In order to appreciate the contribution of Jonathan Edwards, #5 on our list of Top Ten Theologians, it’s important to place him within his world. A world which contains the possibility to change our world.
In the early 1560’s a term was coined to explain some “hypocrites”. The name “Puritan” was used to speak of some prudish, conceited, “holier than thou”, odd and ugly people trying to “purify” the Church of England. These Puritans lived in both England and the new American colonies. Unlike the Mayflower riding Pilgrims who had left the Anglican church, the Puritans sought to make reforms by remaining inside the Church of England.
Puritans have been demonized during much of the last 300 years. Over the last 50 years, however, scholars have started to show the true heart of the Puritans. Puritans were not wild men, fierce and freaky, religious fanatics and social extremists, but sober, conscientious, and cultured citizens: persons of principle, devoted, determined and disciplined.1
These Puritans, encapsulated by men like John Owen, believed the Church of England stopped short of allowing the Reformation to fully purify the church. The Puritans at first, however, were not that successful. J.I. Packer writes:
The Puritans lost, more or less, every public battle that they fought. Those who stayed in England did not change the Church of England as they hoped to do, nor did they revive more than a minority of its adherents, and eventually they were driven out of Anglicanism (the Church of England) by calculated pressure on their consciences. Those who crossed the Atlantic failed to establish new Jerusalem in New England; for the first fifty years their little colonies barely survived. They hung on by the skin of their teeth. But the moral and spiritual victories that the Puritans won by keeping sweet, peaceful, patient, obedient, and hopeful under sustained and seemingly intolerable pressures and frustrations give them a place of high honour in the believer’s hall of fame, where Hebrews 11 is the first gallery. It was out of this constant furnace-experience that their maturity was wrought and their wisdom concerning discipleship was refined.2
A Puritan man like John Bunyan lived under the “sustained and seemingly intolerable pressures” of which Packer speaks. Bunyan was put in prison more than once for preaching. His blind daughter had to move into his prison cell so she would have someone to care for her life.
During his 12-year term in prison Bunyan wrote one of the greatest Christian books of all time. His Pilgrim’s Progress has been in print for over 300 years. It has been translated into 200 languages.
It was their lack of apparent success, however, that fueled their unforeseen influence. George Whitefield, the famous evangelist, writes of the Puritans:
Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross; the Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them. It was this, no doubt, that made the Puritans…such burning and shining lights. When cast out by the black Bartholomew-act [the 1662 Act of Uniformity] and driven from their respective charges to preach in barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour.3
The hardships experienced by the Puritans led them to uniquely live out the Christian life. Packer explains their significance:
They were great souls serving a great God. In them clear-headed passion and warm-hearted compassion combined. Visionary and practical, idealistic and realistic too, goal-oriented and methodical, they were great believers, great hopers, great doers and great sufferers. But their sufferings, both sides of the ocean (in old England from the authorities and in New England from the elements), seasoned and ripened them till they gained a stature that was nothing short of heroic. Ease and luxury, such as our affluence brings us today, do not make for maturity; hardship and struggle however do, and the Puritans’ battles against the spiritual and climatic wildernesses in which God set them produced a virility of character, undaunted and unsinkable, rising above discouragement and fears.4
Jonathan Edwards would rise up, as one of the last great Puritans, to make an unmistakable mark on his and our world.
Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut on October 5, 1703. Edwards was the only son among ten daughters! He was born into one of the most respected families in all of Colonial America. His father was a Harvard-trained pastor who served his congregation faithfully for more than sixty years. His mother came from one of the most well-known families in all of New England.
Edwards’s mother was the daughter of Solomon Stoddard, one of the most popular preachers in all of the Colonies. Stoddard pastored his Northhampton, Massachusetts congregation for 59 years.
Edwards showed intelligence as a young man. His father, Timothy, was his teacher. In addition to a general education, Timothy groomed him for ministry by teaching him the Scriptures, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and theology. The entrance exams at Harvard and Yale tested proficiency in Latin, New Testament Greek and biblical Hebrew, the classical languages on which the college curriculum was based.5 At the age of thirteen, Edwards was accepted and enrolled in the new Collegiate School of Connecticut, later to be named Yale College.
He received a broad liberal-arts eduction, studying grammar, rhetoric, logic, ancient history, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, metaphysics, ethics, natural science, Greek, Hebrew, Christian theology, natural philosophy, and classical literature.6 He graduated at the head of his class with a bachelor of arts degree in 1720 and delivered the valedictory address.7 At the age of 16, immediately following his graduation, Edwards began the master’s program at Yale.
Although Edwards appeared from the outside to be a believer since he was a little boy, he wrote to a friend, “in process of time, my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights, and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in ways of sin.”8
During his second year of the master’s program, however, he was converted to Jesus Christ. As he read 1 Timothy 1:17, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” He explains:
As I read these words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapt up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him.9
He would preach years later:
There is 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 judgement that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness, and beauty.10
Edwards had finally tasted the sweetness of the Lord. He would never recover. From 1720 to 1726 he wrote in his diary his famous Resolutions for living a passionate life for God.
He started out in full-time ministry as co-Pastor of one of the most popular and fashionable churches in all of America. He pastored alongside his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton, New Hampshire. He was a scholar-pastor, not a shepherding pastor. He was required to spend thirteen hours a day studying. In the same year, 1727, Edwards married Sarah Pierpont. Jonathan was 24 years old, Sarah was 17. Like Edwards, she was also from a well-known religious family. Her father, James Pierpont, was the founder of Yale. Sarah’s walk with God was well-known to Edwards. He first spoke of her great piety when she was just 13 years old.11
Two years later, with the death of his grandfather, Edwards became the Head Pastor at Northampton. He had been preaching for several years, with average results, when his preaching began evoking a response that surprised him.12 From 1734-35 people responded to his sermons with emotional outbursts, remarkable life change, and with increased attention to their devotional lives. A few years later Edwards invited a well-known preacher from another denomination, George Whitefield, to speak at his church. It is said that while the visiting pastor preached, Edwards wept.13 The awakening had renewed momentum. In a remarkably short time, the movement spread beyond his church into many areas of the colonies. It became known as The Great Awakening.
From 1742 to 1743 he preached a series of messages under the title Religious Affections. This famous work, published in 1746, was Edwards’s way of explaining how conversion to Christianity happens. A few years later, in 1749, he published a biography of a young man named David Brainerd who had lived for several months with his family before dying in 1747. Young Brainerd had been a missionary and it was rumored he was to marry one of Edwards’s daughters. His biography has become a source of inspiration and encouragement to many Christians.
From 1743, however, Edwards was for various reasons at trouble with his church, and in 1750 he was dismissed from the pastorate.14 How refreshing to know one of the greatest pastors from church history was himself fired from his church after serving for 21 years!
Edwards then, at the age of 47, moved his family to be missionaries to the Native Americans. They moved to the frontier mission station of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Yes, western Massachusetts, not western Nevada, was considered the Wild West. It was an extreme outpost during these early years of the American Colonies. From Stockbridge he wrote two of his greatest works The Freedom of the Will and Original Sin.
In 1757, at the age of 54, Edwards became the president of Princeton College. Immediately after becoming president, he decided to get inoculated against small pox in order to encourage the students to do the same. Never in great health, he unfortunately died of the inoculation on March 22, 1758. Edwards had three sons and eight daughters.
Since The Great Awakening was characterized by an emotional experience leading people to be converted to Christ, it was accused of substituting emotion for study and devotion. Interestingly, however, Edwards was not a very charismatic person, he was more of a scholar. The goal of the movement was not worship services marked by continual shows of emotion, but rather a single experience that would lead each believer to greater devotion and more conscious study of Scripture.15
Regarding the Word of God Edwards writes, “Be assiduous in reading the Holy Scriptures. This is the fountain whence all knowledge in divinity must be derived. Therefore let not this treasure lie by you neglected."16
Edwards devoted himself and those he led to living a God-entranced, Scripture Saturated, Passionately Practical, Thoughtful life. His passion was: pursuing the glory of God; forsaking sin; making proper use of God-allotted Time; living with all his being for he Lord; pursuing humility and love; and making frequent self-examination. He writes:
Seek not to grow in knowledge chiefly for the sake of applause, and to enable you to dispute with others; but seek it for the benefit of your souls, and in order to practice . . . Practice according to what knowledge you have. This will be the way to know more. . . . [According to Psalm 119:100] "I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts."17
Similar to C.S. Lewis, Joy is a central focus for Edwards, he says:
So God glorifies Himself toward the creatures in two ways: 1. By appearing to . . . their understanding. 2. In communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself. . . . God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart.
The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.18
Edwards’s sermons are not emotional tricks, but careful expositions of profound theological matters. Edwards believed that emotion was important. But such emotion, including the high experience of conversion, should not eclipse the need for right doctrine and rational worship.19
Edwards was at the center of the first major spiritual awakening in the American Colonies. This movement influenced many by showing the power when someone clearly communicates the profound truths of God. People do not need a light show, they need the light of the World.
The Great Awakening brought together Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists. The Awakening fueled a major connection between the Colonies. This was the first movement that embraced the thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States. A sense of commonality began developing among the various colonies which would produce momentous events in 1776.20
Edwards greatly influenced the modern missionary movement. Men like William Carey and Jim Elliot speak of Edwards’s biography of David Brainerd as one of the main influences leading them to become missionaries.
Those who have sat most at the feet of Edwards will testify to what the Puritans called "logic on fire." Edwards brings together his mind and his heart to burn brightly for his God. As people are influenced by Edwards their view of God, passion for God, and knowledge of God grow.
This is why Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “I am tempted, perhaps foolish, to compare the Puritans to the Alps, Luther and Calvin to the Himalayas, and Jonathan Edwards to Mount Everest! He has always seemed to me the man most like the Apostle Paul.”21
Edwards had a few foibles we would do well to stay away from. First, he could spend up to 13 hours a day in his study. He welcomed people to his study for conversation, and he frequently taught private meetings in various neighborhoods as well as catechizing the young people in his home. As John Piper states, “In this pattern of pastoral labor we probably should not follow him.”22
Second, Edwards is usually negatively characterized as a hell-loving wrathful fire and brimstone preacher in his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” Edwards, however, simply sought to communicate to his people the entire counsel of God. Including the wrathful side of God. When Scripture speaks of the wrath of God, Edwards felt compelled to make sure his people understood this side of God. Ignoring a message like, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God”, would show a lack of love for his people. His people were aware of the gospel message, Edwards sought to make them aware of the necessity for them to fully respond. There are consequences for those who don’t respond to the love of Christ on their behalf.
The greatest foible is the reality that Jonathan Edwards owned several slaves. In 1731 Edwards travelled to Newport, Rhode Island to purchase a slave named Venus. Edwards, during his lifetime, did not view slavery as wrong. His main focus was on the treatment of slaves. He writes, “We are made of the same human race. In these two things are contained the most forceable reasons against the master’s abuse of his servant, viz. That both have one Maker, and that their Maker made ’em alike with the same nature.”
Edwards’s Effect on Us
Jonathan Edwards’s effect on us is what mainly propels him forward to #5 on the list of Top Ten Theologians. Jonathan Edwards is the model needed for church leaders in post-Christian America and Europe.
He brings together what is so needed today: A theologically grounded pastor who leads their church to be: attractional; missional; loving God with their entire being; devotionally loving Scripture; and bringing other churches/denominations to do the same.
Edwards provides us with one word, “maturity.” J.I. Packer explains:
Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity. The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t. We are spiritual dwarfs. A much-travelled leader has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, man-centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent and sentimental, as it blatantly is, to be 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. The Puritans, by contrast, are a body of giants.23
Our churches and our world needs the church leaders of today to be more like Edwards. We need to be theologically grounded and fully consumed with God. John Piper states, “Our people need a God-besotted man. Even if they criticize the fact that you are not available at the dinner on Saturday night because you must be with God, they need at least one man in their life who is radically and totally focused on God and the pursuit of the knowledge of God, and the ministry of the word of God.”24
Edwards leads us to radical singlemindedness in our occupation with spiritual things. He shows us to work like dogs to earnestly know the Scriptures. He pleads with us to redeem the time. Put down our Netflix streaming iPads and work with all our might for the Kingdom of God. The theological work of Edwards begs us to study for the sake of heartfelt worship and for practical obedience. Our lives and our world will be better by spending time with Jonathan Edwards.25
What do you think of Jonathan Edwards? Join the conversation by commenting below. We now go back in time over a thousand years to #4 of our Top Ten Theologians!
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