Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Theologians > Jonathan Edwards
America's greatest theologian
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"[I wish] to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and that God might be all, that I might become as a little child."
At age 14, Jonathan Edwards, already a student at Yale, read philosopher John Locke with more delight "than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly discovered treasure."
He also was a young man with profound spiritual sensitivities. At age 17, after a period of distress, he said holiness was revealed to him as a ravishing, divine beauty. His heart panted "to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and that God might be all, that I might become as a little child."
This combination of intellect and piety characterized Edward's whole life.
Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, and he received his master's degree from Yale in 1722. He apprenticed for his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, for two years before he became, in 1729, the sole preacher of the Northampton, Massachusetts, parish.
In the meantime, when he was 20, he had met Sarah Pierrepont. Their wedding followed four years of often agonizing courtship for the gawky and intense Edwards, but in the end, their marriage proved deeply satisfying to both. Edwards described it as an "uncommon union," and in a sermon on Genesis 2:2125, he said, "When Adam rose from his deep sleep, God brought woman to him from near his heart." They eventually had 11 children.
In 1734 Edwards's preaching on justification by faith sparked a different sort of devotion: a spiritual revival broke out in his parish. In December there were six sudden conversions. By spring there were about thirty a week.
It was not due to theatrics. One observer wrote, "He scarcely gestured or even moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination." Instead he convinced "with overwhelming weight of argument and with such intenseness of feeling."
Edwards kept a careful written account of his observations and noted them in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), and his most effective sermons were published as Justification by Faith (1738), which were widely read in America and England. These works helped fuel the Great Awakening a few years later (17391741), during which thousands were moved by the preaching of Britain's George Whitefield. Whitefield had read Edwards's book and made it a point to visit him when he came to America. Edwards invited Whitefield to preach at his church and reported, "The congregation was extraordinarily melted ... almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of the time." The "whole assembly" included Edwards himself.
During the Great Awakening, Edwards contributed perhaps the most famous sermon in American history, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Unfortunately it has since cast Edwards as an emotional and judgmental revivalist, when in fact he preached it as dispassionately as any of his sermons.
In spite of his dispassionate style, Edwards insisted that true religion is rooted in the affections, not in reason. He defended the emotional outbursts of the Great Awakening, especially in Treatise on Religious Affections (1746), a masterpiece of psychological and spiritual discernment, and in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (in which he included an account of his wife's spiritual awakening).
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