Thoreau, Edwards & Living Deliberately
By jessica kent
February 29, 2012
In 1845, a young man filled with the philosophy of the Transcendentalist movement built a cabin in the woods of Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. Of that experience he wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
In 1723, a young theologian, newly ordained and soon to play a major role in the Great Awakening from his pulpit in Northampton, Mass., penned a guideline for his life in the form of personal resolutions that he would follow in order to uphold his devotion to God. A few of them were: “Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God. ... Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live; resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.”
Henry David Thoreau and Jonathan Edwards, two long-dead New Englanders, have become quite the pop culture icons in recent years. Thoreau’s star rose during the environmental movement in the 1960s, as his book Walden, a journal of his simple living experiment, was the first of its kind to promote an organic lifestyle. His essay “Civil Disobedience” influenced the philosophy of anyone who has staged a nonviolent protest. Meanwhile, Edwards seems to be the go-to Puritan for every “young, restless and reformed” Christian, even having his face on an “Edwards is my homeboy” T-shirt emblazoned across the front of Christianity Today in 2006. They couldn’t be further from one another—a socially awkward dreamer devoted to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a Calvinist preacher who evangelized the Native Americans of Western Massachusetts at one point—yet, what they are seeking to do with their lives is very aligned: to live deliberately.
To do anything deliberately means to do it with a conscious intentionality, a mindful effort. Edwards and Thoreau did not approach life with laziness, and they certainly did not drift through their paths. They, with passionate recognition of a mission, put forth the necessary effort in their lives to seek after something. For Thoreau, it was a challenge to cast off the worldly systems and social constraints toward a purer existence, to “simplify, simplify” until he, essentially, blended into the natural world around him. For Edwards, it was a conscious recognition of calling to serve God and His people, and how best to make use of his time, talents and gifts in order to be the most he could be for his position. For each man there was a sacrifice involved, planning, execution and evaluation. And within deliberate living there will be a kind of liberation found.
Though similar in intention, ultimately the chief ends of Thoreau and Edwards were significantly different. After Thoreau delivered his often-quoted passage about sublime experience, he concluded the paragraph by stating, “Most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about [life] ... and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” He is quoting the answer to the first question of the Westminster Catechism (“What is the chief end of man?”), the base text for Protestant worship, which Thoreau would have grown up with. But his flippant remark is telling; his chief end is not to glorify God, but himself, gaining an experience that he can “publish ... to the world.”
Yet Jonathan Edwards’ very first resolution is “that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory,” and the rest of his resolutions fall in place after it. His spiritual disciplines were not to gain knowledge or publish books or impress his congregation, but to know God. Edwards was a lover of nature just like Thoreau, but he was glimpsing something different. After a walk in the woods in 1737, Edwards wrote in his journal, “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; to serve and follow him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity.” He didn't use the experience as the premise for a book; he simply enjoyed God's creation and presence for the joy of enjoying Him—the chief end of man.
Thoreau’s mighty efforts at deliberate living might have given him great revelation of the world around him—but it only counted for him. Edwards’ efforts, coming from a place of desiring to glorify God and do all things to honor Him, counted infinitely more in light of eternity. So it’s worth asking the question when pursuing our dreams, serving others, making career choices, or having an adventure with friends: What is my chief end? Is it to glorify God, or glorify myself? Am I Edwards, or am I Thoreau?