10 Things You Should Know about Jonathan Edwards
No one outside the biblical authors themselves has exerted the influence on me personally as has Jonathan Edwards. So here are ten things you should know about his life and ministry.
(1) Edwards was born October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut. He had 10 sisters (no brothers), all of whom were at least 6 ft. tall! Jonathan’s paternal grandmother was a chronic adulteress who bore another man’s child. She was psychotic, often given to fits of perversity, rage, and threats of violence (her sister murdered her own child and her brother killed another sister with an ax). She eventually deserted her family and was finally divorced by Jonathan’s grandfather. Edwards received extensive theological training from his father during his early years and could read Latin by the age of six, Greek and Hebrew by twelve.
He entered Yale College as an undergraduate at the age of 13 and studied there from 1716 – 1720. This isn’t as surprising as it may seem as the average age for beginning college was 16. He began his studies in September at Connecticut Collegiate School at Wethersfield. In October he moves to New Haven to study in the newly built Yale College but soon returns to Wethersfield because of disagreement with tutor Samuel Johnson. Upon Johnson’s removal, Edwards returns to New Haven in June. During his senior year (during the winter of 1719-20) he fell deathly ill with pleurisy. In September he delivered the valedictory address in Latin.
(2) His conversion is difficult to date, but the likely time was in the spring of 1721. He spoke of it in terms of his response to 1 Timothy 1:17.
“The first that I remember that ever I found anything of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, 1 Tim. 1:17, 'Now unto the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever, Amen.' As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused thro' it, 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 wrapt up to God in Heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in Him. I kept saying, and as it were singing over these words of scripture to myself; and went to prayer, to pray to God that I might enjoy him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do; with a new sort of affection” (Personal Narrative).
(3) From August of 1722 to April of 1723 he served as pastor of a Presbyterian church in New York City. In the late fall of 1722 he began to record his Resolutions. The 70th, and last resolution, was written on August 17th, 1723. In December he started a spiritual diary in which he wrote intermittently from 1722 to 1725, with four additional entries in 1734-35. During this period he also begins the “Catalogue” of books he had read or wished to read. By the time Edwards arrived in New York he had been embroiled for nearly eighteen months in an argument with his father and mother concerning the nature of conversion (Yale 10:261-78). Writing in his Diary on August 12, 1723: “The chief thing, that now makes me in any measure to question my good estate, is my not having experienced conversion in those particular steps wherein the people of New England, and anciently the dissenters of Old England, used to experience it, wherefore, now resolved, never to leave searching till I have satisfyingly found out the very bottom and foundation, the real reason, why they used to be converted in those steps.”
(4) In October of 1722 he writes his first entry in what was to become known as The Miscellanies. These entries, of which there are over 1,400, varied in length from a short paragraph to several pages:
“My method of study, from my first beginning the work of ministry, has been very much by writing; applying myself in this way, to improve every important hint; pursuing the clue to my utmost, when anything in reading, meditation or conversation, has been suggested to my mind, that seemed to promise light in any weighty point. Thus penning what appeared to me my best thoughts, on innumerable subjects for my own benefit. The longer I prosecuted my studies in this method, the more habitual it became, and the more pleasant and profitable I found it” (Letter to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, Oct. 19, 1757).
(5) In 1723 he wrote this poem in praise of Sarah Pierpont, his future wife. She was only 13 at the time and Jonathan was 20.
“They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that almighty Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on him — that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven; being assured that he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love and delight forever. Therefore, if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her actions; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind; especially after those seasons in which this great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, and to wander in the fields and on the mountains, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.”
(6) He was elected tutor at Yale on May 21, 1724, and served there until 1726. He fell into a serious illness in the fall of 1725 that lasted three months: “In this sickness God was pleased to visit me again with the sweet influences of his Spirit. My mind was greatly engaged there, on divine and pleasant contemplations, and longings of soul” (Personal Narrative). In September of 1724 he has an unidentified spiritual crisis that casts him into a depression that lasts for three years. The following entry in his Diary is dated September 26, 1726:
“’Tis just about three years, that I have been for the most part in a low, sunk estate and condition, miserably senseless to what I used to be, about spiritual things. ‘Twas three years ago, the week before commencement; just about the same time this year, I began to be somewhat as I used to be” (Yale, 16:788).
(7) On August 29, 1726, he is asked to assist his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in the church in Northampton. He is ordained on February 15, 1727. On February 11, 1729, Stoddard dies and Edwards becomes pastor of the church. The church in 1735 had approximately 620 members. It was customary for Edwards to spend 13 hours a day in his study. However, contrary to widespread opinion, he was anything but an academic recluse. He was always available both to his family and his congregation and generally received them into his study for counseling and prayer.
Samuel Hopkins (who would later become the only eyewitness to write a biography of Edwards) wrote of him:
“Though he was of tender constitution, yet few students are capable of a closer or longer application, than he was. He commonly spent thirteen hours, every day, in his study. His usual recreation in summer, was riding on horseback and walking. He would commonly, unless prevented by company, ride two or three miles after dinner to some lonely grove, where he would dismount and walk a while. At such times he generally carried his pen and ink with him, to note any thought that might be suggested, and which promised some light on any important subject. In the winter, he was wont, almost daily, to take an axe, and chop wood, moderately, for the space of half an hour or more.”
(8) George Whitefield’s preaching tour of New England, 1740-42, sparks the First Great Awakening. Whitefield arrived in Northampton on October 17 and preached Sunday morning and again in Edwards’ home that evening, as well as three more times over the next two days. Whitefield reported that Edwards “wept during the whole time of the exercise. According to Edwards, “the congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time” (Yale, 4:545).
(9) On June 22, 1750, Edwards was dismissed from Northampton pastorate. Among the reasons most often cited include: his requests for an increase in salary (11 children), his response to “bundling” among the youth, his sermons on the “bad books” and public identification of the innocent (young men in their 20’s, church members, had gained access to a midwives manual that contained images of the female anatomy and took to taunting young women in the town), and, perhaps most important, his opposition to Stoddard's doctrine of the Lord's supper as a “converting ordinance” (together with his determination to revoke the “Half-Way Covenant” as it affected baptism). Of the 230 men who voted, only 23 stood in his favor.
He preached his farewell sermon, July 2, 1750, on 2 Corinthians 1:14. Four days later he wrote to John Erskine: “I am fitted for no other business but study, I should make a poor hand at getting a living by any secular employment. We are in the hands of God, and I bless him, I am not anxious concerning his disposal of us.” Edwards actually continued to fill the pulpit on several occasions from July through November at Northampton after his dismissal.
In June of 1751 he settles in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, as pastor and missionary to the Indians. During his time there he finishes four major theological treatises: A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the modern prevailing Notions of Freedom of the Will; Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World; The Nature of True Virtue; and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin defended.
(10) On February 16, 1758, he is installed as President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). In his letter of October 19, 1757, Edwards responded to the invitation of the Trustees that he take up this new position. Among the reasons why he felt unfit for the task is the following:
“I have a constitution in many respects peculiar unhappy, attended with flaccid solids, vapid, sizy and scarce fluids, and a low tide of spirits; often occasioning a kind of childish weakness and contemptibleness of speech, presence, and demeanor; with a disagreeable dullness and stiffness, much unfitting me for conversation, but more especially for the government of a college” (Yale, 16:726). He also cited what he believed was his deficiency “in some parts of learning, particularly in algebra, and the higher parts of mathematics.”
One month after assuming his position at Princeton, Edwards was inoculated for smallpox (February 23rd). He contracted a fever from which he died on March 22. His final words were written to his daughter, Lucy:
“Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father who will never fail you.”
Sarah was herself quite ill when she received the news by letter. On April 3, she wrote to her daughter Esther:
“What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be. Your ever affectionate mother, Sarah Edwards.”
Sarah Edwards dies from dysentery in Philadelphia on October 2, 1758. She was 48.