Rev. Jonathan Edwards: America’s Greatest Evangelical Theologian

Jonathan Edwards 1703 1758 2#

Written by Dr. Marcus J. Serven:

Moving day, during the hot Summer of 1751, was a subdued experience for the family of America’s foremost theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Reluctantly, he and his burgeoning family were relocating from their beloved home in Northampton, Massachusetts, to begin a new life and ministry amongst the Indians on the frontier. After their bags were packed and the wagons fully loaded the entire entourage set off down the long dusty road to Stockbridge, Massachusetts—never to return to the pristine village that had been their home for 23 years. Leaving Northampton was difficult for many reasons: it was here that Jonathan had begun his full-time Christian ministry under the watchful training of his maternal Grandfather, Rev. Solomon Stoddard; it was in this very city that the initial stirrings of the “First Great Awakening” began (1735-1740); and it was here that Jonathan and Sarah had birthed and raised their twelve children. Yet, many of the townspeople wanted Jonathan Edwards and his family to leave—why would they be sending away one of the greatest theologians that America had yet produced?

In order to thoroughly answer this question some of the background of Jonathan Edwards must be examined. Jonathan was born in the country village of East Windsor, Connecticut, on October 5, 1703. He was the son of a Congregational minister, Rev. Timothy Edwards, and his mother Esther Stoddard. His parents educated him at home along with his ten sisters. Young Jonathan’s interests knew no bounds as he vigorously examined the realms of literature, physical science, philosophy, and biblical studies writing several insightful compositions in each field. In many respects, he was a childhood prodigy who eventually excelled in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. At age 13 he was encouraged to attend the Collegiate School of Connecticut (which later became Yale University), and graduated at age 17 in 1720 with an A.B. degree. About this same time he read 1 Timothy 1:17, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”, and had an “evangelical awakening” which fulfilled his own deep-seated spiritual longing. Upon reflection he wrote in his journal,

“As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before…from about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditation on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him.” (Winslow, ed., Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings, 83-84)


Sarah Pierpont Edwards – Faithful Wife to America’s Greatest Theologian

This personal commitment to Christ started him on a life-time quest of thinking and writing about “true religion.” His desire to further study the Bible and philosophy was so great that he stayed at Yale for two years of additional study. While there he was contacted to serve as a “student supply” Pastor at a Scottish Presbyterian Church in New York City; which he did for six months further confirming his call to the Christian ministry. After receiving his M.A. degree in 1723 he was hired a short time later to serve as a tutor at Yale. Academic studies, though, were not his exclusive interest while in New Haven for he became distracted by a young lady in a prominent family—Miss Sarah Pierrepont. Early on in their relationship he described 13 year old Sarah on the inside cover of his Greek Grammar with these words,

“…They say there is a lady in (New Haven) who is beloved of the Great Being, who made and rules the world, and there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for any thing, except to meditate on him—that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven; being assured that he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always…She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her conduct; and you could not persuade her to do any thing wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she would offend this Great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind; especially after this Great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have some one invisible always conversing with her…” (Winslow, ed., Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings, 66-67)

Prior to the making of any formal plans for marriage with Sarah, Jonathan knew that he would have to provide for his new family and so he gladly received a call to be the Assistant Pastor of his grandfather’s church in Northampton, Massachusetts. This was the largest Congregational Church west of Boston, with 600 members, and it was here that he was ordained to the gospel ministry in 1726. Still much smitten with Sarah Pierrepont they married in 1728 and she became his life’s partner for the next 31 years.

Home of the Edwards family

Home of the Edwards family in the 1730’s

In 1729 Jonathan assumed the role of Senior Pastor when his grandfather, Rev. Solomon Stoddard, retired. During his Northampton ministry, besides preaching and catechizing the children, he strongly promoted evangelical revival. Many of the townspeople had been raised by Christian parents, but they had drifted from the Puritan beliefs of their forefathers and no longer had a hunger for the knowledge of God. Jonathan’s prayers were sovereignly answered by God and revival broke out in Northampton during 1734-1737. On one eventful Sunday over one hundred new converts were received into Church membership. He called this period of awakening “the work of God,” for Edwards did not see this as a passing excitement nor something brought about through the efforts of man—it was an outpouring of God’s divine Spirit regenerating hardened human hearts. Other occurrences of revival also began to sweep through the American Colonies. Both George Whitefield (an English evangelist) and Gilbert Tennant (a Presbyterian Pastor) were used mightily of God in furthering the awakening all along the Eastern seaboard, but it was Jonathan Edwards who became known as the leading spokesmen and defender of this spiritual awakening. The return to historic Christianity that God had instigated among the American Colonists would become in time the spiritual foundation for the American War for Independence in the 1770’s.

Throughout Edwards’s ministry he defended a warm-hearted evangelical Calvinism that emphasized the sovereignty of God over all human events. He firmly resisted the attacks against the Great Awakening by the Unitarians, Deists, and skeptics. Edwards also wrote many notable books on the revival such as: A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1741), and A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746). Edwards wrote,

“As in worldly things worldly affections are very much the spring of men’s motion and action; so in religious matters the spring of their actions is very much religious affections. He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion. Nothing is more manifest in fact, than that the things of religion take hold of men’s souls no further than they affect them…I am bold to assert that there never was any considerable change wrought in the mind or conversation of any person, by anything of a religious nature that ever he read, heard or saw, who had not his affections moved…In a word, there never was anything considerable brought to pass in the heart of life of any man living, by the things of religion, that has not his heart deeply affected by those things.” (Edwards, Religious Affections, 1:2; quoted by Lane, in A Concise Dictionary of Christian Thought, 188)

Edwards most well-known sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

Edwards most well-known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

These scholarly works provided a biblical and theological framework for the Great Awakening. He is probably best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), which although read in a monotone voice produced anguished cries of repentance in his listeners. Here is one small section which equally features the holy wrath and divine grace of God,

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince—and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.” (Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; quoted by Lane, in A Concise Dictionary of Christian Thought, 187)

One of the heated controversies ignited by Edwards while serving in Northampton surrounded the qualifications for receiving the Lord’s Supper. Rev. Solomon Stoddard,Jonathan Edwards’s grandfather, adopted the provisions of the “Half-way Covenant” (1662) to his congregation. It states,

“The children of Church members are members of the Church as well as their parents, and do not cease to be members by becoming adult, but do still continue in the Church, until in some way of God they be cast out; and…they are subject to Church-discipline, even as other members, and may have their children baptized before themselves be received to the Lord’s Supper; and yet that in this way there is no tendency to the corrupting of the Church by unworthy members, or of the Ordinances by unworthy partakers.” (The Half-Way Covenant, 1662; quoted in Eerdman’s Handbook to Christianity in America, 41)

This ecclesiastical agreement allowed unconverted baptized members to take the Lord’s Supper based on the profession of faith of their parents. Edwards argued that the Lord’s Supper was not a “converting ordinance” and that only professing Christians should partake of it. Open conflict erupted on all sides. Because of his opposition to the “Half-way Covenant” Edwards was forced out of the church in Northampton and eventually became a pastor to a small frontier congregation of settlers and Indians in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (1750). Some grieved the loss of Jonathan Edwards, while on the other hand many rejoiced to see him depart Northampton. Little did they know that they had rejected the greatest theological mind in America at that time.

Although physically arduous, the seven years in Stockbridge proved to be a fruitful period of reflection and writing for Edwards. He finished his definitive defense against encroaching Arminianism, The Freedom of the Will (1750), where he shows the futility of the belief that man “cooperates” with God in the matter of salvation. The NewBirth, he asserted, comes about solely by God’s gracious activity in the life of one who is spiritually dead. He also wrote a brilliant exposition entitled The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (1758) challenging the popular notion that man is inherently good.


Old Princeton College

The reputation of Jonathan Edwards grew rapidly during these years of relative exile in Stockbridge. In 1757 Edwards was approached to become the President of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University and Seminary). In January 1758 Edwards moved to Princeton, but the town was in the throes of a smallpox epidemic and so he received an inoculation as an example to his students. Disastrous consequences resulted and he died of a secondary infection in March 1758. Thus passed from the scene a truly great man of God who not only positively influenced his family, but who also shaped the thinking of many generations of Christians.

Grave of the Greatest Theologian in America

Grave of the Greatest Evangelical Theologian in America

An Addendum:

On April 8, 2013 my family and I stood at the grave of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. They are both buried together in the cemetery at Princeton, New Jersey. Here is the legacy of an “uncommon union” between a husband and wife who were married for thirty-one years. Their marriage is a testimony of how two individuals, who though very different from each other, were able with God’s help to weave their lives together into an unbreakable bond. Even though they died apart from one another they exemplify a couple whom God blessed even in their deaths. For that reason they are buried together in a unified grave. Soli Deo Gloria.

Dr. Marcus J. Serven

Sources for Further Study: 

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2 Volumes. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1975.

Dodds, Elisabeth D. Marriage to a Difficult Man: the “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1971.

Edwards, Jonathan. The True Believer: The Marks and Benefits of True Faith. Don Kistler, ed. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2001.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. 2 Volumes. Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Publishers, Reprint, 1975.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.

–       “Halfway Covenant”, Mark A. Noll

–       “Jonathan Edwards”, Mark A. Noll

–       “New England Theology”, Mark A. Noll

–       “New Light Schism”, W. A. Hoffecker

–       “Old School Theology”, W. A. Hoffecker

–       “Revivalism”, M. E. Dieter

–       “The Great Awakenings”, Mark A. Noll

Gerstner, Edna. Jonathan and Sarah: An Uncommon Union. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995.

Gerstner, John H. Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987.

Haykin, Michael A. G. A Sweet Flame: Piety in the Letters of Jonathan Edwards. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2007.

Houghton, S. M. Sketches from Church History. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980.

Lane, Tony. A Concise Dictionary of Christian Thought. Revised edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

Lawson, Steven J. The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008.

Lovelace, Richard F. Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979.

Marshall, Peter, and David Manuel. The Light and The Glory. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977.

Murray, Iain H. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Publishers, 1987.

Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing House, 1992.

Noll, Mark A., Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden, David F. Wells, John D. Woodbridge, eds. Eerdman’s Handbook to Christianity in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing House, 1983.

Reid, Daniel G., Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelly, Harry S. Stout, eds. Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Sparks, Jared, ed. Lives of Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd. In The Library of American Biography. Volume VIII. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1837.

–       Samuel Miller, Life of Jonathan Edwards

–       William B. O. Peabody, Life of David Brainerd

Tracy, Joseph. The Great Awakening. First published in 1842; Reprint, Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976.

Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, ed. Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group, 1966.

Woodbridge, John D., ed. Great Leaders of the Christian Church. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988.

Copyright August, 2013   Dr. Marcus Serven, ThM, DMin
Used by Permission.  All Rights Reserved.

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