Born OCTOBER 5, 1703He’s remembered for preaching the most famous sermon outside the Bible. He’s known as one of the driving forces of North America’s first Great Awakening. The thrust of his heart and mind dedicated to God had a profound effect on those he served as a pastor, a missionary, an author, and a university president. Perhaps his biggest challenge: preaching to undo the doctrinal errors of the pastor he succeeded in Northampton– his grandfather.
IN AWE OF GOD
Jonathan Edwards was homeschooled. His young mind mastered Latin, then Greek. His strongest interest lay in the study of two topics which, to him, didn’t conflict: religion and science. He saw all created things as God’s workmanship. Even spiders.
Jonathan entered Yale University when he was only thirteen. He graduated in 1720. That same year, he experienced a spiritual conversion triggered by reading I Timothy 1:17. He read the words, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen,” and in his heart he said, “Amen.”
He furthered his education at Yale with two years of studying theology. Jonathan saw, deeper than before, how all of nature brought glory and honor to God. He later wrote, “There seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything,” and “I felt God at the first appearance of a thunderstorm.”
Jonathan Edwards the Calvinist Puritan dutifully preached God’s sovereignty. He wanted all whom God had chosen to discover His irresistible grace.
AWAKENING HIS TOWN
Then there’s the perseverance of the saints. Jonathan’s grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, persevered not only in his faith, but in his service as a pastor. At age eighty-three, he still pastored the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts. By request, Jonathan began ministering alongside his grandfather in 1727. When Solomon died two years later, Jonathan assumed the pastorate of the church. Pastor Edwards was not to follow in all of his grandfather’s steps.
Like other New England pastors of that day, Solomon Stoddard had admitted those who were baptized as infants as members even though they had not declared personal faith in Jesus Christ. Their children, when baptized, were called “half-way members.” Without a true conversion, they were denied communion. But not by Solomon Stoddard. He proposed that the ritual of communion itself saved a person. The unbiblical idea appalled his grandson Jonathan.
Jonathan preached justification by faith. His sermons changed the Northampton church and the town. The initial spark of revival late in the year 1734 burst into flames in 1735, resulting in a reported 300 true spiritual conversions. His part in the Great Awakening had begun.
AN ATYPICAL REVIVALIST
Jonathan’s preaching style wasn’t what you’d expect. He wrote out his sermons word for word and read them verbatim in an undramatic manner (reportedly, in a monotone voice). Still, his listeners felt convicted of their sins and repented. He accepted invitations to be a guest preacher in other towns. Jonathan preached his most famous sermon at Enfield, Connecticut: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
There was something striking about the wording he chose. It resembled the type of admonition criminals sentenced to death heard prior to facing the gallows or the firing squad. The preacher’s duty– sound the alarm of urgency to repent before standing before God. Deeply feeling the need for spiritual revival, Jonathan Edwards gave the same call to the respectable church-goers at Enfield.
Using his interest in spiders, Jonathan compared each unrepentant listener to a spider God held over the flames of hell, warning them, “You hang by a slender thread.” He added, “But this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be.”
Regardless of Jonathan’s uninspiring monotone, the scriptural truth penetrated listeners’ hearts. Some wailed over their sinful condition and pleaded with screams for God’s mercy.
A NEW CONGREGATION
With time, revival flames died down. The “half-way” controversy survived. The soft-spoken pulpiteer sometimes dogmatically expressed his convictions with less tact than needed. The mix led to Jonathan’s final days at Northampton. The door closed on his ministry there in 1750.
He moved his family to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He assumed pastoral duties at the local church and among Native Americans in the area. By then Jonathan had published the journal of missionary to native Americans, David Brainerd.
Jonathan’s literary output greatly expanded during his seven years in Stockbridge. He contrasted Calvinism and Arminianism in his book The Freedom of the Will. He had by that time established a following of readers. His earlier works were Narrative of Surprising Conversions (1737), Thoughts on the Revival (1742), and The Religious Affections (1746).
In 1757, Johnathan Edward’s reputation as a spiritual intellectual brought him a letter from New Jersey. The College of New Jersey (Princeton) was inviting him to serve as their president. That final ministry venue would not only be Jonathan’s last post, but would be very short-lived. He arrived at the college in January of 1758 and died in March. Smallpox had infiltrated the area. The shot he received, rather than preventing the disease, led to his death.Jonathan Edwards is highly esteemed today by many who don’t agree fully with his theology. What they respect is his emphasis on spiritual conversion and personal revival. He’s admired for promoting the Bible–not social accommodation or popular church policy– as our final authority.
His devotion to God can be summed up in three of his statements. The first two are from resolutions he made that guided his life. The third one is a prayer.
“Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.”
“Resolved, never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.”
“Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs.”
LET ME KNOW: How has Jonathan’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- “Jonathan Edwards.” Christian History. Vol. 22. No. 1, 2002.
- Woodbridge, John D., ed. Great Leaders of the Christian Church. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1988.
- Wiersbe, Warren. Victorious Christians You Should Know. Baker Book House Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI, 1984.
Books by and about Jonathan Edwards-
- A listing of his books and audiobooks of his writings begins here-http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/easy_find?Ntt=jonathan+edwards&N=0&Ntk=keywords&action=Search&Ne=0&event=ESRCQ&nav_search=1&cms=1.
- You can read some of his writings online at http://www.jonathan-edwards.org/.
- A number of biographies of Jonathan begins here- http://www.amazon.com/Jonathan-Edwards-Perry-Miller/dp/0803283075/ref=sr_1_15?s=books&ie= UTF8&qid= 1349294854&sr=1-15&keywords=jonathan+Edwards+biography .
Related YouTube videos-
- I prefer Max Mclean’s version of Jonathan’s famous sermon-“Sinners in the hand of an angry God (Max Mclean).wmv” youtube video, 24:32. Posted by fridaynightfusion on June 16, 2011- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlyGmerlknk&feature=related.
- Here’s a good overview of the Great Awakening- “The First Awaking” youtube video, 4:10. Posted by TotalLivingNetwork1 on March 16, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zt57rFcpnr4&feature=related.