Jonathan Edwards: American Theologian

Jonathan Edwards was born October 5, 1703, the fifth of eleven children, and the only son, to a family of prominent Congregational ministers in Connecticut.

His childhood suggests that he was seriously religious, even at a young age. He built little dens in the woods and used them to hold prayer meetings with friends!

Edwards went to the Collegiate School (later called Yale) to train for the ministry. After graduating, he served a Presbyterian congregation in New York (1723-1726). In 1726, Edwards’ grandfather was serving as pastor of Northampton church. Because of his advancing age, Solomon Stoddard and his congregation called Edwards to be of assistance, and later (at Stoddard’s death), to succeed him. Edwards married Sarah Pierrepont, and enjoyed what has become a fabled marriage, marked by mutual support, admiration, and a remarkable line of illustrious descendants.

1734 birthed a Great Awakening in Northampton, and flowed to every community in the Connecticut River Valley. As a result of his preaching, more than 300 professed to be converted. Edwards stated, “The town seemed to be full of the presence of God; it never was so full of love, nor so full of joy...everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth.” He was quick to add: “The Spirit of God does the work, and he ‘blows where he wills.’“

Edwards did his part to spread the gospel through his preaching, but more significantly contributed a series of books that far outlived his time in Northampton. For most of his life he took thoughts, quotations, observations, ideas and arguments and collected them into notebooks, later to be published (some only now coming to public view). Edwards struggled with concepts and changed his mind regularly on certain issues, while striving to be more and more faithful to the gospel of Christ.

One issue in particular produced three of Edwards’ greatest works, the greatest, perhaps, The Freedom of the Will. The main argument of the book sets out to prove that the Calvinist account of predestined humanity is morality’s greatest support—it holds human beings responsible for their actions. Though a mere introduction to his main argument, this is the most intellectually powerful such defense ever published.

Edwards remained fascinated with the problem of how to tell whether a Christian’s professed faith was truly real and saving. From his Puritan background, he maintained a concern about “temporary faith.” His spiritual heritage dealt with the issue by identifying a particular set of steps in a particular order as the only way to salvation. Edwards disagreed with this aspect of tradition.

In a dispute over qualifications for membership, Edwards was asked to leave Northampton after 21 years of service. He insisted that a public profession of saving faith which was based on the candidate’s religious experiences was a qualification not only for Holy Communion but also for church membership.

Edwards accepted a call to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1750 to perform a difficult ministry, where he was in charge of two congregations and supervising a boarding school for Indian boys. However, during this ministry he took time to complete some of his major works. From there he accepted an appointment as president of the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton). He died on March 22, 1758, less than five weeks after his inauguration.

Jonathan Edwards’ last words encapsulated his life. He spoke of his love for Sarah and urged his children to find faith in God. Then he asked that he not be given an elaborate funeral but that what money was available be given to charity. Those around him spoke freely of the loss that the college, and God’s church, would have to bear. Edwards is said to have spoken one last sentence: “Trust in God, and you need not fear.”

Edwards is widely acknowledged to be America’s most important and original philosophical theologian. His work, as a whole, centered on the absolute sovereignty of God and the beauty of his holiness.

(This article was compiled and edited by Bonnie Hiestand using the following sources: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed., 2001; “A Mind on Fire,” by Stephen R. Homes, Christian History & Biography, Issue 77, Winter 2003, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Page 10.)