For countless American schoolchildren, their first real introduction to evangelical religion was the classroom assignment to read Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Although the modern educational establishment has recently begun to question the wisdom of building “self-esteem” in students by praising sloth and indifference, we suspect they are not yet ready to return to Edwards’ convincing—and convicting—description of sin and its consequences. Join us now for a brief look back at America’s most famous Puritan.
Jonathan Edwards was twenty-six years old when he became pastor of a thirteen hundred member church. His predecessor, his grandfather Solomon Stoddard, had been there for sixty years. Jonathan knew that fitting into the Northampton population would not be easy. His grandfather had been a legend, but during his latter years, he was unable to be as much of a presence as before. Bad behavior, especially among the young had become commonplace. “Nightwalking,” licentiousness, lewd practice, and too much time in the taverns were rampant. Edwards decided to spell out the problems in a sermon entitled— “We Have Lost Our Joshua” a tribute to his grandfather.
He pulled no punches, even accusing the congregation of being “sermon proof.” Then, as had happened before and would happen again, his health collapsed, necessitating a rest. He would have to get stronger if he were going to tame the Northamp-tonites. His high spiritual ideals were no match for a community pretty much out of control. He was dealt another blow when Diphtheria took his youngest sister, Jerusha.
By September of 1729, Edwards was back in the pulpit. For a time his intricate, extremely clear and logical sermons seemed not to be taking effect, compared to Stoddard’s blunt and to the point messages. But when he connected with his congregation, some compared his sermons to the extraordinary ceiling and dome paintings of the Renaissance. He was a logician, and anyone who sincerely listened could not escape his argument. But still, he was bothered be-cause so many of his audience seemed unconverted, especially the young who took Communion without a thought as to whether they were converted. He wasn’t going to change Stodd-ardean practice yet—but the time was coming.
Edwards felt those who partook of the sacraments though not converted were betrayers, like Judas. But if communicants took the bread and wine because they thought it was the right thing to do—was it their fault?
Families did not escape Edwards’ criticism, especially when it came to the practice of bundling, when young boys and girls spent the night in bed together, though partially clothed. Edwards knew that pre-marital sex was commonplace, and parents were harming their children when they were allowed to be in situations where they would yield to temptation.
Edwards was met by defiance by some, but he was a man of authority and most people appreciated his sincerity. He wasn’t Stoddard, but he was God’s spokesman just the same.
At home, Edwards practiced what he preached. He arose at four or five every morning in order to spend thirteen hours in his study. Family devotions were part of every day also. He and Sarah were on the same page with their children and visitors marveled at the good behavior of the youngsters.
Just as he’d always planned, he began a massive project to advance God’s Kingdom not only in Northampton, but throughout the world. The masterwork which began in 1729 was entitled A Rational Account Of The Main Doctrines Of The Christian Religion Attempted. The mammoth work involved not only theology, but the arts and sciences and was a direct challenge to eighteenth century philosophers whose claims were invalid without biblical revelation.
But Jonathan Edwards could not have accomplished his ambitious plans without the help of a wife, who though just as smart as her husband, subjugated herself to his desires because she believed in him. It was she who raised the children while giving birth to a new one every two years and kept a house that was a model of decorum. It’s doubtful that Sarah got her work done in thirteen hours. Jonathan could not have functioned as the genius he surely was without Sarah, who always had his back.
Also, Edwards was not a pastor who visited parishioners, except on rare occasions. He thought it a waste. He welcomed people to his study, and conducted classes, but not door-to-door visits.
The following might well indicate the general philosophy of Jonathan Edwards:
Roses grow upon briars, which is to signify that all temporal sweets are mixed with bitter. But what seems to be meant by it, is that true happiness, the crown of glory, is to be come at in no other way than by bearing Christ’s cross by a life of mortification, self-denial and labor, and bearing all things for Christ.
Those opposed to Calvinism saw the Puritan religion as too harsh, too controlling, and made God a tyrant and executioner. According to Edwards and other Puritan clergy, such an Arminian attitude was the number one enemy of Calvinism; even Catholicism did not invoke the same fear. Jonathan Edwards decided to tackle the issue head on, which he did in a public lecture at Harvard’s commencement on July 8, 1731. He would not allow that anyone could be even partly responsible for his salvation as only God could grant it. This lecture, which was also a sermon given at Harvard by a Yale graduate, would propel Jonathan Edwards into international fame. No longer would he be just a Revivalist Preacher.
But while Edwards now had international fame, he was still pastor of one of the largest churches in New England; what would soon transpire in the town of Northampton would be “a great awakening” or, as some see it, an over abundance of cheap emotion.
Like many movements The Great Awakening started when the young, a group who generally had been enjoying their rebelliousness under Stoddard, began a slow but unmistakable response to Edwards and his sermons so that within three years after Stoddard’s death the amount of frolicking decreased and attendance at services increased. To be sure, there was also an economic reason for the change in the young. The amount of land that could be passed on to them at time of marriage had decreased remarkably, necessitating that the young live with their parents for an extended period, thus putting off marriage until their late twenties. But though still under parental authority and expected to delay sexual activity, not everyone did. The young who listened and took to heart Edwards’ sermons were suddenly burdened with guilt that their sexual activity was inappropriate. Yet, in other areas of New England, social problems were the same with no accompanying behavior changes; it appeared the change in Northampton’s young was genuine. Jonathan Edwards believed the Holy Spirit was working.
The death of a young Northampton man, no doubt a victim of one of a myriad of infectious diseases inflicted on New Englanders of that time, hit hard among his contemporaries. For Edwards—it was an opportunity. He preached a sermon titled, “In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up. In the evening it is cut down and withereth.” When Edwards saw the amount of flowing tears, he knew his sermon had the desired effect.
In June of 1734, the death of a young married woman had the same effect. Edwards, while not knowing about viruses and bacteria saw this as another opportunity provided by God—and who could say he was wrong? This particular young person went from her death bed to the arms of her Savior, as Edwards was quick to point out to the young people he counseled with.
By the Fall of 1734, the Awakening was spreading. Rather than spending their evenings “frolicking,” the young people were meeting in homes for social religion and prayer; and the young men were taking charge of organizing—something previously reserved for the young women. One of the strengths of the Puritan religion had always been that of lay people organizing and taking charge of meetings without clergy being present.
By March and April of 1735, the stream had become a flood. Never had there been a revival like this, thought Edwards—people were talking of nothing else. Well—maybe.
The spiritual fervor of Northampton was increasing almost daily and things heretofore thought impossible were happening; even the skeptics had to admit that. The Great Awakening was in full bloom, and almost all of the adults in Northampton were church members.
The movement quickly spread to other areas of New England, and the more it spread the more some doubted—out of sincerity—or jealousy. One thing the scoffers had to admit was that the Awakening was no respecter of class, as the “sober and vicious, high and low, rich and poor, wise and unwise and even several negroes,” were represented. But then, things started to go wrong, as Satan began his deadly work.
When Jonathan Edwards’ uncle, Joseph Hawley committed suicide by slitting his throat on June 1, 1735, the town, along with Jonathan, was in a state of shock. Edwards explained that Hawley suffered from “deep melancholy” which made him susceptible to Satan’s snare. He admitted that Hawley had been deeply concerned about the state of his soul. Edwards had been pleased that with the advent of the Awakening, sickness in Northampton, especially depression, had been almost nonexistent and he gave the Awakening credit. Now with Hawley’s suicide, while blaming Satan, Edwards must have wondered if perhaps his preaching had caused a man on the edge to go over the edge. He, of course, never voiced this to anyone. He had preached the way he thought God wanted him to preach so what happened to Hawley had to be Satan’s doing. Still, it was upsetting when word got around that many others were fighting off the temptation to cut their throats.
The criticism of Edwards and the Awakening does not appear to have dimmed his star as he continued to gain an international reputation through his writings. When prominent Calvinist Ben-jamin Colman asked for an account of the Great Awakening, Edwards complied in his very small handwriting. A Faithful Narrative Of The Surprising Work Of God. The work even found its way to John Wesley who was very impressed and made it standard reading in Wesleyan circles.
In May of 1737, just as A Faithful Narrative was making its mark on the world, a letter came from Benjamin Colman to Edwards extolling its virtues and trumpeting its acceptance. The ever-honest Edwards had to reply by admitting that his hometown had pretty much returned to its old ways. During one service the church gallery collapsed, injuring many though none died. Edwards saw this as a rebuke from God for returning to the old ways and being blind to spiritual realities.
If those reading Faithful Narrative could have visited Northampton in 1737, they may have deduced that the story of the Great Awakening was pure fiction. Even the building of a new meetinghouse served only to increase bickering as to who should get the best pews. With all the disagreements even Ed-wards began to see that the Awakening had not been as genuine as he assumed.
But in 1740-41 there were happenings to prove the awakenings were not over. Indeed, one actually began in Boston and spread. At the same time the youth of Northampton had one of their own, modest by comparison to 1737, but still sincere, which pleased Jonathan and though he participated, he did not take credit. It probably had more to do with two itinerant preachers, George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent. Edwards knew Whitefield and liked him, though they did not become close.
In May of 1741 meetings were held mainly in private homes, including the Edwards’. Most of the attendees were young people and children. The emotions generated by these meetings were unequaled to that time. It was a time when the outpouring of the spirit brought ecstasy to all those who attended. In one meeting at his house for ages sixteen to twenty-six Edwards himself was amazed by the outpouring of emotions. “Several young people were overcome and fainted.” In the book, Jonathan Edwards, A Life, author George Marsden states: “These overwhelming manifestations that seized the normally staid citizenry of New England provide the context for the most famous episode in Edwards’ career.”
That famous episode which was to become the sermon, “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God,” was preached at Enfield on the Massachusetts / Connecticut border. Some picture a shouting, arm waving, fire and brimstone Ed-wards, delivering his sermon in a high pitched voice. This was not the style of Jonathan Edwards. He spoke sincerely, not loudly, as if he were sitting across the table from the congregants; but his words had the impact of a sledge hammer. The assembly was in hysterics long before Edwards had finished, and were shouting, “What must I do to be saved!” Ironically, Edwards had preached the same sermon in his home church in Northamp-ton—but apparently didn’t get the same response.
For the rest of his pastorate at Northampton, Edwards faced one problem after another. Some of the young people who had at one time idolized him became obstinate and disobedient, especially the young men. When Jonathan found out that some of the men were passing objectionable books around, while at the same time embarrassing and harassing the young women, he requested a meeting between a church committee and the offenders. However, when he read off the list of names to attend the meeting, he didn’t differentiate between the offenders and witnesses. This created a firestorm among parents, which Edwards couldn’t understand. He never seemed to be able to see things through any lens but his own.
The question of salary increases on the heels of a committee meeting about the objectionable books caused another firestorm, for Sarah Edwards, who managed family finances, declared that with their growing family they needed a bigger salary.
Even a change from a yeoman society to agrarian capitalism caused problems, an issue that Edwards should have stayed away from. He didn’t believe that one should buy as cheaply as possible and sell for as much profit as possible. This was not in the pastor’s purview, and the church members criticized Edwards for always asking for more money while disapproving of the profit motive.
In May of 1748, Colonel John Stoddard, perhaps Jonathan’s last ally in Northampton, died of a stroke. Now, Edwards picked, no doubt, the worst time to change what he knew would be his biggest challenge—the place of the sacraments in Christian life.
Edwards decided that the best way to achieve his goal of insisting upon a congregant’s conversion before being allowed to take communion, was to change the church government—an effort that went nowhere.
He asked the church committee if he could preach on his views concerning the sacraments. They declined, but decided he could write a treatise on his views.
Jonathan Edwards believed that those who partook of communion before they were converted were bound for hell. For this reason he was willing to risk everything. He was a principled man but not a people person. He believed he was right about the sacraments, but his congregation found it suspicious that he waited until Solomon Stoddard died to bring the subject up. Though he never exploded emotionally while trying to convince his congregation, in a moment of frustration he told Sarah, “I’m born to be a man of strife.” He later admitted that perhaps he wasn’t suited for anything but writing.
On July 1, 1750, Jonathan Edwards preached his last sermon at Northamp-ton, reminding the congregation that his conscience was clear on all matters. “America’s Theologian” had been fired.
Edward’s next stop was Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he became part of what could be called a noble experiment: getting the Mohican Indians and Whites to live side by side. Some could criticize and say that Edwards had nowhere else to go, but that would be unfair, since he still believed that Jesus Christ was the common denominator. The idea was to get Indians to live by white principles. It didn’t take long for the Indians to see that Whites had some principles they wanted no part of. When two white men killed an Indian boy, the Mohicans decided to wait and see an example of white man’s justice. When one white was acquitted and the other convicted of only manslaughter, Indian resentment grew even more. There was even talk of an Indian uprising. As much as anything, the French and Indian War brought an end of the “noble experiment.” After some years of trying to keep the mission going, while fearing for their lives, the Edwards’ left Stockbridge. Jonathan wept at the closing of the school, but he knew it was time to accept another position.
In January of 1758, Jonathan accepted the position of President of Princeton University. It was to be a short-lived position. The entire Edwards family was inoculated against smallpox. None had a bad reaction other than Jonathan. He died on February 22, 1758, and was welcomed into the arms of his Savior.
Don Haines is a retired Registered Nurse and freelance writer who articles have appeared in hundreds of Christian and secular magazines.
Jonathan Edwards, A Life, George Marsden
America’s Theologian, Robert W. Jenson
Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the World, Douglas Sweeney