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Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) stands as one of the most opposing figures in American theology. In his biography of Edwards, George Marsden was correct to regrad Edwards as “by many estimates…the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians.”[1] Even with such ability and depth in theology, Edwards maintained a central focus on his pastoral responsibility, as well as his personal life in relation to God.

Jonathan Edwards was the son of Timothy and Ester Stoddard Edwards. Jonathan was the only son with 10 sisters—four older and six younger. Timothy was the pastor of the church at East Windsor, Connecticut, and his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, was the pastor of the church at church at Northampton, Massachusetts. In his days as a boy, Edwards observed his father Timothy engage in a deep question of a theology of the sacraments, clergy responsibility, and church membership with Stoddard, and the community at large.

At the age of 13, Edwards was sent to Yale College to continue his education. In his time at Yale, he distanced himself from his classmates and peers based on his moral standing, and their (perceived) immorality. Edwards had deep internal struggles with his own conversion, as well as his perspective of God’s sovereignty. Edwards’s father, Timothy, focused his pastoral ministry on evangelism and conversion. As it was, from boyhood Edwards himself wrestled deeply with the question of God’s sovereignty over human conversion, and only after an experience in college, in 1721, after reading 1 Timothy 1:17 that his view of God expanded to see God a good, beautiful, and sovereign over the universe.

In 1722 Edwards moved to New York City as a supply pastor to a small Presbyterian church. Edwards was 19 years old, had a view of the moral life shaped by his Puritan heritage, felt a constant need to confess his sin, and maintained a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty. After living in New York for some time, his father set him up for a position at a church in Connecticut. Edwards’s cosmopolitan experience in New York opened the door for him to continue to apply his philosophical and scientific mind to the theological question of religious affections, on which he would write later in life.

In 1723, Edwards accepted a pastoral position in Bolton, though less than a year later he took the position of tutor at Yale. Some four years later, after battling significant illness and spiritual depression, Edwards found himself well and ordained as an assistant pastor to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard at the church in Northampton. In July of that same year, Edwards married Sarah Pierpont, whom he had known at least since his time at Yale, and just one year later they had their first child, also named Sarah.

Edwards was mentored by his grandfather for six years, until Stoddard died and Edwards accepted the position of pastor at the same church in 1729. The most significant pastoral contributions from Edwards were made during his time at this church in Northampton.

Edwards’s association with the First Great Awakening occurred during his tenure at this church. Around 1731, he began to notice a spiritual awakening among the people he pastored. However, that revival spirit seemed to simmer out, until it was finally rekindled when George Whitefield traveled across the Atlantic and preached to the masses throughout the colonies. Edwards was a supporter of Whitefield, and followed up Whitefield’s itinerate preaching with his own sermon series on the parable of the sower, exhorting his congregation not to be like the seed that fell on the rock, which sprang up quickly only to be scorched by the sun and die on rocky soil from lack of deep roots. Even more, in the wake of Whitefield’s preaching, Edwards’s community, and even his own family, began to experience spiritual awakening. This set the stage that famous sermon,Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

While witnessing the revival that he had hoped for, Edwards also had to fight against the undesired results that pitted reasonagainst affections. Edwards contested Charles Chauncy, who tried to argue, “an enlighten mind, and not raised affections, ought always be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things.”[2] In the awakenings that Edwards promoted, affections were never at war with reason. This spurred Edwards to write Religious Affectionsto clarify his point: “True religion, in a great part, consists of holy affections.” [3]

By 1741, Edwards’s relationship with the church and city was becoming tumultuous, through various issues of both life and doctrine. The controversy between the pastor and his people came to a fever pitch in 1750, at which time Edwards was dismissed from his congregation, preaching his farewell sermon on July 1, 1750. In the following year, Edwards relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and became the pastor of a frontier church and missionary to the nearby Indian villages. He served in this role for more than six years, even through severe sickness, distress, and difficulties in life.

Edwards’s son-in-law, Aaron Burr Sr. (father to Aaron Burr Jr., the third vice president of the United States), who was married to Edwards’s daughter Ester, was the president of College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University). When Burr died, the college invited Edwards to fill the vacancy of presidency, which he did until his own death

Jonathan Edwards had a brilliant mind, an abiding love for hot chocolate, a less-than-booming voice (actually described as “squeaky”), was kicked out of his church (only to be asked to guest preach until a replacement could be appointed, which he accepted), went onmission to the Indian tribes in Stockbridge, and succeeded his son-in-law as president of Princeton University (then, the College of New Jersey). He is most well know for his 1741 sermonSinners in the Hands of an Angry God—an American literary classic—and “the most famous episode in Edwards’ career.”[4]

–THS


[1]George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004),1.

[2]Ibid., 281. Emphasis original to author.

[3]Ibid., 16.

[4]Ibid., 218.

Where to Begin

The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards

A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George M. Marsden