Jonathan Edwards


Of Insects


(1720; written when Edwards was 17)

Instructor's note: This essay by a young Edwards is best-known today as the inspiration for a famous poem (see below) by the leading 20th-century poet Robert Lowell, but the essay also deepens our appreciation of Edwards's intellectual range in a time of change between the balance of science and religion. Today Edwards is best remembered for  his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and the religious emotionalism associated with the Great Awakening, in contrast to the Enlightenment attitudes of his contemporaries including the more secular-minded Founders of the USA like Benjamin Franklin. In contrast to this stereotype, "Of Insects" shows Edwards both aware of and practicing the science of the Enlightenment by his references to Sir Isaac Newton and by his careful powers of empirical observation. Yet Edwards retains a Puritanical overlay to his science by witnessing all actions of nature as evidences of the glory of God.

[1] Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider, especially with respect to their sagacity [wisdom] and admirable way of working. These spiders, for the present, shall be distinguished into those that keep in houses and those that keep in forests, upon trees, bushes, shrubs, etc. for I take ’em to be of very different kinds and natures (there are also other sorts, some of which keep in rotten logs, hollow trees, swamps and grass).

[2] Of these last [spiders in forests], everyone knows the truth of their marching in the air from tree to tree, and these sometimes at five or six rods distance sometimes [rod = 5-6 yards]. Nor can anyone go out amongst the trees in a dewy morning towards the latter end of August or the beginning of September, but that he shall see hundreds of webs, made conspicuous by the dew that is lodged upon them, reaching from one tree and shrub to another that stands at a considerable distance, and they may be seen well enough by an observing eye at noonday by their glistening against the sun.

[2a] And what is still more wonderful, I know I have several times seen, in a very calm and serene day at that time of year, standing behind some opaque body that shall just hide the disk of the sun and keep off his dazzling rays from my eye, multitudes of little shining webs and glistening strings of a great length, and at such a height as (that one would think they were tacked to the sky by one end, were it not that they were moving and floating. And there often appears at the end of these webs a spider floating and sailing in the air with them, which I have plainly discerned in those webs that were nearer to my eye.

[2b] And once [I] saw a very large spider, to my surprise, swimming in the air in this manner, and others have assured me that they often have seen spiders fly. The appearance is truly very pretty and pleasing, and it was so pleasing, as well as surprising, to me, that I resolved to endeavor to satisfy my curiosity about it, by finding out the way and of their doing it, being also persuaded that, if I could find out how they flew, I could easily find out how they made webs from tree to tree.

[3] And accordingly, at a time when I was in the woods, I happened to see one of these spiders on a bush. So I went to the bush and shook it, hoping thereby to make him uneasy upon it and provoke him to leave it by flying, and took good care that he should not get off from it in any other way. So I continued constantly to shake it, which made him several times let himself fall by his web a little. But he would presently ‘creep up again, till at last he was pleased, however, to leave that bush and march along in the air to the next, but which way I did not know, nor could I conceive, but resolved to watch him more narrowly next time.

[3a] So I brought [him] back to the same bush again. To be sure that there was nothing for him to go upon the next time, I whisked about a stick I had in my hand on all sides of the bush, that I might break any web going from it, if there were any, and leave nothing else for him to go on but the clear air, and then shook the bush as before. But it was not long before he again to my surprise went to the next bush. I took him off upon my stick and, holding of him near my eye, shook the stick as I had done the bush, whereupon he let himself down a little, hanging by his web, and [I] presently perceived a web out from his tail and a good way into the air. I took hold of it with my hand and broke it off, not knowing but that I might take it out to the stick with him from the bush; but then I plainly perceived another such string to proceed out at his tail.

[4] I now conceived I had found out the whole mystery. I repeated the trial over and over again till I was fully satisfied of his way of working, which I don’t only conjecture, to be on this wise, viz.: They, when they would go from tree to tree, or would sail in the air, let themselves hang down a little way by their web: and then put out a web at their tails, which being so exceeding rare [thin, rarefied] when it first comes from the spider as to be lighter than the air, so as of itself it will ascend in it (which I know by experience), the moving air takes it by the end, and by the spider’s permission, pulls it out and bears it out his tail to any length, and if the further end of it happens to catch by a tree or anything, why, there’s a web for him to go over upon. And the spider immediately perceives it and feels when it touches, much after the same manner as the soul in the brain immediately perceives when any of those little nervous strings that proceed from it are in the least jarred by external things. And this very way I have seen spiders go from one thing to another, I believe fifty times at least since I first discovered it. . . .

[5] There remain only two difficulties. . . . [Speculations on the spiders and their creation of their webs follows.] . . .
But whether that be their way or no I can’t say — but without scruple, that or a better, for we always find things done by nature as well or better than [we] can imagine beforehand.

[6] Corollary [practical outcome]. We hence see the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable.

[7] Another thing particularly notable and worthy of being inquired into about these webs is that they, which are so exceeding small and fine as that they cannot be discerned except held in a particular position with respect to the sun or against some dark place when held close to the eye, should appear at such a prodigious height in the air when near betwixt us and the sun . . . . But the chief reason must be referred to that incurvation of the rays passing by the edge of any body, which Sir Isaac Newton has proved.

[8] One thing more I shall take notice of, before I dismiss this subject, concerning the end of nature in giving spiders this way of flying, which though we have found in the corollary to be their pleasure and recreation, yet we think a greater end is at last their destruction. And what makes us think so is because that is necessarily and naturally brought to pass by it, and we shall find nothing so brought to pass by nature but what is the end of those means by which is brought to pass; and we shall further evince it by and by, by strewing the great usefulness of it. But we must show how their destruction is brought to pass by it.

[9] I say then, that by this means almost all the spiders upon the land must necessarily be swept first and last into the sea. For we have observed already that they never fly except in fair weather. We may now observe that it is never fair weather, neither in this country nor any other, except when the wind blows from the midland parts, and so towards the sea. . . . And as to other sorts of flying insects, such as butterflies, millers, moths, etc., I remember that, when I was a boy, I have at the same time of year lien [lying] on the ground upon my back and beheld abundance of them, all flying southeast, which I then thought were going to a warm country. So that, without any doubt, almost all manner of aerial insects, and also spiders which live upon them and are made up of them, are at the end of the year swept and wafted into the sea and buried in the ocean, and leave nothing behind them but their eggs for a new stock the next year.

[10] Corollary 1. [corollary = deduction] Hence also we may behold and admire at the wisdom of the Creator, and be convinced that is exercised about such little things, in this wonderful contrivance of annually carrying off and burying the corrupting nauseousness of our air, of which flying insects are little collections, in the bottom of the ocean where it will do no harm, and especially the strange way of bringing this about in spiders (which are collections of these collections, their food being flying insects) which want wings whereby it might be done. And what great inconveniences should we labor under if there were no such way. For spiders and flies are so exceeding multiplying creatures that if they only slept or lay benumbed in [winter] and were raised again in the spring, which is commonly supposed, it would not be many years before we should be as much plagued with their vast numbers as Egypt was. And if they died for good and all in winter they, by the renewed heat of the sun, would presently again be dissipated into those nauseous vapors which they are made up of, and so would be of no use or benefit in that [in] which now they are so very serviceable.

[11] Corol. [Corollary] 2. Admire also the Creator in so nicely and mathematically adjusting their multiplying nature, that notwithstanding their destruction by this means and the multitudes that are eaten by birds, that they do not decrease and so, little by little, come to nothing; and in so adjusting their destruction to their multiplication that they do neither increase, but taking one year with another, there is always just an equal number of them.

[12] Another reason why they will not fly at any other time but when a dry wind blows, is because a moist wind moistens the web and makes it heavier than the air. And if they had the sense to stops themselves, we should have hundreds of times more spiders and flies by the seashore than anywhere else.

Robert Lowell (1917-77)

Mr. Edwards and the Spider  

I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea;

What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason crackling in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?

A very little thing, a little worm,
Or hourglass-blazoned spider, it is said,
Can kill a tiger. Will the dead
Hold up his mirror and affirm
To the four winds the smell
And flash of his authority? It's well
If God who holds you to the pit of hell,
Much as one holds a spider, will destroy,
Baffle and dissipate your soul. As a small boy

On Windsor Marsh, I saw the spider die
When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
There's no long struggle, no desire
To get up on its feet and fly
It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner's last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.

But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast                   [Jn Edwards's uncle, who committed suicide during the Great Awakening]
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal—
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.