Did Jonathan Edwards neglect his family?
What would prompt such a question as this? Is there well-known or newly discovered evidence that pastor Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) — a leader of the First Great Awakening and widely considered America’s greatest theologian — neglected his family? Are there reasons to believe he had a troubled marriage with Sarah? Did his children turn out badly?
No. Rather, it’s likely that the only reason anyone would even pose the question arises from a short but famous remark by Samuel Hopkins (1721–1823), Edwards’s first biographer.
Behind the Study Door
Hopkins, who would later become an influential theologian in his own right, once lived in the Edwards home for six months to observe and learn from the renowned minister.
In The Life and Character of the Late Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards (1764), Hopkins wrote that “he commonly spent thirteen hours every day in his study.” Hopkins passes immediately from the remark without so much as a word as to how Edwards spent that time. It is not hard to guess the general contours of those thirteen hours, given Edwards’s propensities and the extant sermon manuscripts and publications. Still, nowhere do we read of a routine schedule or specific details describing Edwards’s activities behind the door of his study.
That’s it. When people read Hopkins’s ten words through the lens of modern life, and then factor in time for sleeping, eating, and other matters, some conclude that Edwards must have neglected his family. Those familiar with Edwards also recall his daily four-mile round-trip visit on horseback to the Sawtooth hills west of Northampton, where he would dismount to meditate and pray while walking, as well as his habit of chopping wood for exercise. Adding it all up, even Edwards’s most loyal supporters can be prone to wonder if — as so many pastors have done — he sacrificed his family on the altar of ministry.
The title of Elisabeth Dodds’s insightful book on “the uncommon union” of Jonathan and Sarah — Marriage to a Difficult Man — doesn’t help dispel these suspicions, at least for those who know of the book but haven’t read it. But as we shall see, Dodds instead sheds a reassuring light on life in the Edwards home.
His Little Church
Readers of Edwards’s sermons on the subject of family life will find them biblically orthodox. It isn’t surprising that, from a contemporary perspective, Edwards’s instructions about the governance of a home may seem rather strict. But they were in harmony both with the Christian parental guidance of his day and the spirit of the biblical teaching on the family.
His favorite analogy of the family was that it was like “a little church.” He used the image in one of his earliest published sermons (1723) and again in his “Farewell Sermon” to the Northampton church 27 years later, saying, “A Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influenced and governed by his rules.” As a church should be marked by love, Christ-centeredness, and biblical order, so, said Edwards, should be the home.
In his 1739 sermon “The Importance of Revival Among Heads of Families,” Edwards warned of the “great offense” to God “if heads of families are either God’s enemies or are cold and dull in religion.” He advocated for the practice of regular family worship and the responsibility of fathers to instruct their children in the ways of the Lord. And yet, all the instruction, regardless of how faithful to Scripture, “will have little effect unless example accompanies instructions.” Thus, Edwards was well aware of the importance of being a Christlike example in the home. But he also knew that no amount of modeling or teaching was sufficient apart from the work of the Spirit in the hearts of children. Therefore, he urged the parents to “earnest prayer” for their children: “You should travail for them.”
Perhaps you’ve heard of hypocritical pastors who failed to practice in private the orthodoxy they preached in public. Edwards, however, has never been counted among them, but rather is renowned for the general congruence between his life and preaching. So, let us look elsewhere.
Uncommon and Happy Union
Why did Elisabeth Dodds refer to Edwards as “a difficult man”? It wasn’t because he was a disagreeable man or a distant man. Rather, it was because “a genius is seldom an easy husband” (31).
“As a church should be marked by love, Christ-centeredness, and biblical order, so, said Edwards, should be the home.”
In fact, Dodds argues that Edwards’s devotion to and dependence upon Sarah was one of the reasons why he would have been no easy husband. According to Dodds, Edwards often invited Sarah to join him in his late afternoon rides into the woods. There he would pour out the contents of the day’s study and sermon preparation for her consideration or seek her input on some parish problem. Although the break from her heavy domestic duties and the opportunity to be outdoors provided some physical refreshment, Dodds concluded that sometimes Sarah “must also have been singularly drained” by such intense mental demands at the end of the day.
Before the third paragraph of her book, Dodds says of Jonathan, “He was in fact a tender lover and a father whose children seemed genuinely fond of him.” Still, living with a man of such “labyrinthine character” meant their marriage was not a “radiant idyll” (i). No marriage is, even for two people as godly and well-matched as the Edwardses.
Being a pastor’s wife — especially the wife of the only pastor in town — is often difficult. Sarah knew she was scrutinized every time she left the house, down to what she wore, how much money she spent, and how her children behaved. Jonathan was always underpaid, so money was always tight, and the financial pressures increased with the birth of each of their eleven children. Add the criticism Jonathan received (which also weighed heavily on Sarah) to the problems of the church, and you have a mix that would strain the bonds of any marriage.
Yet, to the end Jonathan and Sarah loved each other and enjoyed what can only be considered a happy marriage. In fact, on his deathbed — literally in the last moments of his life — Edwards’s final words included this message to his wife of thirty years, who had not yet made the move to Princeton where Edwards was the new president: “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 nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever.”
Incidentally, Jonathan named his first child Sarah.
Three Meals a Day
When specifying the qualifications of an elder, the apostle Paul wrote, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Timothy 3:4). Edwards met this qualification with flying colors, for each of his eleven children turned out well. Of course, pastors can (and have) kept their “children submissive” harshly and with dictatorial domination, but Edwards did it “with all dignity.” And to the point of this article, every good parent knows that neglected children seldom turn out well.
Abundant evidence proves that Edwards did not neglect his children at all. For starters, “Sarah could count on one hour a day when Edwards gave the family complete attention,” writes Dodds (49). “He made sure to save an hour at the close of each day to spend with the children.” How many of those who charge Edwards with neglect do this? Hopkins observed and wrote about this hour.
Moreover, the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia reports that “when [the children] were old enough, he took them with him one at a time on his journeys. He often wrote his children when traveling alone” (87). Additionally, Edwards “had the idea, unusual in those times, that girls as well as boys should be educated. . . . The girls, tutored by their father at home, learned Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and penmanship” (Marriage to a Difficult Man, 50).
But Edwards placed the greatest emphasis on the commitment required for the spiritual instruction of his family. In his prize-winning biography, George Marsden writes that Edwards
began the day with private prayers followed by family prayers, by candlelight in winter. . . . Care for his children’s souls was, of course, his preeminent concern. In morning devotions he quizzed them on Scripture with questions appropriate to their ages. . . . Each meal was accompanied by household devotions. (133, 321)
Each meal! Note that this also implies that he ate three meals a day face-to-face with his family. If we knew nothing else of his interaction with his children, what we know of the gathering of his “little church” for family worship several times each day demolishes any suggestion that Edwards neglected his family.
‘Thirteen Hours Every Day’
Although the Edwardses lived in a two-story home, it was by no means large by today’s standards. Often as many as fifteen people lived there. That alone generated significant noise to interrupt a study in which there was no streaming music, white-noise device, or noise-canceling earphones to insulate Edwards from the distractions.
And though he was there thirteen hours a day (where else would he have gone to do his work?), he would have emerged as needed to quell a sibling dispute or address any other issue that required his attention. Moreover, the children were not forbidden to enter the study when necessary. After his evening hour with the children, Edwards retreated to his study for another hour or so. At bedtime Sarah would join him there, and they would close the day together in prayer.
So, when Hopkins writes that Edwards was in his study thirteen hours every day, it’s wrong to envision him there totally alone the entire time (that’s also where he counseled church members), completely disengaged from his family. In fact, from everything we know, he probably had more personal contact and interaction with his large family than almost any father does today.
Finally, although this article was specifically about Jonathan, I cannot close without emphasizing that much of the character and success of the Edwards children was, of course, attributable to the love, nurture, and training of the remarkable Sarah. And I’m sure Jonathan would agree. Together they truly had an “uncommon union,” and from it resulted an uncommon family.