The diversity of the early modern Reformed Protestant tradition has long been of great interest to me, both in its internecine polemics and as it manifested itself differently according to various national or local conditions and circumstances. After having completed a master’s thesis in 2015 in my native South Africa on Dutch Reformed theology during 17th and 18th centuries, I was keen for my PhD research to take the ferry across the North Sea and focus on post-Reformation Reformed theology in the English context. In 2016 the Lord graciously opened a door at the University of Cambridge to pursue my PhD in this field where I recently (Sept. 2019) defended my dissertation entitled: ‘John Edwards of Cambridge (1637-1716): A reassessment of his position in the later Stuart Church of England’.
Edwards was a prominent – albeit controversial – divine in the Church of England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Born in 1637, Edwards attended St John’s College, Cambridge, where he also served as a fellow from 1659 to 1672. During his fellowship, he also served as vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, where his preaching was popular among the academic community.
He would later also serve in ministry at St James’ Church in Bury St Edmunds (today St Edmundsbury Cathedral), St Sepulchre’s Church in Cambridge (commonly known as ‘the Round Church’), and St Peter’s Church in Colchester. Due to his ailing health, he retired from the ministry in 1686 and spent the rest of his life in Cambridge in full-time study and writing., From 1692 onwards, he published more than 40 works in the remaining 24 years of his life.
Edwards had inherited a strong polemical spirit from his fervently Presbyterian father Thomas Edwards. In the first decade and a half of the 18th century, he went on a relentless anti-Arminian campaign against eminent Arminian contemporaries, including John Tillotson, William Sherlock, Gilbert Burnet, Daniel Whitby, Simon Patrick, and Edward Fowler. Edwards sensed a need to write in defence of Reformed orthodoxy, which he was convinced was the Church of England’s official position as established during the Reformation in her Articles and Homilies.
My dissertation focuses on Edwards’ anti-Arminian polemics in the context of the broader Reformed tradition within the later Stuart Church of England. Its central thesis is that, contrary to the claims of older scholarship, Edwards was not a marginalised figure in the Church of England on account of his ‘Calvinism’. Instead, this study demonstrates that Edwards was recognised in his own day and in the immediately following generations as one of the preeminent conforming divines of the period, and that his theological and polemical works, despite some Arminian opposition, enjoyed a very positive reception among significant segments of the established Church’s clergy, many of whom shared his Reformed doctrinal convictions. Instead of a theological misfit as he has often been portrayed, this study contends that the Reformed polemicist Edwards was a decidedly mainstream figure in the established Church of his day, and that Reformed orthodoxy retained a prominent, albeit minority, presence in the theological landscape of the later Stuart Church of England.
Future accounts of the later Stuart and early Hanoverian Church of England will have to afford both Edwards and his numerous Reformed contemporaries a considerably more prominent place than has hitherto been the case. My dissertation not only confirms Stephen Hampton’s work on the persisting vitality of Reformed theology within the established Church during this period, but substantially develops it by demonstrating that Hampton’s revisionist thesis significantly underestimated Edwards’ stature within the Church as well as the strength and numbers of conforming Reformed divines between the Restoration and the evangelical revivals (1660 – c. 1730). It therefore serves as a corrective to the older historiography which generally depicted Reformed theology within the Church of England as having become moribund after the Restoration, before the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century supposedly revived it. I anticipate that theology (and particularly Reformed theology) within the post-Restoration Church of England will prove a fruitful area of historical-theological research in the coming decade or two, and I look forward to continuing my work in this field in the next couple of years as a postdoctoral research fellow at George Whitefield in Cape Town, South Africa.
I have long valued the Latimer Trust’s promotion of biblical truth and the principles of the Reformation, and would like to acknowledge their support during the course of my doctoral research. Back in 2017 I was kindly invited to the annual Latimer Trust Theological Working Group meeting at Oak Hill College in London to present the first fruits of this research, and in 2019 I was generously allocated a Latimer Trust research grant which to a significant extent enabled me to present my research at various conferences in the United States and Canada. May the Lord continue raising up theological scholars in service of his church, and may the Latimer Trust continue playing an important instrumental role in making this possible.