In this era of Billy Graham, when a river of fervent evangelicalism surges through American culture, Philip Gura, professor of English, leads us back to the headwaters. The model for American evangelicals, Gura says, was born in New England more than three hundred years ago, in 1703. His name was Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards lived in time and place when the Salem Witch Trials still burned in the public memory, when Satan was tangible, when matter and spirit were intimately connected. But it was also a time when Isaac Newton and others were shaking religious foundations with their scientific model of the universe as a physical mechanism, running in tune with its own internal laws. Edwards, Gura writes, wondered whether God still figured in human history, resolving at last that “the universe was sheer emanation of God’s will” and that “the laws of physics mirrored the nature of divine being.”

We watch this slender young man as he yearns for piety, battles disillusionment, and then, shortly after his graduation from Yale in 1720, finally accepts the doctrine of God’s “utter sovereignty” over the question of who goes to heaven or hell. As Edwards ascends to the ministry of a powerful Calvinist church in Northampton, we see him laboring thirteen hours a day at his studies, taking rare breaks to split firewood or to ride his horse to “some lonely grove” where he would jot notes on small scraps of paper and then pin them to his clothing for the ride home.

In many cases, the doctrine Edwards preached wasn’t new. But the words he chose were new, and, as Gura writes, “through his vocabulary he brought understanding of the doctrine to another dimension.” Edwards spoke of a divine light that would reach to the bottom of the heart, dispelling the darkness. This was no hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, pounding the pulpit. His quiet, understated delivery seemed to imbue his words with infectious force, inspiring a wave of religious “awakenings” that transformed Northampton and communities beyond.

Edwards’ evangelical powers sometimes spun past his control. His awakened congregation developed a rebellious streak, and he lost his church in Northampton over a membership dispute. But not even a wilderness post as a missionary could isolate his intellect, and his conversations with Europe’s leading philosophers and theologians informed his ideas. Edwards never in his lifetime reached the broad audience he’d expected, but by 1800 his writings had resurfaced, and he became, as Gura puts it, a “spiritual godfather” to generations of Christians and reformers — an exquisite thinker on the “infinite distance” between sinner and saint.

Neil Caudle was the editor of Endeavors for fifteen years.