Faith and Chaos: The Quest for Meaning in the Writings of Jonathan Edwards and William James

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Ralph Ketcham


Personal crisis, Religious experience, Free will, American culture

Subject Categories

American Studies


This dissertation compares the religious thought of Jonathan Edwards and William James, beginning with the argument that during youth, each man arrived at certain ideas which became the foundation of his philosophic endeavors throughout life. The first point of comparison, then, is that time of youth when each man chose the permanent path in his intellectual efforts. For both Edwards and James, intellectual commitment followed upon personal crisis.

At the age of seventeen, the already devout Edwards underwent a religious experience which altered, not his ideas, but his attitude. His faith remained orthodox, but his commitment to the religious life deepened and what doubts he had about the harsher aspects of Puritan theology were dispelled. Three essential ideas formed the basis of Edwards' religious outlook as a result of his conversion: the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty, the belief that religious experience differed in kind and quality from mere doctrinal conformity, and that beauty was a divine principle which revealed God's glory in all creation.

The foundation of James' work was a belief in free will. James' crisis occurred when he was twenty-eight. A general terror of the vulnerability of his existence seized him and he became afraid to be alone, afraid of the dark. He even contemplated suicide. Though James believed his crisis was spiritual, resulting from the need to discover a moral vision by which to live, there was no conversion experience. His recovery was based on a belief in free will, on a faith that the power of individual action can overcome despair. Man, not God, was the focus of James' spiritual searchings, and free will became the heart of his moral vision.

Edwards and James studied religious experience and each man arrived at significant points of agreement as to the nature of conversion. Both men believed that the true source of religious commitment was something deep within the individual and not the product of reason. Experience was pre-rational and the intellectual expression of feeling, however necessary, followed the dictates of the heart.

Edwards believed conversion came from God and signified divine intervention in human life. James, without denying the existence of God, considered conversion to be an entirely natural process. As each man moved beyond the sheer description of religious experience and began to philosophize about its deeper meanings, their conflicting points of view become manifest.

In conclusion, the contrast between each man's thought also reflected profound changes within American culture. Edwards was as concerned for the state of the community as he was for the fate of individual souls. Though he defended emotional religion, he knew personal experience was not to reign supreme over Biblical law and that religious insight must be institutionalized in order to perpetuate the work of God in the world. James' thought reflected few institutional insights or concerns. He viewed man as isolated and alone, abstracted out of any institutional context. The differences between the eighteenth and nineteenth century's view of man explain this discrepancy in the thought of two of America's most important religious philosophers. James' philosophy of free will, while emphasizing each individual's worth, also signified the loss of community in America.


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.