Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758, Bib.Scholar, Preacher
AUTHOR: Unknown
PUBLISHED ON: March 17, 2003
PUBLISHED IN: Biographies

Jonathan Edwards  BORN: October 5, 1703

East Windsor, Connecticut
DIED: March 22, 1758
Princeton, New Jersey
LIFE SPAN: 54 years, 5 months, 17 days
{SCT}THE DREAM OF MOST PREACHERS is to have the proper balance of
knowledge and zeal, brain and brawn, faith and works, head and
heart. If there ever was such a preacher it would be Edwards.
Many theologians and Bible teachers would strike out in a
soul-winning ministry. Likewise, many who turn others to
righteousness could seldom score a point in defending the faith
in some tribunal. But Jonathan Edwards’ combination of reason and
passion causes many to believe America never knew a preacher who
excelled in both areas as Edwards did.
     His story begins with his heritage. His father, Timothy, was
pastor of the local Congregational church for 64 years. His
mother, Esther, who died in 1770, was the daughter of Solomon
Stoddard, pastor of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts for
over 50 years–the same church that Jonathan Edwards would some
day pastor. Edwards was born the same year another baby by the
name of John Wesley was born in England.
     Edwards was the fifth child and only son among eleven
children. He grew up in an atmosphere of Puritan piety, affection
and learning.
     At six he studied Latin. By age seven he had some encounter
with God. He had a rigorous schedule of schooling at home. At age
nine he composed a brief paper on the nature of souls. His first
recorded interest in spiritual things came at ten during a
revival at his father’s church. He and his playmates built a
“prayer booth” in a swamp. Often he and his chums talked to God
in the woods. At twelve he wrote about revival like a seasoned
saint. He later also wrote his famous essay on the spider, which
became a pioneer work in the history of American natural science.
This essay, written shortly before he went to college, exhibits
his remarkable powers of observation and analysis. He habitually
studied with pen in hand, recording his thoughts in numerous
hand-sewn notebooks.
     He entered Yale University when not quite 13 years of age in
the fall of 1716. Before going to Yale he was acquainted with
Latin, Greek and Hebrew, having a working knowledge of the same
under the tutorship of father and four older sisters. The school
was then called Collegiate School of Connecticut. As such, the
school had no certain home, and much of Edwards’ course was spent
in Weathersfield, Connecticut, but before he graduated, the
college had ceased wandering. During his second year in college
he read with profit Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding. He
graduated valedictorian of his class from the New Haven campus in
September, 1720, receiving his B.D. (or B.A.).
     He remained at New Haven for two years after this, studying
divinity subjects. He was licensed to preach in mid-1722. Had he
not absorbed himself with theology, he would have become one of
the great philosophers of his time. About this time came an
incident that gave him assurance about his salvation. He had
always thought himself a Christian from childhood days. While
meditating one day on I Timothy 1:17 the truth hit him. There
came into his soul “a sense of the glory of the Divine Being.” He
thought, “How excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should
be if I might enjoy that God…and be as it were swallowed up in
Him forever.” That’s exactly what happened. Prior to this he
struggled with God’s absolute sovereighty, but now it was
“exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet.”
     He then took an eight-month pastorate in New York City in a
Presbyterian church (August 1722 to April 1723). One source says
he left the church May 21, 1724, to September, 1726. On January
12, 1723, he entered into his diary, “I made salvation the main
business of my life.” He also made a resolution, “Never to do any
manner of things, whether in soul or body, less, but what tends
to the glory of God…” He returned to Yale as a tutor from 1724
to September, 1726, receiving his M.A. degree in September, 1723.
He became a distinguished scholar and a preacher of great ability
and his services were sought by several churches. February 15,
1727, he became ordained and joined his grandfather as associate
     On July 28, he married Sarah Pierrepont of New Haven. The
bride was but seventeen but possessed an unusual degree of tact
and sweetness of character, and proved a most valuable helpmate
to the young minister. Their home life was nearly ideal. George
Whitefield, while visiting them in 1740, was so impressed that he
wrote in glowing terms of their ideal marriage. Eleven children
were born to them, eight daughters and three sons. The children
were Sarah, the eldest (1728), who would marry Elisha Parsons in
June, 1750; Jerusha (1731), who died in 1748, just a few months
following the death of the man she loved, David Brainerd; Esther
(1732), who would later marry Aaron Burr, Princeton’s first
president, and have a child, Aaron, Jr., who would be a major
political figure in the early history of the new American nation.
Esther Edwards Burr died on April 7, 1758, just two weeks after
the death of her father, from the same smallpox inoculation that
took his life–and only seven months after her own husband’s
passing. Then there was Mary, who later married Timothy Dwight of
Northampton in November, 1750, who became parents of the famed
educator Timothy Dwight Jr. Other children of Jonathan and Sarah
Edwards were: Lucy, Timothy (1738), Sussanah, Eunice, Jonathan
(March 26, 1745), who became a great preacher in his own right;
Elizabeth; and Pierrepont, their youngest and last, born in
April, 1750. A 12th child died in infancy.
     Ten of these children survived Edwards.
     The Edwards family tree has produced scores of preachers,
university presidents and men of the highest character in many
fields. It might be noted that Sarah’s father was the pastor in
New Haven from 1685 to 1714. When Stoddard died on February 11,
1729, Edwards became the pastor of the most important church in
Massachusetts except for Boston. For over 20 years he was to have
one of the more renown and God-blessed pastorates in history. His
first published sermon was one given in Boston on July 8, 1731,
titled, God Glorified in the Work of Redemption by the Greatness
of Man’s Dependence upon Him, in the Whole of It. Edwards blamed
New England’s moral ills on its assumption of religious and moral
self-sufficiency. Thus began his lifelong fight against
     Edwards worked hard, spending as much as thirteen hours a
day in his study. Northampton was a small city of wealth and
culture. At the same time there was a good deal of vulgarity and
looseness of life to undermine morals. By 1734 he was openly
attacking Arminianism which was becoming popoular. Then came a
series of sermons in November of 1734 on the theme “Justification
by Faith Alone.”
     At once half a dozen people were converted. One was a young
woman, a natural leader among the young people of the town, who
had been living a notorious, gay and dissipated life. Edwards had
not heard of her conversion until she came to his study, in
humble penitence, to converse with him about her soul. As news of
the conversion spread through the town, many others, both old and
young, acknowledged that God alone could produce so sudden and
marked a change in such a life.
     This news spread to other towns and numerous revivals broke
out in other places throughout New England and continued for
several years. A great revival broke out in the winter and spring
of 1734-35, during which time there were more than 300
professions of faith. This was about half of the 670 membership.
     As he went about his visitation, Edwards carried a burden
for souls and his words fell with authority of the Holy Spirit
upon them. He spoke in a quiet, calm tone, unlike the stormy
type, but inspiration and warmth were felt. He recorded some of
his accounts during this time in a book called Faithful Narrative
of the Surprising Work of God (1737).
     The awakening in 1740-41 throughout the colonies was led by
evangelist George Whitefield. However, pastors like Gilbert
Tennent in New Jersey and Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts
provided the climate for Whitefield’s preaching. Edwards surely
was the spiritual father of the “first great awakening,” for New
England is where it started. New England’s population was about
300,000 and it is estimated some 60,000 were saved during this
period, a half of these being previously unconverted church
members. Heavenly power swept from Northampton to 150 towns and
cities of the North. For 20 years the revival fires blazed and
from them sprang 120 new Congregational churches! Whitefield was
in Northampton October 17-20, 1740.
     Edwards kept his congregation free from violent emotional
reactions as was happening some places. However, on several
occasions, he was right in the middle of such happenings. His
sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, first preached at
Enfield, Connecticut, on Sunday, July 8, 1741, has long been
recognized as one of the great sermons of history. During the
previous night godly women had prayed for a spiritual visitation.
It came.
     A special service had been called for by a group of
ministers with Edwards as the speaker for the afternoon session.
As the ministers entered the meeting place, they were shocked by
the levity of the congregation. They appeared thoughtless and
vain, and hardly conducted themselves with common decency. As
Edwards preached, he used no gestures but stood motionless. His
left elbow leaned on the pulpit, and his left hand held his
notes. His text was Deuteronomy 32:35, Their foot shall slide in
due time! Strong men held onto their seats, feeling they were
sliding into hell! Men shook, some losing their reason. His words
would so grip the audience that they felt, should he cease
speaking, the doom he pronounced would immediately come upon
them. He flashed before the people the fiery prospects of eternal
damnation, as hell was a living reality to him. Yet, unlike
Whitefield, he did it with calm tones. So vivid was his
imagination that he could graphically picture the eternal
torments of the lost. The theme of the message was, “The God that
holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or
some loathsome insect, over a fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully
     Men and women stood up and rolled on the floor, their cries
once drowning out the voice of the preacher. Some are said to
have laid hold on the pillars and braces of the church,
apparently feeling that at that very moment their feet were
sliding, that they were being precipitated into Hell.
     Through the night, Enfield was like a beleaguered city. In
almost every house, men and women could be heard crying out for
God to save them. Before it was all over 500 were saved in the
community that day. Someone has said about that sermon, “New
England might forgive it, but she could never forget it.”
     The revival spirit continued for years to come, despite much
controversy concerning it. Criticism came naturally from high-
brow and near atheistic places. However many Christians
criticized the excesses, disorders and civil disruptions
associated with the revival. Edwards personally rebuked
Whitefield for some of this, but as a whole maintained that it
was the work of God to be furthered and purified. He wrote
several books defending what God was doing, The Distinguishing
Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Thoughts on the
Revival (1742), and A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections
(1746), a book in which he attempted to answer the question,
“What is the nature of true religion?” A close friendship with
David Brainerd began in September, 1743, and ended in 1747, as
Edwards conducted his funeral.
     In the backlash of the revival the people of Northampton
were left exhausted and irritable. Edwards was accused of
haughtiness, his family of extravagance of dress. In March, 1744,
he alienated many of the leading citizens by the way he conducted
an investigation into certain activities of their children, who
were supposed to have circulated books with indecent speech.
     He also attacked the custom of “bundling,” where young
courting people fully clothed would lie in bed. He charged, “It
is one of those things that lead and and expose to sin.” He also
called upon the youth to stop attending worldly amusements such
as the dance. His popularity began to decline when he began
stepping on toes. His position was correct, but perhaps he did
not exercise great skill in handling people. For example, from
the pulpit he read a list of those who were to meet a church-
appointed committee of inquiry, not distinguishing between those
who were to appear as witnesses and those who were accused.
     However, the big issue for many years was the “Half-Way
Covenant” that Edwards said was wrong. Stoddard for many years
had instituted a practice of admitting to the Lord’s Supper
ordinance all who were “in the covenant” even though they were
not converted. This meant if your parents or grandparents were
“in the faith” you could participate. People then considered
themselves as Christians, with the Lord’s Supper becoming the
saving ordinance. In essence, this was filling the church with
unsaved people. Not only the Lord’s Supper, but baptism was
involved. This covenant allowed baptized parents to have their
own children baptized, regardless of whether they or the children
were converted. Edwards’ abhorrence of shallow revivalism and
emotional excesses caused him to insist that a real conversion
meant living a responsible, moral life; hence, he began to
tighten up his requirement for church membership. This caused
opposition in the Northampton congregation. Edwards simply came
to the conclusion that a born-again experience was necessary–not
mere doctrinal knowledge, godly parents or a moral life–in order
to have communion. In 1749 he publicly declared these matters,
insisting on some statement as to conversion and convictions,
refusing to administer the Lord’s Supper to those not willing to
declare their faith or live a Christian life. The church and town
rebelled, and after a controversy of exceeding bitterness,
Edwards was fired on June 22, 1750, by a vote of 230 to 23. On
July 2, 1750, he preached his Farewell Sermon. Edwards wrote two
books defending his position, Qualifications for Communion (1749)
and A Reply to Solomon Williams (1752), who was a pastor at
Lebanon, Connecticut. Edwards’ position was vindicated later and
facilitated the separation of church and state after the
Revolution. Years later many of his parishioners wrote him,
asking for forgiveness.

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