Jonathan Edwards

Colonial Clergyman of the Great Awakening

Jonathan Edwards - Colonial Preacher of the Great Awakening
Jonathan Edwards - Colonial Preacher of the Great Awakening. Public Domain

 Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was an extremely important and influential clergyman in the New England colonial America. He has been given credit for beginning the Great Awakening and his writings provide insights into colonial thought. 

Early Years

Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut. His father was Reverend Timothy Edwards and his mother, Esther, was the daughter of another Puritan clergyman, Solomon Stoddard.

He was sent to Yale College at the age of 13 where he was extremely interested in natural science while there and also read widely including works by John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. John Locke's philosophy had a huge impact on his personal philosophy.

After graduating from Yale at 17, he studied theology for two more years before becoming a licensed preacher in the Prsbyterian Church. In 1723, he earned his Master of Theology Degree. He served a New York congregation for two years before returning to Yale to serve as a tutor. 

Personal Life

In 1727, Edwards married Sarah Pierpoint. She was the granddaughter of the influential Puritan minister Thomas Hooker. He was the founder of the Connecticut Colony following a dissent with the Puritan leaders in Massachusetts.Together they had eleven children. 

Heading His First Congregation 

In 1727, Edwards was given a position as the assistant minister under his grandfather on his mother's side, Solomon Stoddard in Northampton, Massachusetts.

When Stoddard passed away in 1729, Edwards took over as the minister in charge of a congregation that included important political leaders and merchants. He was much more conservative than his grandfather. 

Edwardseanism

Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding had a huge impact on Edward's theology as he tried to grapple with man's free will combined with his own beliefs in predestination.

He believed in the need for a personal experience of God. He believed that only after a personal conversion instituted by God could free will be turned away from human needs and towards morality. In other words, only God's grace could give someone the ability to follow God. 

In addition, Edwards also believed that the end times were near. He believed that with the coming of Christ, each person would have to give account of their lives on earth. His goal was a pure church filled with true believers. As such, he felt that it was his responsibility to ensure that his church members lived according to strict personal standards. He would only allow those he felt truly accepted God's grace could partake of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper in the church. 

The Great Awakening

As previously stated, Edwards believed in a personal religious experience. From 1734-1735, Edwards preached a number of sermons about justification of faith. This series led to a number of conversions among his congregation. Rumors about his preaching and sermons spread to surrounding areas of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Word spread even as far as Long Island Sound. 

During this same period, traveling preachers had begun a series of evangelist meetings calling on individuals to turn away from sin throughout the New England colonies.

This form of evangelism focused on personal salvation and a correct relationship with God. This era has been called the Great Awakening.

The evangelists produced huge emotions. Many churches were disapproving of itinerant preachers. They felt that the charismatic preachers were often not sincere. They didn't like the lack of propriety in the meetings. In fact, there were laws passed in some communities to ban preachers the right to hold revivals unless they had been invited by a licensed minister. Edwards agreed with much of this but did not believe that the results of revivals should be discounted. 

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God 

Probably Edwards most well-known sermon is called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He not only delivered this at his home parish but also in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741.

This fiery sermon discusses the pains of hell and the importance of devoting one's life to Christ to avoid this fiery pit. According to Edwards, "There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." As Edwards says, "All wicked men's pains and contrivance they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, don't secure 'em from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security.... But the foolish children of men do miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in their confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow." 

However, as Edward says, there is hope for all men. "And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open, and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners..." As he summed up, "Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come... [L]et everyone fly out of Sodom. Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed [Genesis 19:17]." 

Edwards sermon had a huge effect at the time in Enfield, Connecticut. In fact, an eyewitness named Stephen Davis wrote that people were crying out throughout the congregation during his sermon, asking how to avoid hell and be saved. In his today, reaction to Edwards was mixed.

However, there is no denying his impact. His sermons are still read and referred to by theologians to this day. 

Later Years

Some members of Edwards church congregation were not happy with Edwards' conservative orthodoxy. As previously stated, he enforced strict rules for his congregation to be considered part of those who could partake in the Lord's Supper. In 1750, Edwards attempted to institute discipline on some of the children of prominent families who were caught looking at a midwives' manual that was considered a 'bad book'. Over 90% of the members of congregation voted to remove Edwards from his position as minister. He was 47 at the time and was assigned to minister to a mission church on the frontier in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He preached to this small group of Native Americans and at the same time spent the years writing many theological works including Freedom of the Will (1754), The Life of David Brainerd (1759), Original Sin (1758), and The Nature of True Virtue (1765). You can currently read any of Edwards works through the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. Further, one of the residential colleges at Yale University, Jonathan Edwards College, was named after him. 

In 1758, Edwards was hired as the president of the College of New Jersey which is now called Princeton University. Unfortunately, he only served for two years in that position before he died after he had an adverse reaction to a smallpox vaccination. He died on March 22, 1758 and is buried in Princeton Cemetery.

 

Legacy

Edwards is seen today as an example of revival preachers and an initiator of the Great Awakening. Many evangelists today still look to his example as a way to preach and create conversions. In addition, many descendants of Edwards went on to be prominent citizens. He was the grandfather of Aaron Burr and an ancestor of Edith Kermit Carow who was Theodore Roosevelt's second wife. In fact, according to George Marsden in Jonathan Edwards: A Life, his progeny included thirteen presidents of colleges and sixty-five professors. 

Further Reference

Ciment, James. Colonial America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History. M. E. Sharpe: New York. 2006.