Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758) was an American revivalist preacher, philosopher, and Congregationalist Protestant
theologian. Edwards is widely regarded as one of America's most important and original philosophical theologians. Edwards' theological work is broad in scope, but rooted in the pedobaptist Puritan heritage as exemplified in the Westminster and Savoy Confessions of Faith. Recent studies have emphasized how thoroughly Edwards grounded his life's work on conceptions of beauty, harmony, and ethical fittingness, and how central The Enlightenment
was to his mindset. Edwards played a critical role in shaping the First Great Awakening
, and oversaw some of the first revivals
in 1733–35 at his church in Northampton
, Massachusetts. His theological work gave rise to a distinct school of theology known as the New England theology
Edwards delivered the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
", a classic of early American literature, during another revival in 1741, following George Whitefield
's tour of the Thirteen Colonies
. Edwards is well known for his many books, ''The End For Which God Created the World'', ''The Life of David Brainerd
'', which inspired thousands of missionaries throughout the 19th century, and ''Religious Affections
'', which many Reformed Evangelicals
still read today. Edwards died from a smallpox inoculation
shortly after beginning the presidency at the College of New Jersey (Princeton)
He was the grandfather of Aaron Burr
the third United States vice president.
Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703, and was the son of Timothy Edwards (1668–1759), a minister at East Windsor
, Connecticut (modern-day South Windsor
), who eked out his salary by tutoring boys for college. His mother, Esther Stoddard, daughter of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard
, of Northampton, Massachusetts
, seems to have been a woman of unusual mental gifts and independence of character. Jonathan, their only son, was the fifth of 11 children. Timothy Edwards enslaved at least one person in their household, a black man named Ansars. Jonathan was trained for college by his father and elder sisters, all of whom received an excellent education and one of whom, Esther, the eldest, wrote a semi-humorous tract on the immateriality of the soul, often mistakenly attributed to Jonathan.
He entered Yale College
in 1716, at just under the age of 13. In the following year, he became acquainted with John Locke
's ''Essay Concerning Human Understanding
'', which influenced him profoundly. During his college studies, he kept notebooks labeled "The Mind," "Natural Science" (containing a discussion of the atomic theory
), "The Scriptures" and "Miscellanies," had a grand plan for a work on natural and mental philosophy, and drew up for himself rules for its composition. He was interested in natural history
, and as a precocious 11-year-old, observed and wrote an essay detailing the ballooning behavior
of some spiders. Edwards would edit this text to match the burgeoning genre of scientific literature, and his "The Flying Spider" fit easily into the then-current scholarship on spiders. Even though he would go on to study theology for two years after his graduation, Edwards continued to be interested in science. However, while many European scientists and American clergymen found the implications of science pushing them towards deism
, Edwards went the other way, and saw the natural world as evidence
of God's masterful design, and throughout his life, Edwards often went into the woods as a favorite place to pray and worship in the beauty and solace of nature.
Edwards was fascinated by the discoveries of Isaac Newton
and other scientists of his age. Before he undertook full-time ministry work in Northampton, he wrote on various topics in natural philosophy, including flying spiders, light, and optics. While he was worried about the materialism and faith in reason alone of some of his contemporaries, he saw the laws of nature as derived from God and demonstrating his wisdom and care. Edwards also wrote sermons and theological treatises that emphasized the beauty of God and the role of aesthetics
in the spiritual life, in which he anticipates a 20th-century current of theological aesthetics, represented by figures like Hans Urs von Balthasar
In 1722 to 1723, he was for eight months an unordained "supply" pastor (a clergyman employed to supply a pulpit for a definite time, but not settled as a pastor) of a small Presbyterian Church
in New York City. The church invited him to remain, but he declined the call. After spending two months in study at home, in 1724–26, he was one of the two tutors at Yale tasked with leading the college in the absence of a rector. Yale's previous rector, Timothy Cutler
, lost his position when he defected to the Anglican Church, and after two years, there was still no replacement.
The years 1720 to 1726 are partially recorded in his diary and in the resolutions for his own conduct which he drew up at this time. He had long been an eager seeker after salvation
and was not fully satisfied as to his own conversion until an experience in his last year in college, when he lost his feeling that the election
of some to salvation and of others to eternal damnation was "a horrible doctrine," and reckoned it "exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet." He now took a great and new joy in taking in the beauties of nature and delighted in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon
. Balancing these mystic joys is the stern tone of his Resolutions, in which he is almost ascetic in his eagerness to live earnestly and soberly, to waste no time, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking. On February 15, 1727, Edwards was ordained minister at Northampton
and assistant to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard. He was a scholar-pastor, not a visiting pastor, his rule being 13 hours of study a day.
In the same year, he married Sarah Pierpont
. Then 17, Sarah was from a storied New England clerical family: her father was James Pierpont
(1659–1714), the head founder of Yale College, and her mother was the great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker
. Sarah's spiritual devotion was without peer, and her relationship with God had long proved an inspiration to Edwards. He first remarked on her great piety when she was 13 years old. She was of a bright and cheerful disposition, a practical housekeeper, a model wife and the mother of his 11 children, who included Esther Edwards
. Solomon Stoddard died on February 11, 1729, leaving to his grandson the difficult task of the sole ministerial charge of one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the colony, and one proud of its morality, its culture and its reputation. Edwards, as with all of the Reformers and Puritans of his day, held to complementarian
views of marriage and gender roles.
Summing up Edwards' influences during his younger years, scholar John E. Smith writes, "By thus meditating between Berkeley on the one hand and Locke, Descartes, and Hobbes on the other, the young Edwards hoped to rescue Christianity from the deadweight of rationalism and the paralyzing inertia of skepticism."
On July 8, 1731, Edwards preached in Boston the "Public Lecture" afterwards published under the title "God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man's Dependence upon Him, in the Whole of It," which was his first public attack on Arminianism
. The emphasis of the lecture was on God's absolute sovereignty in the work of salvation: that while it behooved God to create man pure and without sin, it was of his "good pleasure" and "mere and arbitrary grace" for him to grant any person the faith necessary to incline him or her toward holiness, and that God might deny this grace without any disparagement to any of his character. In 1733, a Protestant revival began in Northampton and reached an intensity in the winter of 1734 and the following spring, that it threatened the business of the town. In 6 months, nearly 300 of 1100 youths were admitted to the church.
The revival gave Edwards an opportunity for studying the process of conversion in all its phases and varieties, and he recorded his observations with psychological minuteness and discrimination in ''A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton
'' (1737). A year later, he published ''Discourses on Various Important Subjects'', the five sermons which had proved most effective in the revival, and of these, none was so immediately effective as that on the ''Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners
'', from the text, "That every mouth may be stopped." Another sermon, published in 1734, ''A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God'', set forth what he regarded as the inner, moving principle of the revival, the doctrine of a special grace in the immediate, and supernatural divine illumination of the soul.
By 1735, the revival had spread and popped up independently across the Connecticut River
Valley, and perhaps as far as New Jersey. However, criticism of the revival began, and many New Englanders feared that Edwards had led his flock into fanaticism. Over the summer of 1735, religious fervor took a dark turn. A number of New Englanders were shaken by the revivals but not converted, and became convinced of their inexorable damnation. Edwards wrote that "multitudes" felt urged—presumably by Satan—to take their own lives. At least two people committed suicide in the depths of their spiritual distress
, one from Edwards's own congregation—his uncle Joseph Hawley II. It is not known if any others took their own lives, but the "suicide craze" effectively ended the first wave of revival, except in some parts of Connecticut.
However, despite these setbacks and the cooling of religious fervor, word of the Northampton revival and Edwards's leadership role had spread as far as England and Scotland. It was at this time that Edwards was acquainted with George Whitefield
, who was traveling the Thirteen Colonies
on a revival tour in 1739–40. The two men may not have seen eye to eye on every detail. Whitefield was far more comfortable with the strongly emotional elements of revival than Edwards was, but they were both passionate about preaching the Gospel. They worked together to orchestrate Whitefield's trip, first through Boston and then to Northampton. When Whitefield preached at Edwards's church in Northampton, he reminded them of the revival they had experienced just a few years before. This deeply touched Edwards, who wept throughout the entire service, and much of the congregation too was moved.
Revival began to spring up again, and Edwards preached his most famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
", in Enfield, Connecticut
in 1741. Though this sermon has been widely reprinted as an example of "fire and brimstone
" preaching in the colonial revivals, this is not in keeping with Edward's actual preaching style. Edwards did not shout or speak loudly, but talked in a quiet, emotive voice. He moved his audience slowly from point to point, towards an inexorable conclusion: they were lost without the grace of God. While most 21st-century readers notice the damnation looming in such a sermon text, historian George Marsden
reminds us that Edwards' was not preaching anything new or surprising: "Edwards could take for granted... that a New England audience knew well the Gospel remedy. The problem was getting them to seek it.".
The movement met with opposition from conservative Congregationalist ministers. In 1741, Edwards published in its defense ''The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God'', dealing particularly with the phenomena most criticized: the swoonings, outcries, and convulsions. These "bodily effects," he insisted, were not distinguishing marks of the work of the Spirit of God one way or another; but so bitter was the feeling against the revival in the more strictly Puritan churches, that in 1742, he was forced to write a second apology, ''Thoughts on the Revival in New England,'' where his main argument concerned the great moral improvement of the country. In the same pamphlet, he defends an appeal to the emotions, and advocates preaching terror when necessary, even to children, who in God's sight "are young vipers... if not Christ's."
He considers "bodily effects" incidental to the real work of God, but his own mystic devotion and the experiences of his wife during the Awakening (which he gives in detail) make him think that the divine visitation usually overpowers the body, a view in support of which he quotes Scripture. In reply to Edwards, Charles Chauncy
wrote ''Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England'' in 1743 and anonymously penned ''The Late Religious Commotions in New England Considered'' in the same year. In these works, he urged conduct as the sole test of conversion, and the general convention of Congregational ministers in the Province of Massachusetts Bay protested "against disorders in practice which have of late obtained in various parts of the land." In spite of Edwards's able pamphlet, the impression had become widespread that "bodily effects" were recognized by the promoters of the Great Awakening as the true tests of conversion.
To offset this feeling, Edwards preached at Northampton, during the years 1742 and 1743, a series of sermons published under the title of ''Religious Affections
'' (1746), a restatement in a more philosophical and general tone of his ideas as to "distinguishing marks." In 1747, he joined the movement started in Scotland called the "concert in prayer," and in the same year published ''An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom on Earth''. In 1749, he published a memoir of David Brainerd
who had lived with his family for several months and had died at Northampton in 1747. Brainerd had been constantly attended by Edwards's daughter Jerusha, to whom he was rumored to have been engaged to be married, though there is no surviving evidence of this. In the course of elaborating his theories of conversion, Edwards used Brainerd and his ministry as a case study, making extensive notes of his conversions and confessions.
Edwards owned as slaves
several black children and adults during his lifetime, including a young teenager named Venus who was kidnapped in Africa and whom he purchased in 1731, a boy named Titus, and a woman named Leah. In a 1741 pamphlet, Edwards defended enslaving people who were debtors, war captives, or were born enslaved in North America, but rejected the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
After being dismissed from the pastorate, he ministered to a tribe of Mohicans
in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
. In 1748, there had come a crisis in his relations with his congregation. The Half-Way Covenant
, adopted by the synods of 1657 and 1662, had made baptism
alone the condition to the civil privileges of church membership, but not of participation in the sacrament
of the Lord's Supper
. Edwards's grandfather and predecessor in the pastorate, Solomon Stoddard, had been even more liberal, holding that the Supper was a converting ordinance and that baptism was a sufficient title to all the privileges of the church.
As early as 1744, Edwards, in his sermons on Religious Affections, had plainly intimated his dislike of this practice. In the same year, he had published in a church meeting the names of certain young people, members of the church, who were suspected of reading improper books, and also the names of those who were to be called as witnesses in the case. It has often been reported that the witnesses and accused were not distinguished on this list, and so the entire congregation was in an uproar. However, Patricia Tracy's research has cast doubt on this version of the events, noting that in the list he read from, the names were definitely distinguished. Those involved were eventually disciplined for disrespect to the investigators rather than for the original incident. In any case, the incident further deteriorated the relationship between Edwards and the congregation.
Edwards's preaching became unpopular. For four years, no candidate presented himself for admission to the church, and when one eventually did, in 1748, he was met with Edwards's formal tests as expressed in the and later in . The candidate refused to submit to them, the church backed him, and the break between the church and Edwards was complete. Even permission to discuss his views in the pulpit was refused. He was allowed to present his views on Thursday afternoons. His sermons were well attended by visitors, but not his own congregation. A council was convened to decide the communion matter between the minister and his people. The congregation chose half the council, and Edwards was allowed to select the other half of the council. His congregation, however, limited his selection to one county where the majority of the ministers were against him. The ecclesiastical council voted that the pastoral relation be dissolved.
The church members, by a vote of more than 200 to 23, ratified the action of the council, and finally a town meeting voted that Edwards should not be allowed to occupy the Northampton pulpit, though he continued to live in the town and preach in the church by the request of the congregation until October 1751. In his "Farewell Sermon" he preached from 2 Corinthians 1:14 and directed the thoughts of his people to that far future when the minister and his people would stand before God. In a letter to Scotland after his dismissal, he expresses his preference for Presbyterian to congregational polity
. His position at the time was not unpopular throughout New England. His doctrine that the Lord's Supper is not a cause of regeneration and that communicants should be professing Protestants has since (largely through the efforts of his pupil Joseph Bellamy
) become a standard of New England Congregationalism.
Edwards was in high demand. A parish in Scotland could have been procured, and he was called to a Virginia church. He declined both, to become in 1751, pastor of the church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
and a missionary to the Housatonic Indians, taking over for the recently deceased John Sergeant
. To the Indians, he preached through an interpreter, and their interests he boldly and successfully defended by attacking the whites who were using their official positions among them to increase their private fortunes. During this time he got to know Judge Joseph Dwight
who was Trustee of the Indian Schools. In Stockbridge, he wrote the ''Humble Relation'', also called ''Reply to Williams'' (1752), which was an answer to Solomon Williams (1700–76), a relative and a bitter opponent of Edwards as to the qualifications for full communion. He there composed the treatises on which his reputation as a philosophical theologian chiefly rests, the essay on Original Sin
, the ''Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue'', the ''Dissertation Concerning the End for which God created the World'', and the great work on the ''Will'', written in four and a half months, and published in 1754 under the title, ''An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions Respecting that Freedom of the Will which is supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency''.
Aaron Burr, Sr.
, Edwards' son-in-law, died in 1757 (he had married Esther Edwards five years before, and they had made Edwards the grandfather of Aaron Burr
, later U.S. vice president). Edwards felt himself in "the decline of life", and inadequate to the office, but was persuaded to replace Burr as president of the College of New Jersey
. He arrived in January and was installed on February 16, 1758. He gave weekly essay assignments in theology to the senior class. Almost immediately after becoming president, Edwards, a strong supporter of smallpox inoculations
, decided to get inoculated himself in order to encourage others to do the same. Never having been in robust health, he died as a result of the inoculation on March 22, 1758. Edwards had three sons and eight daughters.
The grave of Edwards is located in Princeton Cemetery
. The long emotional epitaph
inscription on the horizontal gravestone eulogizes his life and career and laments the great loss of his passing. This remarkable Latin inscription draws from the classical tradition in extolling the virtues of the deceased and directly inviting the passerby to pause and mourn. In Latin, the inscription reads:
The followers of Jonathan Edwards and his disciples came to be known as the New Light Calvinist
ministers, as opposed to the traditional Old Light Calvinist
ministers. Prominent disciples included the New Divinity
school's Samuel Hopkins
, Joseph Bellamy
and Jonathan Edwards's son Jonathan Edwards Jr.
, and Gideon Hawley
. Through a practice of apprentice ministers living in the homes of older ministers, they eventually filled a large number of pastorates in the New England
area. Many of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards's descendants became prominent citizens in the United States, including the third U.S. vice president Aaron Burr
and the College Presidents Timothy Dwight
, Jonathan Edwards Jr.
and Merrill Edwards Gates
. Jonathan and Sarah Edwards were also ancestors of Edith Roosevelt
, the writer O. Henry
, the publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday
and the writer Robert Lowell
Edwards's writings and beliefs continue to influence individuals and groups to this day. Early American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions
missionaries were influenced by Edwards's writings, as is evidenced in reports in the ABCFM's journal "The Missionary Herald," and beginning with Perry Miller
's seminal work, Edwards enjoyed a renaissance among scholars after the end of the Second World War
. The Banner of Truth Trust
and other publishers continue to reprint Edwards's works, and most of his major works are now available through the series published by Yale University Press
, which has spanned three decades and supplies critical introductions by the editor of each volume. Yale has also established the Jonathan Edwards Project online. Author and teacher, Elisabeth Woodbridge Morris, memorialized him, her paternal ancestor (3rd great grandfather) in two books,'' The Jonathan Papers'' (1912), and ''More Jonathan Papers'' (1915). In 1933, he became the namesake of Jonathan Edwards College
, the first of the 12 residential colleges
of Yale, and The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University
was founded to provide scholarly information about Edwards' writings. In 2009, a classical Protestant school was founded in Nashville, TN bearing his name and dedicated to memorializing Edwards' example of fervent piety and rigorous academics: Jonathan Edwards Classical Academy. Edwards is remembered today as a teacher and missionary by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
on March 22. The contemporary poet Susan Howe
frequently describes the composition of Edwards' manuscripts and notebooks held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
in a number of her books of poetry and prose, including and . She notes how some of Edwards' notebooks were hand sewn from silk paper that his sisters and wife used for making fans. Howe also argues in ''My Emily Dickinson'' that Emily Dickinson
was formatively influenced by Edwards's writings, and that she "took both his legend and his learning, tore them free from his own humorlessness and the dead weight of doctrinaire Calvinism, then applied the freshness of his perception to the dead weight of American poetry as she knew it."
Most recently, Edwards' texts are also studied with the use of digital methods. Scholars from the Institute of English Studies at the Jagiellonian University
have applied stylometry
to establish stylistic connections between different groups of Edwards' sermons. Similarly, Rob Boss from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has used visual graphics software to explore the conceptual connections between Scripture and Nature in the theology of Edwards.
The eminence of many descendants of Edwards led some Progressive Era
scholars to view him as proof of eugenics
. His descendants have had a disproportionate effect upon American culture: his biographer George Marsden
notes that "the Edwards family produced scores of clergymen, thirteen presidents of higher learning, sixty-five professors, and many other persons of notable achievements."
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, a 1737 letter to Mrs. Hannah Morse, and some original minutes of a town meeting in Northampton
are held by The Presbyterian Historical Society
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
1732. online text aBible Bulletin Board
*''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
*''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
*Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival in New England and the Way it Ought to be Acknowledged and Promoted
The text of many of Edwards's sermons have been preserved, some are still published and read today among general anthologies of American literature. Among his more well-known sermons are:
*"The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners
*"The Manner of Seeking Salvation
*"Pressing into the Kingdom of God
*"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
*Atonement (Governmental view)
*Mission House (Stockbridge, Massachusetts)
*New England Dwight family
* Crisp, Oliver. 2016. ''Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians.'' Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
* Delattre, Roland André. ''Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards: An Essay in Aesthetics and Theological Ethics''. New Have, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
* Fiering, Norman. ''Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context''. Chapel Hill, NC: 1981.
* ---. ''Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology''. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1987.
* Hatch, Nathan and Harry O. Stout, eds. ''Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience''. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
* Kimnach, Wilson, Caleb J. D. Maskell, and Kenneth P. Minkema, eds. ''Jonathan Edwards's 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God': A Casebook''. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
* Lee, Sang Hyun. ''The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards''. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
* McClenahan, Michael (2012). ''Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith''. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate,
* McDermott, Gerald Robert. ''One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards''. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1992.
* Stout, Harry S. ed. ''The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia'' (2017).
* Zakai, Avihu. ''Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment''. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
* . Complete online critical edition of Edwards.
* Jonathan Edwards Collection
. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.JESociety
A network of Jonathan Edwards scholars and enthusiasts promoting research and interest in America's Theologian.
* . A finding list of eighteenth-century published works by Edwards in the public domain.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of PhilosophyContains "Freedom of the Will" and "Dissertation on Virtue", lightly edited for easier reading.
an Edwards bibliographyShocking Beliefs of Jonathan Edwards
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