Jonathan Edwards has been one of the most influential Christians in all of history. In shaping Christian thought, he has been a leader for the past 300 years. He has been deemed “the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians.” His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is said to be “America’s most famous sermon.” He has been compared as a thinker to Locke, Hartley, and Bacon, and as an author, he has been compared to Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Faulkner. He has had his critics, modern and old, yet he still remains revered great by most intellectuals and authors. His life is worth looking at and learning from; he stayed faithful during the hard times and always stood up for what he believed was truth.
Rev. Timothy Edwards was “an intensely disciplined perfectionist, a worrier about details, a firm authoritarian who was nonetheless capable of good humor and warm affections towards his family.” He received his B.A. and M.A. from Harvard in 1694. Mr. Edwards was dedicated to teaching his family and homeschooled the kids. He was the pastor in his hometown, East Windsor, Connecticut, for about 60 years. Esther Stoddard Edwards was Rev. Timothy’s wife. She was the granddaughter of the famed Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard was a successful evangelist in the small town of Northampton where he was a pastor. He had five notable revivals during his tenure in 1679, 1683, 1690, 1712, and 1718. Mrs. Edwards was a woman “of impressive intelligence, learning, and theological acumen.”
Together they had eleven children, ten girls and one, lone boy, Jonathan. Mr. Edwards referred to his family as “sixty feet of daughters.” Jonathan Edwards was the fifth of all the children, and he was born on October 5, 1703. The famous preacher and scholar began as just a studious boy. As mentioned before, his father took great pride in teaching his children and Jonathan was no exception. He studied Latin extensively, but probably his favorite thing to study was nature. Some of his earliest writings were on nature, such as “Of Insects,” “Of Light Rays,” and “Of the Rainbow.”
The Collegiate Years
Jonathan began the Collegiate School at New Haven, later known as Yale, at the mere age of twelve in September of 1716. He made several moves back and forth between New Haven, Wethersfield, and back home to East Windsor because the school had to move for financial reasons. Finally, it settled in New Haven with the new name of Yale, thanks to a donor from Wales of the same name. During his studies for his B.A., Edwards was introduced to John Locke’s empiricism, Isaac Newton’s science, and Platonism. All of these new ideas helped shape the way Edwards would “interpret conservative Reformed orthodoxy in the categories of new philosophies.” In May of 1720, he received his B.A. and was valedictorian of his class. Within the next two years, he also earned his M.A.
The Struggling Giant
As he grew his mind, God began to grow his spirit. With most of the men in his family being ministers, Jonathan had the odds in his favor. In one of his most famous works, A Personal Narrative, Edwards reveals his spiritual beginnings. His first public ministry was in a swamp. He and some of his friends built a small prayer booth for themselves and whoever else wanted to pray. This was a spring from an early spiritual experience he had at his father’s church. Though, this spiritual giant admits the effects faded away,
“But, in progress of time, my convictions and affection wore off, and I entirely lost all those affections and delights, and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant preference of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin.”
During his senior year of college, according to him, God was “pleased to seize [him] with a pleurisy.” Edwards was struggling with a situation most Christians who grow up in a Christian home commonly face: a false conversion. In summer of 1721, things began to change. He records that he came to “break off… all ways of known outward sin; and to apply [himself] to seek salvation…”
The great theologian’s stumbling block was God’s sovereignty. He could not wrap his mind around this key doctrine of the Puritan Christianity. It caused him to have many doubts and it was an all around “horrible doctrine” to him. He states that over time his mind just came to accept it. He never concluded that the Holy Spirit had any real acting in that decision. However, there was another time that he recalls he knows for sure that it was the Holy Spirit illumining his mind. He says,
“The first instance, that I remember, of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, I Tim. i. 17. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before.”
As Marsden notes, with him fooling himself twice before of religious affections, he was cautious of these feelings as well. These proved to be lasting effects of a slow but sure transformation. He goes on to tell of similar experiences later in his narrative to show that the affection failed to fade and paled in comparison to the first two experiences.
The second day of August in 1722 began a new era for the young Mr. Edwards. A Presbyterian church in New York City requested for him to come be their “supply” pastor. He set out to do his best for himself and the people. During this time, he began one of his most famous writings, “Resolutions.” He would add more and more as time passed, and when he finished there were 70 resolutions. He had such a passion for knowing and loving God, loving people, and using his time wisely while here on earth. He also began his Diary at this time. These entries are the “only sources from his entire career that provide a direct window into Edwards’ interior life.” They tell of much that was going on in his life and his personal relationship with Christ.
Mr. Timothy Edwards found a church that needed a pastor in Bolton, Connecticut, and he suggested Jonathan to them. Jonathan talked to the search committee in December of 1722, and reluctantly moved back home in the spring of the following year. He signed the town book agreeing to be the pastor in November of 1723. This was a short tenure that was interrupted by the offer of tutorship at Yale. He was there for two years, and by the second year he had the position of senior tutor and “virtual head of the college” because the rectorship was vacant.
1727: A Year of Fruitfulness
The God that Edwards so loved had great plans for him, and most of them began in 1727. Jonathan was asked to assist his 83 year old grandfather, Solomon Stoddard at his church in Northampton. Some revered Stoddard “almost as a sort of deity.” So Edwards had some great responsibilities to fill. Not long after he was there, he was ordained as the assistant pastor.
On July 28 of the same year, he finally got to marry Sarah Pierepont. It was a young marriage; he was twenty-three and she was only seventeen. Though, he had known her since 1719. This was not a shallow, lustful relationship. He had seen the deep love she had for God since he met her. He wrote many of poems and notes about her. Minkema observes that “Edwards’s idea of an epithalamium was not to be witty or elegant. The subject of his meditation was Pierpont’s rich communion with the Creator.” That is what he found attractive about her; that is what held them together. They had ten children together. Their names were Sarah, Jerusha, Esther, Mary, Lucy, Timothy, Susannah, Eunice, Jonathan, and Elizabeth.
Edwards: the Revivalist
With the death of his grandfather in 1729, Jonathan took over as pastor of Northampton. His influence there began slowly, but with the death of a young man in the community, he was able to reach out to the young people there. This incident in April of 1734 began to awake the town’s young people. In June, a young married lady, that everyone knew well, died. She had found Christ and “died full of comfort, in a most earnest and affecting manner warning and counseling other.” This began a revival unlike Edwards had ever seen. What had started in the young people grew to the whole town. Men, women, children, and the elderly of all races came to see and savor Christ. By 1735,
“So extensive was the influence of the Spirit of God, that there was scarcely an individual in the town, either young or old, who was left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… Upwards of fifty persons above forty years of age, and ten above ninety, near thirty between ten and fourteen, and one of four became… the subjects of the renewing grace of God.”
This was just a few numbers to show the wide ranging effects of the revival. Several sources claim up to 300 were saved in three to six months. News of this spread throughout the colonies, and skeptics flocked to Northampton to see what was going on. Among the skeptics were two highly influential pastors, Hezekiah Lord and John Owen. They came in May of 1735 and left “deeply affected.” They returned to their home churches and “sparked notable awakenings.”
Some accused the people of fanaticism, and Edwards saw that this may be a problem. He preached arguably his second most famous sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light” as a defense against the fanaticism.
Suddenly, everything turned for this worse. On June 1, 1735, Joseph Hawley II commited suicide by slitting his throat. He was a prominent citizen in Northampton. This hit Edwards and his family especially hard because Hawley was his uncle by marriage. Jonathan revealed this as a work of Satan to take the people’s minds off of God. Not only that, but he records that “multitudes” and “many” became tempted of suicide. He never tells us how many tried or succeeded, but one thing can be known, the revival ceased.
Edwards wrote a letter in 1736 about this great revival to a pastor in Boston named Benjamin Colman. He was so impressed by the stories that he sent it off to London to two men named Isaac Wattz and John Guyse. They published it, and it is now called A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton. This shot Edwards into international fame; everyone across the ocean was talking about Edwards and Northampton. John Wesley read it in May of 1738 and was so deeply affected by it that he later made it a standard of reading in Methodist circles.
The Great Awakening
Up until 1740, the town of Northampton was fairly quiet, with the exception of an earthquake and the Northampton meetinghouse roof collapsing. Edwards preached his famous sermon series “A History of the Work of Redemption” in an attempt to reawaken the people during this quiet period. It all seemed hopeless, but something was stirring across the Atlantic. He heard of an Anglican priest who was preaching to thousands at a time in open air gatherings. Edwards heard of George Whitefield’s plans of coming to New England and immediately wrote him asking to come to Northampton. He agreed to come and arrived on October 17, 1740. He stayed with the Edwardses and was thoroughly impressed by their love of God and each other. Over the weekend, Whitefield preached 5 times in Northampton. Edwards’ hope was “revived” and joined Whitefield on his tour for a short time.
After Whitefield left, Edwards did some intenerate preaching as well. He mainly focused on his church, but he had a desire to grow this revival that had been started. His most impactful sermon during this time was “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.” As he preached this sermon in Enfield, Connecticut, it was recorded that “before ye Sermon was done there was a great moaning and crying out throughout ye whole House…” and that the “shrieks and crys were piercing and Amazing.” This sermon has become Edwards’ most famous sermon since that day.
Edwards’ life was hardly ever calm. Arminianism was rampant in the colonies, and Edwards was strongly against it. He fought for his Puritan beliefs with all his might. His swords were his sermons and books. One controversy in 1734 was over a man named Robert Breck. He offered himself as a candidate for two open pastorates in Windham, Connecticut and Springfield, Massachusetts. He was accused of being an Arminian, and Edwards was one of the leaders in making sure he did not receive the positions. Edwards preached “God glorified in Man’s Dependence” at Yale when there was a rise of Arminianism in the college. Such writings and sermons as A Divine and Supernatural Light, Religious Affections, and Freedom of the Will were all written as an attack against Arminian thought. He gave the most thorough descriptions of God’s sovereignty since Calvin and none has compared since.
Not only did he defend his strong position of Puritan Calvinism but many of his beliefs on ecclesiology. Edwards argued in Religious Affections for the position of closed communion and church membership. This went against his grandfather, his church, and his former position. As one can notice, this caused great controversy in Northampton. This caused a great question about baptism. The townspeople had always baptized their children, even though they knew that is not what saved them. Edwards had said that only people who had a public profession of faith could join the church or partake in communion. Only members of the church could baptize their babies. In that culture, it had become a “right” for the townspeople to have their babies baptized. Edwards held to the “half-way covenant” for a while, but ended up taking that away as well. He wrote An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God in 1749. Because of these and other issues, Jonathan Edwards was laid off from Northampton as pastor on June 22, 1750.
The Birth of a Missionary
Edwards had first met the great missionary, David Brainerd, at a public commencement at New-Haven in 1743. They had kept in touch throughout the years, and in 1747, Edwards heard that Brainerd was extremely sick. Some believe it was of tuberculosis. Jonathan offered to take care of him, and he took the offer. In May of that year, Brainerd arrived at the Edwards’ home. Jonathan’s daughter, Jerusha, who died shortly after him, took care of him and they grew quite affectionate towards one another. Jonathan and David also became the closest of friends. Brainerd died on October 9, 1747, leaving a lasting impression on Edwards. He wrote Life of David Brainerd to tell of the magnificent story of this missionary.
The December after Northampton had dismissed Edwards, he received an offer from a church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He went to visit them in January the following year and decided in June that was where God was calling him. He would be working among the same Indians his relatives and Brainerd had been living with. He quickly got settled in and won the Indians’ trust. Edwards had no major problems with the Indians, but ran into a few power struggles with his English neighbors. Besides being a missionary during this time, he preached in many different towns and wrote two of his most famous works, Freedom of the Will and Original Sin. Edwards stayed there, ministering to 150 Mahican and Mohawk families until 1757.
The Later Stage
On September 29, 1757, Jonathan received a word from Princeton, then College of New Jersey, that the president had died, and they wanted him to fill the spot. Stockbridge released him of his pastorate in January of the following year. Edwards immediately assumed his duties, yet not being official until February 16. He had come without his family, leaving them in Stockbridge and planning to move them there later. The president before him was Aaron Burr, his son-in-law. So he had his daughter and grandchildren there with him. While at Princeton, he became concerned for his and his families health; smallpox was common there. Edwards had always championed inoculations and had everyone in the family take one. They all seemed to be doing fine until Jonathan broke out on the roof of his mouth and throat. He became so swollen that he was unable to drink or eat. He dealt with this for several weeks and died on the afternoon of March 22, 1758.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato.’ Paraphrasing him, one might say, ‘Jonathan Edwards is American religious history, and American religious history Jonathan Edwards.’” This statement shows the immensity of Edwards’ impact on America. There have been hundreds of books written on Edwards and hundreds more could be written. His life is a testimony to the grace and glory of Christ who captures a soul. He left such a lasting legacy on America and the world: several colleges and learning centers were built in his name, his books have been a standard reading for seminary and secular students alike, and he will continue to be the single most praised evangelical. One can learn so much from his life: to make God the center of one’s life, to endure hardship because God always has something else, and to always learn from the lives of other people. Jonathan Edwards will be always remembered and honored by Christians and non-Christians alike as greatest American philosopher and theologian who ever lived.
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