward Walsall…One slip and Wesley would have gone down, and they would have pummeled him to death, but he kept his feet, with his heart at peace. Several blows with bludgeons were deflected – he knew not how except that his small size made him a difficult target in a melee. And one man who “came rushing through the press, and raising his arm to strike, on a sudden let it drop, and only stroked my head, saying, ‘What soft hair he has!'”

John Pollock, Wesley the Preacher, p179

Style of Anger Control: Temperamental (N+ A-)

Costa and McCrae describe people with this combination of traits as ‘temperamental’. They are deeply involved in themselves and often overlook the effects of their anger on others. As we’ll see below, there are examples where there seems to be tendencies towards these kinds of reactions in Edwards and Wesley. It is surely then a mark of God’s work in their lives that both were generally characterised as calm and even tempered even in very intense situations.

As we’ve seen above with Edwards, low agreeableness is consistent with a principled stand for the truth. However, when combined with neurotic traits this can lead to problems in relationships. Famously, Edwards was dismissed by his congregation because he refused to offer communion to the unconverted. This was clearly another principled stand for truth but it was poorly handled by him. Edwards’ grandfather (Solomon Stoddard – who had been pastor of the church for 60 years) had allowed unconverted church members to receive communion. Edwards had long tolerated this policy when he took over the leadership of his church but then abruptly announced the changes. The congregation protested at his heavy handed and undiplomatic implementation of the policy change on communion and finally dismissed him. According to his biographer George Marsden, Edwards had already lost the favour of his people six years earlier in another confrontation often referred to as the ‘young folks Bible incident’ that was equally undiplomatically handled (see Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: a life; for further details).

Wesley was also no stranger to conflict. One of the most painful relationships in Wesley life was the breakdown of his marriage:

John Wesley’s thirty-year bond with Molly was a disaster from start to finish—a marriage of convenience that quickly became the precise opposite, a woeful tale of hurt, hostility, and separation. “I married because I needed a home in order to recover my health,” Wesley wrote grimly at one stage, “and I did recover it. But I did not seek happiness thereby, and I did not find it.” Oh dear. Let us tiptoe on.

J.I. Packer, p85 (In: Jonathan Edwards: A God Entracted View of All Things; John Piper and Justin Taylor )

How were Edwards and Wesley different?

Introspector (E- O+) vs Creative Interactor (E+ O+)

Introspectors according to Costa and McCrae are interested in activities they can pursue alone like reading, writing and thinking. Creative interactors, on the other hand, are stimulated by the new and different. They like to interact with people with different backgrounds.

Packer makes a similar contrast instead labeling Edwards the ‘Analyst’ in contrast to Wesley the ‘Activist’:

Both were Bible-believing Protestants, scholarly children of the early Enlightenment, reading and thinking men with well-trained minds, wide in their interests and widely read, and masters of a fluent precision of language for preaching, teaching, and debating. But Wesley was an activist, while Edwards was an analyst, and Wesley’s practical theology of religion—new birth, justification, and holiness, all by faith—though serviceable enough for his purposes, is not in the same league as Edwards’s exact explorations and demonstrations of the plans, works, and ways of the Triune God, according to the Scriptures and the developed Reformed faith.

J.I. Packer, p82-83 (In: Jonathan Edwards: A God Entracted View of All Things; John Piper and Justin Taylor )

Edwards was most comfortable in his study or interacting with people of a similar elite background to him. Wesley was the complete opposite, he often clashed with people of a similar status to him but showed real empathy and care for the poor and less educated. Wesley flourished in the ever changing landscapes of an itinerant preacher and interacting with new people:

“I know,” he wrote, “were I myself to preach one whole year in one place, I should preach both myself and most of my congregation to sleep.”

Packer, ibid, p84

Style of Activity: Plodder (E- C+) vs Go-Getter (E+ C+)

According to Costa and McCrae the Plodder is patient and methodical working steadily at a task until it is completed. Whereas the Go-Getter is fast moving, relentless in pursuing their plans, and might be considered pushy as they seek to impose their style on others.

Again, this seems to nicely sum up differences in the ministries of Wesley and Edwards. Let’s start with Wesley:

Wesley traveled constantly throughout Britain, carving out for himself the role of chief pastor— para-bishop, you might say—of the countrywide Methodist societies. By the end of Wesley’s eighty-seven-year life the British societies had over 70,000 members (and the American societies, led by Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, had 50,000 more). In a little over fifty years Wesley had preached over 40,000 times, festooning familiar outlines with an easy extempore flow of stories, illustrations, and applications adapted to each congregation, averaging two sermons most days.

Packer, ibid, p83-84

Edwards ministry in some ways was the polar opposite a pastor of his Grandfather’s smallish church for most of his life:

That was the challenge facing homebody Edwards, who for twenty four years was sole pastor of a town of some 1,200 adults and then for six years shepherded a village settlement of perhaps 100 Anglo-Saxons and 200 native Indians, and who always aimed to spend thirteen hours each weekday in his study. The 1,200 manuscript sermons that survive (one for most Sundays of his ministry) show him tackling most seriously the task of keeping everyone, including himself, spiritually awake

Packer, ibid, p84

Summary and Application

Edwards and Wesley were deeply effective servants of God despite very different personality styles that led them to gravitate to different areas of service:

  • Edwards ‘the Analyst’s’ many hours of deep reflection in his study made him one of the foundational influences on the development of Modern America
  • Wesley ‘the Activitist’ preached throughout England sparking revival and organised a vast network of Methodist societies

Their personality styles also led to weaknesses and failures:

  • Edwards was a wonderful family man but relations with his congregation ended up in bitterness that ultimately led to his dismissal
  • Wesley was cheerful and chatty able to talk to people from all stations of life. But he struggled at the most important human-to-human relationship of all – marriage.

What is the personality style God has given you? Where do you score on the Five Factor Model? There are a number of free options for taking a test online the link gives one of these. Do you revel in leadership and networking? Wesley is a wonderful model of how he used his gifts to spread the Gospel and profoundly impact his culture. Do you flourish in analytical tasks and reflection? Then use your mind for God the way Edwards did with such effectiveness and for the benefit of countless over the centuries. Whatever it is, Wesley and Edwards are fine examples of living wholeheartedly in His service giving all our abilities and strengths to building God’s Kingdom.

In what ways does your personality style lead you to struggle? Edwards and Wesley worked tirelessly to turn from their sins and to become more like Christ in every area of life.

But like us there were areas of real failure and weakness. Does work crowd out the time and effort needed to make your marriage flourish? Learn from the grief of Wesley’s mistakes. Learn also from the blessing the Edwards family experienced for generations because of the diligence of Jonathan and Sarah.

Do you love ideas, reading and thinking but find the weekly grind of church difficult? Learn from the mistakes of Edwards who lacked the motivation to act against simmering tensions that ultimately poisoned his relationships at church. Learn positively from Wesley and his concern for building strong networks.

In our churches, marriages, families, and work we experience daily the diversity of personalities that God has given us. We can learn from Wesley and Edwards that God blesses very different people. So we don’t have to be down on ourselves for not having the personality that we want or our family demanded of us. Conversely, if we’re proud of our particular personality and strengths we shouldn’t look down on those who God made differently. Our righteousness is not based on what set of personality traits we do or do not have – it comes from Christ:

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:30-31

The Psychology of Naturalism

Naturalism and the ‘subtraction story’

In Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age he asks a question at the heart of dialogue between Christians and Atheists: Why was it in Medieval times that almost no one seemed to doubt God’s existence whereas for many in our times its almost impossible not to doubt his existence?

The most common answer I hear from atheists goes something like this [I love this summary from someone I was discussing with on the Guardian website]:

“throughout history, supernatural causes have been used to explain droughts, earthquakes, storms, disease, mental illnesses, the orbits of the planets,, etc but these days a supernatural cause has given way to an actual explanation… So your worldview has a very poor track record and no evidence. Mine on the other has an excellent track record, science relies on a purely naturalistic worldview, and has a whole heap of success in producing amazing technology that actually works, unlike religion, and a whole heap of evidence that actually explains the real world.”

https://profile.theguardian.com/user/id/13574820/replies?page=47

Or the slightly more eminent Max Weber:

“To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently…The arms of the Church are open widely and compassionately for him.” (quoted in Taylor, p55)

These are examples of what Taylor calls ‘subtraction stories’. The assumption is that in medieval times they had religion as a tool for explanation. They believed in an ‘enchanted’ world of magic, demons, and evil spirits where a belief in god gave them comfort. But now we have science we can leave that world behind and are now free to face reality as it actually is.

Science has shown there is no evidence for the existence of god(s)

The story is often presented as a simple and obvious discovery: through careful and objective reflection on the data we have come to the conclusion that that there is no need to believe that a god(s) exists: “this is just the way things are, and once you look and experience, without preconceptions, this is what appears”. (Taylor, p560) Therefore there is no alternative from Naturalism other than to return to earlier myths and illusions.

Since this is such a ‘simple and obvious’ discovery rarely are data cited to back up this claim. The evidence is presumed to be so overwhelming to be beyond discussion. While this might be self evident to those who embrace the Naturalist worldview, it sounds very unconvincing to the Christian. Few Christians would deny science has had a profound influence on our understanding of the world and led to unimaginable technological innovation. But there seems little justification on this basis to abandon our Christian faith or belief in God. Why then if the arguments for Naturalism are far from conclusive why is this worldview so compelling to many?

The moral of the story: leaving behind childhood comforts to embrace the ‘world as it is’

The subtraction story doesn’t only have a rational imperative (embracing ‘reason’ and the ‘assured findings of science’) but also a moral imperative. It is this moral imperative that Taylor argues is the most attractive draw of Naturalism. It is only when science is woven into a story of rugged individualism where as adults we renounce the childish comforts of meaning and god’s providential care that this story becomes obvious and compelling.

The 19th Century was full of ‘conversion’ stories of brave men reluctantly rejecting the comforting beliefs of childhood. Taylor quotes an example from a poem by Hardy:

“How sweet it was in years far hied

to start the wheels of day with trustful prayer

To lie down liegely at the eventide

And feel a blest assurance he was there!

And who or what shall fill his place?”(p592-593)

More recently Stephen Jay Gould spoke of the old stories of a loving god who created the world as a way to escape the harsh realities of the world:

“I think that the notion we are all in the bosom of Abraham or are in God’s embracing love is – look, its a tough life and if you delude yourself into thinking that there’s all some warm fuzzy meaning to it all, it’s enormously comforting. But I do think its just a story we tell ourselves” (quoted in Taylor, p561).

Religion is seen as the result of a childish lack of courage. Only the unbeliever has the courage to be an adult and face the harsh realities of life revealed by science without illusion or consolation.

The traditional subtraction story of our Western culture tells us how science won over religion as a competing explanation for the world, Taylor offers an alternative explanation. Rather than a natural consequence of observed reality the rise of Naturalism reflected the changing sense of identity brought about by the rise of modernity. A new formation of identity arose as a result of these historical events centred on the disengaged individual seeking power and control over themselves and nature which made Naturalism seem compelling.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we’ve looked at the claims of the Naturalist worldview and as a Christian they seem far form convincing. While the subtraction stories of Naturalism are asserted as an inevitable consequence of the rise of science and the only viable conclusion to draw once the old myths and legends have been debunked. It seems equally possible these subtraction stories are driven by a particular set of values popular at the rise of modernity.

Psychology, Christianity and Atheism

Why Psychology?

Firstly, Psychology has always been a passion for me since my gran used to sit me on her knee and tell me of her days as a Psychologist’s secretary writing up his case notes. I was determined to become a Psychologist ever since.

Secondly, I’ve lived about half my life as an Atheist and the other half as Christian. So I have first hand experience of how similar we are and yet how profoundly differently we see the world. So I’m interesting exploring the different ways in which Christians and Atheists perceive the world.

Thirdly, I think there’s a real lack of reflection and engagement with how the Christian worldview relates to Psychology and I hope this blog can help stimulate further discussion.

What topics will we be discussing?

Christian and Atheist interpretations of psychological data

  • Science, Reason and Empirical methods: from a Naturalist and Christian perspective
  • Psychology of the culture wars: why do Christian and Atheist discussion so often end up in mud-slinging? There are several decades of social psychological research to help us unpick this.
  • Is the Christian worldview’s emphasis on sin bad for our self-esteem? What are Christian responses to shame?
  • Resurrection and Memory: can we trust the memories of those who claim to have witnessed seeing the resurrected Jesus?
  • The neuroscience of free will: comparing Naturalist and Christian understandings of volition

Christian Worldview and Psychology

  • How should Theology relate to Psychology: the relatives merits of Integrationist, Christian Psychology, Biblical Counseling, etc. approaches
  • Church history and Psychology: learning from Christians in the past who struggled through mental health problems such as William Cowper, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, David Brainerd, Abraham Kuyper
  • Theological reflection on mental health issues: such as depression, anxiety, psychosis

There are many other topics, if you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them. I’m going to aim to blog about once a month.