This article is about the theologian (b. 1703), for other uses of Jonathan Edwards see Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758) was a colonial American Congregational preacher, theologian, and missionary to Native Americans. Edwards "is widely acknowledged to be America's most important and original philosophical theologian. He is known as one of the greatest and most profound of American theologians and revivalists. His work is very broad in scope, but he is often associated with his defense of Calvinist theology, the metaphysics of theological determinism, and the Puritan heritage. His famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," emphasized the just wrath of God against sin and contrasted it with the provision of God for salvation; the intensity of his preaching sometimes resulted in members of the audience fainting, swooning, and other more obtrusive reactions. The swooning and other behaviors in his audience caught him up in a controversy over "bodily effects" of the Holy Spirit's presence.
Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703, was the son of Timothy Edwards (1668–1759), a minister at East Windsor, Connecticut (modern day South Windsor) who eked out his salary by tutoring boys for college. His mother, Esther Stoddard, daughter of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, of Northampton, Massachusetts, seems to have been a woman of unusual mental gifts and independence of character.
Jonathan, their only son, was the fifth of eleven children. He was trained for college by his father and by his elder sisters, all of whom received an excellent education. When ten years old, he wrote a semi-humorous tract on the immateriality of the soul. He was interested in L natural history and, at the age of eleven, wrote a remarkable essay on the habits of the "flying spider."
He entered Yale College in 1716, at just under the age of thirteen. In the following year, he became acquainted with John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which influenced him profoundly. During his college studies, he kept note books labelled "The Mind," "Natural Science" (containing a discussion of the atomic theory), "The Scriptures" and "Miscellanies," had a grand plan for a work on natural and mental philosophy, and drew up for himself rules for its composition. Even before his graduation in September 1720, as valedictorian and head of his class, he seems to have had a well formulated philosophy. He spent two years after his graduation in New Haven studying theology.
In 1722 to 1723, he was, for eight months, "stated supply" (a clergyman employed to supply a pulpit for a definite time, but not settled as a pastor) of a small Presbyterian Church in New York City. The church invited him to remain, but he declined the call. After spending two months in study at home, in 1724–1726, he was one of the two tutors at Yale, earning for himself the name of a "pillar tutor", from his steadfast loyalty to the college and its orthodox teaching, at the time when Yale's rector (Timothy Cutler) and one of her tutors had gone over to the Episcopal Church.
The years, 1720 to 1726, are partially recorded in his diary and in the resolutions for his own conduct which he drew up at this time. He had long been an eager seeker after salvation and was not fully satisfied as to his own conversion until an experience in his last year in college, when he lost his feeling that the election of some to salvation and of others to eternal damnation was "a horrible doctrine," and reckoned it "exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet." He now took a great and new joy in the beauties of nature, and delighted in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon. Balancing these mystic joys is the stern tone of his Resolutions, in which he is almost ascetic in his eagerness to live earnestly and soberly, to waste no time, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
On February 15, 1727, he was ordained minister at Northampton and assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He was a scholar-pastor, not a visiting pastor, his rule being thirteen hours of study a day. In the same year, he married Sarah Pierpont. She was then aged seventeen and daughter of James Pierpont (1659–1714), a founder of Yale and, through her mother, great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker. Of her piety and almost nun-like love of God and belief in His personal love for her, Edwards had known when she was only thirteen, and had written of it with spiritual enthusiasm. She was of a bright and cheerful disposition, a practical housekeeper, a model wife and the mother of his eleven children. Solomon Stoddard died on February 11, 1729, leaving to his grandson the difficult task of the sole ministerial charge of one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the colony, and one proud of its morality, its culture and its reputation
In 1733, a religious revival began in Northampton, and reached such intensity, in the winter of 1734 and the following spring, as to threaten the business of the town. In six months, nearly three hundred were admitted to the church. The revival gave Edwards an opportunity for studying the process of conversion in all its phases and varieties, and he recorded his observations with psychological minuteness and discrimination in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton (1737). A year later, he published Discourses on Various Important Subjects, the five sermons which had proved most effective in the revival, and of these, none, he tells us, was so immediately effective as that on the Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, from the text, "That every mouth may be stopped." Another sermon, published in 1734, on the Reality of Spiritual Light set forth what he regarded as the inner, moving principle of the revival, the doctrine of a special grace in the immediate, and supernatural divine illumination of the soul.
In the spring of 1735, the movement began to subside and a reaction set in. But the relapse was brief, and the Northampton revival, which had spread through the Connecticut valley and whose fame had reached England and Scotland, was followed in 1739–1740 by the Great Awakening, distinctively under the leadership of Edwards. It was at this time that Edwards became acquainted with George Whitefield, and Edwards preached his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741. This sermon has been widely reprinted as an example of "fire and brimstone" preaching in the colonial revivals.
The movement met with opposition from conservative Congregationalist ministers. In 1741, Edwards published in its defense The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, dealing particularly with the phenomena most criticized: the swoonings, outcries and convulsions. These "bodily effects," he insisted, were not distinguishing marks of the work of the Spirit of God one way or another; but so bitter was the feeling against the revival in the more strictly Puritan churches that, in 1742, he was forced to write a second apology, Thoughts on the Revival in New England, his main argument being the great moral improvement of the country. In the same pamphlet, he defends an appeal to the emotions, and advocates preaching terror when necessary, even to children, who in God's sight "are young vipers… if not Christ's." He considers "bodily effects" incidentals to the real work of God, but his own mystic devotion and the experiences of his wife during the Awakening (which he gives in detail) make him think that the divine visitation usually overpowers the body, a view in support of which he quotes Scripture. In reply to Edwards, Charles Chauncy wrote Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England in 1743 and anonymously penned The Late Religious Commotions in New England Considered in the same year. In these works he urged conduct as the sole test of conversion; and the general convention of Congregational ministers in the Province of Massachusetts Bay protested "against disorders in practice which have of late obtained in various parts of the land."
In spite of Edwards's able pamphlet, the impression had become widespread that "bodily effects" were recognized by the promoters of the Great Awakening as the true tests of conversion. To offset this feeling, Edwards preached at Northampton, during the years 1742 and 1743, a series of sermons published under the title of Religious Affections (1746), a restatement in a more philosophical and general tone of his ideas as to "distinguishing marks." In 1747, he joined the movement started in Scotland called the "concert in prayer," and in the same year published An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom on Earth. In 1749, he published a memoir of David Brainerd who had lived with his family for several months and had died at Northhampton in 1747. Brainerd had been constantly attended by Edwards's daughter Jerusha, to whom he was rumored to have been engaged to be married, though there is no surviving evidence for this. In the course of elaborating his theories of conversion Edwards used Brainerd and his ministry as a case study, making extensive notes of his conversions and confessions.
Edwards also wrote sermons and theological treatises that emphasized the beauty of God and the role of aesthetics in the spiritual life, in which he anticipates a twentieth-century current of theological aesthetics, represented by figures like Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Edwards's preaching became unpopular. For four years, no candidate presented himself for admission to the church, and when one did, in 1748, he was met with Edwards's formal but mild and gentle tests, as expressed in the Distinguishing Marks and later in Qualifications for Full Communion (1749). The candidate refused to submit to them, the church backed him, and the break between the church and Edwards was complete. Even permission to discuss his views in the pulpit was refused him. He was allowed to present his views on Thursday afternoons. His sermons were well attended by visitors, but not his own congregation. A council was convened to decide the communion matter between the minister and his people. The congregation chose half the council, and Edwards was allowed to select the other half of the council. His congregation, however, limited his selection to one county where the majority of the ministers were against him. The ecclesiastical council voted that the pastoral relation be dissolved. The church members, by a vote of more than 200 to 23, ratified the action of the council, and finally a town meeting voted that Edwards should not be allowed to occupy the Northampton pulpit, though he continued to live in the town and preach in the church by the request of the congregation until October 1751. He evinced no rancour or spite; his "Farewell Sermon" was dignified and temperate; he preached from 2 Cor. 1:14 and directed the thoughts of his people to that far future when the minister and his people would stand before God; nor is it to be ascribed to chagrin that in a letter to Scotland after his dismissal he expresses his preference for Presbyterian to Congregational church government. His position at the time was not unpopular throughout New England; his doctrine that the Lord's Supper is not a cause of regeneration and that communicants should be professing Christians has since (very largely through the efforts of his pupil Joseph Bellamy) become a standard of New England Congregationalism.
Edwards, with his large family, was now thrown upon the world, but offers of aid quickly came to him. A parish in Scotland could have been procured, and he was called to a Virginia church. He declined both, to become, in 1750, pastor of the church in Stockbridge and a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. To the Indians, he preached through an interpreter, and their interests he boldly and successfully defended by attacking the whites who were using their official positions among them to increase their private fortunes. In Stockbridge, he wrote the Humble Relation, also called Reply to Williams (1752), which was an answer to Solomon Williams (1700–1776), a relative and a bitter opponent of Edwards as to the qualifications for full communion; and he there composed the treatises on which his reputation as a philosophical theologian chiefly rests, the essay on Original Sin, the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, the Dissertation Concerning the End for which God created the World, and the great work on the Will, written in four months and a half, and published in 1754 under the title, An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions Respecting that Freedom of the Will which is supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency.
In 1757, on the death of the Reverend Aaron Burr, who five years before had married Edwards's daughter Esther and was the father of future US vice-president Aaron Burr, he reluctantly agreed to replace his late son-in-law as the president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he was installed on February 16, 1758.
Almost immediately after becoming president, he was inoculated for smallpox, which was raging in Princeton, New Jersey. Never in robust health, he died of the inoculation on March 22, 1758. He was buried in Princeton Cemetery. Edwards had three sons and eight daughters.
Edwards's writings and beliefs continue to influence individuals and groups to this day. Early American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions missionaries were influenced by Edwards' writings, as is evidenced in reports in the ABCFM's journal "The Missionary Herald," and beginning with Perry Miller's seminal work, Edwards enjoyed a renaissance among scholars after the end of the Second World War. The Banner of Truth Trust and other publishers continue to reprint Edwards's works, and most of his major works are now available through the series published by Yale University Press, which has spanned three decades and supplies critical introductions by the editor of each volume. Yale has also established the Jonathan Edwards Project online.
Edwards is commemorated as a teacher and missionary by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 22.