The work you have on your shelf by that classic Christian author may not, in fact, be the original work said Christian author actually wrote. People are often surprised to find that the classic works they have on their shelves are either abridgments or heavily edited works which bear little resemblance to their originals. In this post, I want to look at a couple examples of how such classics are edited and how one can go about recognizing these changes.
Example #1: Richard Baxter’s Saints Everlasting Rest
In 1650, Richard Baxter published his famous treatise on the grace of glory entitled Saints Everlasting Rest. Initially written and then published without access to his library, Baxter quickly updated it with a vast array of extra-biblical citations and comments publishing a second edition a year later. Eventually, there would be 12 editions of the book published just in the 17th century. It was extremely popular. Yet, going into the 18th century, a focus on Baxter’s practical theology led to a neglect of his scholastic theology. As David Sytsma writes,
To a great extent, the neglect of Baxter’s scholastic theology and philosophical thought can be attributed to the practical focus in the eighteenth- and nineteenth century nonconformist reception of Baxter’s works, resulting in part from the publication of The Practical Works (1707) and in part from a general transition away from older scholastic theology. (4)
The great hymnwriter Philip Doddridge was one such 18th century nonconformist who was appreciative of Baxter’s practical theology, but found his scholastic theology to be incomprehensible. Doddridge’s student, Benjamin Fawcett, was the 18th century editor who abridged Baxter’s Saints Everlasting for an audience increasingly hungry for works of piety and devotion. If you have Baxter’s Saints Everlasting on your bookshelf, it is almost certainly Fawcett’s abridgement. What then did Fawcett do? First, he excised all the sections which are more scholastic and philosophical in nature. In Saints Everlasting, Baxter spends a lot of time defending the divinity of Scripture along with other apologetical topics. Fawcett found these unessential to the treatise, even though Baxter explicitly says otherwise. Indeed, Baxter rhetorically asks in the preface to his second edition “Who will set his heart on the Goodness of a thing that is not certain of the Truth? or part with all his present Delights, till he is sure he have better?” In other words, who would seek heavenly glory if he were not first convinced that it does, in fact, exist? Unsurprisingly, Fawcett excised this whole preface which included the above quote.
Second, Fawcett regularly deletes theological language. One can see this in the very first line of the work. Baxter’s first sentence originally read like this:
It was not only our interest in God, and actual fruition of him, which was lost in Adams Covenant-breaking fall, but all spiritual knowledg [sic] of him, and true disposition towards such a felicity.
Fawcett’s edition has:
It was not only our interest in God, and actual enjoyment of him, which was lost in Adam’s fall, but all spiritual knowledge of him, and true disposition towards such a felicity.
Note what Fawcett left out. He left out Baxter’s reference to the covenant of works, the original covenant made with Adam. Such language was presumably deemed too theological for Fawcett’s audience.
Example #2: John Newton’s Letters
The famous hymn-writer and Anglican minister John Newton is rightly esteemed as a great 18th century Reformed luminary. His letters are known for their pastoral tone coupled with sound theological advice. Towards the end of his life, he published a group of letters entitled Cardiphonia: Or The Utterance of the Heart. The genesis of these letters is needless to examine here, but the important part is that by the middle of the 19th century, a collection of Newton’s letters edited out material deemed superfluous. Take, for example, the third letter of five written to an originally unnamed minister, later identified as Thomas Jones. In the letter, Newton deals with topics related to Calvinism and touches on free-will. In his defense of the Calvinist exposition of the doctrine, he appeals to the great early 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards and his famous treatise on the Freedom of the Will. Here is what Newton wrote:
“If I had a proper call, I would undertake to prove the direct contrary; namely, that to exhort and deal plainly with sinners, to stir them up to flee from the wrath to come, and to lay hold of eternal life, is an attempt not reconcileable to sober reason upon any other grounds than those doctrines which we are called Calvinists for holding; and that all the absurdities which are charged upon us, as consequences of what we teach, are indeed truly chargeable upon those who differ from us in these points. I think this unanswerably proved by Mr. Edwards, in his discourse on the freedom of the will; though the chain of reasoning is so close, that few will give attention and pains to pursue it. As to myself, if I were not a Calvinist, I think I should have no more hope of success in preaching to men, than to horses or cows.” (emphasis added)
Newton’s 19th century biographer Josiah Bull, in the 1869 edition of Newton’s letters, he reprints the aforementioned letter but he excises this interesting note about Edwards’ treatise. Here is Bull’s editorial work:
If I had a proper call, I would undertake to prove the direct contrary; namely, that to exhort and deal plainly with sinners, to stir them up to flee from the wrath to come, and to lay hold of eternal life, is an attempt not reconcileable to sober reason upon any other grounds than those doctrines which we are called Calvinists for holding; and that all the absurdities which are charged upon us, as consequences of what we teach, are indeed truly chargeable upon those who differ from us in these points. … As to myself, if I were not a Calvinist, I think I should have no more hope of success in preaching to men, than to horses or cows.
Interestingly, apart from telling us that he was short on space, Bull does not even hint at editing these letters. Indeed, were there not ellipses throughout the letters, one would not even know he edited portions out! Unfortunately, the most popular modern printing of Newton’s letters chose to reprint Bull’s edition.
A Warning I wish I could say that you can trust modern reprints of your favorite theologians and ministers from the Reformation and Post-Reformation era, but I cannot. If you really want to make sure you are reading the document as it was written, you should at least go find an edition around the time the person wrote the text and compare it with the one you have. Only then can you be confident that what you have is representative of the original. As always, ad fontes.
Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism.