Safe Beneath His Sovereign God
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)
In the spring of 1750, the central discussion at Northampton Church in southern Massachusetts was not how to honor their faithful pastor for almost a quarter century of diligent labors among them. Rather, it was how to most expeditiously get rid of him. In late June, the church held a series of meetings, and they summarily fired their pastor by a vote of 10 to 1 — of the 253 voting members, 230 voted for him to be dismissed, and 23 for him to stay.
Why were the people pointing fingers instead of offering warm handshakes to their pastor, Jonathan Edwards?
Because faithfulness to God often earns the madness of the world.
We’ll return to this great lesson from Edwards’s life for us — how to be softened and gentle-ized by pain instead of hardened and calloused by it. But first, we will briefly consider his world, his wiring, his ministry, his family, and his troubles.
Edwards entered this world in 1703. Two events the next year, while Edwards was still an infant on his mother’s lap, communicate both the beauty and the barbarity of the world at that time.
On the one hand, Bach’s first cantata was performed in Germany in 1704. The baroque period was in full swing with its magnificent development of combined melody and harmony by a full orchestra. Cultural elegance was flourishing.
That same year, in Edwards’s part of the world, the French and Indians attacked the English town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, just fifteen miles down the road from the home into which he was born. In all, 44 villagers were massacred — 10 men, 9 women, and 25 children — and another 112 were carried off, through two feet of snow, many dying on the road.
Such was life in early 1700s New England. No antibiotics existed for the smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other common diseases. Between violence and disease, 35 percent of those born in colonial New England failed to reach adulthood. If you came down with a fever, you might be dead within a week.
Into this wilderness on the edge of the world — the population of New York City at that time was eight thousand — Jonathan Edwards was born.
But who was he?
Jonathan Edwards was a skinny, reserved pastor who died with fewer than three hundred books in his personal library. And yet, he is considered by historians, Christian and secular alike, to be the most brilliant thinker yet born on this continent — and he also happens to be one of church history’s godliest men, and perhaps the most penetrating diagnostician of the human heart who has ever lived.
Temperamentally, Edwards was introverted. Intellectually, he was brilliant. Physically, he was frail. Interpersonally, he was retiring. Psychologically, he was intensely introspective. Spiritually, he was enchanted with gospel realities.
And — as the historians never fail to tell us — he was a little stiff relationally. Edwards spent thirteen hours a day in his study for stretches of his life. But in the economy of the way God works, it’s often those who appear most aloof and unpleasant on the outside who prove themselves to be the most trustworthy and delightful Christians in reality, while those who appear most immediately magnetic and easygoing up front turn out to be the most frothy and unreliable.
Jonathan Edwards was always drawn to words more than people, and his life unfolded accordingly — schooled in language and history by his own father (a pastor), admitted to Yale College as an undergraduate at age 14, and going on to earn an M.A. at Yale before he turned 20.
After a few brief pastorates in New York City and Connecticut (1722–24), Edwards spent three years as a “tutor” at Yale (1724–26) — basically a combination between junior professor and dean of students, both teaching and disciplining.
During these years of pastoring and tutoring, Edwards experienced vital spiritual breakthroughs that would inform his theology and ministry the rest of his life. One especially significant breakthrough was coming into a belief about the sovereignty of God. But it wasn’t simply a matter of being convinced intellectually about divine sovereignty. Rather — and his description of this episode is why so many of us cannot get enough of Edwards’s writings — this particular point of theology exploded onto his mental horizon as a matter of profound joy.
From my childhood up, my mind had 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 tormented 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. . . . God’s absolute sovereignty, and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of anything that I see with my eyes; at least it is so at times.
But I have oftentimes since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God’s sovereignty, than I had then. I have often since, not only had a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. (“Personal Narrative,” emphasis added)
In 1726 Edwards was called to work alongside his venerable 83-year-old grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who had been pastoring the church at Northampton for 56 years at that point. If you imagine being John MacArthur’s grandson, and being called to succeed him as a 23-year-old, you’ll get a sense of what Edwards would have experienced in joining the most influential Christian leader in the Connecticut River Valley at that time.
Edwards would spend 24 years at the church, experiencing a local revival in 1734–35 as well as being part of the transatlantic Great Awakening in 1740–42. His church was visited and he was personally befriended by the great British evangelist George Whitefield. He dutifully preached week in and week out, wrote books as he was able, visited his people, and endured all the typical adversities of pastoral ministry — and more.
Perhaps Edwards’s greatest ministry legacy was his family. He and his wife, Sarah, had eleven children together, and the tidal wave of blessing that flowed through Jonathan Edwards and his offspring cannot be adequately quantified. Historian and Edwards biographer George Marsden tells us of a famous research project published in the year 1900 that traced out 1,200 of Edwards’s descendants and compared them with the descendants of an infamously notorious criminal who lived during the same time period. The descendants of the well-known criminal, writes Marsden,
left a legacy that included more than three hundred “professional paupers,” fifty women of ill repute, seven murderers, sixty habitual thieves, and one hundred and thirty other convicted criminals. The Edwards family, by contrast, produced scores of clergymen, thirteen presidents of institutions of higher learning, sixty-five professors, and many persons of notable achievements. (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 500–501)
We get a glimpse into Edwards’s own role as the fountainhead of such a family tree in a journal entry by his daughter Esther after a visit from her father during a distressing time of increased hostilities from the French and Indians in the region.
Last eve I had some free discourse with My Father. . . . I opened my difficulties to him very freely and he as freely advised and directed. The conversation has removed some distressing doubts that discouraged me much in my Christian warfare. . . . What a mercy that I have such a Father! Such a Guide!
His spiritual legacy, evidenced in the personal diary of one of his own daughters, shows the power and significance of putting private ministry to one’s family ahead of public ministry to the church and the world.
His church was not filled with starry-eyed Jonathan Edwards fanboys. Bernard Bartlett, member of Northampton Church, distributed a pamphlet in 1735 asserting that his pastor “was as Great an Instrument as the Devil Had on this Side of Hell to bring Souls to Hell.” Edwards had his critics, as he had been promised (John 15:20). Indeed, the church there in Northampton was riddled with political power struggles due to a complex web of extended-family connections throughout.
Edwards must have battled loneliness. The only real friends he had beyond his family were his younger protégés, like Joseph Bellamy or David Brainerd, and a handful of pastors in Scotland befriended through correspondence.
Another trouble was spiritual apathy from his congregation. We may think of Edwards’s preaching as consistently entrancing, but this is far from true. He complained at one point of the way his parishioners would stretch themselves out on the pew to sleep while he preached. Perhaps even more cutting to the heart of a faithful pastor is not outright rejection but tepid boredom and being ignored.
Edwards’s church troubles came to a head in 1749–50. The presenting issue was a theological disagreement over the Lord’s Supper, though Edwards expert John Gerstner believed that the doctrinal dispute was simply a smoke screen covering up a deeper antipathy by fleshly congregants to Edwards’s unrelenting portrayals of a supremely beautiful God — portrayals enchanting to the regenerate but threatening to the worldly.
And so Edwards found himself getting fired in those meetings in June 1750. The testimony of a sympathetic pastor in the area, Rev. David Hall, captures the heart of what Jonathan Edwards has to teach us today.
I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week, but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies, and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life.
He was kicked out of his church, though he came back to preach because the congregation had trouble finding suitable pulpit supply in the subsequent months. Edwards spent the next seven years in an even more remote part of Massachusetts, preaching and ministering to some Indians and a few white families. In 1758 he reluctantly accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), but he died within a few months of arriving.
In light of the adversity he faced, I want to close with a question. What, for Jonathan Edwards, was the result of the following equation?
God’s sovereignty + my pain = __________
Divine coldness? Fatalism?
Here is the answer for Edwards, which is the secret to sitting through catastrophic rejection with a happiness that is out of the reach of circumstances: Edwards had happily nestled into the conviction that the entire universe and all of human history — down to the particular flutter angle of a falling leaf or footfall of an ant outside his Northampton home — were the inexorable outworking of a heavenly rule and plan so comprehensive that they know no ceiling or boundaries.
But why is this not mere fate?
Because fate is impersonal; divine sovereignty is personal. And the Person controlling all things is Love himself. The very existence of the universe is, according to Edwards, the overflow of joyous love within the Trinity, a love too great to be restricted to God himself, superabounding, creating a world so that humans can be swept up into this love. That is the One providentially ruling all matters great and small.
So, when ordinary faithfulness earned him the rejection of his church members instead of their embrace, Edwards did not go into psychological meltdown. He already had a deeper embrace, held by one whom Edwards knew ordered all things. When 230 people voted to fire him, Edwards knew that it was God dismissing him from Northampton Church. Why get bitter at the people? A greater mind was ordering his life. God’s love was working through their hate.
And why? To get him to Stockbridge, where he would write several of his most enduring treatises at the height of his intellectual powers. That’s why. To bring to fulfillment God’s deeper purposes for his life. And a thousand other reasons we won’t know till heaven.
Edwards didn’t know what turns his life would take as he sat there getting fired in late June 1750. But he had settled his heart into the tranquil conviction that from heaven’s perspective, all was going according to plan. So he quieted his spirit. He calmly submitted. He yielded to God’s sovereignty.
Divine sovereignty plus our pain equals fresh tenderness of submission and trust. God’s sovereignty, given God’s love and beauty, gentle-izes us.