This post is by cataloger Catherine Falzone.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), New England preacher and theologian, is perhaps most famous for the 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and for being a central figure in the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening. If you know him just from that sermon, you may get the idea that he was all fire-and-brimstone, all the time. Edwards was in fact a nuanced thinker with access to the works of Enlightenment writers, which influenced his understanding of the natural world and its relation to theology.
As a young man, reading texts by Isaac Newton, John Locke, and others, Edwards became aware of the scientific and philosophical shifts going on in Europe. Chief among these was the idea that one could understand the natural world through close observation. For Edwards, the wonders of nature were proof of the genius of the “Creator.” This mindset is evident in his letter on spiders of October 31, 1723, to Paul Dudley, a Massachusetts member of the Royal Society of London.
Jonathan Edwards’ father, Timothy, had previously written a piece on a particularly fertile pumpkin vine for “Philosophical Transactions,” the journal of the Royal Society, and encouraged Jonathan to write something, too. A keen observer of insects since his teens, Jonathan wrote with evident delight about the “flying” spiders common to New England. Here he describes their method of releasing threads from their spinnerets, and includes a helpful illustration:
When a spider would go from one tree or branch to another, or would recreate himself by sailing or floating in the air, he first lets himself down a little way from the twig he stands on by a web, as [in] Fig. 1; and then taking hold of it by his forefeet as in Fig. 2, and then separates or loosens the part of the web cd from the part bc by which he hangs; which part of the web cd, being thus loosened, will by the motion of the air be carried out towards e, which will by the sufferance of the spider be drawn [out] of his tail with infinite ease by the moving air, to what length the spider pleases, as [in] Fig. 3.
Edwards draws two theological conclusions from observing spiders. First, God not only provides for “all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, even the insects.” To Edwards, it looked like the spiders were having fun flying from place to place. Second, God manages the amounts of creatures on earth for the greater good: “The wisdom of the Creator is also admirable in so nicely and mathematically adjusting their plastic nature, that notwithstanding their destruction by this means and the multitudes that are eaten by birds, that they do not decrease and so by little and little come to nothing.”
For Edwards, scientific study lent credence to the idea of God as active, intelligent creator of the universe. One need not look further for proof than to the lowly spider.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.