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Jonathan Edwards was the son of two ministerial families. His father, Timothy Edwards, was a Congregationalist minister; his mother, Esther Stoddard Edwards, was the daughter of the powerful Massachusetts minister Solomon Stoddard. Born into a family of clergymen, Edwards was brought up for the ministry, receiving his early education from his father.
When he was twelve, Edwards entered Yale College. Yale had only recently been established as a doctrinal and geographic counter to Harvard College, which some believed was becoming doctrinally liberal. Edwards received a solid theological education, but he also learned the new science, psychology, and philosophy of Isaac Newton, John Locke, George Berkeley, and other contemporary European thinkers. Edwards mixed those two influences—Congregationalist theology and Enlightenment philosophy—as he restated Christian doctrine in terms compatible with the new philosophy.
These educational influences were paralleled by Edwards’s spiritual development. As a child Edwards had experienced religious desires, but he believed himself to be spiritually lacking in two regards. First, he could not yet acknowledge God’s sovereignty, because he doubted the doctrine of election. Second, Edwards did not believe that he had experienced God’s converting work of grace. Prior to the Awakening, it was seldom thought that conversion came in an instant; rather it was regarded as a gradual process whereby God converted the soul prepared by faith. Still, Edwards was unconvinced that God was working in him.
After receiving his BA from Yale in 1720 and reading for an MA at Yale for a year, Edwards served as a minister at a Presbyterian church in New York City, then at a country church in Connecticut. He soon returned to Yale to serve as a tutor, a position in which he was at once a teacher and a supervisor of the college students. He suffered severe depression, in part because of the disobedience of his students, in part because of his constant struggles with temptation. But Edwards’s depression proved to be his spiritual turning point. He experienced a personal conversion that was at once spiritual and intellectual: he became convinced that God had converted him by grace and that God was indeed sovereign and just.
In 1726 Edwards obtained a position as assistant pastor to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard was a leading clergyman in New England, especially in the Connecticut River Valley. His influence was widespread, and he exerted it both from his pulpit in Northampton, Massachusetts, and as the patriarch of a family of ministers, lawyers, and soldiers. When his grandfather died in 1729, Edwards was given his position as pastor of Northampton.
As Edwards came into his own position, he began to develop the main themes and methods of his ministry. Though later he would be best known for his massive works of theology and philosophy, most of his early labor went into writing sermons. These sermons emphasized that God would judge sin, that God’s will determined who would be saved, and that sinners must prepare themselves to receive the grace of God, though only grace through faith could actually provide salvation. Edwards labored over his sermons twelve to fourteen hours per day, spending little time on pastoral visits to his congregation. He preached in the conventional New England form, yet he also brought something new to preaching. If preaching were to have an effect, Edwards saw, then it must stir people’s affections, speaking to the heart as much as it did to the head.
Edwards’s work was rewarded in the winter of 1734-35, when the youth of Northampton experienced an outbreak of religious enthusiasm. Many young men and women in New England were unable to marry because New England’s rapidly growing population left little land available, preventing the youth from being able to support themselves. Of a marriageable age yet restrained under their parents’ authority, men and women in their late teens and twenties often engaged in idleness, gossiping, and sexual sins. Edwards targeted those sins in his preaching and—after years of resistance—many of the youth suddenly joined the membership of the church, professing conversion. Edwards wrote about this revival in his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), a tract that was widely influential in both New England and Britain. The Faithful Narrative both publicized the awakening in Northampton and introduced other ministers to Edwards’s new style of preaching and conversion.
The 1734-35 revival sparked similar revivals in surrounding towns, but that awakening remained primarily local. After a few months the fervor died down, and Edwards returned to the struggle with a congregation dull of hearing. But in 1740-41, Edwards teamed up with George Whitefield, an itinerant minister from England who was traveling through the British colonies in America. While Edwards and Whitefield did not see eye to eye about some things—Edwards thought Whitefield’s preaching was too flamboyant—they agreed on the need for inward conversion and on the theology of awakening. The combined preaching of Edwards, Whitefield, and other ministers throughout the colonies ignited another series of revivals from Georgia to New England. Whitefield’s tour through the colonies connected the local, regional awakenings into a shared experience, which became the Great Awakening.
While the Great Awakening did much to strengthen churches and increase their membership and fervor, at the same time it caused division in churches and denominations throughout the colonies and in Britain. Some conservative, orthodox ministers and many liberal ministers objected to the “enthusiasm” of the Awakening, such as the excessive emotional outbursts of new converts. The refusal of some ministers to acknowledge the Awakening as the work of God on the one hand, and the often uncharitable criticism of other ministers by the supporters of the Awakening on the other, led to a deep rift. Edwards wholeheartedly took the side of the revivalists and wrote much in defense of the Awakening, yet he took pains to distinguish between the genuine working of God and the human excesses of the Awakening. In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), he explained that emotional displays did not prove that someone was a convert, but neither did they hinder God’s working. And in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion (1742), he defended the experiences of converts by describing the spiritual raptures of his wife, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, whom he left unnamed.
Besides promoting and defending the Great Awakening, Edwards’s other great work was explaining it by means of a new, distinctive theology. Into Edwards there flowed the several intellectual and religious currents of his age: Puritan theology, Enlightenment rationalism, and continental Pietism, as well as his own experience in the Awakening. Edwards merged those streams—accepting and modifying parts of each—into a theology that maintained the Puritan doctrine of early New England, yet that was stated in the terms of the new philosophies and sciences, and that explained and encouraged conversion and awakenings. Edwards described how God worked in men to save them and to reveal Himself. God’s saving grace revealed God not merely to man’s intellect, which earlier theologians had termed the “understanding,” but also to his affections and emotions, which Edwards termed the “heart.” In other words, a person saved by grace did not simply assent to propositions with his intellect, but rather apprehended them through a total belief in God, combining both his mind and his heart in love towards God. Edwards explained this most clearly in his great work A Treatise on Religious Affections (1746). It was on the basis of this theology that Edwards and other revivalists preached so as to influence the affections of his hearers, stirring up many awakenings.
The revival enthusiasm in Northampton soon gave way to disputes between pastor and congregation. For several years, tensions had built between Edwards and his church. Edwards frequently requested salary increases because of inflating prices and a growing family—nine children and a wife—but the town routinely denied these requests. Edwards’s efforts to curb the sins of the youth had produced awakening, but they had also built up a backpressure of discontent. Two things brought the conflict to a head. Edwards publicly rebuked some young people by name from his pulpit, but he failed to distinguish between the accused and those who were merely witnesses. He thus angered a sizeable portion of his congregation. Edwards also instituted a new requirement that an applicant to church membership must give a credible profession of faith before being permitted to partake of communion. That requirement was a moderate return to the older Puritan tradition in New England, but it overturned both the policy of Edward’s grandfather and the longstanding tradition in Northampton. Edwards was soon dismissed, though he continued in the awkward position of preaching on Sunday whenever the congregation could not secure another minister.
In 1752 Edwards moved to another pastorate in Stockbridge, a frontier town in western Massachusetts. There he was both pastor to the small community of colonists and missionary to a settlement of Mahican Indians. Living in Stockbridge was dangerous, for the Edwards family was there during the middle of the French and Indian War, a time of frequent raids along the frontier. But there Edwards worked on his major philosophical works. He also worked on what he hoped would be his two masterpieces, though neither was finished: a large-scale commentary or study Bible, and a massive study of Christian doctrine in historical form, to be titled The History of the Work of Redemption.
Edwards left Stockbridge in 1758 to become the president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). He had barely taken up his duties when a smallpox epidemic hit the town. Edwards, who kept up with medical advances, urged the townspeople and his own family to be inoculated. Nearly everyone who was inoculated survived the epidemic, but Edwards himself died from complications.
Though he was dead at the age of fifty-five, leaving what he thought would be his most important works unfinished, Jonathan Edwards had exerted a profound influence on American religion. His theological and philosophical positions have earned him a reputation as the greatest of American theologians and as one of America’s two or three great philosophers. But Edwards’s greatest contribution was his work as a pastor and preacher who stirred up the Great Awakening, a work that fulfilled Edwards’s consuming affection for God’s glory.