Jonathan Edwards: America's Theologian-Preacher

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Jonathan Edwards is probably the best-known figure associated with the Great Awakening. He has often been caricatured, however, simply as the “fire-and-brimstone” preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Indeed, some secular writers, embarrassed by this distortion, have even attempted to reverse that picture completely, portraying a brilliant New England thinker who was only incidentally religious. The truth is that Edwards was a multifaceted man—certainly brilliant and undeniably a keen logician, but also an intensely religious man of deep and reverent piety. It is Jonathan Edwards, perhaps, not philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who deserves the description “the God-intoxicated man.”

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Panosian, Edward M. "Jonathan Edwards: America's Theologian-Preacher." In Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from American Church History, edited by Mark Sidwell, 33-39. Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 1991. http://greatawakeningdocumentary.com/items/show/31

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Preacher, scholar, missionary, philosopher, father, theologian, and saint—these were the earthly roles of Jonathan Edwards. Gentle, firm, industrious, serious, profound, disciplined, and balanced—these were his most compelling characteristics. He was a man of character, involved in controversy, a man who no less now than during his life evokes the praise of brethren and the calumny of foes.

He was called to live during a time of difficult transition, from the colonial to the revolutionary period. In the distance behind him were the fading memories of the pious days of Pilgrim and Puritan; in the distance ahead, the anticipation of secular society, “enlightenment” religion, and separation of church and state. While he sought to renew what was, he sharpened the contrast with what was to come.

Born in 1703, just three months after John Wesley and an ocean apart, the only son among the eleven children of the Reverend Timothy and Esther Edwards, in the parish of East Windsor, Connecticut, with ministers and merchants in his heritage on both sides, this lad, who was to grow to become the foremost theologian of early America, gave early promise of his difference from his peers. As a child he was docile, reflective, affectionate, and sensitive, but, above all, precocious. His intellectual activity was remarkable. He began then what was to be his practice throughout life: writing to cultivate thought.

From Edwards’s pen, when his fingers were but twelve and thirteen years old, came such essays as one, of a thousand words, on the habits of the field spider. Another was an analysis of colors and the rainbow. Another was a demonstration that the soul is not material. If these seem strange subjects for such tender youth, they reflect something of the uniqueness of this fertile mind and its uncommon thirst for knowledge.

That thirst, perhaps first cultivated by the elementary schooling provided him by his father, respected as minister and teacher, was furthered by the lad’s entry at Yale College in 1716, just before his thirteenth birthday. Here he took the established course of ministerial training, read Locke and Newton, wrote essays on Berkeley’s philosophy, yet reflected little participation in typical nonacademic activities of college life. Never outgoing or given easily to social graces, little able to enjoy the frivolous or the vain, he seemed aloof from his fellows. Because he served as college butler in his senior year, one who ladled out the meat and potatoes at mealtime, he enjoyed little society even at meals.

Having completed the course in 1720, a Yale graduate at seventeen, he remained for further study before taking a Presbyterian pulpit briefly in New York in 1722. Even more briefly he preached in Bolton, Connecticut, before being invited back to Yale to take the master’s degree, and serve as tutor and to perform administrative duties during an interlude of several months when there was no president.

It was during these years between graduation and his being “settled” in the Northampton parish which became inextricably linked with his name that Jonathan Edwards was converted, enjoyed that “sweet delight in God and divine things,” and set down in his diary a covenant and a determination to dedicate all his effort to the service of God. As he read Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, there struck most deeply to his soul verse 17 of chapter one: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Inexplicably, this verse, so atypical of verses which are often used of the Holy Spirit to strike conviction and convert hearts, caused the young man’s soul to be turned to the realization of who God is and His claim on the total being of man. This depth of understanding and solemnity of purpose was typical of this philosopher-genius who was equally soulwinning preacher. In his own words,

As I read the words, there came into my soul . . . a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to Him in Heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever! . . . From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehension . . . of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by Him. An inward, sweet sense of these things . . . came into my heart.

Not long afterward, his diary and notebooks of meditations reflect the resolutions of his will in the service of Christ. Particularly beginning in January of 1723, and continuing through the spring and summer of that year are such revealing entries as these:

Now, henceforth, I am not to act, in any respect, as my own. I shall act as my own, if I ever make use of any of my powers, to any thing, that is not to the glory of God, and do not make the glorying of Him, my whole and entire business; if I murmur in the least at affliction; if I grieve at the prosperity of others; if I am in any way uncharitable; if I am angry, because of injuries; if I revenge them; if I do any thing, purely to please myself, or if I avoid any thing, for the sake of my own ease; if I omit any thing, because it is great denial; if I trust to myself, if I take any of the praise of any good that I do, or that God doth by me; or if I am in any way proud.

. . .

Resolved, that no other end but religion, shall have any influence at all on any of my actions; and that no action shall be, in the least circumstance, any otherwise than the religious end will carry it.

. . .

Never let me trifle with a book with which I may have no present concern.

These samples, of so many others like them, reflect the dedication and singleness of mind and heart of the man of twenty-three who was called as colleague pastor to his maternal grandfather, the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, at Northampton, Massachusetts, in November of 1726. Here he was to labor in that service and devotion for almost the quarter century that followed.

Northampton was the most important inland city in New England, ecclesiastically second only to Boston. The congregation had sought a likely successor to the aging Mr. Stoddard, who had been pastor over fifty years. More than one generation had grown up knowing only him as pastor. Edwards came with high expectations.

Not long after his coming, he married, when she was seventeen, Sarah Pierrepont, daughter of the minister of New Haven, great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker, combining in that marriage three very illustrious families. Edwards described her as “of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind.” Reared in her father’s parsonage, she was easily able to make of her husband’s a place of singular and practical piety. Both a Mary and a Martha, she did much serving and caring for the material needs of a growing family (there were eleven children in all); she was also meditative and spiritual, a woman of deep feeling.

With the death of Stoddard two years after Edwards was ordained to succeed him, the younger now assumed all the responsibilities of the parish. He was twenty-six. More preacher and teacher than pastor, he regularly spent thirteen hours daily in his study. His practice was to rise at four A.M. (at five in winter). He carefully regulated his diet, eating what could be easily and quickly digested, so that his mind would remain most active. For exercise he chopped wood or rode horseback. Ever eager to “improve his time,” on long rides he would take pins and little pieces of paper; whenever he had an idea he wished to remember, he would pin a paper to his coat to remind him, after the ride, to write down the idea.

The pulpit was his throne. Jonathan Edwards gave most of his mental and physical energy to the preparing and delivering of sermons. We possess today manuscripts or outlines for about a thousand of these. He preached on Sunday (usually for two hours) and gave the teaching lecture on Thursday. To his congregation of about six hundred, he would usually read (from the small booklet he had made by sewing together small pieces of paper, 3 7/8 by 4 1/8 inches, most of which had been used for other purposes on the other side—a picture of his native frugality, of things no less than time) the closely reasoned exposition in the Puritan style.

Each sermon was begun with the assertion of a subject, “the doctrine”; next came the series of developed points, “the reasons, or proofs”; finally, the applications or “uses.” The text was often not immediately obvious and usually an unfamiliar one, but wonderfully replete with the “doctrine” he was presenting. His best known sermon, for example—"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"—developed an almost unknown text: “Their foot shall slide in due time” (Deut. 32:35).

And his people listened. His voice was not strong, but solemn and distinct. He possessed a quiet intensity, “looking and speaking as in the presence of God.” He was deliberate and piercing. He spoke less a series of words than a message. His was the eloquence that moves to action after the words are forgotten.

Contributing to his later difficulties with his people was his preference for his study over their society. He believed he could do more good for his people by writing and preaching, catechizing the children in small groups, and counseling his people in his study, than by visiting in their homes. Some interpreted this practice, so in contrast with the late Mr. Stoddard, as an aloofness, rather than his natural reticence. Physically frail most of his life, Edwards conserved his energy for what he believed was its most profitable use. Yet he always went to his people when sent for, to the sick and to the afflicted. And ministers and other dignitaries, when passing through, found—and often later wrote of—his cordial hospitality and gracious care and provision for their welfare. George Whitefield was one such.

Whitefield reminds of the renewal of the Great Awakening in New England. Earlier, in the last months of 1734, a series of sermons Edwards preached in his parish was followed by several sudden and violent conversions, particularly of individuals known to be notorious sinners. That winter and spring a genuine revival broke out in Northampton, with perhaps three hundred saved. Strife, backbiting, and gossiping subsided among the people. Almost as quickly as it had begun, the revival ended by May and June. For the next several years Edwards sought to revive the spirit of 1735.

By the 1740s the Awakening, part of a movement which had begun simultaneously in the middle colonies, was again reaping a harvest of souls in New England. Whitefield was helping to spread it as well. Never primarily an itinerant like Whitefield, Edwards was occasionally invited to preach at other parishes. In this context he preached the sermon so blessed at Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” God honored it mightily.

Because of emotional and physical excesses accompanying some of the Awakening, Edwards, by a series of writings and by his preaching, counseled moderation and balance, of the head and the heart. Aware of excesses and “false fire,” he suggested ways of distinguishing false from true conversions. Among his significant works in the 1730s and 1740s are these, their titles clearly proclaiming their content: A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God; The Distinguishing Marks of God; The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God; Personal Narrative; Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival in New England; and A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.

But for Jonathan Edwards, as minister at Northampton, the tide was turning and the sands were running out. In 1744 he had made a number of enemies by refusing to compromise his beliefs on church discipline when a group of young people were discovered reading and exchanging “lascivious and obscene” books, probably manuals for midwives. Although the congregation agreed the matter should be investigated, when their pastor read publicly a list of names of those he wished to interrogate—unwisely not distinguishing between witnesses and accused—the congregation was inflamed. Too many sons of too many families of prominence were included in the yet indiscriminate list. This attitude made bolder the insolence of the guilty and left embers to smolder long after the fire had subsided.

In the interlude before the final conflict, the Edwards home experienced a grievous event. The young missionary to the American Indians, David Brainerd, betrothed to Jonathan and Sarah’s daughter Jerusha, died in their home after several months of nursing the body which had been wasted for several years by tuberculosis. Jerusha herself followed her beloved David in death after just four months.

Two brief chapters remain. The first is Edwards’s dismissal from Northampton. The issue was joined in 1749 and consummated in June of 1750. Edwards, after more than twenty years of concurrence, concluded that “Stoddard’s Way” was wrong. Stoddard had gone beyond the “Half-Way Covenant” of 1662 (which had permitted a “half-way” church membership for those baptized as infants but who had never “owned the covenant,” given evidence or an account of conversion). Although these “half-way” members had been denied access to the Lord’s Supper, as unconverted church members, Stoddard had further permitted them to participate in that ordinance, giving them all the privileges of believers, as long as they were not “openly scandalous” in their way of life.

While we may wonder at his tardiness in doing so, Pastor Edwards, in seeking to restore stricter definitions for church members, published his “Qualifications for Full Communion,” demanding examination of the heart condition of those who presented themselves as members. This was nothing more than separating chaff from wheat, sheep from acknowledged goats. But the obscene books episode and the apparent aloofness of their pastor joined now with this new resentment to cause the camel, whose head had been allowed in the tent, to expel the tent chief. In 1750, after twenty-three years as their pastor, at age forty-seven, with eight children at home, Jonathan Edwards was turned out of the pastorate of his lifetime, unpracticed in the ways of the world, but dependent on the will of Heaven.

The last chapter is the fruitful harvest at Stockbridge, sixty miles away. Here Edwards was called to be a pastor to a small flock and missionary to the Housatunnock Indians. Twelve white families and 250 Indian families made up the population. Not well-fitted for such a role, yet isolated still farther from the bustle of the world, he was given now of God the opportunity to reap with his pen the harvest of decades of sowing of seed thoughts. It was here at Stockbridge that he wrote works on the freedom of the will, on the nature of virtue, and on original sin, for which he is chiefly noted.

Finally, in 1757, Jonathan Edwards was called to be president of the College of New Jersey, which had moved to and was eventually to be known as Princeton. However, this apparent earthly honor, a fitting recognition of his singular and pious gifts—in a day when Princeton was known for such virtues—was not to be. He arrived in February of 1758 was installed as president. There had been a serious epidemic of smallpox in neighboring towns. It was sensible to be inoculated, and so was the new president a week later. A month later he was dead.

He had finished a course and left a heritage of submission to the God who doeth all things well. Whatever and wherever in his life change had come, his will had been actively resigned to the will of God. He stood for “heart religion.” He delighted in the “sweet things of religion,” and in his life he sought to live to the honor and glory of “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God.” When shall we see another?

Suggestions for Further Reading

Keith J. Hardman. The Spiritual Awakeners. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983. [See pp. 61-73.]

“Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening.” Christian History, vol. 4, no. 4 (1985). [Entire issue]

Iain H. Murray. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

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