Notable Christians: Jonathan Edwards
What we all must know about the great Jonathan Edwards:
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) may well have been America’s greatest theologian, pastor, revivalist and philosopher. His importance cannot be overstated. Sadly, he is not well known by most Christians, and those who do know something about him seem to know only this: He once gave a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
He was an incredible man, and incredibly busy, doing all that he did and still raising 11 children. In addition to being a very busy pastor, missionary, and educator, etc., Jonathan Edwards spent up to 13 hours a day reading, studying and writing. This timeline gives just a brief glimpse of his heavy schedule.
1703 born in Connecticut
1716-1720 undergraduate studies
1720-1722 MA student at Yale
1727 ordained; marries Sarah Pierpont
1729 pastor of Northampton, Massachusetts church
1734-1735 revival at Northampton
1737 A Faithful Narrative of Surprising Conversions published
1740-1742 First Great Awakening with George Whitefield
1741 “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” preached
1742-1743 sermon series later published as Religious Affections
1750 dismissed from his Northampton pastorate
1751 missionary to Indians in Stockbridge
1757 revival breaks out at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton)
1758 President of the College
To write a short article on this amazing Christian leader will almost certainly do him injustice. Let me instead appeal to three others who have done so much to promote and champion the man and his work. First, just a brief quote from one of his main popularisers and supporters today, John Piper. He said this about the great Puritan:
“The longer I live, the more clearly I see my dependence on those who have gone before. The more I know what others have thought, the less original my thinking appears. I am content to have it so. . . . This book is witness to my calling as a secondary teacher, not a primary one. Jonathan Edwards is a primary teacher in the Christian church; I am secondary.”
And George Marsden begins his important biography of Edwards with these words:
Edwards was extraordinary. By many estimates, he was the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians. At least three of his many works—Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will, and The Nature of True Virtue—stand as masterpieces in the larger history of Christian literature. The appeal of his thought endures. Every year several new books and scores of academic articles, reviews, and dissertations appear about him. Yet he also wrote effectively for popular audiences.
However I want to finish with some quite powerful words by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. From 1959 to 1978 he delivered 19 addresses at the Puritan and Westminster Conferences. These are all published in a terrific volume, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Banner of Truth, 1987). His 1976 address was, “Jonathan Edwards and the Crucial Importance of Revival,” found on pages 348-371. Let me offer just a few snippets from this excellent paper.
“He, of course, as [the Puritans] were, was a Calvinist and a Congregationalist, and he put great emphasis, as they all did, on the moral and the ethical elements in the Christian faith and Christian living. However, I venture to make the assertion that in Edwards we come to the very zenith or acme of Puritanism, for in him we have what we find in all the others, but in addition, this spirit, this life, this additional vitality. Not that the others were entirely lacking in that, but it is such an outstanding characteristic in him that I would assert that Puritanism reached its fullest bloom in the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards.” pp. 350-351
“I am tempted, perhaps foolishly, to compare the Puritans to the Alps, Luther and Calvin to the Himalayas, and Jonathan Edwards to Mount Everest! He has always seemed to me to be the man most like the Apostle Paul.” p. 355
“He was born in a comparatively isolated area … he had been neither to Oxford nor Cambridge. He was an original, suddenly shot forth, a mighty intellect, accompanied by a brilliant imagination, amazing originality; but above all by honesty. He is one of the most honest expositors I have ever read. He never evades a problem; he faces them all. He does not skirt round a difficulty; he had this curious interest in truth in all its aspects, and then with all those scintillating gifts there is his humility and modesty, and added to that his exceptional spirituality. He knew more about experimental religion than most men; and he placed great emphasis upon the heart. In other words, what strikes one about Edwards as one looks at the man as a whole is the completeness, the balance. He was a mighty theologian and a great evangelist at the same time. How foolish we have become! This man was both, as was the apostle Paul. He was also a great pastor; he dealt with souls and their problems. He was equally expert with adults as with children; and he was a great defender of conversion in children, and paid great attention to children, even allowing them to have meetings on their own. He seems to be everything and to be perfectly balanced.” pp. 355-356
“What then was the secret of this man? I have no hesitation in saying this: the spiritual always controlled the intellectual in him. I believe he must have had a great struggle with his towering intellect, and his original thinking. Moreover he was a voracious reader, and it would have been the simplest thing in the world for such a man to have become a pure intellectual such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Perry Miller and many others wished he had become. But as they put it, theology kept breaking in. But that constitutes the special glory of this man – and this is what explains him – that he always kept his philosophy and his speculations subservient to the Bible and regarded them as mere servants. Whatever he might be tempted to think, the Bible was supreme: everything was subordinate to the Word of God. All his rich and brilliant gifts were not only held to be subservient, but were used as servants. In other words he was God dominated. Someone has said of him that ‘he combined passionate devotion and a profoundly integrated mind’.” p. 356
“He started with a text. He was always Scriptural. He did not merely take a theme and speak on it, except when he was expounding some doctrine, but even then he chose a text. He was always expository. . . . But he never stops at that. There is always the application. He was preaching to people and not giving a dissertation, not giving expression in public to his private thoughts in the study. He was always concerned to bring home the truth to the listeners, to show the relevance of it. But, above all, and I quote him, he believed that preaching should always be ‘warm and earnest’. I remind you again that we are dealing here with a giant intellect and brilliant philosopher; and yet this is the man who places all this emphasis upon warmth and upon feeling.” p. 359
“But we must leave that and come to what, after all, is the most remarkable thing of all about Jonathan Edwards. He was pre-eminently the theologian of Revival, the theologian of experience, or as some have put it ‘the theologian of the heart’. The most astonishing thing about this phenomenon, this mighty intellect, was that no man knew more about the workings of the human heart, regenerate and unregenerate, than Jonathan Edwards. If you want to know anything about the psychology of religion, conversion, revivals, read Jonathan Edwards.” p. 361
Wow, simply reading how MLJ describes the man should make you want to read him more – or at least read more about him. So I conclude by offering 20 quite useful books on the man, his ministry, and his thought:
For further reading
Byrd, James, Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Crisp, Oliver, Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians. Eerdmans, 2015.
Crisp, Oliver and Kyle Strobel, Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought. Eerdmans, 2018.
Everhard, Matthew, Holy Living: Jonathan Edwards’s Seventy Resolutions for Living the Christian Life. Tyndale House, 2021.
Finn, Nathan and Jeremy Kimble, eds., A Reader’s Guide To the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards. Crossway, 2017.
Hoehner, Paul, The Covenant Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Pickwick, 2021.
Lawson, Steven, The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards. Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008.
McClymond, Michael and Gerald McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. OUP, 2011.
McDermott, Gerald, ed., Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian. OUP, 2008.
Marsden, George, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Yale University Press, 2003.
Murray, Iain, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Banner of Truth, 1987.
Nichols, Stephen, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. P&R, 2001.
Nichols, Stephen, Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edward’s Vision of Living in Between. Crossway, 2006.
Ortlund, Dane, Edwards on the Christian Life. Crossway, 2014.
Piper, John, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. Crossway, 1998, 2006.
Piper, John and Justin Taylor, A God Enhanced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Crossway, 2004.
Sproul, R. C. and Archie Parrish, The Spirit of Revival. Crossway, 2000.
Storms, Dan, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections. Crossway, 2007.
Stout, Harry, The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. Eerdmans, 2017.
Strachan, Owen and Douglas Sweeney, The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian. Moody, 2018.
4 Replies to “Notable Christians: Jonathan Edwards”
Thank you, Jonathan Edwards’s sermons are well worth reading.
Every time another bunch of great books to buy. If I keep going I’ll end up a pauper!
Yes it is always a problem Paul!