Edwards, Jonathan

views updated Jun 11 2018


EDWARDS, JONATHAN (17031758), was an American theologian and philosopher. Born in East Windsor, Connecticut, Edwards was the only son in a family of eleven children. His father, Timothy Edwards, a graduate of Harvard College, was the minister of the Congregational church in that town. His mother was the daughter of Solomon Stoddard, the minister at Northampton, Massachusetts.

Life and Work

As a youth Edwards was nurtured and instructed in the tenets of Reformed theology and the practices of Puritan piety. He entered the Collegiate School (later Yale College) in 1716; the course of study included classical and biblical languages, logic, natural philosophy, and the "new philosophy." He received the B.A. degree in 1720 and subsequently spent two additional years in New Haven studying theology. These early years, during which Edwards's inclination toward intellectual pursuits quickly became evident, were difficult but significant; the same period proved decisive religiously, too.

In August 1722 Edwards accepted his first pastorate at a Presbyterian congregation in New York City, a position he held until May of the following year. In the fall of 1723 he became the pastor at Bolton, Connecticut, but after a short time gave up the position. In May 1724 he assumed responsibilities as a tutor at Yale College. Two years later he resigned to become the ministerial colleague of his maternal grandfather in Northampton. He was ordained in February 1727 and in the same year married Sarah Pierrepont, the daughter of the Congregational minister in New Haven. Upon the death of Stoddard in 1729, Edwards became the full minister in Northampton.

The following years were times of expanding responsibilities. Edwards paid a great deal of attention to the preparation of sermons. A lecture he gave at Boston in 1731 became the first of his sermons to be published. He began to gain a reputation as a defender of Reformed doctrines. Edwards became a leading member of the Hampshire Association, an organization of clergymen in the county. His family also expanded with regularity, eventually reaching a total of eleven children.

The congregation at Northampton experienced an extraordinary manifestation of religious zeal during the winter of 17341735. The ferment spread to other communities in the Connecticut River valley. Accounts of these events sent by Edwards to Boston eventually circulated in expanded form throughout the American colonies and Great Britain, making him something of a celebrity. To his dismay, however, the religious fervor in Northampton proved short-lived.

In the fall of 1740 the languishing religious situation in New England changed dramatically with the arrival from England of George Whitefield, who in mid-October visited Northampton, where his preaching affected many, including Edwards. Scores of ministers adopted Whitefield's pattern of itinerancy and began to preach outside their own pulpits. In July 1741, for example, Edwards preached his now-famous sermon titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" at Enfield, Connecticut, having delivered earlier versions at several locations. The emotional outbursts accompanying the Great Awakening became increasingly controversial, causing critics to question the legitimacy of the revivalists and of the "New Lights." By 1742 the opponents of the revivals, led by Charles Chauncy of Boston's First Church, stepped up their attacks. Edwards answered these "Old Lights" by publishing a major defense of the revivals, declaring them the work of God's spirit and a harbinger of the millennial age. During the same period he preached a series of sermons that became the nucleus for his fullest statement on the evangelical nature of true religion, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. After the revivals waned again, he sought new ways to foster religious concern: For example, he supported a plan for a worldwide concert of prayer.

Late in the 1740s Edwards was forced to turn his attention to problems in Northampton. Conflict developed with members of his congregation over questions of ministerial authority. An open rupture was provoked by Edwards's announcement that he intended to discontinue his grandfather's practice of admitting to communion those in good standing, unless they could provide evidence of a work of grace in their lives. The conflict spread into town politics and into relations with neighboring ministers; bitter factionalism prevailed. After months of controversy, a council of ministers and laity recommended a separation, and Edwards's formal dismissal followed in mid-1750.

Edwards faced uncertain prospects following his removal. After receiving several offers to settle, including one tentative proposal from Scotland, in May 1751 he accepted a pastoral call to Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, a mission outpost populated by a few whites and more than 250 Indian families. Life at Stockbridge was difficult, especially after the outbreak of warfare in the mid-1750s. Despite the circumstances, these years were perhaps Edwards's most productive. Not only did he continue his pattern of study, but he wrote several major treatises. His writings gave voice to a lifetime of reflection.

In the fall of 1757 Edwards received an invitation from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) to become president of that young Presbyterian institution. After some re-luctance, he consented and in February 1758 journeyed to New Jersey. One week after his arrival he was inoculated against smallpox; less than one month later he became a victim of that disease. Edwards was buried in the cemetery at Princeton.


The writings of Edwards fall into five categories: personal writings, sermons, occasional pieces, philosophical and theological works less directly occasional, and private notebooks. A substantial body of materials exists in each of these categories.

Edwards's most significant personal writings from the early period of his life, the "Diary" and "Resolutions," provide a contemporary record of his spiritual struggles and of his determination to pursue the religious life. The "Personal Narrative," a later recollection, records for spiritual edification his youthful experiences. Moreover, Edwards's correspondence was voluminous. He wrote to family members, students and colleagues, business associates, and evangelical leaders in America and Great Britain. His letters reveal a personal side not evident in the standard depictions of him as an intellectual, a preacher, and a polemicist.

Edwards's most pressing responsibility was preaching to his congregation. He invested heavily in the preparation of sermons, which often gave the first public expression to ideas developed in his notebooks. During his lifetime Edwards published eighteen sermons. The most famous of all, his Enfield sermon, continues to attract widespread attention today. Of greater significance, perhaps, is the "Farewell Sermon" in which he revealed his personal perspective upon the Northampton controversy. Two of Edwards's sermon series, A History of the Work of Redemption and Charity and Its Fruits, were published as treatises after his death. Today there is extant a collection of approximately thirteen hundred manuscript sermons.

A substantial number of Edwards's publications were written in response to particular circumstances. The most notable of his occasional writings describe and defend the revivals. A Faithful Narrative is clinically descriptive by contrast with the partisan, celebratory tone of Some Thoughts. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections is theologically reflective, the Life of Brainerd didactic, and An Humble Attempt guardedly optimistic. All form part of an extended apology for evangelical religion. His publications relating to the communion controversy, although polemical, reinforce the same concerns.

Nearly all of Edwards's writings are in a sense occasional. Several of his publications, however, are more programmatic, defining fundamental theological and philosophical positions. For example, in the treatises Free Will and Original Sin, Edwards addressed himself to questions regarding human nature and human capacity. But they too were written in response to Enlightenment assaults upon traditional views and are part of his defense of classic Reformed doctrines. Shorter writings, titled End of Creation and True Virtue, have an even more abstract quality. At his death Edwards was at work on a rational defense of Christianity, a harmony of scripture, and a history of the work of re-demption.

Edwards's study habits yielded an immense amount of material in his private notebooks. The notebooks "Natural Philosophy" and "The Mind" have received widespread attention, but the "Miscellanies," which contains theological, biblical, and philosophical reflections, is the most important source for tracing the development of his ideas. He also devoted separate notebooks to general biblical commentary, apocalyptic writing, typology, prophecy, history, sermon ideas, and symbolism in nature. Edwards's method of study included writing and rewriting his ideas, developing certain themes, and citing or paraphrasing works he read. The "Catalogue," a notebook referring to his reading, contains a working bibliography that documents the wide range of his interests.


Edwards's religious and philosophical ideas form a coherent body of thought, but no complete system was stated by him. Among his unfinished projects were plans for such a statement. He must be viewed as a transitional thinker, looking back to the Reformed heritage and also drawing heavily upon the Enlightenment. Edwards employed biblical concepts as well as insights from the new science. He set for himself the task of defending orthodox views against liberal assaults from the Arminian party, but he also borrowed the ideas of his contemporaries to revise and restate the tradition.

One central theme in Edwards's thought is the universal depravity of humankind. According to him, all humanity shared in the original sin of Adam whereby a supernatural gift of grace was lost. The identity of humankind with Adam was constituted by divine decree, and by virtue of that identity, the fall condemned all to a life of certain and actual sin. Sin, in turn, merits condemnation and punishment; the greater the sin, the greater the deserved punishment. Transgressions against God are deserving of eternal retribution. Since the fall, humans are not truly free to choose the good. Free will is a matter of semantics, for the will is free only to choose sin.

A second major theme in Edwards's thought is the sufficiency of God in the work of redemption. Humanity is totally dependent upon a gracious God who from eternity elected some for salvation. Edwards described God's nature variously. During his youth he spoke in idealistic categories, positing the necessary existence of an eternal Mind. Later he described God as the sun and the light from which everything derives its existence. He also employed the traditional language of the Trinity: The Father generates the Son from himself and is himself the source and object of his loving Spirit. In the redemptive act the Father appoints the Son as the Redeemer and accepts him as a sufficient price, and through his Spirit he communicates the good that has been purchased to those who have been chosen. The excellency of Christ is sufficient for the work of redemption. The presence of the Spirit defines a saint; only those with the indwelling divine principle are saved. The new birth signals the restoration of the supernatural gift lost with the fall into sin. Conversion is the moment when grace is infused into the life of the individual.

A third major theme is the legitimacy of the affections in true religion. Edwards believed that faith necessarily involves both the intellect or understanding and the volition or will. It is an act of affective knowledge, a sense of the heart. Belief inclines the heart toward what the understanding chooses. This holistic approach to religious experience was the linchpin for Edwards's case against both the rationalists and the enthusiasts. Against the former he held that, contrary to their belief, the emotions are legitimate in the religious life. Although he shared with John Locke a fear of the passions, he was unwilling to rule out the affections because he had investigated with great care specific cases of emotional religion and found them to be genuine. At the same time, he charged the enthusiasts with ignoring the role of the intellect in religious experience.

Edwards inherited his interest in practical religion from the Puritans, but the revivals raised the question of how to distinguish genuine religion from false. He sought to answer this question by establishing clear signs for the former. In true religion, he said, the witness of the Spirit is manifest both in the exercises of grace within the heart and in outward practice. True conversion is evident from the presence of both faith and love within the person. Self-examination is one way to test the state of grace, but the expression of holy affections in love of God and human beings is the chief means of assurance. Moreover, for Edwards conversion was never an end in itself but merely the beginning of the Christian life; the responsibility of the elect to pursue this godly life was another major theme in his thought. Sanctification, he held, follows justification as the product of the indwelling Spirit. Edwards insisted that true virtue consists in consent to or union with being in general, and that love of God for its own sake is the foundation for all other morality.

Finally, Edwards's system also embraced a vision of future glory. In his belief, the church comprises the community of the elect on earth, that is, those who have experienced grace in their lives. In covenant with others, the saints engage in the business of religion: good works, attendance at ordinances, worship, prayer, reading the Bible, and pursuit of their vocations. These activities reflect the kingdom of God in the world. Under the leadership of the ministry, the church seeks to expand and increase. Edwards's interest in missions reflected his larger understanding of history. The work of redemption, according to him, has progressed by God's direction from the time of biblical history to the contemporary moment and is moving toward a millennial climax on earth. The culmination of the Kingdom will bring the greater glory of Godthe ultimate goal of creation and the purpose of the created order. Edwards looked eagerly for the fulfillment of this biblical vision.


During his lifetime Edwards achieved prominence and widespread reputation as a preacher, a leader of the revivalistic faction, and an evangelical theologian. Less than a decade after his death, Samuel Hopkins, disciple and close friend, declared that Edwards was one of the greatest theologians of the age. A school of New England theologians that emerged during the second half of the eighteenth century and that included Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy, and Jonathan Edwards, Jr., among its members held Edwards in high esteem even while beginning to depart from his specific views; that departure reflected the growing influence of the Enlightenment on American theology. Evangelicals in the first half of the nineteenth century continued this pattern of response. The publication and republication during this period of Edwards's works in collected editions is striking evidence of his stature, as is the circulation by tract societies of his works in abridged editions. On the other hand, the contrasting views of Charles Grandison Finney are a useful measure of the evangelical movement away from Edwards in antebellum America.

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed an erosion of interest in Edwards and an increasing hostility toward his theological positions, particularly his commitment to the notion of human depravity, the doctrine of necessity, and the idea of eternal retribution. Although considerable praise was given to Edwards's skills as a metaphysician and logician, theological and cultural liberals condemned his ideas; even those who admired him and accepted his evangelical premises often viewed him as a tragic figure. The bicentennial of his birth produced only a small surge of interest in Edwards the man.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the prevailing attitude toward Edwards's work changed dramatically as a confluence of circumstances brought about a renaissance of interest in his ideas and a reassessment of his significance. This new interest, which had begun as a trickle of scholarship in the late 1930s, has in the present time risen to a flood tide. Edwards has become a major figure, a creative force, one of the most original thinkers in the American experience. Among the reasons for the change have been the new cultural climate in America following the Great Depression, the accompanying theological reappraisal that gave rise in American Protestantism to neoorthodoxy, and the growing concern about national origins, including the role of the Puritans in American life. An increasing number of conservative Protestants in America have also identified their thought with his evangelical views. This renewed engagement with the full range of Edwards's ideas has manifested itself among scholars in their support for a new critical edition of his writings. Today Edwards remains the object of sustained investigation by many in a variety of fields. For the moment, his place is secure within the pantheon of American thinkers.


The works of Jonathan Edwards were collected several times in the nineteenth century. A new edition, Works, edited by Perry Miller and subsequently by John E. Smith, is in preparation (New Haven, 1957). The monographic essays that constitute introductions to the volumes of this edition focus upon a range of particular religious issues relating to the life, thought, and influence of Edwards. The earliest biography of Edwards, which contains the text of the "Personal Narrative," is Samuel Hopkins's The Life and Character of the Late Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards, President of the College at New-Jersey (Boston, 1765). It has been reprinted in Jonathan Edwards: A Profile, edited by David Levin (New York, 1969). Numerous personal documents and items of correspondence from Edwards appear in Sereno E. Dwight's The Life of President Edwards (New York, 1829), the first volume of an edition of The Works of President Edwards, 10 vols. (New York, 18291830). The story of Edwards's life is told without undue concern for its intellectual dimensions in Ola E. Winslow's Jonathan Edwards, 17031758 (New York, 1940), a prizewinning biography. The pastoral career of Edwards is the focus of Patricia J. Tracy's Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth Century Northampton (New York, 1980). Perhaps the volume most responsible for the renaissance of scholarly interest in Edwards since the 1940s is Perry Miller's Jonathan Edwards (New York, 1949), a problematical interpretation focusing upon the influence of John Locke and Isaac Newton. The relationship between Edwards's thought and the tradition of Reformed theology is treated with care and precision in Conrad Cherry's The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal (Garden City, N.Y., 1966). The influence of the English moral philosophers on Edwards is discussed in Norman Fiering's Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981). The most comprehensive bibliography of writings about Edwards is M. X. Lesser's Jonathan Edwards: A Reference Guide (Boston, 1981). Lesser's volume consists of an excellent essay focusing upon the changing interpretation of Edwards and an annotated, descriptive bibliography. Three volumes that place Edwards centrally in the development of American thought and culture are Alan E. Heimert's Religion and the American Mind (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), Sacvan Bercovitch's The American Jeremiad (Madison, Wis., 1978), and Bruce Kuklick's Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey (New Haven, 1985).

Stephen J. Stein (1987)

Edwards, Jonathan

views updated May 14 2018

Edwards, Jonathan

October 5, 1703

Windsor, Connecticut

March 22, 1758

Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Puritan minister, leader of the Great Awakening

"Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come."

From Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Jonathan Edwards was a Puritan minister and theologian (a specialist in the study of religion) who became one of the principal leaders of the Great Awakening (a series of religious revivals that swept the American colonies near the middle of the eighteenth century). This movement had a profound effect on American politics and society. Protestant preachers from New England to North Carolina, inflamed by the "spirit of God," set out to "wake up" their congregations, whom they accused of sinful behavior. Edwards became famous for the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in which he terrified his listeners with visions of eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners. Yet Edwards's excessive zeal ultimately led to his undoing. After he imposed harsh rules for admission to his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, he was forced out and sent to a remote Native American mission. During his final years, however, he wrote some of the most important works in American theology.

Shows early intellectual gifts

Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703 in Windsor (now East Windsor), Connecticut. He was the only son of Timothy Edwards, a clergyman in the Congregational Church, and Ester Stoddard Edwards, daughter of Solomon Stoddard, a famous preacher. At an early age Edwards began to show substantial intellectual gifts. By the time he was twelve years old, for instance, he read the works of English mathematician Isaac Newton and gathered information on rainbows and spiders, which he included in essays he wrote to prove the goodness and wisdom of the Creator (God). Less than a year later he began his studies at Yale College, in New Haven, Connecticut.

Sarah Pierpont Edwards

Sarah Pierpont Edwards was the wife of minister Jonathan Edwards. The daughter of a pastor who founded Yale College, she grew up in a devoutly religious and cultured home. As a teenager she was known for her spirituality and good-natured disposition. In 1727 she married Edwards, and the couple eventually had eleven children (seven daughters and four sons). Throughout her life she kept a diary, which revealed her to be a hardworking, devoted wife. While the Edwardses lived in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Stockbridge, Massachusetts, she was a gracious hostess in her husband's parsonage (a pastor's house), entertaining a steady stream of guests. Once she even prepared eight hundred meals for soldiers stationed at the Indian mission in Stockbridge. Jonathan Edwards was one of the leaders of the Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept New England during the 1730s and 1740s. Like her husband, Sarah Edwards was spiritually transformed by the movement. In her diary she wrote of being "removed from myself," of seeming to "float or swim, in these bright, sweet beams" of "divine love." Sarah died of dysentery six months after Jonathan's death.

A quiet and studious young man, Edwards did not join in the boisterous pranks of his classmates. Instead, he studied the works of English philosopher John Locke and deepened his knowledge of Newton. In 1720 Edwards graduated at the top his class. He remained at Yale for two years of theological study, then preached for a year at a Presbyterian church in New York City. In 1724 he returned to Yale as a tutor. Three years later Edwards joined his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in the ministry at Northampton, Massachusetts. Around that time he married Sarah Pierpont, daughter of one of the founders of Yale and granddaughter of Thomas Hooker, who established the colony of Connecticut. They were married for over thirty years and had eleven children.

Edwards a precocious child

Jonathan Edwards began to show substantial intellectual gifts as a young boy. For instance, he read the works of mathematician Isaac Newton and wrote lengthy essays about rainbows and spiders. Excerpted below is the opening of "The Flying Spider," a description of the webmaking genius of spiders, which Edwards composed at age twelve.

May it please your Honour [Edwards's teacher],

There are some things that I have happily seen of the wondrous way of the working of the spider. Although every thing belonging to this insect is admirable, there are some phenomena relating to them more particularly wonderful. Everybody that is used to the country, knows their marching in the air from one tree to another, sometimes at the distance of five or six rods. Nor can one go out in a dewy morning, at the latter end of August and the beginning of September, but he shall see multitudes of webs, made visible by the dew that hangs on them, reaching from one tree, branch and shrub, to another; which webs are commonly thought to be made in the night, because they appear only in the morning; whereas none of them are made in the night, for these spiders never come out in the night when it is dark, as the dew is then falling. But these webs may be seen well enough in the day time by an observing eye, by their reflection in the sunbeams. Especially late in the afternoon, may these webs, that are between the eye and that part of the horizon that is under the sun, be seen very plainly, being advantageously posited [placed] to reflect the rays. And the spiders themselves may very often be seen travelling in the air, from one stage to another amongst the trees, in a very unaccountable manner. But I have often seen that, which is much more astonishing. In very calm and serene days in the fore-mentioned time of year, standing at some distance behind the end of an house or some other opake [opaque] body, so as just to hide the disk of the sun and keep off his dazzling rays, and looking along close by the side of it, I have seen a vast multitude of little shining webs, and glistening strings, brightly reflecting the sunbeams, and some of them of great length, and of such height, that one would think they were tacked to the vault of the heavens. . . .

Reprinted in: Warfel, Harry H., and others, eds. The American Mind: Selections from the Literature of the United States, Volume I. New York: American Book Co., 1963, p. 82.

Leads Great Awakening

Upon the death of Stoddard in 1729 Edwards became the leader of the Northampton congregation and soon acquired an enthusiastic following. In 1734 he became involved in the Great Awakening. Edwards described this movement in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737). One of the other leaders of the Great Awakening was George Whitefield (see entry), who was touring the colonies and having considerable success in lifting Christians out of their "lethargy" (lack of religious fervor). Edwards was so impressed with Whitefield that he convinced the reformer to visit Northampton in 1740. Whitefield made a profound impression on Edwards. Although Edwards was not a dramatic actor like Whitefield, he began delivering powerful sermons in which he dwelled more and more on the punishment Christians would suffer if they ignored God's will.

Gives famous sermon

Edwards's "fire and brimstone" approach to salvation reached a peak in 1741, when he delivered his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards stunned his listeners with a graphic picture of the uncertain nature of life and the eternal punishment awaiting unrepentant sinners. Now considered a masterpiece of rhetoric (public speaking), "Sinners" bombarded the audience with frightening images of a hell filled with tormented souls who burned eternally like live coals. Edwards compared sinners to a spider dangling from a single silken thread held fast only by God, who would let them drop unless they asked forgiveness. During Whitefield's tour throughout the colonies, Edwards was invited to preach, and each time he presented "Sinners." His audiences were convulsed in "great moaning," crying out, "What shall I do to be saved—oh I am going to Hell!" So intense was their anguish that Edwards had to stop several times whenever he delivered the sermon. He eventually published "Sinners" to great acclaim.

In 1746 Edwards wrote his extensive theological works, Treatise on Religious Affections, in which he identified love of God as the fount of all religious feelings. He also wrote a series of pamphlets that defended the intense emotional nature of the Great Awakening. He claimed the movement was

Edwards terrifies "sinners"

Jonathan Edwards's crusade during the Great Awakening reached a peak in 1741, when he delivered his famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." He terrified his listeners with a graphic description of the eternal punishment that would await unrepentant sinners. Following is the conclusion of the sermon:

And let every one that is yet of Christ [Jesus of Nazareth, founder of Christianity], and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God's word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favors to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others. Men's hearts harden, and their guilt increases apace at such a day as this, if they neglect their souls; and never was there so great danger of such persons being given up to hardness of heart and blindness of mind. God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect [chosen people] in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on the great out-pouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles' days [the time when followers of Jesus were sent out to teach Christianity to the Jewish people]; the election will obtain [be established], and the rest will be blinded. If this should be the case with you, you will eternally curse this day, and will curse the day that ever you was born, to see such a season of the pouring out of God's Spirit, and will wish that you had died and gone to hell before you had seen it. Now undoubtedly it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist [a Jewish prophet, considered the forerunner of Christ], the axe is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree which brings not forth good fruit, may be hewn down and cast into the fire.

Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation: Let every one fly out of Sodom [according to the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, an ancient city destroyed by God because of the wickedness of its inhabitants]: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed."

Reprinted in: Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1991, p. 311.

a genuine and natural outcome of religious conversion. Critics warned Edwards that he was being irresponsible in judging the spiritual state of others. They condemned his attacks on less fiery clergymen, whom he accused of not being sufficiently inspired by the spirit of God. Yet Edwards shrugged off these charges as insignificant. To him the revivals were the authentic work of God. Energized by the apparent success of the Great Awakening, Edwards announced that he was reversing his grandfather's policy of admitting any moral person to the church. Under Edwards's new rules, only those who could convince him of their religious conversion would be admitted to his congregation and be allowed to have their children baptized (initiated into the church in a ceremony that involves immersion in water or the sprinkling of water on the head).

Exiled to Stockbridge

Historians have been puzzled about Edwards's reasons for restricting church membership in such a way. The mystery will continue until scholars are able to decipher the handwriting in his notebooks. If he was trying to spark conversions by making parents fear for the souls of their children, the effort backfired. Edwards's congregation rose up against him, appealing to an advisory council of ministers. Nevertheless he refused to recognize the authority of the council. The conflict continued until 1750, when Edwards was finally ousted and sent to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he ministered to Native Americans at a remote mission.

Exile in Stockbridge proved to be a blessing. Freed from his pastoral duties, Edwards had the time to think, write, and study. Among the works he published were A Careful and Strict Enquiry Into . . . Freedom of Will (1754), The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758), and Two Dissertations, I. Concerning the End for which God Created the World. II. The Nature of True Virtue (published in 1765, after his death). Edwards also wrote treatises in which he argued, among other positions, that humans are not born with knowledge or ideas. Instead, they are granted the faculties to form their own ideas from what their senses tell them about the world, and then have the ability to follow those ideas and do what brings them pleasure. Even today philosophers and theologians are intrigued by the ideas about human nature, God, and religion that Edwards published during this last stage of his life. In 1757 Edwards was offered the position of president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), which was founded by New Side Presbyterians (a branch of Protestantism). He reluctantly accepted the honor, but he died the following year from a smallpox inoculation before he could assume his duties.

For further research

Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1991, p. 311.

The Puritans: American Literature Colonial Period (1608-1700).http://falcon.jmu.edu/-ramseyil/amicol.htm Available July 13, 1999.

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

Warfel, Harry H., and others, eds. The American Mind: Selections from the Literature of the United States, Volume I. New York: American Book Co., 1963, p. 82.

Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Jonathan Edwards: 1703–1758. New York: Collier Books, 1961.

Jonathan Edwards

views updated May 23 2018

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). □

Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Theologian of the great awakening


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.


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).

Edwards, Jonathan

views updated May 29 2018


American Congregationalist theologian and philosopher, whose writings revitalized Calvinist theology and introduced a Christian idealistic philosophy; b. East Windsor, Conn., Oct. 5, 1703; d. Princeton, N.J., March 22, 1758. He was the son of a Congregationalist pastor and experienced early strivings after piety and a precocious interest in natural science. At Yale (A.B.1720,M.A. 1723), where he was greatly influenced by j. locke's Essay on Human Understanding, he experienced a religious conversion, disposing him to "a new sense of things" and "a sweet delight in God," that was to characterize his later life and writings. In 1727 he was ordained as assistant pastor to his grandfather, Rev. Solomon Stoddard, at Northampton, Mass., and married Sarah Pierrepont. Stoddard had departed from the New England orthodoxy by admitting the unregenerate to the Lord's Supper, seeing it as a means of grace rather than a reward for the faithful, thus carrying the half-way covenant to its logical conclusion. On his grandfather's death in 1729, Edwards succeeded him as pastor, continuing at Northampton until 1750.

A sermon to a ministerial convocation at Boston, stressing that grace is given not primarily for the individual's good, but for God's glory, God Glorified in the Work of Redemption (Boston 1731), marked him as a defender of Calvinism and foreshadowed his more mature thought on grace and virtue. A religious revival began (1734) at Northampton, described by Edwards in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (Boston 1737). Edwards believed that each individual should have a personal dedication to Christ and not merely assent to a body of doctrine, but he opposed arminianism

and the belief that each man was free to choose his own salvation. For Edwards, the revival was a sign of God's grace rather than a means of obtaining it. He was at first well disposed to the great awakening, which began soon afterward, but drew back from its excesses. He was concerned primarily with the pastoral duty of counseling souls to understand and accept God's grace working on them, never a mere revivalist seeking to make converts. In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (Boston 1741) and Some Thoughts concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (Boston 1742), he attempted to distinguish true piety from false and to defend the revival movement, in its widest sense, as a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. His great work, A Treatise concerning Religious Affections (Boston 1746), was a penetrating analysis of the difference between gracious affections and fleeting emotions. He held that a genuine change must take place in the heart and that change must show itself in a lifetime of work and worship.

A strict Calvinist himself, as well as a man of sincere personal piety, Edwards had long labored with the problems raised by his grandfather's innovation. As early as 1734 he preached on the dispositions needed to approach the Holy Table, but by 1748 he had concluded that the sacrament was intended by divine ordinance only for "visible professing Christians," excluding those who could not testify to divine regeneration. Edwards, seeking to restore the New England churches to the pure Calvinism

of a congregation of the saints, evoked a storm of protest and was dismissed from his pastoral charge in 1750. Long interested in missionary work among the Indianshe had written an Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, missionary at Stockbridge, Mass. (Boston 1749)he accepted (1751) a call as Brainerd's successor. Despite harassment by Northampton enemies, he labored faithfully as pastor and schoolmaster until 1758, finding time also to write his most important works, including A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of That Freedom of Will, Which Is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency (Boston 1754), The Nature of True Virtue, and other philosophic treatises that were published posthumously. In 1757 Edwards accepted a call to become president of Princeton, but died soon after his arrival in January 1758. Publication of the Yale edition of his Works, edited by Perry Miller, was begun in 1957.

Bibliography: Works, ed. s. e. dwight, 10 v. (New York 182930); Freedom of the Will, ed. p. ramsey (New Haven 1957); Religious Affections, ed. j. e. smith (New Haven 1959); The Nature of True Virtue (Ann Arbor, Mich. 1960). o. e. winslow, Jonathan Edwards (New York 1940). p. miller, Jonathan Edwards (New York 1949). r. g. turnbull, Jonathan Edwards: The Preacher (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1958). d. j. elwood, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York 1960). a. o. aldridge, Jonathan Edwards (New York 1964). p. g. e. miller, Errand into the Wilderness (New York 1957).

[r. k. macmaster]

Edwards, Jonathan

views updated Jun 08 2018

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.

Edwards, Jonathan

views updated May 17 2018

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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