Life + Culture

His Head and Heart Were God’s: Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)

His Head and Heart Were God’s

If you look at Jonathan Edwards from the wrong standpoint, everything is wrong. Some people look at him as a great eighteenth-century thinker, writer, and preacher, and that is as far as they go.

But Edwards’s thinking, writing, and preaching are what they are because of what he was. And we will be helped most if we see something of what John De Witt meant when he wrote, “[Edwards] was greatest in his attribute of regnant, permeating, irradiating spirituality” (quoted in Jonathan Edwards, xvii). Behind the greatness of his thought was the greatness of his soul. And his soul was great because it was filled with the fullness of God. In our day we need to see his God — and the soul that saw this God.

Marriage and Call to Ministry

Jonathan Edwards was born October 5, 1703, in Windsor, Connecticut. He was the only son among the eleven children of Timothy Edwards, the local Congregational pastor. Tradition has it that Timothy used to say God had blessed him with sixty feet of daughters. He taught Latin to his son when Jonathan was six and sent him off to Yale at twelve. The school was fifteen years old at the time and struggling to stay afloat. But it became a place of explosive intellectual excitement and growth for Jonathan.

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Edwards graduated from Yale in 1720, gave the valedictory address in Latin, and then continued his studies there for two more years as he prepared for the ministry. At nineteen, he was licensed to preach and took a pastorate at the Scotch Presbyterian Church in New York for eight months, from August 1722 until April 1723.

In the summer of 1723, between his first short pastorate and his returning to Yale, he fell in love with Sarah Pierrepont. Four years later, on July 28, 1727, they were married. He was 23, and she was 17. Over the next 23 years, they had eleven children of their own, eight daughters and three sons.

In 1727, Edwards became the pastor of the prestigious church of Northampton, a church he would pastor for the next 23 years. It was a traditional Congregational church that had 620 communicants in 1735. During his ministry at this church, Edwards delivered the usual two-hour messages twice each week, catechized the children, and counseled people in private, and spent thirteen or fourteen hours a day in his study.

Awake in the Woods

For all his rationalism, Edwards had a healthy dose of the romantic and mystic in him. He wrote in his diary, “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” (quoted in Marriage to a Difficult Man, 22). Edwards really believed that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). He describes one of his experiences in nature like this:

Once as I rode out into the woods for my health in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love and meek, gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency, great enough to swallow up all thought and conception — which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. (Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, xvii)

With such reflections in our ears, it is not as difficult to believe the words of Elisabeth Dodds when she says, “The mythic picture of him is of the stern theologian. He was in fact a tender lover and a father whose children seemed genuinely fond of him” (Marriage to a Difficult Man, 7).

Limits of Godliness

There are other aspects of Edwards’s life that do not fit with his “mythic picture,” even if one broadens the lens to see his tenderness. For example, Edwards’s freedom from conformity to the fallen world did not include freedom from slaveholding. The eradication of slavery in the body of Christ, to which God had pointed in the New Testament (Matthew 7:12; 23:8–12; Romans 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; 5:14; Colossians 3:11; Philemon 16; Revelation 5:9–10), was long overdue.

Edwards did not see this. In his mind, the New Testament simply taught that slaves should be welcomed into full membership in the church, and treated kindly and without cruelty. His “servant maid,” Leah, was baptized into Edwards’s church in Northampton in 1736 and her name appears on the list of full members (Edwards Encyclopedia, 535).

We may wonder (and hope) that there was a trajectory in Edwards’s mind and heart that, if he had lived longer than 54 years, may have led him to think differently. It is suggestive, for example, that his latter years working among the Indians “convinced him that some Indians were better Christians than many white colonists he knew, and he became a strong advocate for their rights” (536).

One hopes that Edwards may have eventually drawn from his own understanding of “true virtue” what others did. For example, his son, Jonathan Jr., and Lemuel Haynes, a former slave, and admirer of Edwards, both used Edwards’s own theology to undergird their abolitionist convictions.

Edwards’s flaws are part of larger questions about 1) why Christians are not sanctified more quickly and more fully; and 2) how our sin and finiteness and family background and culture blind us to important realities; and 3) how we should learn from “heroes” whose lives are not entirely exemplary. This is not the place to wrestle with these questions, but I would point you to a helpful message on Edwards and slavery by Thabiti Anyabwile, and to a short video and podcast I made about these issues.

Inglorious Dismissal

In 1750, Edwards was dismissed ingloriously from his Northampton pastorate due primarily to a disagreement over the Lord’s Supper. The church’s previous pastor (Edwards’s grandfather), believed that people could take communion in the hope of obtaining conversion by it. By the spring of 1749, it became generally known that Edwards had come to reject this view. Edwards wrote a detailed treatise defending his position, but the treatise was scarcely read, and there was a general outcry to have him dismissed.

After almost a year of stressful controversy, the decision for dismissal was read to the people on June 22, 1750. Edwards was 46 years old. He had nine children to support, the youngest, his son Pierrepont, having been born three months before his dismissal.

In early December of 1750, the church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, about forty miles west of Northampton and very much a frontier village on the edge of settled New England, called Edwards to consider being their pastor. On August 8, 1751, he was installed as the pastor of the little church made up of colonists and Indians.

In Northampton, Edwards had been financially well off, receiving (in his own words) “the largest salary of any country minister in New England.” But in Stockbridge, he was so pressed for funds before selling his home in Northampton, that he lacked the necessary paper for writing. The mission and church in Stockbridge were beset with problems that demanded Edwards’s attention. A house had to be built, sermons had to be prepared and preached, special concerns of the Indian converts had to be addressed (for example, the language issue and what sorts of schools to provide), parties had to be reconciled, misuse of mission funds had to be confronted. Edwards gave himself to these duties with faithfulness.

President Edwards

But the greater purposes of God in this strange and painful providence of Edwards’s removal to Stockbridge, I would venture, are in the thinking and writing that Edwards did in these seven years. Four of Edwards’s weightiest, most influential books were written in the years 1752–1757: The Freedom of the Will, The End for Which God Created the World, The Nature of True Virtue, and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin. Paul Ramsey says that they “are not wholly undeserving of such high praise as ‘four of the ablest and most valuable works which the Church of Christ has in its possession’” (Freedom of the Will, 8).

Four months after the completion of the last of these four great works, on September 24, 1757, Edwards’s son-in-law and president of Princeton College, Aaron Burr, died. (Burr was the father of Aaron Burr, Jr., the politician who shot Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel). Two days later, the “corporation of the college” met and “made the choice of Mr. Edwards as his successor.” Edwards was “not a little surprised” to receive word that he had been elected president of Princeton, if he would accept. Although Edwards responded with serious misgivings, he closed the letter with the promise to seek counsel and take the matter seriously.

The advisory council was held January 4, 1758, in Stockbridge and decided it was Edwards’s duty to accept the call. When he was told of the decision he “fell into tears on the occasion, which was very unusual for him in the presence of others” (Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, clxxvii). He protested that they too easily overlooked his arguments, but in the end he acquiesced. The missionary society with whom he served gave their permission, and he left for Princeton in January, planning to move his family in the spring.

Good God, Dark Cloud

On February 13, 1758, one month after he had assumed the presidency of Princeton, Edwards was inoculated for smallpox. It had the opposite effect from that intended. The pustules in his throat became so large that he could take no fluids to fight the fever. When he knew that there was no doubt he was dying, he called his daughter Lucy — the only one of his family in Princeton — and gave her his last words. There was no grumbling over being taken in the prime of his life with his great writing dreams unfulfilled, but instead, with confidence in God’s good sovereignty, he spoke words of consolation to his family:

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 for ever: 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.

He died on March 22, 1758. His physician wrote the hard letter to his wife, who was still in Stockbridge. She was quite sick when the letter arrived, but the God who held her life was the God whom Jonathan Edwards preached. So 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. Oh 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. Oh 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

To the Sun and Ocean

So ended the earthly life of one whose passion for the supremacy of God was perhaps unsurpassed in the history of the church. The pursuit was with vehemence because he knew what was at stake, and he knew that no mere speculative or rational knowledge of God would save his soul or bless the church. All his energy was bent on serving the true end of all things — the manifestation of the glory of God in a spiritual sight and enjoyment of that glory.

The enjoyment of [God] is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.

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