Jonathan Edwards of the First Great Awakening

By Christina Reeves

Engraved by R Babson & J Andrews; Print. by Wilson & Daniels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the teamwork of two great theologians, the thirteen colonies that would soon become the United States of America experienced the first of three official Great Awakenings (some would argue that there was also a fourth). These theologians were very different in preaching style and they were in different denominations, however they had a close friendship that impacted the religious and political life of people in the 18th century. This was Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Jonathan Edwards and his family’s role in the First Great Awakening (and how that affects us now) will be the focus of this article, but first some background on George Whitefield, who played an equally important role.

George Whitefield was ordained in the Anglican Church when he was 22, and made the first of many (difficult) trips to the colonies in 1737. His preaching style was dramatic and full of emotion. When he returned to England his preaching met with opposition from his fellow Anglicans, and this opposition (due to him self-publishing many of his struggles) made him very well known. This helped him out in 1739-1740 when he went on an extensive tour of the colonies.[1] It was on this tour that Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards first made contact, and started their powerful friendship.[2]

Whitefield wrote to Edwards after hearing about his work in Northampton, Massachusetts; about five years prior, Jonathan Edwards’ work started having more responses that had even spread into Connecticut. González writes: “some with emotional outbursts, but many with a remarkable change in their lives, and with increased attention to devotional practices.”[3] While at this moment, this movement wouldn’t continue, it left everyone that was affected with a hope of something bigger to come soon. In his letter, George Whitefield mentions this movement: “Rev. Sir, Mr. Noble, and the report of your sincere love for our dear Lord Jesus, embolden me to write this. I rejoice for the great things God has done for many souls in Northampton. I hope, God willing, to come and see them in a few months… Now is the gathering time… Our Lord’s word begins to be glorified in America. Many hearts gladly receive it.”[4] Jonathan Edwards would respond, but his letter was delayed for a few months, and it was another few months before Whitefield would make it to Northampton.

Now onto the main figure: Jonathan Edwards. You can see the timeline along with this article for details not only about his biography, but also for his wife, his lifestyle, and his eleven children. It is said of Jonathan Edwards’ preaching style that it is a combination of two huge role models in his life: his father Timothy Edwards and his grandfather Solomon Stoddard. Wilson H. Kimnach writes “[Jonathan Edwards] combined the ideals of rigorous logical argument and sensational impact, resulting in his distinctive idiom of experienced ideas.”[5] Along with a distinct preaching style, Jonathan Edwards was known for his spirituality, even as a young kid, and this carried on for the rest of his life. He writes in a letter to Aaron Burr, his son-in-law, in which he describes this passion of his; “I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys; and used to meet with them to pray together. I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion. My mind was much engaged in it, and had much self-righteous pleasure; and it was my delight to abound in religious duties.”[6] We can see how someone so devoted and passionate about the Lord and the studies of could be a huge part in revivals. This devotion is seen throughout his life as a pastor, through the fact that, on average, he spent thirteen hours a day in his study; working on sermons, studying the word, learning more about rhetoric, etcetera.[7]

As someone who spent that much time in his study, Jonathan Edwards’ home life is still known as a good and sweet one. He and his wife, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, would have eleven children together, most of which would grow to adulthood and have children of their own. His marriage to Sarah Pierpont is said to have “brought a strength and sweetness to his side which was to abide through the next thirty years.”[8] We have a few writings left from Sarah Pierpont Edwards, the one of most length being one that deals with a very hard time in her husband’s life: when he was asked to leave the church of Northampton. In the last paragraph, Sarah writes: “I remember Mr. Edwards once in talking to some Gentleman of these matters Expressed Himself thus, that the difficulties He had a Prospect of appeared to Him like a Bottomless ocean, He could see no end of ‘em.”[9] She also writes in the letter describing times of when they would ride together, and talk about things. She was invested in his life and cared about how he was doing. She would discuss options with him and give her ideas. Jonathan Edwards spent much time studying and is known for his work, his wife was also very intelligent, and should be recognized for that as well. However, with Jonathan spending that much time in his study, it left Sarah with most of the household duties (this included the gardening, seeing to their slaves, raising their children, etcetera), and also most of the hosting when they had visitors. For the majority of the time, Sarah was also nursing an infant, or pregnant. There was a period of time when Yale students would come and stay with the Edwards family, while studying under Jonathan. This was very overwhelming for Sarah at times, and could lead to times of melancholy.[10] While this may not seem fair for Sarah Pierpont Edwards at the time, and it shouldn’t be tolerated today, her work freed up Jonathan Edwards to do the work that he did. Because of Sarah, Jonathan Edwards was able to work, preach, and be a part of the First Great Awakening; which has impacted Christian history in Europe and America.

Jonathan Edwards was a Calvinist. Jonathan Edwards followed Calvin’s theology, and expanded on it with his own thoughts and beliefs, however some have suggested that “he was an inconsistent Calvinist.”[11] However, this was not really seen in the work that we have of his now. Jonathan Edwards was consistently writing: it was a major part of the thirteen hours a day that he spent working in his study. While a large portion of this writing was dedicated to writing sermons for church on Sundays, it was also dedicated to studying scripture and commentating on it. While his comments were never meant for publication, some of it was written beautifully and stands out today.[12] The majority of his writings are available to read and study today. The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the True Spirit is one that is more well known, and easy to find today. This writing touches on what the church should do when it comes to false spirits, “This made it very necessary that the church of Christ should be furnished with some certain rules, distinguishing and clear marks, by which she might proceed safely in judging of the true from the false without danger of being imposed on.”[13] Other well-known writings/sermons where you can get a sense of Edwards’ theology is Justification by Faith Alone (1734/1738), Thoughts of the Revival of Religion (1742), Qualifications for Communion (1749), A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), The Visible Union of God’s People (1748)[14] and one of his most famous sermons (which tends to give him a negative reputation) Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741). What people don’t really know about this sermon was the fact that it was preached to a congregation that needed hear about God’s wrath and the punishment of sin. Everywhere he looked, Jonathan Edwards was seeing the “wages of sin” in human life; he wanted to help others repent and change that fact.[15] The First Great Awakening is said to have not changed Jonathan Edwards theology, but rather how he would emphasize and apply his theology.[16]

The First Great Awakening didn’t come without some push back. There were theological contradictions that would come up in the midst of the revival that would be more complicated than the (at the time) familiar Old Light—New Light dichotomy. There were four main parties that can be identified at this time: The extremists, “Old Calvinism,” the Liberals, and the Strict Calvinists (also known as New Divinity). The extremists were zealous New Lights and were characterized either by theological vacuity or theological novelty. “Old Calvinism” was more of a traditional orthodoxy, which was around before the First Great Awakening and was desperately trying to stay alive throughout the revival. The Liberals were kind of a part of the same traditional orthodoxy as the “Old Calvinism” group, but they spoke with new clarity and vigor. The Strict Calvinists displayed and extended the theological bias of the First Great Awakening.[17] This disagreement within theology would lead to the next two Great Awakenings, which were very different from each other, and from the First Great Awakening. However, with disagreement comes debate and growth. While the disagreement makes it more difficult to know what to teach or to believe, it makes studying theology more interesting and gives more personal growth. In the Christian faith we can take comfort in the fact that we have a God that forgives us when we are wrong, and who is willing to lead us in the right direction. Our pursuit of Christian theology has been one that was taken on by the theology students at Yale, Jonathan Edwards’ own school, which is too “bring together faith and reason, experience and history, heart and head. In a word, to make men whole.”[18] This was true then, is true now (at least, in what I have had in my experience studying theology), and will be true in the future if this pattern holds.

The First Great Awakening was not the last of its kind, however Jonathan Edwards’ work in this revival set the tone for the next revivals to come. Jonathan Edwards is still making a difference today, as seen by how his theology is still studied in religious and history courses. We can see his influence in different denominations that he was not a part of, due to the Awakening affecting denominations outside of his own (in fact, other denominations that were opposed to the revival ended being some of the one that were affected the most). We today can learn much from Jonathan Edwards and his family; the 18th century was a while ago, but the work done there has helped us get to where we are now, and the work that we will do now will affect those down the road from us.

 

NOTES

[1] Alan Heimert and Perry Miller, The Great Awakening (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), 41.
[2] Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 155.
[3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 288.
[4] Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 156.
[5] Stephen J. Stein, The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 105.
[6] Douglas A. Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009), 35.
[7] Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 137.
[8] Ibid., 91.
[9] Ibid., 487.
[10] Marsden, George M. A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 82-83.
[11] Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 141.
[12] Ibid., 139.
[13] Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 86.
[14] Heimert and Miller, The Great Awakening, ix-xii.
[15] Wilson H. Kimnach and Caleb J. D. Marskell and Kenneth P. Minkema, Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: A Casebook (London: Yale University Press, 2010), 27.
[16] Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 223.
[17] Edwin Scott Gausta, The Great Awakening in New England, (Massachusetts: Harper and Row Publishers, 1957), 128.
[18] Ibid., 139-140.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gaustad, Ediwn Scott. The Great Awakening in New England. Massachusetts: Harper and Row Publishers, 1957.

González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Hart, D. G. and Sean Michael Lucas and Stephen J. Nichols. The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and the Evangelical Tradition. Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003.

Heimert, Alan, and Perry Miller. The Great Awakening. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1967.

Jonathan Edwards on Revival. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965.

Kimnach, Wilson H. and Caleb J. D. Maskell and Kenneth P. Minkema. Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: A Casebook. London: Yale University Press, 2010.

Marsden, George M. A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Murray, Iain H. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

Stein, Stephen J. The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Sweeney, Douglas A. Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word. Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009.