(Oct 5, 1703 – Mar 22, 1758) A theologian/philosopher (considered by many as America’s greatest theologian) who is considered a Founding Father of American evangelicalism, Edwards, the grandfather of Aaron Burr (3rd U.S. VP), is best known for his fiery sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Edwards wrote numerous sermons, books, and pamphlets that helped start the religious revival known as the Great Awakening and according to one historian, “provided pre-revolutionary America with a radical, even democratic, social and political ideology” that influenced the American Revolutionary effort. Edwards became the President of the University of New Jersey, now Princeton, but died 2 months later after taking the smallpox vaccine.
At age 14, Jonathan Edwards, already a student at Yale (where he went at age 12 and finished as valedictorian), read philosopher John Locke with more delight “than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly discovered treasure.” He also was a young man with profound spiritual sensitivities. At age 17, after a period of distress, he said holiness was revealed to him as a ravishing, divine beauty. His heart panted “to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and that God might be all, that I might become as a little child.” This combination of intellect and piety characterized Edward’s whole life.
Edwards’s mind was filled with thoughts of religion that he meticulously documented. In his Personal Narrative, he begins talking about his childhood views on religion, the reawakening of the spirituality of his father’s congregation, and his own dutiful religious practices. His worldview is purely Puritanical. There were certain expectations put upon Puritans to serve God the best that they could, working tirelessly to do so, objecting to anything that could distract them from their reverential mission. Edwards’s beliefs on the sovereignty of God, one of the core Puritan principles, testifies to his old-fashioned way of thinking that his parishioners dedicated themselves to. He said his, “mind was wont to be full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty,” on page 399, but then goes on to explain, “God’s absolute sovereignty, and damnation, is what my mind seems to be rest assured of, as much as anything that I see with my eyes.” Edwards would continuously repress any doubts of his beliefs with the feeling that worshiping gave him.1
When he was 20, he had met Sarah Pierpont. Their wedding followed four years of often agonizing courtship for the gawky and intense Edwards, but in the end, their marriage proved deeply satisfying to both. Edwards described it as an “uncommon union,” and in a sermon on Genesis 2:21–25, he said, “When Adam rose from his deep sleep, God brought woman to him from near his heart.” They eventually had 11 children. Sarah Pierpont’s father was Rev. James Pierpont, a founder of Yale University. Sarah’s great-grandfather was Rev. Thomas Hooker, the founder of Connecticut. Rev. George Whitefield preached in Jonathan Edwards’ church during a revival tour in 1739-1740.
Aaron Burr was a mere two years old when Grandfather Edwards died, so it is unlikely, he had any direct influence on Burr’s upbringing, but the family connection was sure a juicy piece of historical trivia. Edwards, like his future grandson, was a precocious lad. He entered Yale at age 12. Fascinated by the natural sciences, he kept a notebook labeled Natural History containing entries on atomic theory, the behavior of spiders and other topics. As a product of the Age of Enlightenment, Edwards was familiar with scientific advances. But unlike the numerous contemporaries who embraced deism, Edwards saw each new scientific discovery as a vindication of God’s majesty. Scientific knowledge validated his faith. As he matured as a theologian, Edwards balanced reason and emotion in his preaching, rejecting the extremism of both the radical evangelicals and anti-revivalists of the “Awakening” era.
Jonathan Edwards’ grandson was 4th Yale President Timothy Dwight. Timothy Dwight helped check the spread of French infidelity. He explained how Voltaire’s atheism laid the groundwork for the French Revolution’s bloody Reign of Terror, 1793-1794, where 40,000 people were beheaded.
Timothy Dwight wrote July 4, 1798:
“In societies of Illuminati…the being of God was denied and ridiculed… The possession of property was pronounced robbery.
Chastity and natural affection were declared to be nothing more than groundless prejudices.
Adultery, assassination, poisoning, and other crimes of the like infernal nature, were taught as lawful…provided the end was good… The good ends proposed by the Illuminati…are the overthrow of religion, government, and human society, civil and domestic.
These they pronounce to be so good that murder, butchery, and war, however extended and dreadful, are declared by them to be completely justifiable…”
Great Awakening Pastor
Jonathan Edwards began his career as a Congregationalist pastor in 1727 in Northampton, MA, serving as assistant to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard. It was here that Edwards witnessed and chronicled a religious revival in 1733-35 that historians considered the beginnings of the Great Awakening, a period of religiosity so intense that historian Thomas Kidd describes it as “the greatest upheaval in the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.” Edwards wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton in which he described the religious conversion of nearly 300 young members of the Northampton community. The young converts were moved to seek salvation following the untimely deaths of some of their friends.
A Faithful Narrative launched Edwards’ career as a religious philosopher, though he continued to preach. Never a powerful orator, certainly not on the scale of that other Great Awakening figure George Whitfield, Edwards exerted influence through his published sermons and treatises on religion. They were circulated widely in the colonies and “inaugurated the evangelical movement in American Christianity.” Defined by historian Kidd as “the kind of Protestant Christianity that strongly emphasizes the need for personal conversion,” evangelicalism has gone on to influence social reform movements throughout US history, from abolitionism to the Moral Majority.
Edwards was not a minister who focused exclusively on hell. His spiritual path to conversion did not seem complete to him until he saw salvation as a mystical thing of beauty and not simply a means of escaping hell. Edwards taught that “there was a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness” because “of the … taste of honey.” Religious seekers must taste the honey to experience the joy of salvation.
In 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached perhaps his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” which began the Great Awakening, a revival so widespread history credits it with uniting the colonies prior to the Revolution.
Of the revival, Jonathan Edwards wrote:
“God made it, I suppose, the greatest occasion of awakening to others, of anything that ever came to pass in the town. I have had abundant opportunity to know the effect it had, by my private conversation with many. The news of it seemed to be almost like a flash of lighting upon the hearts of young people all over the town, and upon many others.”
Ben Franklin wrote of the awakening:
“It was wonderful to see…From being thoughtless or indifferent…it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in…every street.”
Edwards regarded personal conversion as critical, so he insisted that only persons who had made a profession of faith, which included a description of their conversion experience, could receive Communion. This reversed the policy of his grandfather and alienated his congregation, which ousted him in 1750.
For the next few years, he was a missionary pastor to Native Americans in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and wrote, among other theological treatises, Freedom of the Will (1754), a brilliant defense of divine sovereignty. In it he argued that we are free to do whatever we want, but we will never want to do God’s will without a vision of his divine nature imparted by the Spirit. Fascinated by Newtonian physics and enlightened by Scripture, Edwards believed that God’s providence was literally the binding force of atoms—that the universe would collapse and disappear unless God sustained its existence from one moment to the next. Scripture affirmed his view that Christ is “upholding all things by his word of power” (Heb. 1:3 RSV). Such were the fruits of his lifelong habit of rising at 4:00 a.m. and studying 13 hours a day.
President of Princeton
Edwards, elected president five days after the death of his son-in-law, Aaron Burr Sr., was a popular choice. A friend of the College since its inception, he was the most eminent American philosopher-theologian of his time. Initially, Edwards refused to take on “such a new and great business in the decline of life,” explaining that he considered himself deficient in health, temperament, and some branches of learning. He was finally persuaded by a group of ministers that it was his duty to accept. He arrived in Princeton in late January 1758, where he preached in the College chapel and gave out questions in divinity to the senior class to study before coming together to discuss them — an 18th-century seminar.
As author of the celebrated work The Freedom of the Will, he was respectfully received by the undergraduates, who spoke of the “light and instruction” he communicated.4
At the time of his death, Edwards was the new President of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. He died only two months after taking office of a fever following a smallpox inoculation and was buried in a special corner of the Princeton cemetery called “the President’s Lot.” A smallpox epidemic had recently plagued the town, so Edwards decided to be inoculated.
This is chronicled by his great-grandson, Sereno Edwards Dwight, in The Works of President Edwards with a Memoir of His Life. Dwight provides a narrative of Edward’s careful consideration of inoculation and his seeking of counsel before receiving the treatment that caused his death. Edwards and multiple family members received the inoculation believing that it was a wise course of action, while entrusting themselves to the Lord. Edwards’ daughter Esther, who was also inoculated, died shortly after her father.6
Written in Latin, the long emotional epitaph inscription on the horizontal gravestone eulogizes his life and career and laments the great loss of his passing. It draws from the classical tradition in extolling the virtues of the deceased and directly inviting the passerby to pause and mourn.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University holds the majority of Edwards’ surviving manuscripts, including over one thousand sermons, notebooks, correspondence, printed materials, and artifacts. Two of Edwards’ manuscript sermons and other related historical texts are held by The Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.
The entire corpus of Edwards’ works, including previously unpublished works, is available online through the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University website. The Works of Jonathan Edwards project at Yale has been bringing out scholarly editions of Edwards based on fresh transcriptions of his manuscripts since the 1950s; there are 26 volumes so far. Many of Edwards’ works have been regularly reprinted. Some of the major works include:
- Charity and its Fruits
- Protestant Charity or The Duty of Charity to the Poor, Explained and Enforced (1732)
- A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World
- Contains Freedom of the Will and Dissertation on Virtue, slightly modified for easier reading
- Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God
- A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God (1734)
- A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton
- The Freedom of the Will
- A History of the Work of Redemption including a View of Church History
- The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, Missionary to the Indians
- The Nature of True Virtue
- Original Sin
- Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival in New England and the Way it Ought to be Acknowledged and Promoted
- Religious Affections