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Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), colonial New England minister and missionary, was one of the greatest preachers and theologians in American history.

At the close of the 17th century, the science of Isaac Newton and the philosophy of John Locke had significantly changed man's view of his relationship to God. Man's natural ability to discover the laws of creation seemed to demonstrate that supernatural revelation was not a necessary prelude to understanding creation and the creator. God was no longer mysterious; He had endowed men with the power to comprehend His nature and with a will free to choose between good and evil.

It was Jonathan Edwards's genius that he could make full use of Locke's philosophy and Newton's discoveries to reinterpret man's relationship to God in such a way that the experience of supernatural grace became available to people living in an intellectual and cultural climate very different from that of 17th-century England. In so doing, Edwards helped transmit to later generations the richest aspect of American Puritanism: the individual heart's experience of spiritual and emotional rebirth. Further, by his leadership in the religious revivals of the early 18th century, Edwards helped make the experience an integral part of American life for his own time and for the following century.

Jonathan Edwards was born on Oct. 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Conn., where his father was a minister. Jonathan's grandfather was pastor to the church in Northampton, Mass. Jonathan was the only boy in the family; he had 10 sisters. He graduated from Yale College in 1720, staying on there as a theology student until 1722, when, though not yet 19 years old, he was called as minister to a church in New York. Edwards served there for 8 months. In 1723, though called to a church in Connecticut, he decided to try teaching. He taught at Yale from 1724 to 1726.

Early Writings

At an early age Edwards showed a talent for science. At Yale he studied Newton's new science and read Locke with more interest "than the most greedy miser" gathering up "handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly discovered treasure." During these years he also began recording his meditations on the Bible and his observations of the natural world. Edward's central purpose was not to become a scientist but to lead a life of intense holiness.

Edwards's "Personal Narrative" (written ca. 1740) and his letters and diaries show a young man whose religious experience was of great power and beauty. As Edwards tells it, after several "seasons of awakenings," at the age of 17 he had a profound religious experience in which "there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together; it was a sweet, and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness." Adapting Locke's philosophy to his own purposes, Edwards interpreted the "sweet" sense of God's majesty and grace as a sixth and new sense, created supernaturally by the Holy Spirit. As he wrote later in A Treatise of Religious Affections (1746), the new sense is not "a new faculty of understanding, but it is a new foundation laid in the nature of the soul, for a new kind of exercises of the same faculty of understanding."

Edwards's perception of ultimate reality as supernatural is further evidenced in his statement that "the world is … an ideal one." He wrote in his youthful "Notes on the Mind": "The secret lies here: That, which truly is the Substance of all Bodies, is the infinitely exact, and precise, and perfectly stable Idea, in God's mind, together with his stable Will, that the same shall gradually be communicated to us, and to other minds, according to certain fixed and exact Methods and Laws."

In 1726 Edwards was called from Yale to the Northampton church to assist his grandfather; when his grandfather died in 1729, Edwards became pastor of the church. In 1727 he married the beautiful and remarkable Sarah Pier-repont of New Haven.

Early Revivals

Religious revivals had been spreading through New England for 100 years. In his youth Edwards had seen "awakenings" of his father's congregation, and his grandfather's revivals had made his Northampton church second only to Boston. In early New England Congregationalism, church membership had been open only to those who could give public profession of their experience of grace. The Halfway Covenant of 1662 modified this policy, but when Edwards's grandfather allowed all to partake of the Sacraments (including those who could not give profession of conversion), he greatly increased the number of communicants at the Lord's Supper.

Edwards's first revival took place in 1734-1735. Beginning as prayer meetings among the young in Northampton, the revivals soon spread to other towns, and Edwards's reputation as a preacher of extraordinary power grew. Standing before his congregation in his ministerial robe, he was an imposing figure, 6 feet tall, with a high forehead and intense eyes. A contemporary wrote that Edwards had "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… Mr. Edwards was the most eloquent man I ever heard speak."

Edwards endeavored to convey as directly as possible the meaning of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection. His words, he hoped, would lead his listeners to a conviction of their sinful state and then through the infusion of divine grace to a profound experience of joy, freedom, and beauty. Edwards's A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, and the Neighboring Towns and Villages (1737) relates the history of the 1734-1735 revival and includes careful analyses of the conversions of a 4-year old child and an adolescent girl.

Edwards's preaching and writings about the nature and process of the religious experience created powerful enemies. In western Massachusetts the opposition to Edwards was led by his relatives Israel and Solomon Williams, who maintained that a man's assurance of salvation does not lie in a direct and overpowering experience of the infusion of grace and that he may judge himself saved when he obeys the biblical injunctions to lead a virtuous life. Edwards too believed that a Christian expresses the new life within him in virtuous behavior, but he denied that a man is in a state of salvation simply because he behaves virtuously. For him, good works without the experience of grace brought neither freedom nor joy.

In 1739 Edwards preached sermons on the history of redemption. He clearly thought the biblical promises of Christ's kingdom on earth would be fulfilled soon. His interest in the history of redemption is further evidenced in the many notes he made on the prophecies he found in the Bible and in natural events.

Great Awakening

In 1740 the arrival in America of George Whitefield, the famous English revivalist, touched off the Great Awakening. Revivals now swept through the Colonies, and thousands of people experienced the infusion of grace. The emotional intensity of the revivals soon brought attacks from ministers who believed that Whitefield, Edwards, and other "evangelical" preachers were stirring up religious fanaticism. The most famous attack was made by Charles Chauncy in Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (1743).

Edwards defended the Great Awakening in several books. He acknowledged that there had been emotional excesses, but on the whole he believed the revivals were remarkable outpourings of the Holy Spirit. His works of defense include The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742), and A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), the last a classic in religious psychology. He also wrote a biography of his daughter's fiancé the Native American missionary David Brainer.

The Great Awakening intensified Edward's expectations of Christ's kingdom. With English and Scottish ministers, he began a Concert of United Prayer for the Coming of Christ's Kingdom. To engage people in the concert, he wrote An Humble Attempt to Promote Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion (1747).

Edward's Dismissal

The troubles that culminated in Edwards's dismissal from Northampton began in the 1740s. Considerable opposition to Edwards had remained from his revivals. Animosity between him and members of his congregation was increased by an embarrassing salary dispute and an incident in 1744 when Edwards discovered that some children had been secretly reading a book on midwifery. Many children of influential families were implicated; Edwards's reading of their names publicly from the pulpit was resented. But the most important factor in Edwards's dismissal was his decision, announced in 1748, that henceforth only those who publicly professed their conversion experience would be admitted to the Lord's Supper. His decision reversed his grandfather's policy, which Edwards himself had been following for 20 years.

Edwards was denied the privilege of explaining his views from the pulpit, and his written defense, An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God, Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion with the Visible Christian Church (1749), went largely unread. After a bitter struggle, the church voted 200 to 23 against Edwards, and on July 1, 1750, he preached his farewell sermon.

Late Works

In August 1751 Edwards and his large family went to Stockbridge, Mass., where he had been called as pastor to the church and missionary to the Native Americans. As a missionary, he defended the Native Americans against the greed and mismanagement of a local merchant. These struggles consumed much of his time, but he still managed to write extensively. Among the most important works are A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notionsof That Freedom of Will … (1754) and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758). In the first, he asserted that a man has freedom to choose but freedom of choice is not the same as freedom of will. The power which decides what a man will choose—his willing—is in the hands of God and beyond his personal control. In Original Sin Edwards maintained that all men live in the same unregenerate state as Adam after the fall.

Two other works show that Edwards had not become embittered by his dismissal. In The Nature of True Virtue (1756) he defines virtue as benevolence to "being" in general. Concerning the End for Which God Created the World (1756) is a prose poem, a praise to God Who is love, and Whose universe is the expression of God's desire to glorify Himself.

In January 1758 Edwards became president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Two months later he died of fever resulting from a smallpox inoculation. He was buried in Princeton.

Further Reading

Two volumes of Edwards's Works, edited by Perry Miller, have appeared (1957). The major biography remains Samuel Hopkins, Life of the Rev. J. Edwards (1833), reprinted in Jonathan Edwards: A Profile, edited by David Levin (1969). The most important study of Edwards's thought is Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (1949). Other important studies are Ola E. Winslow, Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758 (1940); Douglas Elwood, Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (1960); and James Carse, Jonathan Edwards and the Visibility of God (1967). For background see Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953), and Alan E. Heimert, Religion and the American Mind (1967). □

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Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758)

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Theologian of the great awakening

Sources

Intellectual. Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut, the only son of Timothy Edwards, a Congregational clergyman, and Ester Stoddard Edwards, the daughter of Solomon Stoddard, the famed evangelical preacher in Northampton. He illustrated incredible intellectual gifts at an early age. By the time he was twelve the precocious boy was reading Isaac Newtons mathematical works and gathering information on rainbows and spiders which he included in the short essays he wrote to prove the goodness and wisdom of the Creator. Less than a year later he began his collegiate studies under Timothy Cutler, president of Yale College. The scholarly and withdrawn lad did not join in the boisterous pranks of his classmates; instead he discovered the works of John Locke and deepened his knowledge of Newton. Not surprisingly, Edwards graduated at the top of his class in 1720, remained for three years of theological studies, and returned as a tutor for a year. He was astonished when Cutler and other ministers defected to Anglicanism and preached of free will. For him the rational inquiry of the Enlightenment only buttressed the Calvinist insistence that humans have no influence over the converting grace of God.

Pastor. In 1726 Edwards was called to Northampton to succeed his famous grandfather. At about the same time he married Sarah Pierrepont, daughter of one of the founders of Yale and granddaughter of Thomas Hooker, who had established Connecticut. Thus Edwards became as connected by marriage as he already was by birth to the most prestigious families of the Connecticut River valley. He had succeeded to the pastorate of one of the most desirable churches and seemed to be at the pinnacle of his social and religious world. Instead Edwards began to preach almost exclusively on the topic of Christian depravity and utter dependence on Gods grace. In 17341735 he was rewarded by an amazing revival, which he described in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737). Revivals spread beyond Northampton and had engulfed the whole Connecticut River valley before they died. Energized by the apparent success of the Great Awakening, Edwards announced that he was reversing the policy started by his grandfather of admitting any moral person to membership in order to lead them to salvation within the church. Hereafter only those who could convince him of their conversion would be admitted and able to baptize their children. There would be no Half-Way Covenant in his church. Why Edwards took this action will remain a mystery until scholars can decipher the handwriting in his notebooks. If he was trying to spark conversions by creating parental fears for their children, the effort backfired. The congregation rose up in arms against him and appealed to an advisory council of ministers whose authority Edwards denied. The fight continued until 1750 when Edwards was fired and moved to the remote mission for Native Americans at Stockbridge.

An Angry God. Edwards was overjoyed at the apparent success of George Whitefield in awakening Christians from their lethargy and invited him to include Northampton on his 1740 tour. Unlike Whitefield, Edwards was no dramatic actor, but he began to dwell more and more on the punishment that they would suffer for rejecting God. This approach reached its zenith in 1741 with the sermon Sinners in the hands of an Angry God. It was designed to give a vivid sense of the uncertainty of life and the certainty of eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners. This masterpiece of rhetoric bombarded the audience with vivid images of a hell filled with tormented souls who burned like livid coal forever. Sinners were likened to a spider dangling on one silken thread held fast only by God, who had every reason to let them drop. His hearers fell to such great moaning and crying... What shall I do to be savedoh I am going to Hell, that Edwards had to stop several times during each sermon. He repeated this sermon every time he was invited to preach in the aftermath of Whitefields travels and published it to great acclaim. Edwards also wrote a series of pamphlets which defended the emotionalism of the Great Awakening as a natural result of God changing ones heart during conversion. The irresponsible judging of the spiritual state of others and attacks on the settled clergy Edwards dismissed as temporary spin-offs of no importance. To his mind the revivals were the genuine work of God and might well be the heralds of the millennium when all society would become holy in preparation for the second coming of Christ.

Reclusive Theologian. Exile in Stockbridge proved to be a blessing. Freed of his pastoral responsibilities, Edwards had the luxury of time to think, write, and resume his intellectual pursuits. In 1746 he had published Treatise on Religious Affections, which identified love of God as the fountain of all religious emotion. He also composed various tracts which drew on the psychology of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers. A Careful and Strict Enquiry Into... Freedom of Will (1754), The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758), Two Dissertations, I. Concerning the End for which God Created the World. II. The Nature of True Virtue (1765), and lesser treatises maintained that humans were not born with knowledge or ideas, contrary to the old view. Instead they were granted the faculties to form their own ideas from what their senses told them about the world around them and then to follow those ideas to do what brought them pleasure. Edwards used the concept of the faculties and the emotional pleasure that accompanied good actions to explain the Calvinist position on several ticklish issues: freedom of the will in the face of predestination and original sin, the nature of true or spiritual virtue, and the end for which God had created the earth. Philosophers and theologians have consulted, analyzed, and marveled at these treatises ever since. In 1757 the tracts catapulted him into the position of president of the College of New Jersey, founded by the New Side Presbyterians. He reluctantly accepted the honor but died in 1758 from a smallpox inoculation before he could assume his duties.

Sources

Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (New York: Sloane, 1949);

Patricia J. Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century Northampton (New York: Hill & Wang, 1979).

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Edwards, Jonathan (1703–58, American theologian and metaphysician)

Jonathan Edwards, 1703–58, American theologian and metaphysician, b. East Windsor (then in Windsor), Conn. He was a precocious child, early interested in things scientific, intellectual, and spiritual. After graduating from Yale at 17, he studied theology, preached (1722–23) in New York City, tutored (1724–26) at Yale, and in 1727 became the colleague of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in the ministry at Northampton, Mass. In 1729, on his grandfather's death, Edwards took sole charge of the congregation. The young minister was not long in gaining a wide following by his forceful preaching and powerful logic. These abilities were in the best Calvinist tradition and were enriched by his reading in philosophy, notably Berkeley and Locke.

Edwards's favorite themes were predestination and the absolute dependence of humble man upon God and divine grace, which alone could save humanity. He rejected with fire the Arminian (see Remonstrants) modification of these Calvinist doctrines. He exhorted his hearers with great effect and in 1734–35 held a religious revival in Northampton that in effect brought the Great Awakening to New England. Edwards was stern in demanding strict orthodoxy and fervent zeal from his congregation. He was unbending in a controversy over tests for church membership, and in 1750 his congregation dismissed him from Northampton. At Stockbridge, Mass., where he went to care for the Native American mission and to minister to a small white congregation, he completed his theological masterpiece, The Freedom of the Will (1754), which sets forth metaphysical and ethical arguments for determinism. In 1757 Edwards was called to be president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), but he died a few months later.

Edwards's influence on American Christian thought was immense for a time, and he is often regarded as the last of the great New England Calvinists. However, his emphasis on personal religious experience and his use of the revival, leading to the Great Awakening, were partially responsible for the advent of evangelical revivalism, which was based on a belief contrary to Calvinist doctrine—that salvation was possible without predestined election. His theological writings are perhaps less read today than his more casual writings and some of his burning and poetic sermons, such as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and God Glorified in the Work of Redemption by the Greatness of Man's Dependence on Him in the Whole of It.

See his works, ed. by P. Miller et al. (9 vol., 1957–89) and short selection ed. by C. H. Faust and T. H. Johnson (1935); bibliography, Printed Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. by T. H. Johnson, 1940, repr. 1970); biographies by O. E. Winslow (1940, repr. 1973), P. Miller (1949), E. M. Griffin (1971), P. Tracy (1980), and G. M. Marsden (2003); N. Fiering, Jonathan Edward's Moral Thought in its British Context (1981); N. O. Hatch, ed. Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience (1988).

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Edwards, Jonathan (1745–1801, American theologian)

Jonathan Edwards, the younger, 1745–1801, American theologian, b. Northampton, Mass., grad. College of New Jersey (now Princeton), 1765; son of Jonathan Edwards (1703–58). His career in some ways paralleled that of his famous father. After serving as pastor of a New Haven church from 1769 to 1795, he was dismissed for opposing the Half-Way Covenant. Until 1799 he was pastor at Colebrook, Conn. Edwards was then made president of Union College at Schenectady, N.Y., but he died before he could make much impression on the college. He edited some of his father's works and generally held to his doctrines, although in On the Necessity of the Atonement the younger Edwards expounded a theory of the Atonement that was more liberal and more popular than his father's theory.

See his works (2 vol., 1842) ed. by his grandson, T. Edwards.

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Edwards, Jonathan

Edwards, Jonathan (1703–58) US revivalist minister and theologian. A powerful preacher in Northampton, Massachusetts (1729–50), he gained a wide following. With his Calvinist themes of predestination and man's dependence on God, he brought about the Great Awakening, which he chronicled in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737). His fierce sermons, like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, argued against any change in the strict Calvinist creed.

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Edwards, Jonathan

Edwards, Jonathan (1703–58). American Calvinistic theologian and philosopher. Following his conversion at Yale, he was ordained into the Congregational ministry and became pastor at Northampton, Mass., in 1724. His outstanding preaching there led to the ‘Great Awakening’ in 1734–5, which spread more widely in 1740–1. His Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Works of God (1737), which carefully describes the revival at Northampton, was widely influential.

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