Jonathan Edwards was an American theologian and preacher largely responsible for the First Great Awakening. Edwards is often considered America's most important philosophical theologian and founding father of American Evangelicalism.
Edwards was born October 5, 1703 in Connecticut, British America to Esther and Timothy Edwards as the fifth of an eventual eleven children and was their only son. His father was a minister, so Jonathan was raised in a religious household with Puritan influence. At age thirteen, he went to Yale College and studied theology. He also showed great interest in science, believing that the natural world gave evidence of God's design and revealed His wisdom and care (Psalm 19:1–4; Romans 1:20).
On February 15, 1727, Jonathan Edwards was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church and became assistant to his maternal grandfather, Reverend Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton, MA. He also married his wife, Sarah Pierpont, the daughter of the founder of Yale College, that same year. Jonathan wrote in his journals about how Sarah's spiritual devotion and personal relationship with God inspired him. Having been raised in a home that valued education and naturally being a deep thinker, Jonathan Edwards devoted thirteen hours per day to studying, even in his new role as minister and husband. Just two years later, his grandfather passed away, leaving Edwards in charge of the largest and wealthiest congregation in the colony. Edwards wanted to see his congregation share the spiritual passion of his wife, so he tended to preach against spiritual lethargy and self-reliance on one's own good deeds for salvation. He spoke of man's sin, God's sovereignty, the necessity of personal conversion, and justification by faith alone.
On July 8, 1731, while in Boston, Edwards preached his first sermon against Arminianism, instead espousing a Calvinist viewpoint emphasizing God's absolute sovereignty in the work of salvation. A revival began in Edwards's church in Northampton, MA in 1733 and lasted through 1735. Edwards preached many emotionally moving sermons using a quiet voice to slowly move his hearers from point to point. People responded with vocal outcries, swooning, and even convulsions, but Edwards maintained that the evidence of true conversion would be a changed life lived out afterwards.
Word of Edwards's role in this revival spread, so when George Whitefield came to America on his revival tour in 1739 to 1740, the two met and connected over their shared passion to preach the gospel. Whitefield even preached at Edwards's church a sermon that brought Edwards to tears. Revival began again in New England and Jonathan Edwards preached his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," to great effect on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, CT. Many people repented and professed faith that day, so the sermon was delivered again on other occasions in other places. More strictly Puritan churches criticized Edwards's appeal to emotions and especially to people's bodily reactions to these conversion experiences. However, Edwards argued that the Bible holds plenty of examples of humans responding bodily to spiritual encounters (1 Samuel 10:6; Ezekiel 1:28; 44:4; Daniel 8:18; Acts 2:37; Revelation 1:17). He also reiterated that those reactions alone or lack thereof were not evidence of true conversion, but rather a changed life was the only true measure of conversion.
A disagreement between Edwards and his church congregation arose in 1748 over the requirements for receiving communion. Edwards was eventually dismissed from the position in 1750 and later took on the pastorate of a smaller church in Stockbridge, MA. During his time in Stockbridge, he also acted as a missionary to a native tribe of Mohicans (Housatonnoc). He preached to them using an interpreter and had the Westminster Catechism translated into their language. He ended up defending them against European settlers who were defrauding the tribe.
In 1758, Edwards's son-in-law, Aaron Burr Sr., who was president of the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University), died and Edwards was asked to take on the presidency of the college. He took the role, but died only one month later after succumbing to complications from a smallpox inoculation.
Jonathan Edwards's influence continues today through his vast collection of writings available both online and in print. He studied the spiritual process of conversion during the Great Awaking and recorded his observations and insights of the religious activity during his time. He wrote sermons, discourses, essays, treatises, and even a memoire called The Life of David Brainerd which inspired thousands of readers to become missionaries. Unfortunately, in a 1741 pamphlet, Jonathan Edwards, like George Whitefield, defended slavery in America for those born enslaved, in debt, or captured in war. However, despite ten years earlier having purchased at least one black teenager brought from Africa, Edwards did condemn the trans-Atlantic slave trade and call for its end. Edwards's writings show him to have been a man of deep thought, deep study, and deep conviction.
Jonathan Edwards sincerely desired to see people respond to the gospel and spent his life spreading that message. Many missionaries and pastors have credited Edwards's writings for their own desire to work in the ministry. Among them are missionaries Francis Asbury, David Livingstone, and Jim Elliot and pastors John Piper and Tim Keller.
Jonathan Edwards is an example of the lasting effects God can bring about when a person devotes himself to sharing the good news of salvation by grace through faith alone.
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