Jonathan Edwards

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Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 - March 22, 1758) was a colonial American Congregationalist preacher and theologian. He was a prominent leader of the east-coast revivals of the 1730s and 1740s known as the Great Awakening, which defined Christianity in the new world as distinctive from its European forms and allowed it to adapt to a democratic society. At the same time he is known as one of the greatest and most profound American evangelical theologians; he explicated the fundamentals of Reformed Calvinism according to reason and common sense, relying minimally on arguments from the Bible. Thus he translated America's Puritan heritage, both it's spirituality and it's moral ethos, into a form that would sustain the nation through the revolutionary period and inspire future generations of evangelicals.

Early Life

Jonathan Edwards, born on October 5, 1703, was the son of Timothy Edwards (1669-1758), a minister at East Windsor, Connecticut who eked out his salary by tutoring boys for college. His mother, Esther Stoddard, daughter of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, of Northampton, Massachusetts, seems to have been a woman of unusual mental gifts and independence of character.

Jonathan, their only son, was the fifth of 11 children. He was trained for college by his father and by his elder sisters, all of whom received an excellent education. When ten years old, he wrote a semi-humorous tract on the immateriality of the soul. He was interested in natural history and, at the age of 12, wrote a remarkable essay on the habits of the "flying spider."

He entered Yale College in 1716, just before turning thirteen. In the following year he became acquainted with John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which influenced him profoundly. During his college studies, he kept note books labeled "The Mind," "Natural Science" (containing a discussion of the atomic theory), "The Scriptures" and "Miscellanies," which had a grand plan for a work on natural and mental philosophy, and contained rules for its composition that he drew up himself. Even before his graduation in September 1720, as valedictorian and head of his class, he seems to have had a well-formulated philosophy. The two years after his graduation, he spent in New Haven, Connecticut studying theology.

Edwards was the "stated supply" (a clergyman employed to supply a pulpit for a definite time, but not settled as a pastor) of a small Presbyterian Church in New York City for eight months (1722-1723). The church invited him to remain, but he declined the call, though he wrote later of his great love for his congregants there. After spending two years of study at home, 1724-1726, he became one of the two tutors at Yale, earning for himself the name of "pillar tutor" because of his steadfast loyalty to the college and its orthodox teaching, at a time when Yale's rector (Cutler) and one of her tutors had gone over to the Episcopal Church.

The years 1720 to 1726 are partially recorded in his diary and in the resolutions for his own conduct which he drew up at this time. He had long been an eager seeker after salvation and was not fully satisfied as to his own "conversion" until an experience in his last year in college, when he lost his feeling that the election of some to salvation and of others to eternal damnation was "a horrible doctrine," and reckoned his new feeling to be "exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet." He now took greater joy in the beauties of nature, and delighted in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon. "Holiness," he wrote in his "Personal Narrative," "appeared to me to be of a sweet, pleasant, charming, serene, calm nature; which brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness and ravishment to the soul. In other words, that it made the soul like a field or garden of God, with all manner of pleasant flowers… The soul of a true Christian… appeared like such a little white flower as we see in the spring of the year; low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom to receive the pleasant beams of the sun's glory; rejoicing as it were in a calm rapture, diffusing around a sweet fragrancy; standing peacefully and lovingly, in the midst of other flowers round about, all in like manner opening their bosoms, to drink in the light of the sun." Balancing these mystic joys and perception of Christian community is the stern tone of his Resolutions, in which he is almost ascetic in his eagerness to live earnestly and soberly, to waste no time, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking. Here Edwards reflects the core Calvinist spirituality, that the more we appreciate the glory of God, the more we perceive the depravity and evil of the human rejection of Him.

On February 5, 1727 he was ordained minister at Northampton, Massachusetts and assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard was a pioneer of ministry on what was, in his day, the western Massachusetts frontier, where the clergy known as the "river gods" held sway. Stoddard launched innovations in order to bring the people of the frontier to church, including opening communion to all who would come. Stoddard thus utilized the Communion Table as a converting ordinance, as part of the process of bringing forth regeneration and not as a reward or sealing of salvation. In his preaching Stoddard departed from the traditional Puritan dry discourses to reach the emotions of his hearers. It was his successor, Edwards, who would develop this method of preaching and provide the theological underpinnings for it in his work on the religious affections. At the same time, Edwards rejected his grandfather's opening of the Table, an act that would undermine his position with the congregation decades later.

Edwards was a student minister, not a visiting pastor, his rule being 13 hours of study a day. In the year of his arrival back at Northampton he married Sarah Pierpont, then aged seventeen, daughter of James Pierpont (1659-1714), a founder of Yale and, through her mother, great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker. Of her piety and almost nun-like love of God and belief in His personal love for her, Edwards had known when she was only thirteen, and had written of it with spiritual enthusiasm. She was of a bright and cheerful disposition, a practical housekeeper, a model wife and the mother of his 12 children.

Solomon Stoddard died on February 11, 1729, leaving to his grandson the difficult task of the sole ministerial charge of one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the colony, and one proud of its morality, its culture and its reputation.

Great Awakening

In 1731, Edwards preached at Boston the "Public Lecture" afterward published under the title God Glorified in Man's Dependence. This was his line drawn in the sand, his first public attack on Arminianism. Its leading idea was God's absolute sovereignty in the work of redemption: that while it behooved God to create man holy, it was of His "good pleasure" and "mere and arbitrary grace" that any man was actually made holy, and that God might deny this grace without any disparagement to any of His perfections. In counterpoint to this bleak assessment of the divine-human relationship, Edwards brought forth sermons such as "A Divine and Supernatural Light," explaining the action of God resurrecting the soul.

In 1733, a religious revival began in Northampton, and reached such intensity in the winter of 1734 and the following spring as to threaten the business of the town. In six months, nearly 300 were admitted to the church. The revival gave Edwards an opportunity for studying the process of conversion in all its phases and varieties, and he recorded his observations with psychological minuteness and discrimination in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton (1737). A year later, he published Discourses on Various Important Subjects, the five sermons which had proved most effective in the revival, and of these none, he tells us, was so immediately effective as that on the Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, from the text, "That every mouth may be stopped." Another sermon, published in 1734, on the Reality of Spiritual Light set forth what he regarded as the inner, moving principle of the revival, the doctrine of a special grace in the immediate, and supernatural divine illumination of the soul.

In the spring of 1735, the movement began to subside and a reaction set in. But the relapse was brief, and the Northampton revival, which had spread through the Connecticut valley and whose fame had reached England and Scotland, was followed in 1739-1740 by the Great Awakening, distinctively under the leadership of Edwards. It was at this time that Edwards became acquainted with George Whitefield and preached one of his most famous sermons, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741. Whitefield on his tour of the colonies preached in Edwards's church and moved Edwards to tears.

The movement met with no sympathy from either the orthodox leaders of the church or those moving in a rationalist direction. In 1741, Edwards published in its defense The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, dealing particularly with the phenomena most criticized, the swoonings, outcries and convulsions. These "bodily effects," he insisted, were not distinguishing marks of the work of the Spirit of God one way or another; but so bitter was the feeling against the revival in the more strictly Puritan churches and, on the other side, the liberalizing churches around Boston, that in 1742 he was forced to write a second apology, Thoughts on the Revival in New England, his main argument being the great moral improvement of the country. In the same pamphlet, he defended an appeal to the emotions, and advocated preaching terror when necessary, even to children, who in God's sight "are young vipers ... if not Christ's." He considered "bodily effects" incidentals to the real work of God, but his own mystic devotion and the experiences of his wife during the Awakening (which he gives in detail) make him think that the divine visitation usually overpowers the body, a view in support of which he quotes Scripture. In reply to Edwards, Charles Chauncy anonymously wrote The Late Religious Commotions in New England Considered (1743), urging conduct as the sole test of conversion; and the general convention of Congregational ministers in the Province of Massachusetts Bay protested "against disorders in practice which have of late obtained in various parts of the land."

In spite of Edwards's able pamphlet, the impression had become widespread that "bodily effects" were recognized by the promoters of the Great Awakening as the true tests of conversion. To offset this feeling, Edwards preached at Northampton, during the years 1742 and 1743, a series of sermons published under the title of Religious Affections (1746), a restatement in a more philosophical and general tone of his ideas as to "distinguishing marks." This has been called one of the greatest works in psychology of religion to appear in America, ranking with William James's "Varieties of Religious Experience." He defended the awakening against critics on the right and left, arguing that true religion "consists in the affections. For love is not only one of the affections, but it is the first and chief of the affections, and the fountain of all the affections. From love arises hatred of those things which are contrary to what we love, or which oppose and thwart us in those things that we delight in; … From a vigorous, affectionate, and fervent love to God, will necessarily arise other religious affections; hence will arise an intense hatred and abhorrence of sin, fear of sin, and a dread of God's displeasure, gratitude to God for his goodness, complacence and joy in God, when God is graciously and sensibly present, and grief when he is absent… And in like manner, from a fervent love to men, will arise all other virtuous affections towards men."

In 1747, he joined the movement started in Scotland called the "concert in prayer," and in the same year published An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom on Earth. In 1749, he published a memoir of David Brainerd. The latter had lived in his family for several months; had been constantly attended by Edwards's daughter Jerusha, to whom he had been engaged to be married; had died at Northampton on the October 7, 1747; and was a case in point for the theories of conversion held by Edwards, who had made elaborate notes of Brainerd's conversations and confessions.

Edwards' ideas were compatible with scientific developments in his age. He was fascinated by the discoveries of Isaac Newton and other scientists of his time. While he was worried about the excessive faith in reason and materialism of some of his contemporaries, he saw the laws of science as derived from God. Hence, scientific discoveries could not threaten his faith. For him there was no conflict between the spiritual and material worlds.

From Northampton to Stockbridge

In 1748 a crisis developed in his relations with his congregation. The Half-Way Covenant, adopted by the synods of 1657 and 1662, had made baptism alone the condition to the civil privileges of church membership, but not of participation in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Edwards's grandfather and predecessor, Solomon Stoddard, had been even more liberal, holding that the Supper was a converting ordinance and that baptism was a sufficient title to all the privileges of the church. As early as 1744, Edwards, in his sermons on the Religious Affections, had plainly intimated his dislike of this practice. In the same year, he had published in a church meeting the names of certain young people, members of the church, who were suspected of reading improper books, including a manual for midwives, and also the names of those who were to be called as witnesses in the case. It has often been reported that the witnesses and accused were not distinguished on this list, and so, therefore, the entire congregation was in an uproar over Edwards's efforts at "suppressing vice among our young people," as he put it in his Farewell Sermon, "which gave so great offense, and by which I became so obnoxious." However, Patricia Tracy's research has cast doubt on this version of the events, noting that in the list, he read from, the names were definitely distinguished. Those involved were eventually disciplined for disrespect to the investigators rather than for the original incident. In any case, the incident further deteriorated the relationship between Edwards and the congregation. In a time of significant cultural foment, he was associated with the old guard.

Edwards's preaching became unpopular. For four years, no candidate presented himself for admission to the church, and when one did, in 1748, he was met with Edwards's formal but mild and gentle tests, as expressed in the Distinguishing Marks and later in Qualifications for Full Communion (1749). The candidate refused to submit to them, the church backed him and the break between the church and Edwards was complete. Even permission to discuss his views in the pulpit was refused him. The ecclesiastical council voted that the pastoral relation be dissolved. The church members, by a vote of more than 200 to 23, ratified the action of the council, and finally a town meeting voted that Edwards should not be allowed to occupy the Northampton pulpit, though he did this on occasion as late as May 1755. He evinced no rancor or spite; his "Farewell Sermon" was dignified and temperate, appealing to the judgment of God in eternity between him and the church; nor is it to be ascribed to chagrin that in a letter to Scotland after his dismissal he expresses his preference for Presbyterian to Congregational church government. His position at the time was not unpopular throughout New England; his doctrine that the Lord's Supper is not a cause of regeneration and that communicants should be professing Christians has since (very largely through the efforts of his pupil Joseph Bellamy) become a standard of New England Congregationalism.

Edwards with his large family was now thrown upon the world, but offers of aid quickly came to him. A parish in Scotland could have been procured, and he was called to a Virginia church. He declined both, to become, in 1750, pastor of the church in Stockbridge and a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. To the Indians, he preached through an interpreter, and their interests he boldly and successfully defended by attacking the whites who were using their official positions among them to increase their private fortunes. In Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he wrote the Humble Relation, also called Reply to Williams (1752), which was an answer to Solomon Williams (1700-1776), a relative and a bitter opponent of Edwards as to the qualifications for full communion; and he there composed the treatises on which his reputation as a philosophical theologian chiefly rests, the essay on Original Sin, the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, the Dissertation Concerning the End for which God created the World, and the great work on the Will, written in four-and-a-half months, and published in 1754 under the title, An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Motions Respecting that Freedom of the Will which is supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency.

In this landmark work he argued for the compatibility of human actions being entirely predetermined and human beings being morally accountable, worthy of blame for the evil and praise for good that they do. "Freedom" he defined as the ability to do what one wants to do and not as a quality of the choices one makes. Edwards wrote that a choice is an effect, and "it is clearly manifest, that every effect has a necessary connection with its cause, or with that which is the true ground and reason of its existence. And therefore if there be no event without a cause, as was proved before, then no event whatsoever is contingent in the manner that Arminians suppose the free acts of the will to be contingent… every act of the will is some way connected with the understanding, and is as the greatest apparent good is… the soul always wills or chooses that which, in the present view of the mind, considered in the whole of that view, and all that belongs to it, appears most agreeable. Because… nothing is more evident than that, when men act voluntarily, and do what they please, then they do what appears most agreeable to them; and to say otherwise, would be as much as to affirm, that men don't choose what appears to suit them best, or what seems most pleasing to them; or that they don't choose what they prefer. Which brings the matter to a contradiction" (83-84). An uncaused choice does not exist. Every choice is an effect and, if God is omniscient, then God knows one's heart, inclination and all causes that impinge on the person's choice, and thus knows what the person will choose. To take choice outside the realm of causation, as Edwards asserted the "Arminians" did, is to render it not choice but chance, and thus to void it of moral significance.

At Stockbridge Edwards also wrote "The Nature of True Virtue," where he argued that "true virtue must chiefly consist in love to God, the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best" (14). By this he means, "the primary object of virtuous love is being, simply considered; or that true virtue primarily consists, not in love to any particular beings, because of their virtue or beauty, nor in gratitude, because they love us; but in a propensity and union of heart to being simply considered; exciting absolute benevolence, if I may so call it, to being in general" (8). The Nature of True Virtue was to have been part of an overall work of theology, which was never completed due to Edwards' untimely death.

Move to Princeton

In 1757, on the death of the Reverend Aaron Burr, who five years before had married Edwards's daughter Esther and was the father of future United States vice-president Aaron Burr, he was voted in as the third president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), replacing Burr. He reluctantly accepted the charge and was installed on the February 16, 1758. On January 8, 1758, he preached his farewell sermon at Stockbridge, and on February 16 he was formally inaugurated as college president.

Almost immediately after becoming president, he was inoculated for smallpox, which was raging in Princeton, New Jersey and vicinity, and, always feeble, he died of the inoculation on the March 22, 1758. He was buried in Princeton Cemetery along with his daughter Esther, who died two weeks later, and his widow Sarah, who died that autumn. Edwards had three sons and eight daughters.

Preceded by:
Aaron Burr, Sr.
President of Princeton University
Succeeded by:
Samuel Davies


The followers of Jonathan Edwards and his disciples came to be known as the New Light Calvinist ministers, as opposed to the traditional Old Light Calvinist ministers. Prominent disciples included Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy and Jonathan Edwards' son Jonathan Edwards Jr. Through them Edwards set the key themes and positions for theological discussion in New England for the first half of the nineteenth-century. Edwards's views on the freedom of the will, virtue, God's purpose of creation and, most importantly, the religious affections, have garnered the attention of evangelical thinkers to this day. In addition, through a practice of apprentice ministers living in the homes of older ministers, they eventually filled a large number of pastorates in the New England area. Many of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards' descendants became prominent citizens in the United States, including the Vice President Aaron Burr and the College Presidents Timothy Dwight, Jonathan Edwards Jr. and Merrill Edwards Gates.

The Great Awakening, of which Edwards played a critical role as preacher, reporter and provider of theological reflections, laid what scholars such as Alan Heimart and Perry Miller view as the spiritual foundation for the American revolution. Edwards respected his congregation's right to self-governance, viewing their vote to oust him as "God in his providence, now calling me to part with you." Developing Lockean psychology in an evangelical context, he justified the strong claim of God and religion upon the individual in a democratic society. He acted, as minister, completely the servant of the congregation whose task it was to awaken their consciences and bring them by their own decision into God's kingdom as teacher, exhorter, confessor and, hopefully, model. He based his theology on personal spiritual experience, reason, observation and the common meaning of words, not scripture, thus setting the parameters for American religious thought ever since.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Edwards, Jonathan. The Nature of True Virtue. University of Michigan, 1960. ISBN 0472060376
  • Edwards, Jonathan. Freedom of the Will. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969. ISBN 0672603608
  • Simonson, Harold P., Ed., Selected Writings of Jonathan Edwards. Frederick Ungar, 1970. ISBN 1577663314

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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