Jonathan Edwards: Pastor, Missionary, and Greatest Theologian in American History

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Biographer Douglas A. Sweeney once wrote, “Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is the most influential thinker in all of evangelical history” (17). Upon observing this man’s life, ministry, theology, and lasting legacy, it is quite acceptable to agree with Sweeny’s words. Although the culture during Edwards’ days is quite different from the twenty-first century, there is much applicable information to glean from in this remarkable Christian leader. Without a doubt, Edwards faced both success and struggle in his life, yet expressed an attitude of perseverance, love, generosity, faith, and godliness. As a pastor, he was not only a brilliant theologian, but also a tremendous communicator of applicable truth. George Marsden described him by saying, “for Edwards one cannot draw a line between his theological or ecclesiastical roles and the person in some more essential sense. Edwards’ roles were so integrated in his life that they were basic to who he was” (10). Despite being a man of great influence and accomplishment, he also manifested a Christ-like humility as displayed with how he once said, “[I wish] to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and that God might be all, that I might become as a little child” (Galli and Olsen 43). While North America has beheld several brilliant theologians in its history, none greater than Jonathan Edwards has collectively made such an impact in Christianity with his life, theology, and ministry in the United States.

While it was by far not a perfect society, Jonathan Edwards grew up in the Puritan town of East Windsor, Connecticut. He had the distinct privilege of being a descendant of several pastors who were his forefathers. His grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, and his father, Timothy Edwards, were pastors of Congregational churches in New England and vital influences to young Jonathan who lived in eighteenth century America (Haykin 7). Not only did Jonathan have a strong, Christian influence, but also a well-rounded, highly-scholastic education from his father. Edwards, gifted with a brilliant mind from such a young age, was able to grasp the language of Latin by age six (Sweeney 35). To be well-equipped for college he even studied Greek and Hebrew by age twelve (35). As Edwards reflected on his younger life, he testified that he was tremendously “religious” but not a converted believer. In his Letters and Personal Writings, Edwards recorded how he and his classmates had “built a booth in a swamp, in a very secret and retired place, for a place of prayer” (790). “In process of time,” Edwards continued,  “my  convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights, and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in ways of sin” (791). The sovereignty of God was ever present in Jonathan Edwards’ early life. While he had not become a Christian yet, God was very much at work throughout his childhood, leading Jonathan into what He had in store for his adult life and ministry.

At age twelve, Jonathan Edwards entered Yale University, originally founded in 1701 as the Connecticut Collegiate School (Sweeney 36). In September of 1720, just prior to his seventeenth birthday, Edwards graduated “first in his class” and was given the high honor of delivering the valedictory speech (37-38). He then decided to immediately begin his graduate studies at Yale, pursuing a M.A. degree. While this was a time of increased intellectual growth and philosophical knowledge, Edwards also faced battles of sin and how that has affected relationship before a Holy God (Marsden 36). In the midst of this point in Jonathan’s life, he even faced difficulties with a roommate and cousin Elisha Mix. This young, immature freshman in the undergraduate program was quite opposite of Jonathan, craving social attention, disfavoring any form of scholasticism, and easily distracting in contrast to Jonathan who was shy and intellectual for the most part (37). Among the drama and spiritual journey, Edwards could not separate his heart from his intellect and thus discovered that he indeed was not in proper relationship with God, nor did he understand his purpose of life. That all changed, however, in May/June of 1721 when Edwards became enthralled with reading First Timothy 1:17, “Now unto the King eternal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen” (Marsden 41; Sweeney 40). Jonathan Edwards stated, “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 anything I ever experienced before…I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him” (793). Observing on Jonathan’s life, John Piper and Justin Taylor commented on Edwards’ theology in relation to God’s desire for His creation by saying, “Edwards’s call for a God enthralled heart does not make the enthralled one central. It makes God central. Indeed it exposes every joy as idolatrous that is not, ultimately, joy in God” (29). Undoubtedly, this was a major point in Edwards’ life. Though crowded with difficulty at first, eventually he was led to a glorious conversion which thereby was foundational for the rest of his life as not only a Christian but also as a faithful servant of communicating the glory of God for the joy of His creation as taught in Scripture.

Though he was still in the process of completing his M.A. degree at Yale, Edwards received the call to pastor a Presbyterian church in New York by August of 1722, leaving some of his education to finish later. Edwards, only nineteen years of age, was given the daunting task of trying to heal the wounds from a recent church split (Sweeney 42). By God’s grace, Jonathan was able to successfully lead this church and likewise this time “proved [to be] a blessing to all concerned” (42). According to Edwards, this was a time of maturity and spiritual growth as he once confessed to be in “constant inquiry, how I should be more holy” (Claghorn 795). He would often study beside the Hudson River, “contemplating the things of God” (Sweeney 43). During these moments, Edwards reflected, “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” (Claghorn 795). According to Douglas Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards had composed several works in writing, including 1,400 miscellaneous reflections which were entitled “theological ‘Miscellanies,’” “Blank Bible” writings, “Notes on Scripture,” “Notes on the Apocalypse,” and even some smaller booklets on Christian doctrines, natural science, metaphysics and aesthetics (47). Like all Christians, this was not a time without difficulty or problems, but all in all, it was a step of progress toward his even greater influences in ministry.

From 1723-1724, Jonathan Edwards left his pastoral position at New York to finish his M.A. thesis in the summer of 1723, immediately pastored at a church in Connecticut for about seven months, but left that position as well to return to Yale as a tutor (Haykin 10). Edwards knew that pastoring was his calling, and therefore took advantage of the opportunity given in 1726 to be an assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, at a Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts (10). Before long, Stoddard’s health had declined and progressively Edwards took on more responsibility in the Northampton church. In fact, Edwards would eventually preach at two services on Sunday, as well as a weekday afternoon serviced described as a time of “lecture” (Sweeney 57). During the same time, however, Edwards also had a rather large transition in his life in that he had found a wife, Sarah Pierpont. They married in 1727, just five months after Jonathan had been ordained (Haykin 12). By the time of Stoddard’s death, in 1729, Marsden approximates 1,400 people to have attended Edwards’ congregation, about twice the size as when he began under the leadership of Stoddard (127).  Sweeney, however, proposes a number of attendants as half of the number of Marsden (56). Whatever the actual attendance was, it is known that Edwards faced physical illnesses, probably due to the stress and responsibility of the young twenty-five year old (Marsden 127). Jonathan’s brother-in-law Benjamin Pierpont even traveled to Northampton to preach until he recuperated shortly afterwards (Sweeney 72). Though life was certainly not always easy for Edwards, his ministry career had just begun for the most part, which eventually led to greater things such as the Great Awakening, his well-known theological writings, and a lasting impact on Protestantism in North America.

From the time of Stoddard’s death to early in 1734, there was a spiritual dullness in the community of Northampton. Edwards took notice of this concern, and recognized that much of the contributions were emanating from the youth (Sweeney 107-108). Marsden notes that at this time there came a “dramatic turning point” with the surprising death of a young man after just a two-day fight against the disease of “pleurisy” (153). Almost immediately following this young man’s death, a young woman also contracted an illness leading to her death (155). Justo Gonzalez records the response to Edwards’ sermons from both the young and the old members by saying, “people began responding to his sermons, some with emotional outbursts, but many with a remarkable change in their lives, and with increased attention to their devotional lives” (228). Without question, revival had broken out in this area of New England. In Edwards’ The Great Awakening, he recalls this transformational time by recollecting, “The assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the Word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors” (Goen 151). Though this movement of revival relapsed for a period of time, Edwards continued to grow spiritually, and trusted that God had much more in store for him and his congregation (Sweeney 126). By the spring of 1740, there were several signs of another, even greater, revival in the Northampton area. After being requested to preach, George Whitfield accepted Edwards’ offer and arrived in New England. After preaching at Edwards’ church, Whitfield and Edwards both spent a short period of time together traveling and preaching in the New England area (130). Before long, Edwards would decide to serve as a “traveling gospel preacher” throughout parts of New England, which included him presenting his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon among others as well (132-133). This period of time in church history is commonly referred to as the Great Awakening. Michael A.G. Haykin gives estimates of anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 new converts to Christianity to have resulted from this “awakening” (17). Jonathan Edwards’ influence in arguably one of the most important time periods of church history is remarkable to behold and something that Christians should remember with significant gratitude.

Despite all of Edwards’ efforts to communicate biblical truth, to lead his church, to take care of his family, and to spread the flames of revival in the Great Awakening, several members of the Northampton Congregational church had  opposed some of Edwards’ decisions and actions. The most notable example was his efforts to remove the “half-way covenant,” a “sacramental policy” that was originally implemented by Solomon Stoddard (Sweeney 140-141).  Edwards greatly opposed the covenant because he firmly believed that only genuine Christians were permitted to participate in the ordinances. Unfortunately, Edwards’ stand for his Biblical convictions caused a stir among many Northampton members. Thus, after much commotion, the church conducted a vote for the future presence of Jonathan Edwards as pastor. Out of the 230, male-only, members that voted, only twenty-three voted in favor of keeping him, while the majority opposed, and some refrained (Haykin 23). Though it was disheartening to Jonathan, he and his family relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts after months of itinerant preaching in multiple churches, including even Northampton (Sweeney 170). Yet again, Edwards approached a new and difficult situation in ministry where in Stockbridge he would “assume the life of a crosscultural [sic] missionary” (170).

Though often known for being a Great Awakening revivalist preacher, Edwards was largely influential in missions in three major ways. First, he lived the life as a missionary in Stockbridge, ministering to approximately 250 Mohican and sixty Mohawk Indians (Haykin 24-25). Secondly, he was instrumental in his biographical work on the Life of David Brainerd (Sweeney 170). Thirdly, he not only lived the life of a missionary and wrote about another missionary, but he also composed literary works that would penetrate the hearts of many, particularly Calvinists, to be burdened with missions (170).  A major, but often overlooked, missiological, postmillennial treatise by Edwards was 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, Pursuant to Scripture-Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time (170-171). While some would disagree with Edwards on issues of Calvinism, postmillennialism, philosophy of revival, and much more, there is much evidence to concede that Edwards was passionate about making disciples and communicating the message of the Gospel to those in need.

The final stages in Edwards’ life included several notable achievements, though a specific few require further observation. While Edwards lived a relatively isolated life in his ministry at Stockbridge, he took advantage of preaching opportunities aside from his pastoral obligations to the church he had inherited when he arrived (Sweeney 178-180). Also, Edwards spent much time and effort on theological writings such as Freedom of the Will, a book on the Original Sin, a Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, a Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, and much more (147). Finally, just prior to his death from smallpox in 1758, Edwards served a very short-term presidential role for the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University (Marsden xv).

 While many brilliant theologians have risen to great renown in American history, very few would disagree as to Jonathan Edwards being the greatest theologian that the United States has ever known. Douglas Sweeney even stated that Edwards was the “best known Christian in America” during his years in Stockbridge (183). Better yet, his legacy has continued on thanks to much of his sermons and self-produced theological writings. Despite being a strong Calvinist, Edwards was heavily evangelistic. Though often a shy, somewhat introverted intellectual, he was a passionate servant in ministry. Surely, Jonathan Edwards was not a perfect man, nor would he claim to be. Nevertheless, one who has observed his life would contest that he exhibited a life of godliness, service, and perseverance. Perhaps John Piper has best described the thesis of Edwards’ life and how the Christian should respond to an observation of this man’s life, “The God-enthralled vision of Jonathan Edwards is rare and necessary, because its foundations are so massive and its fruit is so beautiful. May the Lord himself open our eyes to see it in these days together and be changed. And since we are great sinners and have a great Savior, Jesus Christ, may our watchword ever be, for the glory of God, ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Cor. 6:10)” (34).

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