When Jonathan Edwards was about to die, he dictated his final words to his daughter Lucy. His thoughts were of his wife, Sarah, who had not yet joined him at their new home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had just become college president.

"It seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you," he said. "Therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue for ever. … And as to my children, you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you."

Jonathan had, throughout his life, looked to Sarah as a spiritual paragon. But their "uncommon union" was not the only significant female influence in his life. Edwards's mother, sisters, and daughters also evidenced both high intelligence and strong spiritual mettle. Most likely as a result of his interactions with them, Edwards had a notably high view of women for the day, repeatedly holding them up as exemplars during his ministry.

His mother, Esther Stoddard Edwards, was the daughter of Solomon Stoddard, the Puritan minister dubbed the "Pope of the Connecticut River Valley." Growing up in a home filled with books and frequented by New England's elite, and highly educated for a woman of the time, Esther "surpassed her husband in native vigor of understanding," according to Edwards biographer Sereno Dwight. She instilled in the young Jonathan her own great love for books.

Sixty feet of sisters

Esther was not alone in demonstrating to Jonathan the intellectual and spiritual capacities of women. He grew up surrounded by ten talented sisters, as bright as ...

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