Jonathan Edwards: A Brief Biographical Sketch

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            Jonathan Edwards was one of the most prolific and influential theologians of his time and his work endures until today. One can almost not speak highly enough of him and his work. Here I’ve endeavoured to present a brief overview of his life and contributions with the hope that it may inspire some to read more. It is important to read old books, especially those which have endured the years and stand as timeless works. New books do not have the benefit of this time to be tested and reading old authors can also help us escape the modern lens through which we often see the world and reassess our perceptions. Edwards is one of those writers whose work still touches many today and is incredibly accessible, understandable, and deep in theological true. Also, these heroes from the rise of Evangelicalism and the Great Awakening are part of our history as Protestant Evangelicals – so it is good to understand your roots. Not to mention, the lives of radical devotion and tremendous productivity for the Lord that they lived offer much that we could learn from…

(Much of this article is taken from excerpts of various biographies written about Edwards. A list of selected reading is included at the bottom. Also a simple google search or search on eBooks can find many of the works of Edwards available for free! One of the other advantages of reading older books… 🙂 )

            Jonathan was born 5 October, 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut. He died on 22 March 1758 in Princeton, New Jersey. He was the 5th child of 11 children of Timothy and Esther Edwards. His dad was an ordained minister and his mother the daughter of a reverend in Northampton, MA. Home schooled by his dad for elementary school. He had a brilliant mind and his parents upbringing were hugely instrumental in his development.


Conversion:

            He was quite interested in spiritual things from a young age. When he was about 7 or 8, he had built a secret “booth” in the woods where he and some of his schoolmates would meet to pray and spend many hours discussing religious topics. At his conversion he wrote that he dedicated himself to God, “giving up myself and all that I had, to God; to be for the future in no respect my own; to act as one that had no right to himself, in any respect.”
            However, Edwards’ conversion was not an instantaneous happening but rather a succession of deepening disturbances that relentlessly quickened in him both the sense of his natural weakness, even wretchedness, and the sense of divine grace. Rarely did he know calmness or what he later called ‘sweet complacency in God’… he describes not only his desire to be swallowed up in Christ but also his pervasive sense of unworthiness. Edwards had a sense of his “infinite wickedness”, however, the point “is not that Edwards had grown more wicked but that his deepened consciousness enabled him to see himself more transparently. As with Paul, who though regenerated yet saw himself as ‘the chief of sinners,’ so also with Edwards, who though blessed by God’s ‘sweet grace and love’ nonetheless though himself as one deserving ‘the lowest place in hell.'” [Simonson, 19-21]
            Edwards believed that God is infinite, man is finite, and thus the difference between the two is an infinite one. The only mediation is through Christ. Man is totally dependent on the Son of God for all his wisdom, righteousness, and redemption. Let all men who appear ’eminent in holiness, and abundant in good works’ hear the truth: there is ‘an absolute and universal dependence of the redeemed on God for all their good’; and God hereby ‘is exalted and glorified in the work of redemption.’” [Simonson, 35]


His life of ministry:

            His work ethic and the volume of sermons and writings he produced in his lifetime is truly impressive. It would take a volume or two to rightly go through them all, but I’ll briefly give a sketch of the major events of his life with some commentary on certain points of interest.

1716 – entered Yale College at just under 13 years old. Here he read John Locke’s Essay “Concerning Human Understanding” on empiricism which affected him profoundly.
1720 – graduated valedictorian at 17.
1722 – Scotch Presbyterian church in NY – pastor.
1723 – moved to pastor a church in Bolton, Connecticut.


70 Resolutions:

            Of his early private writings – in particular what stands out are his 70 Resolutions which he would read weekly. They consisted of various commitments to a disciplined life, spiritual fervour and evangelism, making the most out of every moment, reflection and repentance.
They were as such like:

“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. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.”

“Resolved, to be continually endeavouring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the fore-mentioned things.”

“Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.”

“Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.”

“Resolved, never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.”

“Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend to death.”

“Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.”

“Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.”

“Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.”

“Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself: also at the end of every week, month and year.”

“Resolved, never hence-forward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God’s, agreeable to what is to be found in Saturday, January 12.”

            Imagine the difference it would make in the life of a believer to be intentional about reflecting on and reviewing such resolutions frequently? In this regard, Edwards was very much a man of his times as many others who were instrumental in the revivals of the time also dedicated themselves to a disciplined spiritual life and working hard for the Gospel’s cause. There was an urgency to proclaim the Gospel and live every part of their lives in sacrificial devotion for the mission of seeking and saving the lost. We can be inspired and learn a lot from the lives of these saints of old – especially when we realize that they were just regular people used by an extraordinary God.


1724 – senior tutor at Yale at 21 years old.

1727 – ordained at Northampton church – successor to his father-in-law and also married Sarah Pierpont – daughter of James Pierpont, the head founder of Yale college. They had 11 kids: Sarah, Jerusha, Esther, Mary, Lucy, Timothy, Susannah, Eunice, Jonathan, Elizabeth and Pierrepont.

1731 – he boldly challenges the covenant theology of his day at the Public Lecture in Boston.

1734 – Edward’s preaching was instrumental in sparking a revival in Northampton which lasted until the end of the following year – before which he described the residents of Northampton as being “very insensible of the things of religion” and of experiencing “a time of extraordinary dullness in religion.” During this time, in 6 months nearly 300 were admitted to the church with many more won for the Kingdom through the effects of his preaching. [Noll, 38]
            In the churches of New England, their Puritan past laid a foundation for what would later happen with the rise of Evangelicalism. The revivals which happened were not isolated events in history. Though the direct preaching for conversion and the effects of the gospel did fluctuate – its effects never faded entirely away. Jonathan Edwards later reported that Solomon Stoddard, his grandfather, had seen several “harvests” of souls in times past. [Noll, 71]


Justification by Faith:

            Through events happening around and leading up to 1734, the stage was set and prepared for such as Edwards to come on the scene. Edwards “became convinced that dangerous theological notions were infecting ministers and laypeople in the Connecticut River Valley.” To counter this tendency to rely on one’s own merits to obtain salvation, he preached a two-sermon series in November on “Justification by Faith Alone.” In it he stated plainly, “We are justified only by faith in Christ, and not by any manner of virtue or goodness of our own.” The response by time the end of December was electric. Edwards in his “Unpublished Letter of May 30, 1735” puts it this way:

“All seemed to be seized with a deep concern about their eternal salvation; all the talk in all companies, and upon occasions was upon the things of religion, and no other talk was anywhere relished ; and scarcely a single person in the whole town was left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world…”

            After this Edwards began organizing small groups to meet in private homes for encouragement and to help fan the flames of this spiritual blaze. [Noll, 77] He had a big concern to divert from pure emotionalism into a deeper expression of faith that would be long lasting and lead to a consistent life change in the long term which would be the overflow of a truly regenerate and joyful heart.

1737 – he wrote “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton” reflecting on what God had done and studying the process of conversion. It was read and used as far as the revivals happening the UK with many finding it helpful in ministry and dealing with the effects of the revivals.

1739-1741 – ‘The Great Awakening’ – Edwards was one of the key figured in this great revival which saw crowds of thousands flocking to hear the Gospel and giving their lives to Christ. He was in the company of other big names such as George Whitefield and John & Charles Wesley who were taking the Gospel message to the streets. They would at times speak to crowds of thousands without amplification – preaching repentance and faith in Christ. It was a movement that changed the very nature of society and impacted culture to such an extent that it is considered one of the major distinguishing events of the era.


Preaching:

            He becomes acquainted with George Whitefield. Though their preaching styles differed greatly, with Whitefield being the more extravagant of the two, they enjoyed quite a bit of commonality of cause and Edwards learned a lot from Whitefield’s style which he even incorporated into his own preaching.
            He saturated his sermons with Scripture and had a type of “Scripture language” which strikingly resembled the Authorized Version. He said, “God would have our whole dependence be upon the Scriptures because the greater our dependence is on the Word of God, the more direct and immediate is our dependence on God himself.” [Hart, 67] He sought to construct sermons “like diamonds, Clear as well as Solid.” [Hart, 70]
            Though when one reads his sermons you may imagine a quite lively and animated preacher—Edwards was not a passionate pulpiteer as some of his contemporaries around the time of the Great Awakening. Though he was very much a preacher to the heart, his demeanour was always composed and intentional. Perhaps because of how he understood the place of affections and passions, that pure emotionalism alone was of little value. While he aimed at his audience’s heart, he also valued clarity and precision highly over mere sensationalism. This is an interesting observation to note for the writer of such works as Religious Affections and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
An obituary in the New York Mercury on April 10, 1758 says this of him:

“As a preacher, he was well known, neither quick nor slow of speech. His language was full, but not ornamented. He regarded thoughts more than words. Precision of sentiment and clearness of diction formed the principal character of his style.”

Stephen West said this of him,

“If you mean by eloquence, the power of presenting an important truth before an audience, with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling, that the whole soul of the speaker is thrown into every part of the conception and delivery; so that the solemn attention of the whole audience is rivetted, from the beginning to the close, and impressions are left that cannot be effaced; Mr. Edwards was the most eloquent man I ever heard speak.”

            Throughout the revivals, Edwards remained a voice of reason amidst the sometimes extravagant emotionalism surrounding the events. Despite his powerful conviction that New England churches must return to vital piety, Edwards in no way sought to destroy their ecclesiastical organization as the price. He realized the potency of the new wine, but also recognized the impracticability of calling for new wine bottles. He cautioned them to eschew whatever appeared overly innovative. He called for caution and moderation. He knew too well that enough opposition already existed against such doctrines as God’s absolute sovereignty, justification by faith alone, and innate depravity to wish to stir up more by indiscreet zeal. [Simonson 54-55]


1741 – He preaches his most famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – its vivid imagery of hell and the wrath of God against sinners, in typical unrelenting logical systematic Edwardian style, drove people present in what was before an unmoved and lukewarm congregation to cry out and wail “what must I do to be saved!?” However, it is ironically not representative of all that Edwards stood for as a theologian of the heart and should not be read in isolation without context. As George Marsden puts it, “Edwards could take for granted… that a New England audience knew well the Gospel remedy. The problem was getting them to seek it.”
            “It must be said at once that Edwards never encouraged the preaching of terror for its own sake… certain critics have so outrageously caricatured him as to suggest that his pleasure in preaching hellfire increased in ratio to his listeners’ pain.” [Simonson, 117] I would encourage those interested to read the sermon though, it is a type of bold preaching on a topic which is often shied away from today with our modern sensibilities.

1746“Religious Affections” published – a series of sermons on what he considered the “distinguishing marks” of true conversion which focused much on the role of what he termed “affections” in the heart of the truly regenerate. This piece in particular should be a ‘must-read’ for any serious student of theology or the joy of faith.
            Edwards was very aware of the importance of defining his terms to be clearly understood. “Religious language,” Edwards said, can never fully express the sense of the heart. Neither can it be the final means of grace. Words are the ‘occasional’ cause, never the ‘sufficient’ cause; they prepare the heart by creating an emotional readiness for the apprehension of religious truth, but they are never the sufficient means of conveying it.” [Simonson, 14]

1749 – he published his influential biographical memoir of David Brainerd – a young missionary who died at 29.
            Edwards’s “Faithful Narrative” of the revivals and his edition of David Brainerd’s journey of faith arguably had a much broader influence than the sermons he preached during the revival itself. The “Faithful Narrative” became an instant classic and the paradigmatic example of evangelical revival. [Noll, 90-91] Edward’s accounts “rapidly became templates for how many others would picture the normative spiritual journey: from sinful self-despair, through a conversion focused on the excellency of Christ in shedding his blood for the penitent’s sin, to a joyous response in God joined with a steady purpose to do good.” [Noll, 92]

1751 – Edwards could sometimes be very staunch in his convictions and would not waiver or compromise something he was convinced of. He was dismissed from his church mainly on grounds of disagreement about church membership and qualifications to participate in the sacraments which he would not back down on.


Missionary work to the Indians:

            He declined several offers from larger churches to instead become pastor of a small humble church in Stockbridge, MA and a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. During his time of ministry there, the quieter pace gave him time to produce many other theological works. [Levin, Introduction – xx]
            He fought for the rights and outreach towards the Mohican people in Stockbridge. He moved to the plain right in the midst of the Indians and became the first of the settlers to live with his family among the Indians. This enabled him to relate to the Indians in a much more intimate way than the rest of separated colonists, even his children became quite familiar with the Indians and their language, enjoying many of them as their childhood playmates. [Hart, 53-54]

1758 – He reluctantly accepted the presidency of Princeton college, New Jersey – but died of a smallpox inoculation.


His legacy:

            Samuel Hopkins expanded insights from Edwards’s theological ethics into a sophisticated attack on slavery. His “System of Doctrine Contained in Divine Revelation” from 1793 was the most comprehensive theology published and became a key textbook for a number of New England Congregationalists. [Noll, 200] Though first generation evangelicals such as Edwards, Whitefield and Davie had slaves themselves or simply accepted the slave system as a given, the second generation was marked by an importance on the attack on the slave trade in large part due to the foundation laid by their predecessors. [Noll, 247]
            Though Edwards’s son – Jonathan Edwards Jr. was unable to reproduce his father’s success and actually lost the majority of his congregation, his grandson – Timothy Dwight – a student of Edwards Jr. was an effective minister and educator who eventually became president of Yale College in 1795 and sparked revival among the student body. [Noll, 200]
            Also, in times prior, a lot of peoples view of Calvinism had kept them from preaching to people outside of their own communities. “Edwards’s doctrine cleared the way for many such people to preach revival and to evangelize outside their own churches and ethnic groups. It helped them share the gospel freely without suggesting in the process that non-Christians had the power to save themselves.” [Haykin, 297] Today his legacy continues well beyond just these few points I have outlined and he remains an important figure for those Protestants of Evangelical or Reformed traditions. His works are still read and inspire many more to deeper levels of faith, joy and devotion to their Lord.


Theology:

            Probably one of the most enduring legacies of Edwards is his contributions theologically toward the Christian’s duty of delight in the Lord. He has greatly influenced many throughout the years, including modern theologians and pastors such as John Piper and his concept of “Christian hedonism” which draws extensively from Edwards’s writings and the imperative of joy in the Christian life. He was a theologian of the heart and the mind, to move his listeners and readers to authentic worship in spirit and truth.
            It is impossible to write succinctly about his theology and do it justice as much of his writings are so beautifully nuanced and well built. I will instead leave you with a few memorable quotes and testimonies about his theology and encourage the reader to dive into his works for themselves to see the potency and genius of his writing.

“The sum of that eternal life which Christ purchased is holiness; it is a holy happiness. And there is in faith a liking of the happiness that Christ has procured and offers.”
[Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning Faith,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol 2. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976. Pg 583]

            Norman Fiering sums up Edwards very nicely like this: “Disinterested love to God is impossible because the desire for happiness is intrinsic to all willing or loving whatsoever, and God is the necessary end of the search for happiness. Logically one cannot be disinterested about the source or basis of all interest.”
(Norman Fiering, “Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought“. pg 161)

            “True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures… But the dependence of the affections of hypocrites is in a contrary order: they first rejoice… that they are made so much of by God; and then on that ground, he seems in a sort, lovely to them.”
(John E. Smith, “Religious Affections” The Words of Jonathan Edwards, vol 2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959. Pg 249-250.)

            “When once the soul is brought to relish the excellency of the Divine nature, then it will naturally, and of course, incline to God every way. It will incline to be with Him and enjoy Him. It will have benevolence to God. It will be glad that He is happy. It will incline that He should be glorified, and that His will should be done in all things. So that the first effect of the power of God in the heart in regeneration, is to give the heart a Divine taste or sense; to cause it to have a relish of the loveliness and sweetness of the supreme excellency of the Divine nature; and indeed this is all the immediate effect of the Divine power that there is; this is all the Spirit of God needs to do, in order to a production of all good effects in the soul.”
(Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace, p 48-49)

            “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.”
(Jonathan Edwards, Miscellanies no. 448, pg 133)

            Hopefully this brief biographical sketch will inspire you to be more passionate in your relationship with God and urgency for the mission of the Gospel. Perhaps some of you may be interested in reading some more from Jonathan Edwards and learning from this classic mind of the faith – many of his works are available online for free, or via eBooks also. Below is a list of some of the books I read and found useful in researching Edwards.


Select Bibliography:
(Listed alphabetically by Author)

  1. Hart, D. G et al. The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and the Evangelical Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
  2. Haykin, Michael A. G., et al. The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2008.
  3. Levin, David. Jonathan Edwards; a Profile. —. [1st ed.]. –. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.
  4. Noll, Mark A. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2004.
  5. Piper, John. Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God. Revised Edition. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books. 2012.
  6. Simonson, Harold Peter. Jonathan Edwards, Theologian of the Heart. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974.
  7. Smith, John E. Jonathan Edwards: Puritan, Preacher, Philosopher. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.
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