Three Hundred Years of Holy Resolve
The Enduring Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards
It was exactly three hundred years ago today.
On the frigid night of December 18th, 1722, the teenager dipped his quill in the ink jar and began to write. He probably cupped his hands toward the warm lantern for a moment first, just to make his fingers more agile in the chilly air. Then he began to compose. Jonathan Edwards was just 74 days past his nineteenth birthday when he wrote the first batch of his famous resolutions.1
His brain was swirling with holy ambition. Edwards had completed his graduate coursework at Yale in May and had desired to enter into the public ministry, just as his father, Timothy Edwards, and grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, had done before him. Just a few months earlier, in August of 1722, the younger Edwards had arrived in New York City, 150 years before any skyscrapers were built, to preach his first series of sermons. By all accounts, those sermons were excellent.2
Edwards had been called to New York to attempt to pastor a Presbyterian congregation that had recently experienced a church split. In the bustling port city, Edwards had found success in preaching his earliest sermonic orations as well as finding true friendship and spiritual companionship in the home of his host family. His heart was alive, and his spirit was on fire for Christ. He was ready to commit his whole life, as well as his eternal soul, to the service of God.
His quill carefully drew out the first few lines of ink on the page:
1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence.3
That night, in a steady hand and in the same color of ink, Edwards wrote out the first 35 of his resolutions. He would add several more that week and then continue the practice of adding new resolutions for the better part of the winter. As the calendar flipped from 1722 to 1723, Edwards had written nearly forty such resolutions:
7. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
18. Resolved, to live so at all times, as I think is best in my devout frames, and when I have clearest notions of things of the gospel, and another world.
42. Resolved, frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism; which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1722–23.4
Spiritual Ecstasy and Discouragement
Edwards would later look back on this period as the most beautiful experience of his personal sanctification.5 His faith was growing so quickly that he could practically chart the progress. In fact, that is exactly what he tried to do. Each time he wrote out new resolutions, he marked his progress along the same lines in his diary.6 The two documents — the diary and the “Resolutions” — would have a symbiotic relationship. As he yearned for holiness and found himself wanting, he would make new resolutions, and then monitor his actual progress in his personal journal, keeping track of his successes and failures along the way.
Over time, however, Edwards found that his failures were far more in number and of a more serious kind than he had feared.
Jan. 20, sabbath day. At night. The last week I was sunk so low, that I fear it will be a long time, ’ere I shall be recovered. I fell exceedingly low in the weekly account. I find my heart so deceitful, that I am almost discouraged from making any more resolutions. Wherein have I been negligent in the week past; and how could I have done better, to help the dreadful, low estate in which I am sunk?7
As the spring turned to summer, existential questions began to threaten his spiritual tranquility, and he began to experience trepidations and palpitations of heart related to the defense of his master’s thesis — his Quaestio — and the looming necessity of securing a full-time pastoral call. That in addition to coping with the heartache of falling in love with a younger, beautiful girl, Sarah.8
As it turned out, these first forty or so resolutions wouldn’t be enough to buoy his soul as he dealt with these somewhat typical coming-of-age strains on heart and mind. His soul ached, and his temptations raged against him. So he wrote more resolutions.
When the heat of the summer of 1723 was at its peak, and the honeybees began to feast upon the goldenrod and sedum plants, Edwards had written a full complement of seventy resolutions. And then suddenly — as abruptly as he had started — he stopped.
He never wrote another resolution again.
‘Resolutions’ as Inspiration
There is no doubt that the “Resolutions” are inspiring. This is why they have been printed over and over again, published in the genre of classical devotional materials.9 Men and women for generations now have felt they have met Edwards personally in this short, tract-length document, resonating with the emerging pastor’s soul-deep yearning for Christ. How can we not be inspired when we read such resolutions?
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 as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.
53. Resolved, to improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer.10
But what so many readers (including the present writer) find so profound and awe-inspiring from the pen of the forthcoming prodigy, Edwards felt as a burden on his soul. The more he resolved, the more he failed himself and his God. He couldn’t live up to his own standards. He simply could not will himself to breathe the thin air of spiritual Zion all the time, dwelling long on the mountain of God’s holy presence. Since his resolutions pointed out his own sin as much as they pointed toward his own faithfulness, Edwards needed to find another way forward before his resolve fled away with the retreating summer sunlight.
Some Edwards scholars believe that he quit writing his resolutions on August 17, 1723, because his “canon” was complete with the round biblical number of seventy. I think this conjecture is somewhat plausible. But I also think there is more to it. My own studies of Edwards’s personal writings have led me to conclude that he simply could not bear the pressures of his own heightened determinations.11
“To resolve was one thing, but to depend and rely upon Christ was another.”
When taken alone, the “Resolutions” are a powerful document indeed — even (and rightly) inspiring. But when reading his diary alongside the “Resolutions,” as synchronous and complementary documents, it seems that Edwards was building up spiritual pressures that his own soul was not able to withstand. The process of continually grading himself on paper may have become more than he could tolerate. Such periods of deep self-evaluation, when most honest, only proved that Edwards needed more and more grace. In other words, he could not live up to his own standards. To resolve was one thing, but to depend and rely upon Christ was another. And so, Edwards grew in his understanding of the daily necessity of dependence upon divine grace as superior to determination and resolution alone.
Along with this deepening understanding of his own sin and God’s grace, Edwards simply got busier and had less time to gaze in the spiritual mirror of his “Resolutions” and diary. His responsibilities in the church grew significantly when he was ordained to serve under Solomon Stoddard, and then again when he eventually became the solo pastor of the Northampton Church, one of the most significant congregations in the region. He did end up marrying the beautiful young woman he fell in love with as a teen. They had a large number of children, even by eighteenth-century standards (ten!). Edwards became preoccupied with preaching innumerable sermons, writing treatises, drafting letters, meeting with other ministers, and counseling his people’s distraught souls. He found that he was simultaneously growing as a believer, as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor.
And God was at work too in amazing ways that far transcended his own inward fascinations. A true revival began to occur — first in Northampton (1735) and then all across the Colonies (1740–42). Edwards had less occasion and opportunity to stew anxiously inwardly, even as it became more apparent that God was working outwardly all around him. This change in focus seems to me to be evidence of his spiritual maturity rather than any loss of devotion.
At about age 40, a more mature Edwards could look back upon his 19-year-old self and write,
My longings after God and holiness, were much increased. Pure and humble, holy and heavenly Christianity, appeared exceeding amiable to me. I felt in me a burning desire to be in everything a complete Christian; and conformed to the blessed image of Christ: and that I might live in all things, according to the pure, sweet and blessed rules of the gospel. I had an eager thirsting after progress in these things. My longings after it, put me upon pursuing and pressing after them. It was my continual strife day and night, and constant inquiry, how I should be more holy, and live more holily, and more becoming a child of God, and disciple of Christ.12
True enough, the New York period had been a time of spiritual ecstasy for him. A veritable mountaintop. Edwards put these thoughts and other reflections together in a document that would become known as his “Personal Narrative.”13 This is one of the most important extant documents regarding Edwards’s own mature spiritual introspection. His own son-in-law, Aaron Burr Sr., had asked him to share more deeply about his soul’s growth over the years. In a key statement regarding his spiritual ecstasies during his period of time in New York City, Edwards makes a significant admission about the time in which the “Resolutions” were drafted. Listen carefully for the way Edwards acknowledges some imbalance in his spiritual life:
I sought an increase of grace and holiness, and that I might live an holy life, with vastly more earnestness, than ever I sought grace, before I had it. I used to be continually examining myself, and studying and contriving for likely ways and means, how I should live holily, with far greater diligence and earnestness, than ever I pursued anything in my life: but with too great a dependence on my own strength; which afterwards proved a great damage to me. My experience had not then taught me, as it has done since, my extreme feebleness and impotence, every manner of way; and the innumerable and bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit, that there was in my heart. However, I went on with my eager pursuit after more holiness; and sweet conformity to Christ.14
In these crucial words, Edwards looks back fondly on the spiritual fervor that he had as a young man. He does not regret the resolutions, nor does he recant any of their lofty spiritual aims. As such, the “Resolutions” were well-founded.
“Growth, we might say, is better tracked over decades and years than weeks and days.”
At the same time, maturity as a husband, father, and pastor was just as necessary to his soul’s growth. He was enabled to see his own heart over a longer period of time than the “Resolutions” allowed him. He recognized that zealous resolve necessarily needs to be balanced by a relentless reliance on God’s ever-patient grace. That lesson would be learned over an extended trajectory of service, suffering, and daily reliance upon God’s goodness for us in Jesus Christ. Growth, we might say, is better tracked over decades and years than weeks and days.
He had learned experientially an incomparable lesson about sanctification: Jonathan Edwards needed more than his seventy resolutions for Christ. He needed Christ himself.
The “Resolutions” can be read in the official Yale editions of the collected works of Jonathan Edwards and online at edwards.yale.edu. See Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 16, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 753–59. Henceforth, the Yale editions will be cited as WJE with volume and page. ↩
These sermons can be found in WJE 16:271 and following. ↩
WJE 16:735. ↩
WJE 16:753–54, 756. ↩
WJE 16:795. ↩
Edwards’s “Diary” is contained in WJE 16:759–786. ↩
WJE 16:765. ↩
Edwards’s famous Apostrophe to Sarah Pierpont was written at approximately the same time (See WJE 16:789). ↩
For a brief survey of early printings of the “Resolutions,” see WJE 16:750. ↩
WJE 16:757. ↩
See the conclusion to my work Holy Living: Jonathan Edwards’s Seventy Resolutions for Living the Christian Life (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2021), 148–58. ↩
WJE 16:795. ↩
The “Personal Narrative” can be found in WJE 16:790–804. ↩
WJE 16:795, emphasis added. ↩