The Life of Jonathan Edwards
There is a French proverb, which says, “A coincidence is an event in which God wishes to remain anonymous.” One of the happy coincidences for evangelicals is the contribution that John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards made to the Great Awakening that began in the 1740’s. Another is that both men were born in the same year, 1703.
As 2003 marked 300 years since they were born there was a flurry of great books and articles published on both men. Perhaps the most impressive being the 27 volumes of the Yale edition of compete Works of Jonathan Edwards which includes many manuscripts that had never been published before simply because Edwards handwriting was microscopic and virtually undecipherable. In addition he often wrote on scraps of paper that had been written on before (something my mother told me people did in the second world war)—which might account for the fact that this new edition of his complete works has been fifty years in the making—which is nearly as long as Edwards himself lived!
One of the best biographies on Edwards is the recent publication by George Marsden who is a believer and professor of history at Notre Dame. Having just finished the book I am again struck by the fact that in many ways Wesley and Edwards were polar opposites, but I am very moved by their mutual commitment to prayer, revival, and global mission. In many ways, Wesley’s life was much more colorful than Edwards’, but the Marsden biography is well worth reading.
Although I personally find much of Edward’s theology hard to swallow, I am going to deal with what I think is an important aspect of his theology of revival and mission in a future segment of “Footnotes”. And so by way of preparation, I thought it might be valuable to first give a brief overview of his life and work.
Most of what I knew about him before reading Marsden, in addition to his involvement in the Great Awakening, was his commitment to Federal Calvinism, which led to a strong friendship with George Whitfield but an eventual breach with Wesley who was, of course, a committed Armenian. However, there is much in his life that not only interesting, but also very helpful to those of us who are praying for a move of God today that will rival that which Edwards and Wesley experienced in their day.
Edwards was the descendant of some leading seventeenth century New England families, all of whom were Puritans. His father, Timothy, was a pastor who had seen a number of moves of God in his own church, and this might be why Jonathan, as soon as he became a leader in his own right started to seriously pray for an even greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit than he had seen in his father’s church.
He loved the Lord from an early age and when he was nine he was praying five times a day in private in addition to the regular morning and evening family prayers. He was thirteen years old when he went to Yale and went on to became a tutor there when he was twenty-one. Between
being a student and becoming a tutor he was an interim pastor in two churches, one in New York when he was nineteen and one in Connecticut when he was twenty.
Edwards was a polymath and there was no branch of knowledge that didn’t interest him intensely. When he was seventeen, after extensive field work, he wrote a dissertation on (believe it or not) spiders, and submitted it to a Massachusetts member of the Royal Society in London that was presided over by Isaac Newton. It probably would have been published except that, unknown to Edwards, someone else had done some similar research and submitted it to the Society ahead of him.
He was engaged to Sarah when she was fifteen and they were married two years later when Jonathan was twenty-four. In 1726, when he was twenty-three, he had gone to help his famous grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who was pastor of a Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. Stoddard died two years later and Edwards took over the church and remained there for the next twenty-three years—the most important period of his life.
There is an old Puritan saying that, “God loveth adverbs” and Edwards exemplified this in his enthusiastic and disciplined approach to life. He rose at four or five in the morning and spent thirteen hours a day in his study, six days a week, furiously writing, reading, and praying. He ate very little, did very little pastoral work, and fasted frequently. However, unlike the 50,000 miles that Wesley rode on horseback, he rarely traveled away from home during the years of his ministry.
After praying for eight years, there was a move of God in Edward’s church in 1734, which lasted for about two years. This spread in the region and became known as the Northampton and Connecticut Valley Awakening and was a forerunner of what would happen on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1740’s and become know as the Great Awakening.
The first awakening in Northampton was an amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Some of the manifestations of the Spirit that we have seen in our day are relatively mild compared with what happened in Edward’s church among the stiff and starchy Puritans. And it says something about the man, that despite his natural conservatism, he defended what many pastors said were gross excesses, believing that what was happening in the revival were genuine manifestations of the Holy Spirit even though he never read, heard, or seen anything like it.
The result was that virtually the whole town of 1,300 (a significant size in the colonial period) were converted and ended up in his church. Edwards first became known internationally through his published account of this 1734 revival called, A Faithful Narrative. One of the interesting things about A Faithful Narrative is Edward’s total honesty. There were demonic counterfeits of various manifestations and he is very transparent about them. There was also a bizarre episode where believers were tempted to cut their throats. As I remember there was only one suicide, but this was a close relative of Edward’s and he was deeply shocked. But again, he does not shrink from recording things just as they happened. He felt that if we are to learn and understand the ways of the Holy Spirit and the attacks of the enemy, everything needed to be recorded.
John Wesley was converted five years later in 1739 and at about the same time George Whitfield began his field preaching. So the awakening under Edwards in 1734 was, in many ways, breaking new ground. Later on, Whitfield came to the States several times and was very influential in the revival of 1741–1742 that also broke out in Edward’s church.
It was after the second awakening that the citizens of Northampton made an extraordinary public covenant to follow the Lord. Edwards wrote the document (and as it was long, I will only mention a few points), but during a day of prayer and fasting all those over 14 years old stood up and agreed among other things that:
1. Any who had defrauded their neighbor in any way would pay full restitution
2. They would renounce backbiting, a spirit of revenge, enmity, ill will, and secret grudges
3. They would “live under the rule of fair business practice and charity”
4. They would renounce their “party spirit” and all judging and ridiculing others either in pubic or in private conversation
5. The young people agreed to live sexually pure lives and avoid any behavior “they would be afraid to engage in if they knew that in a few hours they would have to give account to a holy God”
6. Everyone agreed to “devote our whole lives to be laboriously spent in the business of religion” (which translated into 21 century English simply meant agreeing to live their whole lives passionately serving Jesus)
In addition, one year later they also agreed to take a weekly offering for the poor
Incredibly, despite the awakenings and the covenant, eight years later, in 1750, Edwards was dismissed from his church where he had been for twenty-three years. Many had fallen away from the Lord in the years following the revival and Edwards is very honest recording all this. Edwards was thrown into increasing conflict with his congregation. There were several issues, but the break came after he insisted that only those who showed true evidence of conversion could partake of communion. For this he was virtually run out of town. He was now forty-six, had ten children (one of his daughters had died previously), no income or home, and was seriously in debt.
His earlier commitment to the awakening, which was increasingly regarded as fanaticism by many of the clergy, had already alienated him much from the religious establishment, and now he was disowned by his own church. However, his response was remarkable. For the next seven years, Edwards, America’s greatest philosopher of the Colonial period, became a missionary to the North American Indians in a small frontier town called Stockbridge.
Stockbridge was an experimental community where Indian and English families lived side by side. It was seen as a model community and a prototype for future missions. When Edwards arrived there where 218 Indians, 125 of whom were baptized. About 53 Indian homes had been built, but 23 of them were in good Colonial fashion, English style, homes (how the Indian adapted to bedrooms, bathrooms, and a kitchens after their cozy wigwams we are not told). In addition, 10 English families lived in the town and surrounding area. Edwards was called to be the pastor of the Stockbridge church which was multi-cultural, containing both English and Indian families, but he ended up being the virtual leader of the settlement
Edwards saw no significant awakening during his years in Stockbridge but in typical style he worked furiously, not only on his theological work, which he produced in astonishing quantities, but also in advancing mission initiatives to reach the Indians beyond Stockbridge including sending his ten year old son, who knew the language, on a high risk evangelistic expedition. He had several close friends who were Indians, some of whom had a deep knowledge of scripture and were passionate about evangelism.
However, the Stockbridge experiment slowly failed as more and more English families were moving into the area, buying up cheap land, and tragically, the Indians all eventually left the settlement. Edwards was furious that the English had repeatedly broken their promises to the Indians and acted shamefully as professing Christians.
In 1758, while he was still at Stockbridge, he was invited to become the president of Princeton. He moved to the university ahead of his family, but tragically died three months later from a smallpox inoculation. Edwards was 56 years old.
Sarah, his wife, was an equally remarkable person, and, had on average, a child every two years for the first 22 years of their marriage. Unlike Wesley and Whitfield, Edwards had a very good marriage and although he left all things domestic to Sarah, he was a good father and enjoyed family life.
However, while Edwards spent his 13 hours a day in his study, Sarah, in addition to her responsibilities as a pastor’s wife, was also in charge of her children’s education, and ran what was virtually a guest house as young scholars lived with them to study under Edwards and soldiers were frequently billeted in their home to protect them from the French. And as if this was not enough, she also oversaw the running of the family farm. Somehow she managed to keep her head above water and was also a great woman of prayer. She is perhaps best known for the famous two weeks in 1742 when the Holy Spirit fell on her in the awakening with remarkable visions and manifestations—greater than Edwards himself had ever experienced.
Unlike Wesley, he did not keep a regular journal and was very reticent in speaking about his personal life. Therefore, it makes it hard for a biographer like Marsden to get under his skin and draw an intimate portrait of the man. Edwards was remote and detached in his public persona and always thought he was a poor pastor.
As was normal for his time, he always wore a wig, dressed formally, and read his sermons—even in the revival (he envied people like Whitfield who could speak without notes). However,
despite his remote and detached persona, Edwards loved to sing. He sang in private, he sang with Sarah, he sang with his children, and he taught the Indians to sing. He not only enjoyed it but felt that singing was an indispensable in maintaining one’s walk with the Lord.
As a family they were always hard up and this is one of the reasons for his microscopic handwriting—he simply could not afford the quantity of paper he needed. —To make things worse, he often wrote his theological notes on newspaper, old pamphlets, used envelopes, old prescriptions, and scraps of paper from the fans that his daughters made as a cottage industry to supplement the family income, often binding them all up together when the project was completed. And as I said, this has been a continuous headache for historians trying to access all his original manuscripts.
When he did occasionally travel, he rode a horse, and as he could not write at the same time (no palm pilots being available) he used an interesting memory device. “For each insight he wished to remember he would pin a small piece of [blank] paper on a particular part of his clothing which he [could later] associate with the thought. When he returned home he would unpin these and write down each idea.” At the end of trips lasting several days he would look a bit like a scarecrow, with bits of paper pinned on all over his clothing. Being neatly turned out was apparently not a high priority.
Life for the colonists in the early eighteenth century was very tough (one of his contemporaries in ministry lost thirteen of his fifteen children) and Christian parents felt it was their responsibility to prepare their children for an early death. One of the Edward’s children’s wrote, “nothing is more certain than death, take no delay in the great work of preparing for death.”
However, Edwards may have gone a little far with oldest daughter, Sarah, who tended to be sickly. When she was twelve and away from home, her father wrote reminding her that she had a very weak and infirm body and that she might not live long. He added that in the mean time she would probably have to live without many other comforts other than, “the presence of Christ and communion with him”. As it turns out she lived to be 76!
David Branard, the famous missionary to the Indians, was a good friend of the Edwards and in love with one of their daughters. Branard was expelled from Yale because of his support for the Awakening and spent the next years evangelizing the Indians on the frontier in incredibly tough conditions. He contracted TB and died in the Edwards house at age 29. Edwards broke off from his theological writing and used Brainard’s diaries to write his famous Life of David Branard.
This short biography became his most popular book, and before the American Revolution, it was one of the most widely read books in the Colonies, which is very revealing as its emphasis is on commitment to Christ, losing your life for Jesus, prayer, sacrifice, evangelism, and self denial. By way of contrast, after the Revolution the most widely read book was the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the self made man, with its emphasis on maximizing your potential, acquiring wealth, personal freedom, and self fulfillment. All very different qualities from those admired by Edwards in the young David Branard.
Edwards was two years older than Benjamin Franklin and there is no record of them ever meeting. However, Franklin, who was not an Evangelical, became a very good friend of George Whitfield and had a building constructed in Philadelphia large enough so that Whitfield could preach there whenever he visited the city. In typical style, he also suggested that he and Whitfield start a new colony in Ohio that would be a better example of Christianity to the Indians!
Edwards had many connections in London and was invited to pastor in Scotland, after he was ejected from his Northampton church. Along with most New Englanders of his time, he regarded himself as thoroughly “English”, and many of his theological works were published in London. Along with Isaac Watts, John Wesley, and other notables, he eventually was recognized as one of the fathers of present day Evangelicalism.
It says something about the stature of the man, that in l900, research was published that contrasted twelve hundred descendants of Max Dukes, a notorious contemporary of Edwards, with 1,400 traceable descendants of Jonathan Edwards. “The descendants of Max Dukes, a New York Dutchman…left a legacy that included more than 300 professional [beggars], 50 [prostitutes], 7 murderers, 60 habitual thieves, and 130 other convicted criminals. The Edwards family, by contrast, produced scores of Christian leaders, 13 presidents of universities and colleges, 65 university professors, and many others who had a significant [positive] impact on society.”
Jonathan Edwards still casts a long shadow, and for those of us who are praying for a Great Awakening in our day, his life has much to teach us. If you have not yet read it, the biography by Marsden is a good place to start.