Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden

Book Review
  • Approximate Time Commitment: 40 minutes

This book review was written by Ed Pollasch, July 2015.

Partner: Grow2Serve

Resource Description

“A Magisterial biography” – Wall Street Journal!  That was the summation from one editorial critic.  To me, the biography on Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden was magnificent and riveting.  I know it is odd to think of a biography as ‘riveting’ but it was difficult for me to put down (even though it took me several weeks to finish because of travel schedule).

Marsden presents a comprehensive and somewhat detailed look of the life of Jonathan Edwards.  Whereas, I previously read Perry Miller’s biography that reveals Edwards as an intellectual and theological giant within early 18th Century Christendom, this biography does a better job of showing the human side of Edwards and his family.

The biography is long – 505 pages – but not laborious.  I can’t begin to share all the gems within this treasure of a book but I want to present Edwards in the various stages of his life that Marsden focused on for God was not just raising up such a person for his time but a legacy that continues today.  I also will offer some personal reflections after each stage on how each part of his story impacted me.  I hope the reader will pick up this book and enjoy reading about the life a person that God shaped and used mightily in the times he lived.

Why is this biography so important and inviting?  It does much more than look back in time at the life of perhaps America’s greatest theologian.  It speaks to us today in the 21st Century into the very things that were embryonic ideas back in the early 1700s but have now come to fruition in our times.  I’ll explain this in a broad, general manner as this synopsis is written.

Sovereign Beginnings

Jonathan Edwards was the 5th child and only boy among 10 siblings born to Timothy Edwards and Esther Stoddard Edwards in 1703 (Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706).  Interestingly, later when he marries Sarah Pierrepoint, they have 11 children of which two are boys – girls ran in the family tree!

Jonathan’s grandfather was the famous Pastor Solomon Stoddard.  Stoddard pastored the Northampton church for over 50 years eventually giving way to Jonathan.  Jonathan’s father was a pastor as well and his great, great-grandfather was a pastor in Wales before them.   They all came from a Calvinist, Puritan background.  It is obvious from his early days that education was a supreme value for all the children.

Timothy Edwards attended Harvard while Jonathan attended Yale at the age of 13.  From the account of a close life-long friend of Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Jonathan had the uncommon ability to grasp the most complex arguments—a boy prodigy in intellectual understanding and thinking.  Equally, Jonathan Edwards had the ability to examine nature and see God’s handiwork within it.

Interestingly, though, Jonathan, as brilliant was he was, wrestled much with his salvation.  He did not take for granted that he was saved just because he came from a strong Christian family.  He came from a Calvinist background so there was no sense of “praying a prayer” so one could have assurance of salvation.  Jonathan was somewhat of an introvert or at least did much introspection of self.  Marsden does not present any “little boy” problems in his early years but he does say there were times of discipline.

Timothy Edwards was known as a “revivalist”, which referred to evangelism.  He often traveled to other towns and churches to hold revival meetings.  The care for Jonathan’s growth and education rested much with his mother but Timothy was not an absent or unengaged father.  As such, Timothy Edwards abided by a strict Calvinist theology that had three (3) stages in a process to one’s salvation experience.  Jonathan would equally use the same in his pastoral ministry.

The first stage was an awakening or conviction.  It was the realization of one’s sinfulness and sinful being; the person understood they were a sinner in the presence of a holy God.  The awakening was not guarantee that salvation would follow.

The second stage was a humbling.  Often when the Holy Spirit stirred one’s heart through conviction, the person would experience more sinfulness or the abhorrence of one’s sinful state.  It was the Holy Spirit’s means of bringing a person humbly to the Cross of Christ where they needed to bow their will before the Savior.  This humbling often brought inward terror but it is not fair for us to refer to the revivalist as a “fire and brimstone” preacher.  The preaching was not ecstatic and the goal was to show people the dangers of being outside Christ.

The third stage was God graciously granting the repentant one regenerating light.  The Holy Spirit would come into the heart of the truly repentant person and sin no longer reigned supreme.  To Edwards, ‘regeneration’ meant to be given eyes to see spiritual realities.  It was the ability to see the light of Christ in a world that was darkened by sin and hopelessly lost without him.[1]

Reflection:  I realize the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism[2] still exist today.  Edwards saw the Arminian ideas as a threat to the true Church.  In the origin of both theological camps, there are definite differences yet they were not too far apart originally but the gap between the two has widened over the centuries.

Arminianism has tended to evolve into a man-centered approach to evangelism, which is an aberration of Jacobus Arminius’ theology.  Perhaps the biggest difficulty I have is “praying the sinner’s prayer.”  In doing so, we can make the prayer the cause of one’s salvation, or at least that is what we often suggest—“because you have prayed this prayer, you are now a child of God.”

Man cannot cause regeneration to occur.  Scripture makes it clear that regeneration is a sovereign act of the Godhead and is consummated by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the regenerated one.[3]  This is clearly stated in numerous passages.[4]  Yes, Scripture does say that those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.[5]  That ‘calling’ though does not negate the process but perhaps enhances it.   This man-centered cause also plays into a later controversy that Edwards saw and wrote about—the philosophical thinking of the day that ‘self’ is in control.  If praying a prayer is causal, then ‘self’ controls the outcome.

This was the background of Jonathan’s growing up years.  He was an intellectual giant and a great thinker.  He was not the most exciting preacher nor given to emotions or ecstatic arm waving.  He based his style of preaching on the power of Scripture and sound arguments or reason.  God worked through him mightily to bring two great revivals to New England.

Edwards the Pastor

After graduating from Yale at the top of his class, Jonathan was in high demand as a pastor.  He eventually accepted an associate pastor role under his grandfather Solomon Stoddard in Northampton in February 1727 at the age of 23.  His grandfather was in his early 80s so Jonathan took on much of the ministry as well as the preaching.  He married Sarah Pierrepoint in July 1727 having met her some six years earlier.  His grandfather died in early 1729 leaving the ministry to Jonathan.

He is most remembered as the primary leader in the New England revivals of 1734-35 and 1741-42.  His preaching was instrumental in this but not in a way that most would assume.  He sought to engage the philosophical writings and thinking of his day for he knew these affected the thinking of his congregation.  He saw Christianity being challenged on a number of fronts but especially with the emergence of what we would eventually refer to as humanism, or the thinking that man can build a great society without God.  Often, his writings, which influenced all of New England and beyond, were the product of his sermons.

The examination of life from a natural means was designed to show that physical realities were merely shadows of greater spiritual realities—types per se of unseen realities.[6]  By doing so, Edwards hope to draw people to God and their need for Jesus.

The immanency of death at an early age was a reality in the early 1700s.  Therefore, Jonathan was not afraid to speak frankly about the subject knowing that many would not make it into their 30s.  He had great concern for the spiritual state of his children, especially Jerusha for she was often of ill-health.  It was a visit by George Whitfield that gave Edwards peace of mind regarding the salvation of his daughters.  The so-called ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching as is often referred to was really un-emotional and very plain in its presentation.  It focused much on one’s preparation for leaving this world.  It was designed to stir up hearts to reality knowing death could come at any time (cp. Ecclesiastes 7:2-4).

His sermons were intellectual, based on Scripture, somewhat expositional, and laced with reason.  He made is clear and plain for the parishioners to understand.  The sermon he is most noted for is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” taken from Deuteronomy 32:35.[7]  He actually preached this sermon twice.  The first time was to his congregation in Northampton.  The one he is most noted for was as a visiting pastor in Enfield, CT preached during the height of the 1741 revival.  Edwards used mental images to help them see with spiritual eyes the realities of those doomed for hell apart from Christ as proven from Scripture.[8]  Much of the Puritan influence on society had waned by this time so the reality of hell was questioned and universalism was an emerging theological philosophy.

During the sermon, people did grasp the pews for fear they would drop into the abyss.  The convicting work of the Holy Spirit was working powerfully among them.  As the sermon went on, the stirring and groans of the people became louder.  At one point, Edwards stopped preaching and told the people to be quiet.  The groans continued and he eventually stopped without finishing the sermon.  The sermon had done its task of stirring up the revival spirit in the area.  What he was attempting to do was help them see the spiritual realities they could not see nor understand on their own.  It was his pastoral heart that was coming out caring deeply for the souls of those listening.  Here is a short excerpt of from the sermon…

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire, he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.  You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince:  and yet tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment:  ‘tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night… but that God’s hand has held you up: there is no other reason to be given why you hadn’t gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell.  Oh sinner!  Consider the fearful danger you are in.”[9]

Many would read this and judge it harsh.  It is important to remember that in the early 1700s everyone went to church on Sunday—it was their social obligation.  The pastors knew many were unconverted, which is why revivalist were prominent in those days.  What the sermon displays is the rebelliousness in the heart of mankind, thus an offense to God.  Equally, though, it presents the mercy and grace of God in Jesus keeping repentant ones from the fires of hell and eternal damnation.

Edwards pastored in Northampton for 23 years until June 1750 when he was dismissed by his congregation over the issue of open communion.  The vices in the community were becoming more open and transparent by flaunting sinful behavior in public.  Edwards refused communion to those in the church who did not show themselves as Christian in their behavior—for this he was dismissed.

In this unfortunate incident, we see the issue of genuine Christianity in regenerated people that Edwards looked for in his congregation.  He saw Christianity as a religion yet he knew genuine saints we regenerated and their relationship to Jesus as life changing.  He states, “The hypocrites were those who leave off the lascivious parts of religion and come secretly to live in ways as known sin.”  By ‘leave off’ he was referring to behavior unbecoming of the Christian faith.

Edwards Puritan ways were being challenged by a society that was becoming more intoxicated with wealth and opportunity and less interested in religion and church.

Reflection:  There are three thoughts that come out of this section for me.  First, there was a healthy ‘fear of the Lord’ present in Edwards day among people in New England.  This is not the case today.  I remember listening to a sermon by many years ago by A.W. Tozer that he preached in the late 1940s where he stated America was losing it sense of the fear of the Lord.  This loss has open the flood gates to brazen sinfulness.  But the issue goes much deeper than behavior for at the core of our sinful behavior is rebellion against a holy God.

Second, it is interesting to read of Satan’s counter-attacks after each revival.  God was working powerfully in the lives of Edwards and other revivalist regenerating the souls of many parishioners yet Satan did not sit idly by.  It is a good reminder for us to realize that mountain top experiences are great but life is lived in the valley—coming down can be a sobering reality.  Edwards would state that the Christian life is not built off of spiritual ecstasy but of faithfulness and obedience.

Third, Edwards’ revival sermons spoke to the heart of the issue, which is our rebellion against God.  We get a taste of this in the quote from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God when he says:  You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince.  Our present day view of sin is one where we made a mistake.  We don’t possess a biblical understanding of our rebellion toward God.  Our hearts are rebellious in that “we want to do what we want to do whenever…”

Jesus said, “…If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” [10]  We have assigned this verse to discipleship rather than salvation, yet the Lord speaks about a ‘saved life’.  A rebel must unconditionally surrender.  Edwards understood this and his preaching reflected it, which Marsden sees also.

Edwards the Theologian

Jonathan Edwards as an introvert.  He enjoyed prolonged periods of being alone; meditating and praying before the Lord away from people.  He later admits that he is a better writer than a speaker.  One area of interest to Edwards was the “end times.”  He possessed a millennial spirit.  He saw the true Church as ushering in the Kingdom of God upon earth.  He knew that times before Christ second coming would get much worse, even quite horrible.

His theology was primarily hammered out during intense periods of study and preaching.  He often spent 12-13 hours a day studying God’s Word when given opportunity.  He did not ‘visit’ congregants so he thought of as being aloof.  He did meet with those who sought his counsel.  One of his grandest sermon series was entitled A History of the Work of Redemption—a 30 part sermon series, in which he shows how Christ redemptive love is the key to all of history.  He sought to tie together the Old and New Testament through redemptive themes.  He longed to write this out into a book later in life but never achieved doing so before his untimely death.

Perhaps his greatest works (my bias) are Freedom of the Will (chp. 26 – a masterpiece), Original Sin (chp. 27 – a sound, reasonable yet Scriptural presentation), and the End for which God Created the World (chp. 28 – God focused life).  Each of these writings were in response to the Enlightenment thinking of humanism that was penetrating the new world.  As I read Marsden’s words regarding each one, and many excerpts, I was amazed at the brilliance of Edwards’ presentation in engaging others with sound reason as well as Scripture.  Edwards did not run from culture but sought to engage it with sound, rational thinking yet theologically sound.  I want to quote Marsden’s appraisal of Edwards’ Freedom of the Will for it speaks well to our secular worldview today.

People needed to be ‘properly convinced of their real guilt and sinfulness, in the sight of God, and their deserving of his wrath.’  Increasingly, however, people were ‘excusing themselves with their own inability.’  If their hearts were ‘as cold as a stone’ in rejecting Christ’s infinite love, they blamed their wicked disposition on God and said they could do nothing about it.  While they might feel occasional guilt for particular sins, such as lewd behavior, lying, or intemperance, they felt no guilt for their rebellious hearts that spurned God’s love. 

From our vantage point of two and a half centuries later, regardless of whether one shares Edwards’ theological assessments, we can see prescience in Edwards sense of direction that Western thought, culture, and religion were heading.  Culturally, the emphasis on the individual’s wholly unfettered free will was part of what is sometimes characterized as the invention of modern self. 

Edwards has glimpsed something of the future of American religion as well.  Self-controlled individuals, as he had observed in his parishes for the past fifteen years, would acknowledge guilt of particular sins, but not guilt for their fundamentally rebellious hearts.  Guided by conscience, they saw particular sins as failures of will power, which might be overcome by exercising great self-control.  The liberal Christianity of the new republic would be built around such moral principles.  Even the most popular evangelicalism of the next two centuries tended to emphasize guilt for and victory over known sins.”[11]

Reflections:  It would be good for us to re-examine Edwards’ writings.  He saw, or God allowed him to see and understand, the direction America was heading.   The exaltation of ‘self’ coupled with the ever pursuant drive for freedom of individual rights (will) has done much to push God away.  Equally, in the Church, our lack of will power is excused as a flaw rather than an act of rebellion.  Edwards presents both Scripture and reason in demonstrating the need for an accurate understanding of these theological themes for they greatly affect daily living as well as our future destiny.

In Freedom of the Will, Edwards shows that the will is not something separate from man but it is primarily man’s choice or power to choose.  Such choices are influenced by outside forces and inward dispositions, nevertheless, it is the person who chooses.  In Original Sin, he demonstrates how Sin’s power is working in us to choose what we are inclined to choose even if contrary to God’s will.

It’s intriguing to me to read both for secular society does not understand this and Evangelicals make the wrong arguments regarding it.  Does a person have the “freedom” to choose – yes!  A woman can choose to abort a baby; or persons of the same sex can choose to marry.  The question is not the freedom to choose but what is God’s best choice for us.  What modern society has done is pushed God away thus making ‘self’ our own personal ‘god’.  Our freedom to choose is ever present but so are the consequences that accompany that choice for God has willed that our actions have consequences—both good and bad.

Thus, man’s choice or free will does not trump God’s will, and it is His will by which we will be held accountable for it is an established, eternal reality whether man ‘chooses’ to believe it or not.[12]

Edwards the Missionary

A boyhood genius, a scholar, a pastor, a theologian—Edwards will go on to be a missionary and a short-lived president of a religious institute.  Jonathan Edwards was very mission minded.  He greatly promoted the education and evangelizing of American Indians.  He was tremendously touched and influenced by David Brainerd’s life of self-denial.

The nearest mission post was in Stockbridge, CT, just a short distance west of Northampton yet very much in the wilderness.  When the congregation voted him out, Edwards was asked to take over the work in Stockbridge.  He accepted and stayed there for six years.

Whereas many said the American Indians were savages, Edwards saw them as descendants of Adam and Eve, just as he and others were, thus part of the peoples (nations) that deserved to be regenerated by the power of the gospel.  He saw they were a people who for too long had been kept in the dark while many of the English and Dutch settlers chose to remain in the dark world of the unregenerate even though they had the light of the gospel before them.[13]

His approach to missions was to educate them and incorporate them into the Stockbridge community.  Edward’s example of integrity and selflessness was winsome to the Indians for their attitude to the white people was they could not be trusted.  His grand experiment to incorporate them into the lives of the Whites was based off of transparency and integrity, and even though short-lived, it was a success.

Unfortunately, the French were vying for the same territory that the English and Dutch were—it was Catholic against Protestant and the American Indian were the pawns.  The French and Indian Wars pitted these two allies against English settlers.  The situation in Stockbridge was precarious at best.

During this time frame, the Edwards’ eldest daughter, Esther, had married Aaron Burr, Sr., who became president of the College of New Jersey, today known as Princeton University.  Burr died suddenly in September 1757.  It took the college just 5 days after his death to write Edwards asking him to be the next president.  After a period of prayer, Edwards agreed primarily for two reasons.  First, he wanted to write what he felt would be his greatest work on the history of redemption he had preached 20 years earlier.  Second, the war had stymied his mission work and placed his family in a financial bind.

He left for the college in January 1758 leaving Sarah and the children in Stockbridge to join him in May after he became established and secured a prepared home for them.  Sarah would never see him again.  He died of a smallpox vaccination just two months after arriving at the college in New Jersey.

Reflections:  It seems puzzling at first to think of Edwards the theologian and scholar as a missionary but there are a couple good reasons why he chose Stockbridge when the pastorate in Northampton stopped.

First, it was his passion to serve Christ Jesus wherever he was given opportunity.  The pastorate in Northampton was a high position in a very prominent church and community.  He secured it through his grandfather’s choice of him as successor.  He built upon what Solomon Stoddard has established and saw great affect from his ministry throughout New England and even to England and Scotland.  He built a work through the revivals that were highly esteemed even globally.  The Stockbridge mission was humbling and unglamorous, yet it fit his character as a humble servant of Christ who would serve wherever it pleased his Lord.  Stockbridge was a different ministry, but not one ‘beneath him’.

Second, perhaps a bit pragmatic, he saw Stockbridge as opportunity to write for his pastoral position and preaching did not provide much time for writing.  It was during his stay in Stockbridge where some of his most famous works were completed, particularly those mentioned earlier.  Just as is true today, Edwards learned how to exegete his culture and address its values and mindset from a Biblical worldview.  So even though he was in the wilderness, he engaged culture through his writings.  He may have traveled further from ‘civilization’ but was not unengaged or forgotten.

Edwards’ Legacy

I find it amazing that we in the 21st Century are still reading and studying Jonathan Edwards, an Evangelical Christian who lived over 260 years ago.  In looking at his legacy, I want to quote Marsden again for he captures the essence of it well.

“In Christendom, as in the biblical world, history had always been a source of revelation and a locus of divine action.  Even Protestants, who demystified the world in some ways, understood history as first of all a providential order in which God was the primary actor.  By Edwards’ time Western thinkers were increasingly looking on history as drive by self-actuating powers.”[14]

Marsden’s last sentence is important.  The rise and increase of humanism in the early 18th Century has come to full maturity in our days.  Our ‘self-actuating, self-determining power and mindset has lead mankind to ‘shake off’ God by pushing him out of the picture.  It is man who has become the god who will create the Utopian society mankind longs for.

What Edwards proposes in his writings is that there is One True Reality—the God of the universe who is active and near—He is the only true actuating and determining cause in the universe.  We see God work providentially in the lives of his people.  Equally, He hides Himself from those who are outside Christ.  He is working to establish His kingdom, which will be ruled by His Son and occupied by His people, where righteousness, justice, and peace will be realities because they come from Him.

Edwards saw what lies in the minds of people in his day.  He exegetes Scripture and culture and speaks powerfully to us even today.  His legacy lives on for in the end, Edwards was a man of great insight and wisdom.  Jesus said it well and will prove Edwards to be a man for his times and one who was ahead of his time:  “Wisdom is proved by her actions.”[15]

Reflections:  I highly recommend this biography.  I highly recommend we read Edwards’ writings for they may be ‘old’ but will never be outdated.


Here is an interesting contrast of a life lived for Christ compared to one who fails to acknowledge Christ and live for him.  At the turn of the 20th century, American educator and pastor A.E. Winship decided to trace out the descendants of Jonathan Edwards almost 150 years after his death.  His findings are astounding, especially when compared to a man known as Max Jukes.  Jukes’ legacy came to the forefront when the family trees of 42 different men in the New York prison system traced back to him.


Jonathan Edwards godly legacy includes:  1 U.S. Vice-President, 3 U.S. Senators, 3 governors, 3 mayors 13 college presidents, 30 judges, 65 professors, 80 public office holders, 100 lawyers and 100 missionaries.


Max Jukes’ descendants included: 7 murderers, 60 thieves, 50 women of debauchery, 130 other convicts, 310 paupers and 400 who were physically wrecked by indulgent living.

It was estimated that Max Juke’s descendants cost the state more than $1,250,000.

The Jonathan Edwards family cost the state nothing.[16]



[1] Pg. 55


[3] Acts 2:38-39; Romans 8:9-11

[4] John 1:13-14; Acts 10:44-48; Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 Peter 1:18 (just to present a few)

[5] Romans 10:13

[6] Paragraph 3, page 77

[7]It is mine to avenge; I will repay.  In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.”

[8] Pg. 221

[9] Pg. 223

[10] Matthew 16:24-25

[11] Pgs. 438-439

[12] A friend once told me of his grandpa’s theology:  “A man will do what a man wants to do whenever he want to and there is nothing you can do about it.”

[13] Pg. 385

[14] Pgs. 486-7

[15] Matthew 11:19b



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