Jonathan Edwards: His Life and Legacy

This article appears as a chapter in A God-Entranced Vision of All Things.

Those prone to visit historical sites are likely to be disappointed when it comes to sites associated with the life of Jonathan Edwards. The home of his birth and early years in East Windsor, Connecticut, no longer stands. Neither does his home at Northampton, Massachusetts, nor his home at Stockbridge. At the former, a Roman Catholic church marks the spot; as for the latter, a sundial stands in its place.

The church building where Edwards listened to his father preach in East Windsor has long been gone. The church at Northampton is actually the fifth building since Edwards last preached a sermon there; Stockbridge is on its fourth building. A rock along the side of the road marks the spot where the church at Enfield, Connecticut, once stood, the place where Edwards delivered the most famous American sermon of all time, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

The legacy of Edwards’s life and thought, however, stands in stark contrast to the paucity of the remains of his homes and churches. In the nineteenth century, theologians and church leaders all vied for the claim to carry Edwards’s mantle, asserting to be his true heir. In the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, scholars, clergy, and laity all continue to look to the New England divine for ideas and inspiration. In fact, Edwards may be even more well-known and discussed now than he was in his own lifetime. And greater still is the potential for the impact of his thought and life to direct future generations of the church toward a Godcentered life.

This ongoing legacy has everything to do with the breadth of Edwards’s writings and the depth of his encounter with God. While the material remains of Edwards’s life may be scarce, the literary remains literally fill shelf after shelf. Among these writings are his great treatises, such as the classic theological text Religious Affections and the classic philosophical text Freedom of the Will. Additionally, he left behind 1,400 sermons, the bulk of which have yet to be published.

Add to this mix volumes of notes on a variety of subjects, the “Miscellanies,” exegetical reflections that amount to biblical commentaries, scientific essays, and a host of letters. Edwards left enough material to keep scores of historians, philosophers, theologians, pastors, and laity quite busy. And busy they have been. No other colonial figure, not even Benjamin Franklin or George Washington, has generated the literature from dissertations to popular articles and treatments as Jonathan Edwards has. The number is fast approaching 4,000.

The writings of Edwards comprise only part of the explanation for his legacy. The other part is the depth of his encounter with God. Edwards remarkably managed to hold together what we tend to split apart. He saw Christianity as engaging both head and heart, while much of popular evangelicalism suffers greatly from pendulum swings in this regard. He had an overwhelming vision of the beauty and excellency of Christ, the love and sweet communion of the Holy Spirit, and the glory and majesty of God, while simultaneously seeing wrath and judgment, punishment and justice, as also comprising the divine nature. He had a profound sense of grace and forgiveness, coupled with an acute sense of guilt and repentance.

In short, Edwards knew the beauty of Christ because he knew palpably the ugliness of sin. In fact, it might just be the case that precisely because of his awareness of sin, he so exalted the sweetness of his Savior. And perhaps there is much for evangelicals of today and tomorrow to learn here.

Edwards learned these ideas in the trenches of his life, through the highs and lows of his ministry, through the times of rejoicing and mourning with his family, and in the twists and turns of his Christian pilgrimage. In the pages that follow, we will take a brief tour of this life, learning from his example and exploring his legacy for today.

Last of the Puritans

On a Sabbath day in January 1758, Jonathan Edwards preached his farewell sermon to a band of Mohican and Mohawk Indians and to a handful of English families along the plains of the Housatonic River, snaking through the Berkshire Mountains on the western frontier of Massachusetts. Edwards had come to Stockbridge from his pastorate in Northampton, a post he had held for twenty-three years.

He was now leaving for Princeton, New Jersey, where he would be installed as president of Princeton University, holding office in good health for only six weeks. The manuscript for the sermon that day consists of some mere outline points and a few sketchy sentences, only shadows of the full parting words for his Indian flock. In typical sermon style, he ends with a series of applications, saving his final comments for those who “have made it [their] call to live agreeable to the gospel” (Edwards, sermon manuscript on Hebrews 13:7-8 [1758], Beinecke Library, Yale University).

Though hardly known, this sermon, and this line in particular, resonates deeply with that which is greatly known of his life. These comments serve not only as a fitting conclusion to his ministry at Stockbridge; they encompass the mission of his life. His first exposure to the gospel came in the parsonage of East Windsor, Connecticut, the home of Timothy Edwards and Esther Stoddard Edwards and their eleven children — Jonathan and his ten sisters. The Latin tutoring he received from his sisters, the love for reading his parents gave him that would only grow in the coming years, and his own omnivorous mind all fitted him to enter the recently established Yale University at twelve years of age. Graduating at the head of his class, he decided to stay at Yale in pursuit of a Master’s degree.

After completing his course work, but prior to writing his thesis, Edwards, still a teenager, accepted a call to pastor a Presbyterian church in New York City, in the vicinity of modern-day Broad and Wall Streets. He meticulously prepared his sermons, sometimes writing out a single sermon as many as five times before preaching it. He also spent many mornings horseback riding along the banks of the Hudson River. It was during these days that Edwards began writing his “Resolutions.” Eventually reaching seventy in number, these rules and guidelines for his life became his mission statement. A sampling reveals his discipline and his desire to live wholeheartedly for God:

52) I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live if they were to live their lives over again. Resolved, that I will live just so I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.

56) Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.

70) Let there be something of benevolence in everything I speak.

The first resolution is even more instructive. Here Edwards commits his life to “do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory and to my own good, profit, and pleasure.” Here Edwards captures the vision of the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which declares that the “chief end of man” is to both “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” For Edwards, as for the Catechism, the two aims of God’s glory and one’s pleasure are in fact one and the same thing. What cannot be missed here is the centrality of this for Edwards’s life. It is no less remarkable that Edwards learned and lived this as a nineteen-year-old.

“Edwards knew the beauty of Christ because he knew palpably the ugliness of sin.”

By the summer of 1723, however, his church in New York no longer needed him. The church he pastored had come into being through a split. Largely through the counsel and preaching of Edwards, the two groups reconciled, and the offshoot returned, a testimony to both Edwards’s abilities and to his altruism, as helping them reconcile meant necessarily that he would be out of a job. He returned to New England, falling terribly ill and convalescing at home, during which time he finished his Master’s thesis, an original composition in Latin in keeping with the custom of his day.

Edwards now faced a crucial decision. He had obvious gifts for the ministry, while equally suited for the life of the scholar and an academic career. He decided to stay at Yale as a tutor, or member of the faculty. The rector of the college, Samuel Johnson, had recently left Yale due to his surprising conversion to Anglicanism — tantamount to heresy for the Congregationalists — leaving Yale rather unstable and without any leadership.

During his brief tenure (1724-1726), the young Edwards largely held Yale together and brought it through these troublesome times. His academic career, however, came to an end when he received a call to serve as the assistant minister to the aging Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’s maternal grandfather, at Northampton, Massachusetts. Northampton was located north of Edwards’s home along the Connecticut River. It had grown to be a prosperous and large town, with an equally prominent pulpit. One would have to go to Boston to find a larger colonial church in New England.

Stoddard’s reputation matched that of the town and church. Dubbed “Pope of the Connecticut River Valley,” Stoddard’s influence was felt far beyond the valley and even far beyond his death. During this brief time of mentoring, Edwards learned a great deal. He learned of the “seasons of harvest,” or the times of revival in the church. He learned to be a passionate preacher, aiming sermons at moving the whole person toward a greater understanding of God and living for him.

These two things he inherited from his grandfather. He, and the church at Northampton, also inherited some things not so pleasant. Chief among them was Stoddard’s practice of admitting all to the Lord’s Supper. This would come to be the center of the controversy between Edwards and his people, and Edwards’s rejection of the practice would eventuate in his dismissal. This was, however, many years over the horizon. Before the season of conflict came, he had many years of fruitful ministry at Northampton.

The Seasons of Ministry at Northampton

Although it is quite difficult to summarize an eventful twenty-three-year ministry, some highlights stand out. First, there is Edwards’s preaching of his sermon “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption” to the ministers gathered for the Harvard commencement in Boston in 1731. Edwards was not of the ranks of Harvard alumni; he had gone to Yale.

He was also the successor to Stoddard. And he was young — many ministers waited their whole life to be called upon to deliver such a sermon. All of this is to say that the expectations on Edwards were great, and also to say that the odds were not in his favor. The outcome, however, could not have been better, not because of Edwards, but because of his message.

In the sermon, Edwards annihilated the pretense that human beings merit or warrant or even contribute anything to salvation. Instead, salvation is exclusively the work of God — the Triune God, that is. Edwards declares:

We are dependent on Christ the son of God, as he is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. We are dependent on the Father, who has given us Christ, and made him to be these things to us. We are dependent on the Holy Spirit, for it is of him that we are in Christ Jesus; it is the Spirit of God that gives faith in him. Whereby we receive him, and close [meet] with him. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, [Yale University Press, 1999], 201)

In this scheme of salvation, the creature is entirely dependent upon the Creator, and the redeemed give the glory to the Redeemer alone.

This view of salvation would be nothing new for Edwards’s audience, which was well-versed in the Calvinistic tradition. Edwards, however, takes an intriguing next step. He makes the point that all of our good comes from God and comes to us through God. This encapsulates the blessings that are ours in salvation. But the chief blessing that we receive, our greatest good, comes to us in God. In other words, the greatest blessing that God gives us when he saves us is himself. Edwards puts it this way:

God himself is the great good which [the redeemed] are brought to the possession of and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good and the sum of all good which Christ purchased. God is the inheritance of the saints; he is the portion of their souls. God is their wealth and treasure, their food, their life, their dwelling place, their ornament and diadem, and their everlasting honor and glory. (Ibid., 208)

This preaching on the sovereignty of God in the work of redemption and on the sheer joy, delight, and pleasure of salvation was not contained in only one sermon of Edwards. It marked all of his preaching, eventually leading to new seasons of harvest and times of revival at Northampton. The first revival came in 1735-1737. During this time, not only Northampton but also churches along the Connecticut River experienced God at work in remarkable ways. Edwards described the experience in his own congregation:

Our public assemblies were then beautiful, the congregation was then alive in God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly in general were, from time to time in tears while the Word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors. (Edwards, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening, [Yale University Press, 1972], 151)

The converts grew in number, and soon the congregation outgrew its building. And here the revival fervor became smothered by the selfish interests, scheming, and posturing among the members. The wealthy citizens of the town vied for the most prominent pews in the new meetinghouse under construction. Factions and backbiting ensued, growing to such a pitch that Edwards addressed it in the sermon “Peaceful and Faithful Amid Division and Strife” in May 1737.

Here he speaks of “the old iniquity of this town,” meaning Northampton, which he identifies as “Contention and a party spirit.” He continues, “People have not known how to manage scarce any public business without siding and dividing themselves into parties.” Though a bit of hyperbole, this was unfortunately characteristic of both civil and ecclesiastical life in Northampton (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1734-1738, [Yale University Press, 2001], 670).

Edwards also notes the tragic consequence of the defaming of Christianity due to this contentious spirit, pointing out that “it has been very much taken notice of.” This is especially the case since Northampton was so blessed of God through the few years prior to the time of revival. Edwards points out that while God “has most remarkably honored us by the great things he has done for us,” many in Northampton are “industriously stirr[ing] up strife.”

This in miniature represents Edwards’s ministry at Northampton. As in Dickens’s novel, it, too, was the best of times and the worst of times. Yet, Edwards’s preaching changed little during these oscillations of trial and triumph, and his ideas remained markedly consistent throughout. As this sermon concludes, he calls upon those who are faithful and who live peaceably, even in the throes of contention, to be peacemakers, to pursue “the best interest of God’s people, [rather] than any private interest” (Ibid., 671-674, 663).

Eventually the parishioners at Northampton once again began taking their faith seriously, and once again revival came. But this time it moved far beyond the bounds of the Connecticut River Valley, reaching throughout New England and beyond to encompass the colonies. The Great Awakening, from roughly 1740-1742, coincided with the trips of George Whitefield to the colonies and, as with the earlier revival, the preaching of Edwards.

The sermon receiving the most attention is the famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards preached this sermon the first time at Northampton with apparently little impact. A few months later, the occasion would arise for him to re-preach it, and this time the impact was legendary. Edwards was at Enfield, Connecticut, a healthy horse ride down the Connecticut River from Northampton. He wasn’t there to preach, but to be preached to. The intended minister, however, was too ill to preach, and Edwards just happened to have the sermon manuscript in his saddlebag.

The sermon is replete with imagery of God’s wrath for sinners. There is the famous spider dangling over a flame, hanging by a mere thread and vividly portraying our precarious position. A heavy lead weight sliding toward a bottomless gulf represents our inability to defer God’s judgment, and a bent bow makes us acutely aware of the imminence of God’s wrath. These are the images that have haunted readers ever since they first encountered the sermon in a high school American literature or history class.

These images are what most people have when they hear of Edwards. Apologies for this dark side of Edwards are, however, not in order. For Edwards, the reality of hell’s torments and God’s wrath are the necessary corollaries to heaven’s beauty and God’s love. It is wrong, however, to caricature Edwards, as many do, as the consummate purveyor of hellfire and brimstone, incarnating the caricature of the Puritan as killjoy, the one who is always thinking and fearing that somewhere someone might just be having a good time.

This is certainly not the case in Edwards. One trips over the words sweetness, beauty, happiness, joy, pleasure, excellency, and delight throughout his writings. And even “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is no exception. In addition to the imagery of God’s wrath, there is also the imagery of God’s mercy. Consider this example: “Now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open and stands in calling, and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742, [Yale University Press, 2003], 416).

Many entered through that door of mercy that evening as they heard the sermon, and as the Awakening spread they were joined by countless others throughout the colonies. Because of Edwards’s involvement in these early revivals, he stands at the headwaters of the revivals and of the revivalism that significantly serves to shape the American religious identity. He is often called upon either as inspiration for revivals or as justification for them and the phenomenon they might spawn. Some of the associations might very well cause Edwards to balk, if not object altogether. To all of the revival movements, however, Edwards has something quite meaningful to say.

Edwards wrote much on revivals and revivalism, with his mature thought expressed in Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), which was first a sermon series. In this work he explores the nature of affections, what may not necessarily count as true signs of religious affections, and what counts as true signs. The twelfth and final sign of genuine religious affections is given as the life that bears fruit. This is quite instructive given the context. Edwards witnessed incredible enthusiasm for Christ at the height of the Awakening. But then the commitment faded, leaving Edwards rather confused. For him, this was no mere academic issue. He was a pastor, and he had a deep and abiding concern for the spiritual state of those under his care. Edwards learned through this experience that the Christian life is not a sprint, but a marathon.

The revivalism approach to living the Christian life can tend to make it one that consists of fits and spurts. Edwards came to see that it was lived out, consistently, over the long haul. In the tradition of the Puritans, represented most strikingly in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Edwards viewed the Christian life as a pilgrimage, a journey of progress toward heaven. This approach emphasizes a consistent living out of the Christian faith in all aspects of life, and even, or perhaps especially, in the ordinary experiences of daily living. The revivalism mentality tends toward highs and lows, with not much to say to ordinary experiences. Edwards can inspire us to yearn for the work of God in our lives and in our churches. But he also can help us see that sometimes that happens without bells and whistles.

Despite these seasons of fruitful ministry, his tenure at Northampton ended on a bitter note. He sensed a growing lethargy toward the things of God among his parishioners. He also sensed that his pastoral authority was waning. In some ways, what happened to Edwards at Northampton was merely a symptom of larger shifts in New England culture. In previous generations, the church, geographically located at the center of town, was to be the center of one’s life.

By Edwards’s day, the church and the pastor were becoming increasingly marginal in the life of New Englanders. Edwards’s vision of God and of the community of saints allowed for no such marginalization. Consequently, when he asserted his pastoral authority, calling for deep levels of commitment by his congregation, he ran counter to many in the church. The issue seized upon was his discontinuation of the practice started by Stoddard of admitting all, even the unregenerate, to Communion. Edwards was in the right; nevertheless, he was voted out of his church on June 22, 1750 (see Patricia Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century Northampton [Hill and Wang, 1980]).

“Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.” –Edwards

Much has been written on the controversy and dismissal. Here we might simply focus on Edwards’s response. Surely it must have been a crushing blow. Not so much because of the embarrassment to Edwards — although certainly it was an embarrassing episode — but more because of his disappointment in his aim for the congregation at Northampton. Long before the controversy, he preached a sermon series on Paul’s famous poem on love in 1 Corinthians 13, which Edwards entitled “Charity and Its Fruits.”

The final installment in that series was the sermon, “Heaven Is a World of Love.” Here he extols the sublime beauty and glory of the life to come. But this for Edwards was no mere ethereal vision. For all of his talk of heaven and the world to come, he had a good fix on life here and now in this world. Consequently, Edwards puts forth the thesis that “as heaven is a world of love, so the way to heaven is the way of love” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Ethical Writings, [Yale University Press, 1989], 396).

What he longed for in his own life and in the lives of his congregation was that they would model this idea, living it out in their community. At times Edwards saw glimpses of it, and at times it even made more lasting manifestations. More often than not, however, his vision for his church went unrealized, as in the case of the late 1740s and in 1737 with the building of the new meetinghouse. We should not suppose Edwards to be naïve on this point. He knew of sin’s spoiling effects that continue both individually and communally after one comes to Christ. That, of course, is the difference between the communion of saints here and that of the life to come. Yet, Edwards did not abandon the idea that the journey to heaven should strive to reflect the destination.

Perhaps we get the impression that Edwards lived a rather charmed life, untouched by the vicissitudes of defeat and loss, conflict and hardship. That simply is not the case. His conflict at Northampton raged for years, and when he left there for Stockbridge, he also found himself embroiled in controversy. Eventually at both places he was vindicated. A deacon at Northampton later admitted that the leadership of the church was in the wrong and that the dismissal was unjust. That was after the fact, however. It would have been quite easy for Edwards to have deep resentment throughout these trials, perhaps even to abandon his call to ministry altogether, but he did not. He did not lessen his grasp of the belief that if heaven is a world of love, then the way to heaven is the way of love — he strengthened it.

Missionary at Stockbridge

Once dismissed, Edwards received numerous offers, including pastorates overseas, at Boston, and even at Northampton by a group of loyal members willing to start a new church. Edwards turned them all down, opting instead to head west. He went only forty miles, but the short distance could not mask the fact that he was literally moving to a new world. Stockbridge, Massachusetts, located on a beautiful plain along the Housatonic River and amidst the Berkshire Mountains, was the home of approximately 250 Mohicans, Mohawks, and Brothertons, as well as a dozen English families. It was a frontier mission post, only established a dozen years earlier.

Prior Edwards scholarship viewed his time at Stockbridge as an exile and as a sabbatical during which he wrote his great treatises Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, and the posthumously published Two Dissertations: Concerning the End for Which God Created the World and The Nature of True Virtue. This is patently not the case. Edwards had a long-standing interest in Native Americans, as evidenced by his involvement on the board of trustees for Stockbridge and his editing and publishing of David Brainerd’s journal. He also was very much involved in ministering to his flock of “Stockbridge Indians.”

One way this is seen is in his sermons. Edwards re-preached a number of sermons from earlier days once he got to Stockbridge. He also wrote many new ones. In all of them, he attempted to connect with his audience by making frequent allusions to nature — he often used such illustrations in his preaching, but here he increased the practice — and stating rather complicated matters in straightforward and clear prose. He preached a number of sermon series during this time, including treatments of the divine attributes, Christology and the deity and humanity of Christ, Revelation, the parables in Matthew 13, and, not surprisingly, the Lord’s Supper.

In the series on divine attributes, he included a sermon on God’s mercy, which he likened to “a river that overflows all of its bounds” (Edwards, sermon manuscript on Exodus 34:6-7 [January 1753], Beinecke Library, Yale University). In a sermon for the Mohawks, he declared, “We invite you to come and enjoy the light of the Word of God, which is ten thousand times better than [the] light of the sun” (Edwards, “To the Mohawks at the Treaty, August 16, 1751,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), 109).

The great themes in his treatises and previous sermons also find expression in the pulpit at Stockbridge. In a sermon on Hebrews 11:16, Edwards extols the virtues of heaven, the better country to come, in prose and imagery that rivals “Heaven Is a World of Love,” though in outline format. Edwards explains that in heaven there is “no sin, no pride, no malice, [no] hating one another, no hurting one another, [no] killing one another . . . no death, no old age, no winter.” Positively, heaven is a place of peace and love, where “hearts are full of love” and “full of joy and happiness” (Edwards, sermon manuscript on Hebrews 11:16 [January 1754], Beinecke Library, Yale University).

Edwards also exhorted the Stockbridge Indians to live holy lives, reminding them in a sermon on 1 Peter 1:15 “that Christians are under special obligation to be universally holy in their lives.” By “universally holy” he meant that holiness should “extend itself to all God’s commands, all employment and persons, all conditions, and all time” (Edwards, sermon manuscript on 1 Peter 1:15, Beinecke Library, Yale University). He also realized, however, that such holiness is a duty of delight. As he taught in his sermon on 1 John 5:3, “True love to God makes the duties he requires of us easy and delightful,” commending “the pleasure of communion with God.” This idea, he explains in the application, moves us from approaching “religion as a hard task” to seeing it as “our delight and pleasure” (Edwards, sermon manuscript on 1 John 5:3, Beinecke Library, Yale University).

It is clear from his sermons that the appraisal of Gerald McDermott is right: Edwards “seems to have developed genuine affection for his Indian congregation” (McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths [Oxford University Press, 2000], 203). But even at Stockbridge, not all was smooth sailing. In addition to the Indians, Stockbridge was home to about a dozen English families. Chief among them was Colonel Ephraim Williams, of the ubiquitous Williams clan that appears throughout the Connecticut River Valley and that even gave Edwards difficulties at Northampton.

Williams devoted his energies to acquiring land and wealth. He also oversaw the mission school, which was established at Stockbridge for the evangelization and education of Mohawks. Williams and his appointed schoolmaster Martin Kellogg, however, viewed the school as providing labor to work the land. This led to yet another drawn-out controversy as Edwards tried to wrest control of the school from Williams. Williams retaliated by boycotting the church and smearing Edwards’s name, even accusing him of embezzlement. In time, Edwards was fully exonerated as Williams was shown to be embezzling funds and abusing his position. In the meantime, the disillusioned Mohawks left Stockbridge, leaving Edwards no choice but to close the school.

Here, as in Northampton, Edwards’s ministry was one of highs and lows. He saw many converts and changed lives, while also experiencing the bitter root of controversy again. One example of his impact stands out in particular. Hendrick Aupaumut was most likely baptized by Edwards as an infant in 1757. Aupaumut was a hero in the Revolutionary War and a political leader of the Mohicans. He also was a spiritual leader, translating the Westminster Shorter Catechism into Mohican. Though the direct impact of Aupaumut is minimal at best, the indirect impact is great. Aupaumut wrote to Timothy Edwards, Jonathan’s son who remained in Stockbridge after the family moved and presumably a friend of Aupaumut’s, requesting copies of his father’s books, wanting both Freedom of the Will and Religious Affections, testimony to Edwards’s legacy among the Mohicans.

The Uncommon Union: The Edwards Family

Edwards’s time at Stockbridge was followed by a quite brief tenure as president of Princeton. He left Stockbridge in January, beginning his presidential duties later that month. Around the beginning of March, he took a smallpox inoculation, developed pneumonia, suffered intensely for about two weeks, and died on March 22, 1758. Perhaps the saddest element of this tragic episode is that at the time of his death Edwards was separated from his wife, Sarah.

He had made the move to Princeton in the middle of winter. Given the difficulties of the travel, and also to allow Sarah to sell property and settle some financial affairs, it was decided that he would go ahead to Princeton and settle the home there and they would reunite in the spring. When they parted in January, it was the last time they were to see each other on earth. In now famous last words, his thoughts drifted toward Sarah as he said, dictating a letter to his daughter Lucy, “Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been such a nature as I trust is spiritual and so will continue for ever” (See Heidi Nichols, “Those Exceptional Edwards Women,” Christian History 22 [2003], 23-25).

Edwards had first met Sarah while he was a student at Yale in New Haven. Her father was a minister and a founding trustee of the college. From the first moment Jonathan met her, he was enraptured by her grace and elegance and charm, and also by her model spirituality. Through the years he surely kept up on the life of Sarah Pierpont, and he married her four years after he began his pastoral charge at Northampton.

Like his own family at East Windsor, he and Sarah had eleven children of their own. He looked to Sarah to keep this bustling home together. Once, while Sarah was on a trip to Boston and Jonathan was left tending the family, he wrote a letter to his wife, informing her that the two oldest daughters were sick, adding, “We have been without you almost as long as we know how to be” (Edwards to Sarah Edwards (June 22, 1748), The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, [Yale University Press, 1998], 247).

Like other families of the colonial era, the Edwardses were no strangers to tragedy and difficulty. Though all of their children lived past infancy, not all of them survived their parents. Edwards preached the funeral sermon for his daughter Jerusha, who likely contracted tuberculosis while caring for the dying David Brainerd. Another daughter, Esther, lost her husband Aaron Burr, and there were the sad occurrences of the deaths of grandchildren. Further, Edwards, though it is hard for us as contemporary readers to think of this, lived on the frontier and faced the accompanying threat of Indian invasions. Distant relatives were taken captive, and at times both at Northampton and especially at Stockbridge tension ran high. One letter to Esther Edwards Burr from her father finds the family sheltered in a fort.

There were trying days, and there were days of celebration. Sometimes it was the challenges that provided for rich adventure in the Edwards home. When the family moved to Stockbridge, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., was just a boy. He played alongside the Mohicans and Mohawks, learning Mohican as he learned English. Later in his life he would become quite an advocate for Native Americans, even warranting the praise of George Washington. All visitors, and there were many, to the Edwards home commented on the grace of the hosts and the union of the family. Edwards, according to the custom for ministerial preparation in those days, also housed apprentices for the ministry in his home. This generation of ministers had a profound impact on New England. And before them, Edwards and his family lived out their faith in full view.

His hope for his family was the same as that for the congregations to which he ministered. Summed up best in a letter to his daughter Sarah when she was twelve years old and visiting relatives, Edwards writes, “I wish you much of the presence of Christ and communion with him, and that you might live so as to give him honor in [the] place where you are by an amiable behavior towards all” (Edwards to Sarah Edwards [June 25, 1741], WJE, 16:96). When another daughter, Mary, was away in New Hampshire, Edwards took the occasion to remind her of God’s care: “Though you are at so great distance from us, yet God is everywhere. You are much out of the reach of our care, but you are every moment in his hands. We have not the comfort of seeing you, but he sees you. His eye is always upon you” (Edwards to Mary Edwards [July 26, 1749], WJE, 16:289).

That his children learned this can be seen in some correspondence with his daughter, Esther Edwards Burr. Shortly after the death of her husband, her infant son, Aaron Burr, Jr., later to become America’s third vice president, fell sick, being “brought to the Brink of the Grave.” This was an intense time of suffering in Esther’s life. No sooner had she finished writing to her mother about how God was comforting her at the loss of her husband, she took up the quill to write to her father of her “new tryals.”

In the letter, however, she reveals her deep resolve of faith in God, boldly claiming, “Altho all streams were cut off yet so long as my God lives I have enough — He enabled me to say altho’ thou slay me yet will I trust in thee.” She can declare, “O how good is God,” she can say, “I saw the fullness there was in Christ,” and she can testify that “a kind and gracious God h[as] been with me in six Troubles and in seven” (Esther Edwards Burr to Jonathan Edwards [November 2, 1757], The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 1754-1757, [Yale University Press, 1984], 295-296). Her father had this to say in his response:

Indeed, he is a faithful God; he will remember his covenant forever; and never will fail them that trust in him. But don’t be surprised, or think some strange thing has happened to you, if after this light, clouds of darkness should return. Perpetual sunshine is not usual in this world, even to God’s true saints. But I hope, if God should hide his face in some respect, even this will be in faithfulness to you, to purify you, and fit you for further and better light. (Edwards to Esther Edwards Burr [1757], WJE, 16:730)

Perhaps Esther Edwards Burr’s response to these times of trial in her life represents the true legacy of Edwards’s ministry.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Edwards’s Legacy

Many themes emerge from the life and thought of Edwards, and all of them provide for a rich legacy. Peter Thuesen once referred to Edwards as a “great mirror,” intending to capture the notion that there is a breadth to Edwards’s work that provides scholars and others from many different fields rich opportunities to see and reflect a variety of elements (Thuesen, “Jonathan Edwards as Great Mirror,” Scottish Journal of Theology 50 [1997]: 39-60). And that is certainly true as Edwards’s literary remains abound. Amidst all of this material, some central themes and emphases shine through, calling for our attention as we contemplate Edwards’s legacy for the church today.

His extensive and thorough understanding of the gospel, for one, compels attention. Edwards begins with a vision of the holiness and wrath of God, coupled with his infinite love and mercy as seen in the cross, then moves to portray vividly and powerfully humanity’s desperate plight and utter need of a savior. He thoughtfully balances both a deep and abiding sense of our sin and lowliness alongside the exaltation of joy in Christ and delight in God. This approach serves well as an antidote to the often anemic and shallow presentations of the gospel today.

Secondly, we could learn from the example of his well-trained eye to see the beauty of God in nature and to see God at work both in the Word and in the world. This led Edwards to view his engagement of the world in an entirely new way. He could learn of God in the Bible, to be sure, but as he watched the flying spider, for instance, he could see something of the pleasure of God, and as he rode through the picturesque Connecticut River Valley he marveled at God’s creativity and goodness. As George Marsden, commenting on this comprehensive vision of Edwards, observes, “The key to Edwards’ thought is that everything is related because everything is related to God” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 460). Seeing the world this way brings new perspective to the Christian at work, enjoying nature, participating in the arts, and engaging culture.

Finally, Edwards, unlike any other, gracefully portrays life as relishing in the gifts and world of the Triune God, heralding that ultimately we find true fulfillment in relishing God himself. This last point is worth exploring in depth.

Somewhat endemic to American identity is the pursuit of happiness. Enshrined by Thomas Jefferson, these words and what they mean are often the talk of American historians, and in many ways are often the goal of American citizens. Happiness and its pursuit was of no less interest to Edwards. He differed quite a bit from his contemporaries, however. Most notable in this regard is Benjamin Franklin, one of the key shapers of the meaning of those words. In Franklin’s hands, the pursuit of happiness largely came to mean self-fulfillment accomplished through self-reliance. Of course, Franklin advocated public virtue and the common good as well. But his aphorisms in the quite popular Poor Richard’s Almanac and his own Autobiography point to a certain self-centeredness in Franklin’s pursuit. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise,” illustrates the point.

Edwards could not disagree more. Rather than seeing self-centeredness as the goal achieved through self-reliance, Edwards advocated God-centeredness achieved through dependence on him. There is, however, a great irony here. The irony is summed up in Christ’s words: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). To state the irony directly, self-centeredness through self-reliance leads to self-defeat, in the truest and fullest sense possible. When, however, God is at the center, the self is most realized, most fulfilled, and most happy.

“Self-centeredness through self-reliance leads to self-defeat, in the truest and fullest sense possible.”

It is worth noting that Edwards emphasized, as well, God-dependence over self-dependence. Again it was Franklin who said, “God helps those who help themselves.” Through such statements, self-reliance has become a distinctly American ideal, and American evangelicalism is not necessarily immune from its effects. Conversely, Edwards sees us as helpless, standing before God entirely empty-handed. His emphasis on the sovereignty of God caused him to exalt God in the work of redemption and in sanctification, to come to him and to live for him only through dependence upon him. This crucial aspect of Edwards’s legacy is worth remembering.

Edwards has a different definition of happiness and a different means by which it is achieved than Franklin and most pursuers of the American dream. He also knows that these differences lead to different objects that fill out that definition and mark the pursuit. In his sermon “Heaven Is a World of Love,” he notes that the pleasures of heaven are not just for heaven; they are to be enjoyed now. Consequently, he admonishes that our desires “must be taken off the pleasure of this world” (Edwards, “Heaven Is a World of Love,” WJE, 8:394). This is not deprivation. Edwards simply does not want our desires to be so small as to cause us to miss the true happiness and pleasure of what God has for us both now and in the world to come.

Edwards longed for his parishioners at Northampton and Stockbridge and for his family and for himself to be “happified” in and through Christ, a word that only he could coin, and a word that he truly spent his life in pursuit of. Sometimes that happiness came in times of triumph. Sometimes it came to him on the anvil of suffering, conflict, and hardship. But in all aspects of this remarkable life we see the legacy of God glorified and enjoyed forever, which is still instructive 300 years later and hopefully for years to come.