Jonathan Edwards was a tremendous preacher, theologian, and philosopher. He was immensely loved and respected as one of the greatest Americans of the 18th century. Edwards sparked the spiritual revival of America that would become known as the First Great Awakening.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a fourth-generation clergyman, and the only boy in his family among ten sisters. He entered Yale at the age of thirteen and graduated as valedictorian four years later. By the time he turned twenty-one, he was named the head tutor of Yale. Edwards was also noted for being extremely handsome.
Following his conversion to the Christian Faith, Jonathan Edwards wrote: "God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, and trees; in the water, and all nature."
Jonathan Edwards the Minister
Jonathan Edwards succeeded his grandfather as minister of the Congregational Church of Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1726. He would go on to serve there for 23 years. As he began his ministry, Edwards wrote: "Licentiousness for some years greatly prevailed among the youth of the town: there were many of them much addicted to night walking and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices wherein some by their example exceedingly corrupted others."
Jonathan Edwards rekindled spiritual fervor in the Connecticut River Valley with his vivid descriptions of the torments of hell, and the delights of heaven. He believed it a "reasonable thing to endeavor to fright persons away from hell." By 1735, his work had borne much good fruit. Edwards wrote, "The town seemed to be full of the presence of God; it was never so full of love, nor of joy."
Jonathan Edwards married Sarah Pierpont in 1727. Her father was the founder of Yale University. Sarah was a deeply pious woman who lived in the joyful light of God's love. She dedicated her life to serve and glorify God.
Jonathan and Sarah Edwards exemplified what a Christian marriage could be. It was obvious to those who knew them that they shared a mutual abiding love and lived in wonderful harmony.
Sarah Edwards bore Jonathan ten children, most of whom also became distinguished citizens. Among their descendants we see 13 university presidents, 65 professors, scores of clergymen, and other prominent citizens. Their grandson was Aaron Burr, future Vice President of the United States.
Jonathan Edwards was named President of Princeton College in 1757. Unfortunately, the following year he died after undergoing inoculation for smallpox. Sarah Edwards would live only one year more.
Jonathan Edwards the Preacher
Jonathan Edwards preached his most famous sermon—"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"—in 1741. He delivered it in the decidedly non-religious town of Enfield, Connecticut. Many who heard the sermon fell to their hands and knees weeping. Edwards made people feel how truly abhorrent sin is in the eyes of a Holy God. Ask God to remake your life to His glory—which is the sole end to human existence.
Edwards pioneered a style of preaching that became famous for the intense emotions it produced in his hearers. He portrayed sinful man suspended over a bottomless pit of eternal hell by a slender thread that might break at any moment. Only being "born again"—by acknowledging one's sins and crying out to God for divine grace—could save men from eternal damnation.
Jonathan Edwards Message
Jonathan Edwards did not advocate sheer emotionalism. He preached in a calm manner with a soft, solemn voice. Despite the intensity of one's conversion experience the focus should remain on the grace of God. He used his powers of persuasion to remind people that God is sovereign; God is loving, glorious, and beautiful.
Jonathan Edwards preached that the Spirit of God lives in receptive men and women. People have free will and can thus choose among motives. They are also responsible for the choices they make. Edwards' homiletic genius lay in persuading ordinary townsfolk and farmers to think of themselves with an eye to eternity.
My sources used for this article include: Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History by Walter A. McDougall; The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White; The One Year Book of Christian History by E. Michael and Sharon Rusten.
James A Watkins has also published these fine articles:
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