A Brief Introduction to Jonathan Edwards
On January 11, 1723, a nineteen year old pastor living in New York City wrote, “Resolved, to ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better.” That young man was, of course, Jonathan Edwards. Like many of us, Edwards uses the occasion of a new year to reflect, take stock, take action, and make resolutions.
Edwards was extraordinary. B.B. Warfield calls Edwards “The one figure of real greatness in the intellectual life of colonial America.” Mark Noll says he “was responsible for the most God-centered as well as the most intellectually subtle reasoning in all of American Evangelical history. . . . [yet he is] virtually unknown among the hordes of evangelicals who are his religious descendents.”
Throughout his life, Edwards was consumed with this question: “What makes a person a Christian?” More specifically, how does a person become a Christian and what are the marks, or signs, of genuine Christianity? He wrestles with these questions in his personal resolutions. What he produces is a map, a map he will use to chart a course for his entire life.
Twenty years later we see the flowering of these reflections in one of his most popular books, the Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. The Affections was originally a series of sermons based upon 1 Peter 1:8, “and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.” Edwards believed that this text should be a normative Christian experience. All Christians, walking by faith and fixing their eyes upon Christ, should be characterized by joy inexpressible and full of glory.
My hope is that Edwards' "map" will help give you direction and encouragement as you enter a New Year. First, a brief introduction.
Edwards was a son of Massachusetts Bay. His Great Grandfather, William, came to the colonies as part of the "Great Migration" from Old England to New England that began in the 1630s. Edwards was born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut, the same year as John Wesley and three years before Benjamin Franklin. Of the eleven children born to Timothy and Esther Edwards, ten were female. Jonathan was the only male. Each one of the Edwards children was over six feet tall. One day Timothy Edwards quipped, “I have sixty feet of daughters!”
Edwards attended Yale College and graduated at 17 years old, first in his class. Following his graduation he filled the pulpit of a small Presbyterian church in New York City and was latter a tutor a Yale. In the late 1720s he was ordained and installed as assistant minister at the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he served with his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He was married to Sara Pierrepont in 1727, who was quite an amazing person in her own right. When Stoddard died two years later, Edwards became the senior minister in Northampton.
In 1734-1735 he was one of the leading preachers in a revival that would eventually spread throughout the American colonies in 1740s. On September 18, 1740, George Whitefield preached to thirty thousand people on Boston Common. The population of Boston at the time was only ten thousand. During this time Edwards wrote a series of sermons and treatises defending the Great Awakening as a true revival. He argued that in spite of occasional excesses, the Awakening was a genuine work of the Holy Spirit.
As the Awakening subsided, three controversies arose in Edwards' church. First, the question arose about who was qualified to be admitted to communion. Second, Edwards argued that his salary was not keeping up with inflation. Third, an intense disagreement flared up regarding how to discipline a handful of young men engaged in unseemly actions toward young women. These controversies culminated in the dismissal of Edwards from his church. In 1751, he settled in the frontier town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts as pastor to settlers and missionary to Indians. It is here that he wrote many of his most profound theological works. These include Freedom of the Will, The End for Which God Created the World, Nature of True Virtue, and Original Sin.
Seven years later, following the death of his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr., then President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), he accepted the call to serve as the new president. He only served for a few months. He died in 1758 at the age of fifty- four, the result of a reaction to a Small Pox inoculation. His twenty-six year old daughter, Esther, and his forty-eight year old wife, Sara, both died later that same year. Edwards is buried in Princeton Cemetery in the “President’s plot.”
For Further Reading
Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University: http://edwards.yale.edu/
Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003), George Marsden
Jonathan Edwards: A Biography (Banner of Truth, 1988), Iain Murray
Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (P&R, 2001), Stephen Nichols
Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions and Advice to Young Converts (P&R, 2001), Edited by Stephen Nichols
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
A Brief Introduction to Jonathan Edwards