Famed for the fire of his sermons, Edwards evoked in his audiences a deep emotional frenzy, and inspired many conversions wherever he preached. But the stern and imprecatory Calvinism of his best-known sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), was typical of only ten percent of his sermons.The outstanding intellect in the New England of his time, Edwards was able to express in technical yet fervent language his belief in God's absolute sovereignty and in His existence as an all-pervasive object of love.
Jonathan Edwards was born on Oct. 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Conn. His father was Timothy Edwards, pastor of Windsor church. His mother was the daughter of a minister, Solomon Stoddard.
Edwards was not given to boyish pursuits. At the age of twelve, he wrote "On Insects," an essay on the spider--a creature that appears, oddly enough, in his later writings as a symbol of sin. At an early age he gave evidence of his religious concern with puritanism. Conversion came slowly after doubt and questioning. At the age of fourteen he was reading the works of the English philosopher John Locke.He graduated from Yale at seventeen. After a short pastorate in New York, he returned to Yale for the M.A. degree and spent two years there (1724-1726) as a tutor.
The fertile prime of Edward's life (1727-1750) began at the Northampton church, Mass., as colleague and successor to his grandfather Stoddard. In 1727 he married the gifted and beautiful Sarah Pierrepont of New Haven. They had 11 children; Edwards was an affectionate husband and loving father.
Edwards' habits are glimpsed in his abstemious, almost ascetic life. Thirteen hours a day were spent in study. He did not visit, believing he could do more for people by writing and preaching. As pastor he revised his convictions concerning "The Half-Way Covenant," the custom of admitting unconverted persons to communion. His desire to exclude the unconverted caused his congregation to revolt. Simultaneously, he disciplined young people for reading questionable literature, and tactlessly sought a higher stipend. All of these actions finally led to his expulsion in 1750.
Edwards moved to Stockbridge, Mass., where he served as a missionary among the Indians. Using an interpreter to do his routine work, he spent most of his time writing his major works. A small but well-selected library gave him mental stimulus. His catalogue lists 700 entries. He kept a diary and resolutions indicative of his thought. His untimely death occurred in 1758 at Princeton, N.J., after he had spent six months as the third president of the newly founded College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). This might have been the richest period of Edwards' life, had he lived longer.
As a man of letters Edwards was skilled in artistry. Although metaphysical, he followed the Puritan ideals of the plain style--the use of the King James Version of the Bible --and had the thrust of the evangelist. The doctrines he stressed included the sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and the grace of the Gospel. He appealed to the emotions through self-interest, believing that unless a man is moved by some affection he is by nature inactive. He awakened the conscience and demanded a verdict. His recurring theme included:
The unconverted are guilty and deserve the punishment awaiting them; this punishment is given by an infinite God in His justice; and the only hope of escape is by the gift of salvation which cannot be won by man's effort, but if anyone is violent he may press into the kingdom.
Edwards' outstanding book was Freedom of the Will (1754), in which he refuted the Arminian doctrine of free will, and showed that the will is determined by human motives:
That whatsoever begins to be which before was not, must have a Cause why it then begins to exist, seems to be the first dictate of the common and natural sense which God hath implanted in the minds of all mankind. . . .
In the Nature of True Virtue (1765) he taught the ethic of love. Religious Affections (1746), A Faithful Narrative (1737), Personal Narrative of Conversion (1736), Distinguishing Marks (1741), and Thoughts on Revival (1742) deal with "the life of God in the soul of man," the psychology of conversion.
Despite his travels, Edwards was essentially a pastoral preacher. His voice was thin and almost effeminate; his hold over his audiences lay rather in the power and sincerity of his message. He should not be judged as an implacable preacher of a vindictive sermon, or as an example of an outmoded philosophy. He stands now with greater stature in an age which has reevaluated his reputation in the light of research done by scholars specializing in the history of religious thought in the colonial period.
Edwards unveiled the life of the mind, Puritan and evangelical, mystical and practical. His human legacy included hundreds of descendants who held high office in education, law, medicine, government, and the church. He who desires to know the background of American culture and literature, religion and life, must not neglect the reservoir of knowledge and thought found in Edwards.