Edwards, Jonathan (1703–1758)

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Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan theologian and philosopher, was born in East Windsor, Connecticut. He was the only son of Timothy Edwards, the pastor of the Congregational Church at East Windsor; his mother was the daughter of Solomon Stoddard, pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts. About the age of twelve or thirteen he wrote several essays in natural science that reveal remarkable powers of observation and deduction. "Of Insects" describes the habits of spiders. Another essay, on the rainbow and colors, shows an acquaintance with Isaac Newton's Opticks. Around the same time Edwards wrote a short demonstration of the immateriality of the soul. These writings are the work of a precocious mind, deeply interested in nature and finding in it the marks of a provident God.

In 1716, Edwards entered Yale, where the world of philosophy opened up to him. For a short time his tutor was Samuel Johnson, who introduced him to the new philosophical ideas coming from England, especially those of John Locke. He read Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, from which, he claimed, he derived more enjoyment "than the most greedy miser finds, when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly discovered treasure." His precocity in philosophy is proved by his notes "Of Being" and "The Mind," both probably written before his graduation in 1720.

There followed two years of graduate study in theology at Yale, in preparation for the ministry. During this period Edwards had a profound religious experience, which he described later, in his Personal Narrative (1739), as having given him a new awareness of the absolute sovereignty and omnipresence of God and of complete dependence on him. Edwards's religious philosophy grew out of this transforming experience.

In 1722 he became pastor of a Scotch Presbyterian congregation in New York, but the life of study and teaching attracted him, and two years later he was back at Yale as senior tutor. In 1727 he was ordained assistant minister to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard, and when Stoddard died, in 1729, Edwards took over the Northampton parish.

For almost twenty years Edwards preached and wrote in this parish. During that time he continued his boyhood custom of jotting down his reflections, which he called "Miscellanies" or "Miscellaneous Observations." They fill nine volumes and contain 1,360 entries. These journals, most of which are still unedited, were intended to be a first draft of a monumental book provisionally titled "A Rational Account of the Main Doctrines of the Christian Religion Attempted." This proposed summa of Calvinist theology was not completed.

Edwards's pervasive theme was the Calvinist doctrine of God's sovereignty and the complete helplessness of man to effect his own salvation by good works. In a famous sermon preached in Boston in 1731, titled "God Glorified in Man's Dependence," he opposed Arminianisma doctrine derived from the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (15601609) and then gaining ground in the colonieswhich granted to men some part in their salvation through benevolence and good works. Edwards played a vigorous role in the revivalist movement known as the Great Awakening, which swept through New England in the 1740s, reaching hysterical peaks of religious enthusiasm. His own conception of religious experience is found in A Treatise concerning Religious Affections (1746).

Through sternness of doctrine and lack of prudence Edwards alienated his parishioners, and in 1748 he was dismissed from his parish. His next post was the missionary parish at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he preached to a small group of Indians and a few whites. He had plenty of leisure to write, and a major work, Freedom of the Will, defining and defending his Calvinist doctrine of human freedom, appeared in 1754. The sequel, The Nature of True Virtue (1765), places virtue in the emotions rather than in the intellect. His last completed work, "Concerning the End for Which God Created the World," is a speculative theological work on God's purpose in creation.

At Stockbridge, Edwards began a vast synthesis of theology called The History of the Work of Redemption, but this was interrupted by his election, in 1757, to the presidency of New Jersey College, now Princeton University. He died at Princeton the following year.

Philosophical Orientation

In the language of the day, Edwards was a "philosophizing divine." His primary interests were religious, and his main writings were theological. Apart from his college notes he produced no purely philosophical works. However, his theological treatises abound in philosophical reflections, all of which were intended to clarify and defend his theological positions. For him the arts, sciences, and philosophy ideally had no status separate from theology; as they become more perfect, he said, they "issue in divinity, and coincide with it, and appear to be as parts of it."

Edwards's philosophical views reflect his college training in Puritan Platonism, itself an offshoot of Cambridge Platonism and the Platonism of Peter Ramus. He attempted to synthesize with this Christian Platonism elements from the English empiricists, especially Locke, Newton, and Francis Hutcheson (16941746), whose works were introduced into New England in the early 1700s. Puritan Platonism taught Edwards that the spiritual world alone is real, that the visible universe is but its shadow, created to lead the mind, under the divine illumination, to an awareness of the presence of God. Into this general idealistic philosophy he wove strands of doctrine from the empirically minded Locke and the scientist Newton, whose works were beginning to make a stir in the colonies. From Locke he took the notion that all our ideas originate in sensation; from Newton, the conception of space as the divine sensorium.


In his notes "Of Being," Edwards took up the Parmenidean thesis of the necessity of Being, arguing the impossibility of absolute nothingness on the ground that it is a contradictory and inconceivable notion. Since pure nothingness is an impossibility, he held, there never was a time when Being did not exist. In short, Being is eternal. He also established the omnipresence of Being, arguing that we cannot think of pure nothingness in one place any more than we can think of it in all places. Thus, Being possesses the divine attributes of necessity, eternity, omnipresence, and infinity. Consequently, Being is God himself.

Further attributes of Being deduced by Edwards are nonsolidity and space. Solidity, he argued, is resistance to other solids, and since there are no beings outside of Being, Being itself, or God, cannot be conceived as solid. That Being, or God, is identical with space Edwards proved by the impossibility of conceiving the nonexistence of space. We can suppress from thought everything in the universe but space itself. Hence, space is divine. Following the Cambridge Platonists and Newton, Edwards conceived of God's mind as the locus in which material things spatially exist.

Nature of Mind

Edwards's notes titled "The Mind" are heavily indebted to Locke. Like the English philosopher, he distinguished between two faculties of the mind, understanding and will. Understanding he defined as the faculty by which the soul perceives, speculates, and judges. Its first operation is sensation, for without the activity of the senses there can be no further mental operations. The mind needs the senses in order to form all its ideas. The objects of the senses are not real qualities of bodies but impressions and ideas given to us by God. Edwards agreed with Locke that secondary qualities, such as colors, sounds, smells, and tastes, do not inhere in bodies but are mental impressions. Every intelligent philosopher, Edwards wrote, now grants that colors are not really in things any more than pain is in a needle.


Edwards went beyond Locke in applying to primary qualities, such as solidity, extension, figure, and motion, the arguments against the reality of secondary qualities. All the primary qualities, he insisted, can be reduced to resistance. Solidity is simply resistance; figure is the termination of resistance; extension is an aspect of figure; motion is the communication of resistance from one place to another. Hence, a visible body is composed not of real qualities but of ideas, including color, resistance, and modes of resistance. Resistance itself is not material; it is "nothing else but the actual exertion of God's power." Consequently, the visible universe has only a mental existence. It exists primarily in God's mind, where it was designed by a free act of the divine will. It also exists in our minds, communicated to us by God in a series of united and regularly successive ideas.

Historians have debated whether Edwards owed his idealistic philosophy to George Berkeley or to his own precocious genius. At the time he formulated it, Berkeley's works were not yet available at Yale. Although it is possible that he heard reports of Berkeley's idealism, it is more likely that he arrived independently at his idealistic conclusions.

According to Edwards, minds alone are, properly speaking, beings or realities; bodies are only "shadows of being." Goodness and beauty belong to anything in proportion to its intensity of being. Hence, minds alone are really good and beautiful; the visible world has but a shadow of these perfections. Its value is to lead the mind to the enjoyment of spiritual and divine goodness and beauty.


The created world depends entirely on God for its existence and preservation. He freely created it, and he constantly holds it in existence, as colors are continually renewed by the light of the sun falling on bodies. The universe constantly proceeds from God as light shines from the sun. Under the activity of God the universe is a revelation of the divine mind to created minds; it is a panorama of shadows and images exhibiting the divine mind and will. Edwards, in his notebook titled Images or Shadows of Divine Things, described nature as a symbol of God. God, he said, revealed himself in the Bible and also in the visible universe and the souls of men, which are made in the image of God. In order to interpret correctly the symbols of God in the created world, the mind has to be purified by a divine illumination. To Edwards there is no more sublime or delightful activity than to discover and to contemplate the traces of God in nature.

the will

The second faculty of the mind described by Edwards is the will. The importance of the will lies in the fact that it is the seat of the passions or affections, the chief of which is love. According to Edwards, all the other passions originate in love and are for its sake. Love is the excellence and beauty of minds. In A Treatise concerning Religious Affections he argued that all human activities, especially those of religion, arise from affection. The affections, he said, are the "very life and soul of all true religion." The essence of religion lies in holy love, especially the love of God. Although Edwards's doctrine of religious experience, under the influence of pietism, gives ample scope to the emotions, and he appealed to them in his sermons, he generally maintained a Puritan sobriety of expression and avoided the sensationalism that marked the Great Awakening. He insisted that religion be centered in what he called the "gracious affections" that spring from the awareness of God and divine things.

Religion and Ethics

Religious experience is possible, according to Edwards, through a supernatural sense that the elect receive by divine grace. This new sense, which is different from the five bodily senses, gives humankind, reborn by grace, a new kind of sensation or perception by which he passively receives from God ideas and truths about divine things. By a kind of sense experience the elect enjoy an inward, sweet delight in God, which unites them to God more closely than all rational knowledge of him. The way to God is through the heart rather than through the head.

problem of freedom

Edwards regarded the will, like the intellect, as an essentially passive power, moved to action by external forces. As the intellect passively receives impressions and ideas from God, so the will is inclined to agreeable objects and repelled by disagreeable objects. The will is not a self-determining power; its actions are determined by causes. God alone is free in the sense that he can determine his own volitions. The principle of causality, according to which everything that happens has a cause, applies to the movements of the human will as it does to everything created. Of course, the will is moved not by physical causes but by motives or moral causes. These motives are presented to the will by the understanding, and the strongest of them determines the movement of the will.

Edwards opposed the Arminians of his day, who attributed to the human will an inner spontaneity and power of self-determination. In his view this kind of freedom is a divine prerogative; the human will does not have this kind of inner freedom. Its actions are determined not by being physically coerced but by being morally necessitated. A man cannot help willing as he does, given the motives presented to him. And since these motives are determined by God's providence, the movements of man's will are entirely within the divine power.

Although Edwards denied that the human will has freedom of self-determination, he granted that in a sense man is free. Like Thomas Hobbes and Locke, he defined human liberty as the ability to carry out what the will inclines man to do. Liberty is the absence of impediments to action. This denial of the essential freedom of the will harmonizes well with Edwards's Calvinist belief in the total depravity of man and in predestination.


The third earl of Shaftesbury (16711713) and Hutcheson influenced Edwards's ethics. With them he denied that true virtue consists in the selfish pursuit of pleasure or in the utility of human actions. Rather, virtue is disinterested benevolence or affection; it is the intrinsic beauty of the dispositions of man's heart. An action is good not because it is advantageous to ourselves or to others but solely because it springs from a beautiful disposition of will. Virtue is a spiritual beauty or excellence that commends itself to us for its own sake. Any other motive for acting is based on self-love and consequently does not measure up to true virtue.

Edwards did not think that man has a natural impulse to such disinterested virtue. In his view man, owing to original sin, is totally depraved and given over to self-love. Only by the election of God and the gift of efficacious grace can man rise above his "dreadful condition" and perform truly virtuous actions. Without supernatural aid seemingly disinterested affections, such as the natural love of parents for their children, are accompanied by self-love and hence are not truly virtuous. At most they are secondary virtues or the shadows of true virtue.

Edwards was the most gifted and articulate theologian-philosopher in the New England colonies and perhaps in American history. He supported a losing cause in his defense of Puritanism, but for a while he gave it new life and spirit. The liberal theology that he combated all his life finally won the day; in the form of Unitarianism it dominated New England culture in the nineteenth century. But Edwards's powerful religious and philosophical stimulus remained. New England transcendentalists, such as Emerson, although rejecting all systematic theology and proclaiming the divinity of humankind, continued the Puritan's passionate search for the divine in the communion with nature.

See also Arminius and Arminianism; Being; Berkeley, George; Cambridge Platonists; Determinism and Freedom; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Hutcheson, Francis; Idealism; Johnson, Samuel; Locke, John; New England Transcendentalism; Newton, Isaac; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Ramus, Peter; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper).


works by edwards

Works. 8 vols, edited by S. Austin. Worcester, MA: Isaiah Thomas, 18081809; reprinted in 4 vols., New York, 1844, 1847. An old but useful edition, found in some libraries.

Works. 10 vols, edited by S. E. Dwight. New York: Carvill, 18291830. This is the standard and best edition of Edwards's works, except for those newly edited. Vol. I contains a "Life of Edwards" by Dwight.

Representative Selections, edited by C. H. Faust and T. H. Johnson. New York: American, 1935; rev. ed. (paperback), with rev. and updated bibliography, 1962. Useful selections from Edwards's works and a good bibliography.

Images or Shadows of Divine Things, edited by P. Miller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948.

Puritan Sage: Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards, edited by V. Ferm. New York, 1953. Useful selection of Edwards's works.

Works, edited by P. Miller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957. Vol. I: The Freedom of the Will, edited by P. Ramsey. Vol. II: Religious Affections, edited by J. E. Smith. A new edition that will supersede Dwight's.

The Nature of True Virtue. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960. Foreword by W. Frankena. Best edition of this work.

Letters and Personal Writings. Edited by George S. Claghorn. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Sermons and Discourses, 17301733. Edited by Mark R. Valeri. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

works on edwards

Chai, Leon. Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Daniel, Stephen H. The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Davidson, Edward H. Jonathan Edwards: The Narrative of a Puritan Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966, 1968.

Delattre, Roland André. Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards: An Essay in Aesthetics and Theological Ethics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

Hatch, Nathan O., and Harry S. Stout. Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Holbrook, Clyde A. The Ethics of Jonathan Edwards: Morality and Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973.

Jenson, Robert W. America's Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Lesser, M. X. Jonathan Edwards: A Reference Guide. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1981.

Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

McClymond, Michael James. Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

McDermott, Gerald R. Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

McDermott, Gerald R. One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

Miller, P. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956. Both this and Jonathan Edwards (below) are first class.

Miller, P. Jonathan Edwards. New York: W. Sloane Associates, 1949; paperback ed., 1959.

Schneider, H. W. A History of American Philosophy, 1131. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946; 2nd ed., 1963.

Schneider, H. W. The Puritan Mind. New York: Holt, 1930; paperback ed., Ann Arbor, MI, 1958.

Smith, John Edwin. Jonathan Edwards: Puritan, Preacher, Philosopher. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Winslow, O. E. Jonathan Edwards, 17031758. New York: Macmillan, 1940; paperback ed., 1962. Pulitzer Prizewinning biographyexcellent and fascinating account of Edwards's life and times, with good bibliography.

Armand A. Maurer (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)