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The Molding of Jonathan Edwards

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Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

A period of exceptional religious zeal, popularly called the Great Awakening, took place in the American colonies, spontaneously, in the decades preceding the American Revolutionary War.  One of the heralds of this new period was Jonathan Edwards.  Such was his effect upon the history of the North American continent that even the secular history books find that they, too, must give account of this man.  He conceived his purpose to show the public the Father; to urge them, through his writing in his preaching, to a greater understanding of God; and to maintain a deep personal relationship with him.

If there is one single factor that makes a biographical study of Jonathan Edwards difficult, it is the veritable plethora of information to be drawn from.  That numerous biographies of him are in circulation is evident upon first perusing the library catalog.  Then there are the many writings of the late minister himself to be pored over for meaty tidbits of insight into his personality and mental processes, not to mention the studies and critiques written on his works.  Once the chaff has been shaken from the wheat, there is still quite a lot of wheat left to deal with.  Therefore, a brief study must be severely limited in scope, targeting fixed objectives—and, in this case, encompassing his early life only.  The concentration of this paper, then, will be up on Edwards’ developing years:  his development, primarily spiritual and personal, and secondarily intellectual, into a man so obviously a cut above the ordinary, molded into an instrument of the revelation of the Almighty to his fellow men, lifted up and exalted by the sovereign will of God, and leaving an indelible mark upon both American and church history.

How does God choose a man, and use that mere earthen vessel to pour out his Word in the Spirit upon others?  Who, in fact, does He choose, and is there any rhyme or reason to it that mere mortals can hope to grasp?

Consider David, who became the great king of God’s chosen people.  He was an unknown shepherd, the youngest of eight sons of Jesse.  Scripture records that while he kept the sheep, the flock had been attacked by a lion and a bear, and he had killed each of them in hand-to-hand combat.1  Before David had ever come before King Saul, he had gained some notoriety as “a mighty, valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters. . . .”2  But did God choose him for his mettle—for what he had become in the natural—or had He chosen him long before, and molded him into what He would have him to be?  Did David, indeed, have an outstanding character, or was that character instilled in him by the power and presence of God?  It is a great mystery.

There was much discussion in earlier times about the importance of breeding in the molding of great men.  Whether high character, with all its associated attributes—culture, intellect, innovation, foresight, honesty, forthrightness, diligence, discernment, etc. —are actually transmitted by heredity or simply passed along by the less noble means of education and exposure during the growth process, is subject to some question.  Either way, there is much evidence that Jonathan Edwards was, to a large extent, influenced by his forebears.

The Edwards family back in England had been of ministerial stock.  Clerics, even Puritans, were given a high place on the social scale among their peers.  This ecclesiastical Edwards dynasty was cut short when great-great-grandfather Richard, having already sired son William, died of the plague in 1625.  Young William Edwards’ mother was remarried to James Coles, a cooper (a barrelmaker, an unglamorous trade).  William, not by choice, was raised to carry on his stepfather’s business, the only trade Mr. Coles was able to teach him.

William was eventually to emigrate to new England, evidently disposed to improve his lot in the more free and open economic climate, as well as to escape the entrenched disdain of Puritans by the Anglican majority in his native land.  In those early days, the new England frontier began not so very far from the ship’ s dock.  The life of frontier Puritans was one of hard work and hardship, and future Edwardses were to develop a sturdy constitution.

The trek to better economic fortunes paid off, for William’s son Richard Edwards was to improve his station from that of mere tradesman to that of merchantman.  Richard was able to send his son Timothy to Harvard to obtain a formal education.

Timothy Edwards studied six years at Harvard, intent upon entering the ministry.  He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in two separate ceremonies held on the same day, July 4, 1694.  The reason for both undergraduate and graduate degrees being granted simultaneously is unclear.  After graduation he moved to the frontier village of East Windsor, Connecticut, where he pioneered a pastorate.  Though never achieving for himself any fame, he served his congregation respectably and faithfully for sixty-four years.3

Timothy married Esther Stoddard, one of the daughters of the influential Reverend Solomon Stoddard.  He was of great renown in the Connecticut River Valley, referred to by the Indians as “The White Man’s God.”4  Stoddard had waged a doctrinal war with the famous Cotton and Increase Mather for over a decade, and had emerged victorious.5  Esther Stoddard, who was to become the mother of Jonathan Edwards, inherited his forceful character.

Jonathan was born on October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, the only boy among ten sisters.  All the Edwards children were tall.  Timothy Edwards was known to refer as his “sixty feet of daughters.”6  Jonathan, as the only male sibling, was in line for special treatment.  From an early age, he was tutored at home.  His diligent parents made sure he was well grounded in the “basics”:  arithmetic, algebra, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, rhetoric, and logic.7  He became an avid reader—books in that day were rare and considered precious, but he managed to read widely in the important contemporary works.  Edwards’ own writings show that he was greatly influenced by the philosophy of John Locke, the science of Isaac Newton, the theology of Richard Baxter, and even the fiction of Daniel Defoe.

From childhood, Edwards expressed a great love for the outdoors—the countryside, the seashore, and all of nature.  He said to himself, “sometimes on fair days I find myself more particularly disposed to regard the glories of the world than to betake myself to the study of serious religion.”8

He and an immensely inquisitive mind:  “When I was yet a child, no children’s play to me was pleasing; all my mind was set serious to learn and know. . . .”9  While others his age were given to frivolous activities, young Jonathan was reading, writing, and—with eyes wide and mind open—observing.  It was his observation of those tiny creatures that live and move all about us, and the relentless drive to understand, that led him to write his earliest known literary work, “Of Insects,” at the tender age of eleven.

“Of Insects,” like other of his early works such as “Of the Rainbow” and “Notes on Natural Science,” was the product of a mind that would not—could not—stop thinking.  Here was a natural student, a boy who could not be content to know the facts, but who must always know why things are the way they are.  “Of Insects” was in no way a literary masterpiece.  In fact, the text is fraught with run-on sentences.  However, eleven-year-old Edwards shows himself to have developed an extensive vocabulary, and to wield a depth of philosophical thought far beyond his years.  This depth of thought was presently to astound the men of his generation, as it still does today.

As in the case with all the sons of men, though they be raised in a religious atmosphere and instilled with the most stringent Christian ethics, each must necessarily make his own personal commitment with the Almighty.  Such was the case with Jonathan Edwards.  In his own words:

I had a variety of concerns and exercises about my soul from my childhood; but had two more remarkable seasons of awakening before I met with that change by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things that I have since had.  The first time was when I was a boy, some years before I went to college, at a time of remarkable awakening in my father’s congregation.  I was then very much affected for many months, and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul’s salvation; and was abundant in duties.10

And again,

The first time that I remember that ever I found anything of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that has lived in me since, was on reading those words of I Timothy 1:17, “Now unto the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory forever and ever.  Amen.”11

The Puritan society in which Edwards lived was staunchly Calvinistic.  Their doctrine included that of Unconditional Predestination, the belief that God had chosen which souls would be saved and which would be damned at the beginning, and the individual was powerless to change or resist the divine plan.  The logical mind of Edwards, intent upon knowing the reasons why, rather than blindly accepting established views as fact, did not easily accept this:

From my childhood up, my mind has been wont to be full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom He would to eternal life, and rejecting whom He pleased, leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly in Hell.  It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me.  But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and His justice in thus eternally disposing of  men, according to His sovereign pleasure.  But never could I give account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced; not in the least imagining, in the time of it, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it.12

Edwards had had doubts about this doctrine, but could not easily cast aside what had been drilled into him all his life.  Though unable to totally justify it in his mind, he finally came to the point where he was able to accept it in faith.  He was evidently resolved not to worry about it any longer.

At the tender age of thirteen he entered Yale College, in New Haven, Connecticut.  Yale, like Harvard and other New England colleges, had been founded by the Puritan Fathers with the training of future ministers in mine.  It was not entirely unusual for students to enter college so young in those days, but Jonathan was nevertheless younger than most of his peers.

In 1722, Edwards completed a stint of four years of undergraduate study and two years as a theology student.  He had distinguished himself in his studies, giving the valedictory address.  Then he traveled to New York City to begin serving as a minister in a Presbyterian Church, a time of solid, practical training for him.

In April of 1723, he returned to East Windsor for the summer, intending to serve at Yale as a tutor the next term.  He was subsequently to enter into what was probably the most trying period of his life, and a time of great emotional and spiritual growth.  It is fortunate for the historian that he kept a private journal during this period.  Many of the entries speak of his deep soul-searching attitude.  For example:

The reason why I, in the least, question my interest in God’s love and favor, is, —1.  Because I cannot speak so fully to my experience of that preparatory work, of which divines speak.  —2.  I do not remember that I experienced regeneration, in those steps, in which divines say that it is generally wrought, —3.  I do not feel the Christian graces sensibly enough, particularly faith.  I fear they are only such hypocritical outside affections, which wicked men may feel, as well as others.  They do not seem to be sufficiently inward, full, sincere, entire, and hearty.  They do not seem so substantial, and so wrought into my very nature, as I could wish.  —4.  Because I am sometimes guilty of sins of omission and commission.  Lately I have doubted, whether I do not transgress in evil speaking.13

The rector (president) of Yale, Timothy Cutler, had been a mentor to Jonathan when he first entered the school, and the young student had great respect for him.  Cutler had been trained in the Church of England, not unusual since Puritan institutions were a recent development, but when he began displaying strongly Episcopal leanings he was dismissed, along with three like-minded tutors.  This left only Jonathan and two other tutors to bear the bulk of the burden of discipline and organization.  These tutors were overworked in preparing and conducting lessons, the students had become unruly and disrespectful in the uproar, and Edwards was shaken by the downfall of his friend.

It must be kept in mind that, although he was a college graduate with an advanced degree, possessing eight months of solid ministerial experience, and entrusted with manly responsibilities, he was yet only twenty years old.  It is not surprising, therefore, that yet another source of pressure should rest upon the mind and shoulders of young Edwards:  he met a girl.

Sarah Pierrepont was a pretty brunette from an influential family.  Her father, James Pierrepont, was a Harvard graduate, and the established pastor of the New Haven church.  He had been instrumental in the founding of Yale.  Also among her progenitors was a mayor of New York City, and many other impressive characters.14  As the proper daughter of a leading family, Sarah had been well trained in the social graces of the day.  She had even been taught to play the lute.

Edwards was thoroughly smitten.  This young man who had dedicated his life to intense study and prayer, who wrote profusely along philosophical/theological lines, who maintained a strictly disciplined lifestyle in a society where the good pleasures of life were imbibed heartily, now spent much time dwelling upon romance.  Inside the cover of the Greek grammar book was found this description:

They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who his beloved of that Great Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, in some way or another invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything except to meditate on him…

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 conduct; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful if you would give her all the world . . . .  She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and universal benevolence of mind . . . .

She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly, and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what.  She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.15

Edwards was in no way prepared to undertake the task of winning such a prize as Sarah.  He was known to chide himself, during this period, for never having given attention to the social graces, as is recorded in his journal.16  he was a scholar, not a beau.  Tall and gangly, socially awkward and of a dismal, inanimate countenance, he stood little chance of making a favorable impression upon her.

Indeed, she was not impressed.  A mere teenager, Sarah did not find his immense loyalty or his already obvious attributes of achievement the least bit adventuresome.  It was too soon, in her mind, to settle on Jonathan as a husband.

At the Yale commencement exercises of 1725, the tutors, including Jonathan, received a raise:  “the tutors for their extraordinary Services of the year past and their trouble and pains in sorting the books and fixing Catalogues to ye Boxes have five pounds each added to their salary.”17  Riding home afterward to the East Windsor, Edwards was stricken down with pleurisy.  Ill for months, and unable to return to his duties at Yale, he resigned in 1726.  No doubt the enforced rest and separation from Sarah gave him plenty of time to consider his future.

Sarah led him on a merry chase for three years.  Lovesick Jonathan, faced with a distinct possibility of failure, had hit upon a plan:  to improve his social skills, so as to appear less awkward, more companionable, and more acceptable to Miss Sarah.  In time, whether as a result of “the plan” or not, Jonathan wed Sarah in a gala ceremony on July 28, 1727.

Edwards had accepted appointment as a pastoral assistant in Northampton, Massachusetts.  This was the church of his own grandfather, Solomon Stoddard.  Rev. Stoddard, at eighty-five years old, had decided to lighten his load.  His assistant was to preach every other Sunday in his place.  It was taken for granted that Edwards, when Stoddard died, would inherit his pulpit.

And so he did.  Stoddard died in February of 1729.  Edwards had already distinguished himself as an outstanding theologian.  Though in no way an orator—he wrote out his sermons beforehand and read them in the pulpit—his abilities in expounding doctrinal philosophy were soon recognized.  He was invited to address the Boston clergy in 1731, a significant honor.  His sermon was entitled, “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man’s Dependence upon Him, in the Whole of It.”18  In it he blamed the moral problems of the time on an attitude of self-satisfaction in religious circles.  The work became his first published sermon.

Edwards soon settled into his role as a pastor.  He was not known to make social visits upon his congregation, not considering himself socially oriented, but would promptly visit the sick and needy.  He did, at times, invite the young people of the church to his home for prayer and discussion.  He would spend most of his energies in prayer and meditation, and thirteen hours a day in concentrated study, with a time set aside each day for outdoor exercise.  He was well-known for his extensive library.

Sarah, his wife, was to bear him eleven children.  She became known as a model wife and mother, and the perfect help-mate for one such is he.  A family friend, Samuel Hopkins, wrote of her:

It was a happy circumstance that he could trust everything . . . to the care of Mrs. Edwards, with entire safety and with undoubting confidence.  She was a most judicious and faithful mistress of a family, habitually industrious, a sound economist, managing her household affairs with diligence and discretion.

While she uniformly paid a becoming deference to her husband and treated him with an entire respect, she spared no pains in conforming to his inclination and rendering everything in the family agreeable and pleasant; accounting it her greatest glory and there wherein she could best serve God and her generation, to be the means in this way of promoting his usefulness and happiness.19

Again, he recalled:

She had an excellent way of governing her children: she knew how to make them regard and obey her cheerfully, without loud angry words, much less heavy blows.  She seldom punished them; and in speaking to them, used gentle and pleasant words.  If any correction was necessary, she did not administer it in a passion; and when she had an occasion to reprove and rebuke she would do it in few words, without warmth and noise . . . .  She had need to speak but once; she was cheerfully obeyed; murmuring and answering again were not known among them…

The kind and gentle treatment they receive from their mother, while she strictly and punctiliously maintained her parental authority, seemed naturally to . . . promote a filial respect and affection, and to lead them to a mild tender treatment of each other.  Quarreling and contention, which too frequently take place among children, were in her family unknown.20

Thus we see the groundwork of the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.  His was a public ministry touched and blessed by the hand of God.  In addition, his sterling character and his very lifestyle were examples to his community and to the world of what a man of God should be.  He and his wife together built a household that was the envy of all.

The ministry of Jonathan Edwards has often been characterized as “fire and brimstone” because of his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  However, this harsh, stark message was in no way exemplary of his ministry.  His desire was to preach the gospel, not condemnation.  Consider some of his other works:  “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Works of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls” (1737); “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God” (1741); “Some Thoughts concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England” (1742); “An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd” (1749, a biography of the self-sacrificing missionary to the American Indians, engaged to Edwards’ daughter Jerusha, but who died at the age of 29); “The Freedom of the Will” (1754); “The Nature of True Virtue” (1755); and “Concerning the End for Which God Created the World” (1755).

Edwards pastored the Northampton church until 1750, when he left in a time of controversy.  He served for a time as a minister and missionary to the Indians in Stockbridge, then was chosen as the new president of Princeton College.  After only a week in office, he was inoculated for smallpox, and died of complications on March 22, 1758.

Near death, Edwards had spoken of Sarah, who was not present:

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.21

Two years later, Sarah, too, had passed away.

It was discussed earlier that one’s ancestry seems to have some bearing upon the character of the individual, whether by heredity or by the cumulative effect of family traditions, attitudes, and lifestyles.  As an interesting footnote, let us examine a study made of more than 1,400 descendents of the Jonathan Edwards/Sarah Pierrepont union by A. E. Winship in the year 1900.  He found that their marriage had produced: 13 college presidents; 65 professors; 100 lawyers, and the dean of an outstanding law school; 30 judges; 66 physicians, and a dean of a medical school; 80 holders of public office including three United States senators, mayors of three large cities, governors of three states, a vice president of the United States, and the comptroller of the United States Treasury, plus scores of college graduates, ministers, missionaries, prominent businessmen, authors, editors, and voluminous readers.  Even the “black sheep” of the family were outstanding, including the infamous revolutionary Aaron Burr.22

Scripture tells us repeatedly that the blessings of God or upon the generation (offspring) of the righteous.  It is said that the ultimate proof of a prophecy is to see it fulfilled.


  1. I Samuel xvii. 34-37.
  2. I Samuel xvi. 18.
  3. Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Jonathan Edwards (New York: The McMillan Co., 1940), pp. 5-7.
  4. Elizabeth D. Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971), p. 19.
  5. Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1949), pp. 9-13.
  6. Dodds, p. 18.
  7. Edward H. Davidson, Jonathan Edwards: the Narrative of the Puritan Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1966), p. 9.
  8. Dodds, p. 22.
  9. Ralph G. Turnbull, Jonathan Edwards, the Preacher (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), p. 13.
  10. Turnbull, p. 15.
  11. Turnbull, p. 16.
  12. Turnbull, p. 15.
  13. Vergilus Ferm, Puritan Sage: Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards (New York, Library Publishers, 1953), p. 117.
  14. Dodds, p. 13.
  15. Dodds, p. 17.
  16. Dodds, p. 22.
  17. Dodds, p. 21.
  18. “Jonathan Edwards,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1981 ed.
  19. Dodds, pp. 34, 35.
  20. Dodds, pp. 42, 43.
  21. Dodds, p. 201.
  22. Dodds, p. 38.

Also refer to Alfred Owen Aldridge, Jonathan Edwards (New York: Washington Square Press, 1964).

© 2011 Paul A. Hughes. Originally presented to Gaylan Claunch, in partial fulfillment of the course requirements for PME 112, Introduction to PME, Southwestern Assemblies of God University, April 7, 1983.


Written by biblequestion

June 10, 2011 at 3:03 PM

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