Jonathan Edwards: A Brief, Storied Life

Jeffrey Waddington Articles

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider,
or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked;
his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else,
but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight;
you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous
serpent is in ours.[1]

So said Jonathan Edwards in arguably the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil.  In fact, if you are like most people, the only exposure you have had to Edwards is this sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."  Typically included in American literature anthologies, this sermon is taken as a specimen of the fire and brimstone sermon preached to scare the living daylights out of its listeners.  Truth be told, Edwards preached just as much, if not more frequently, on the anticipated joys of heaven as he did the fears of hell.  Edwards did not preach such sober sermons merely to scare his hearers, but to warn them of the very real dangers facing them and calling them to flee to Christ.  This and other sermons and writings are filled with vivid and concrete images.  Edwards was such a master of this expressive and picturesque language that we to want to know more about him. 

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a Reformed Congregational pastor, theologian, missionary, and for a brief period of time, college president.  The story of Edwards is fascinating and often told.  He is the subject of more than four thousand books and articles.  My goal in this article is to crack the book cover and reveal the major chapters of Edwards' storied life.  Before Edwards became famous as a philosophically inclined theologian, he was a son, a student, a husband, a pastor, an apologist for the Great Awakening, a missionary, and finally an educator.  Let's blow the dust off the story of Edwards's life and settle in for some good reading...

Jonathan Edwards's Childhood

Jonathan Edwards was a son of the manse.  His father was the Reverend Timothy Edwards, pastor of the Congregational church in East Windsor, Connecticut, and his mother was Esther Stoddard Edwards, daughter of the influential pastor Solomon Stoddard.  Jonathan was the only boy in his family and was surrounded by seven sisters.  Edwards was educated at home with a view toward the ministry.

As you might expect, Edwards was reared with the rigorous Christian piety of his Calvinistic Puritan heritage.  His father's congregation in East Windsor was visited with seasons of revival and Edwards was not left untouched by them.  His spiritual life had its ups and downs and there were times when Edwards thought he had true faith in Christ.  But it was not until he was a college student that he "closed with Christ" in a saving way.

Jonathan Edwards at College

As was typical of the day, Edwards entered the "Collegiate School" (Later Yale University)  at the young age of 13 in 1716.  His student years were not all that wonderful.  Edwards tended to be shy, studious, and somewhat judgmental towards his less than fully committed classmates.  He experienced illness and periods of depression at college too.  But it was at college that he came to faith in Christ.

After completing his bachelor's degree Edwards stayed on to work on his MA degree with a view to the pastoral ministry.  On 20 September 1723 Edwards graduated from Yale and presented his "Master's Quaestio" on the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone.[2]  Between the completion of his M.A. studies and his graduation Edwards briefly pastored a splinter scotch Presbyterian congregation in New York City.  Eventually Edwards returned to Yale where he served as a tutor for the next two years (1724-26).  Being on campus allowed him access to some of the most significant books of his day in the Dummer collection.  I should mention one more important thing about Edwards' time in New Haven.  It was here that he met his future wife, Sarah Pierpont, the daughter of a well-known minister in the New Haven area.

Jonathan Edwards the Pastor

It was during this time in New York City that Edwards penned many of his "resolutions" which have proved beneficial to readers over the years.[3]  For a short time Edwards settled as the pastor of a congregation in Bolton, Connecticut.  However, it was to another congregation that Edwards would be called and would make his mark on history.  Edwards's life as pastor in the western Massachusetts town of Northampton is perhaps best known.  In 1726, the congregation of the church in Northampton voted to call Jonathan Edwards to assist his grandfather Solomon Stoddard in pastoring the church.  A few months after his arrival in Northampton, Edwards married his sweetheart Sarah and so began an "uncommon" marriage of many years.  Edwards gave years of service to the spiritual care of the Northampton congregation.  He preached at least twice on Sunday and several times during the week.  He is said to have spent upwards of twelve to thirteen hours a day in his study and he read with quill in hand and produced a voluminous body of semi-private notebooks, the best known simply as his "Miscellanies."[4] 

It was during his time at Northampton that Edwards became best known as an advocate for the Great Awakening.  This defense of the "surprising" work of God did not sit well with everyone in the New England colonies, causing dissension even within his own congregation.  Societal changes also affected Edwards' relationship to his congregation.  More open and democratic ways were coming into vogue and Edwards did not always share an appreciation for these.  One incident is indicative of the tensions developing at Northampton.  This is sometimes called the "bad book" incident.  Some young men (in their twenties) in the congregation got a hold of a midwifery book that described intimate details of the female anatomy and these young men used this information to taunt young women in the congregation and town.  Edwards and the church had to do something about this problem and this he sought to do.  Unfortunately he did not handle the situation as well as he could have. 

In 1749 and into 1750 Edwards' pastoral troubles came to a head when he had a change of mind about the requirements for communion.  For years Edwards followed the practice of his grandfather Solomon Stoddard who opened the Lord's Table to all those who affirmed orthodox Christian doctrine and lived an outwardly moral life.  Edwards understandably came to question this view and sought to convince his congregation that candidates for admission to the Lord's Supper ought to give evidence of grace.  While his view would become the majority report among New England congregations, it was not so at home.[5]  Eventually a ministerial council was called to help settle the dispute between Edwards and his congregation.  The council, for various and complicated reasons, voted with the congregation to remove Edwards from his charge. Oddly enough, the congregation would have to draw upon Edwards for pulpit supply for up to another year.  Eventually God in his providence provided a new work for Edwards further west in the Massachusetts colony. 

Jonathan Edwards as Missionary to the Stockbridge Indians

After his Northampton deposition Edwards would eventually receive a call to serve as a missionary at the far west outpost of Stockbridge and as pastor to the English speaking community that had been built up there.  Edwards would serve in this capacity for more than seven years.  Sometimes this chapter in his life has been painted as if he had little or nothing to do.  The contrary was in fact the case.  During his time at Stockbridge (later made famous as the home of painter Norman Rockwell), Edwards ministered to the Indians of the region, gave oversight to a school for Indian children, battled continually with members of the Williams clan (the same family, relatives of Edwards, who gave their name to Williams College in Williamstown in western Massachusetts), and penned some of his most well-known theological and philosophical treatises.  During this time he also carried on voluminous correspondence with persons high and low in the colonies and in Europe. 

Jonathan Edwards and Princeton

The final chapter of Jonathan Edwards's remakrable life takes him from the backwoods of western Massachusetts to the village of Princeton, NJ.  The trustees of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) had written Edwards in an attempt to invite him to serve as president of their school.  Initially, Edwards successfully objected to their request, noting that he was somewhat frail and limited in his administrative abilities.  Additionally he had some long desired writing projects that he wanted to work on, which he could not see coming to fruition if he had the stressful duties of a college president to fulfill.  But rather than make the decision on his own, he consulted with friends and colleagues who encouraged him to take up a new role as a college president.  So in the winter of 1758 he bid farewell to his wife. He travelled down to Princeton to live with his daughter Esther Burr (who had been married to the previous president Aaron Burr, father of the future vice president of the US) until the family would join him in the spring.

Edwards entered into his duties and, being a man of science (as were many ministers in his day), when a small pox epidemic struck the region, in order to serve as a model and example to his students, took a new small pox vaccination and contracted the disease and died on 22 March 1758.  Edwards asked that his wife be told that he loved her and looked upon their marriage as an "uncommon union" and he trusted that such a union would continue into the next world.  While Edwards would not live to see old age, his legacy would continue, sometimes under the shadow of indifference, sometimes in the daylight of careful consideration.  And so we turn the page to the final chapter.

The Significance of Jonathan Edwards for Our Day

So much has been written about Jonathan Edwards that  I am not likely to say anything original here, but a few thoughts come to mind.  (1)  The life of Edwards demonstrates that God can use an imperfect servant very effectively.  God is not hampered by our limitations.  Of course this is no warrant for sin and disobedience.  But the saying is true that God can get pure water out of a rusty faucet.  Edwards was a brilliant and dedicated minister of the gospel.  

But he was not sinless.  For instance, Edwards owned slaves.  And he was well aware of his own stubbornness and bent towards arrogance.  (2)  The life of Edwards demonstrates the importance of a strong family life.  Jonathan Edwards was born into a Christian family and benefitted from salient and saintly influences.  And he himself established a profoundly deep spiritual atmosphere with his wife Sarah.   (3)  The life of Edwards demonstrates the importance of thinking Christianly and reading with pen in hand.  Edwards has bequeathed to us wealth of solid, biblical and Reformed insights in his massive literary corpus.  The Yale edition of Edwards' Works stands at 27 thick volumes and that does not include the full extent of his writings.  The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University website will provide the interested reader with further materials to digest.  Edwards's writings are filled with deep philosophical acumen, rich theological insight (including redemptive-historical Christ centered appreciation of Scripture), and practical application.  One can spend a lifetime getting to know this man.  Many have and will continue to do so.  Finally, (4) the life of Edwards demonstrates the all-embracing centrality of the Triune God of Scripture and the utter graciousness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Edwards clearly warned his auditors about the impending horrors of hell.  He did this to point people to Jesus Christ as the only Savior from sin.  But he also preached the beauties of Christ and the wonders of the heavenly life.  Jonathan Edwards was a God-intoxicated Christian and minister. 

We do not have to agree with everything Jonathan Edwards said, wrote, or did to benefit from his life and thought.  I certainly don't, nor should you.  With biblical lenses we are called to learn what we can from Edwards and dispense with the rest.  This is true for all those from whom we learn.  Only Jesus Christ is sinless and a perfect example.  The rest of us, Jonathan Edwards included, sit at the feet of Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Savior.


 Rev. Jeffrey Waddington is a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and the teacher of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ringoes, New Jersey.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 22:  Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 (Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, Kyle P. Farley, eds. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2003), 411.

[2] This thesis can be found in Latin and in English in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 14:  Sermons and Discourses, 1723-1729 (Kenneth P. Minkema, ed., New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1997), 47-66.

[3] The "resolutions" can be found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 16:  Letters and Personal Writings (George S. Claghorn, ed., New Haven:  Yale University, 1998), 252-59.

[4] There are four volumes of the Yale edition of Edwards' Works which are devoted to his "Miscellanies."  These are:  The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 13:The "Miscellanies," a-500 (Thomas A. Schafer, ed.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1994); The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 18:The "Miscellanies," 501-832 (Ava Chamberlain, ed., New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2000); The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 20:The "Miscellanies," 833-1152 (Amy Plantinga Pauw, ed., New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2002); and The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 23:The "Miscellanies," 1153-1360 (Douglas A. Sweeney, ed., New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2004).

[5] Writings related to the communion controversy can be found in Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 12:  Ecclesiastical Writings (David D. Hall, ed., New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1994).