Some of you who were in public high school around the same time I was remember reading in English class “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edward’s sermon preached during the revival of 1741. The sermon was presented as a form of early American literature, and the author, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, as an example of a narrow minded bigot characteristic of 18th century Puritanism.
Despite this unfortunate introduction to Edwards years ago, I personally have great admiration for this New England preacher, theologian, and loving family man. I appreciate Edwards’ emphasis on the Bible as the inspired Word of God, his firm belief in God’s sovereign grace, his advocacy for true Holy Spirit inspired revival, as well as his stance against the emotionalism and fakery of false revival. In addition, I appreciate Jonathan Edward’s own personal piety. Also, I resonate with Edward’s stress on affections. He wrote:
“He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion … The holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal.”
Among the proofs he gives for this proposition are the Scriptural accounts of the religion of “the eminent saints” (David, Paul, and John) and the example of Christ himself – “the greatest instance of ardency, vigour, and strength of love both to God and man, there ever was.”
On the other hand, I will admit that some of Jonathan Edwards’ writings strike me as dry and philosophical. In addition, I question his impersonal pastoral style – thirteen hours spent in the study every day! Though his biographer points out that he was available to his family and church members during this time, and though I recognize that different pastors have different gifts and callings, I still would not recommend this as a positive model for pastoral ministry.
Who would enjoy it?
If you enjoy reading theology, American church history, or even colonial American history, I believe you will find JONATHAN EDWARDS: A New Biography fascinating. It is written by British pastor and biographer, Iain H. Murray, who in my opinion did an amazingly thorough job culling through hundreds of sermons, letters, books, and treatises by Edwards, his family, his friends, and his enemies to produce this work. You may recognize the name Iain Murray as the author of several other significant books on the life and theology of pastors and theologians, such as Martyn Lloyd Jones, Charles Spurgeon, Arthur Pink, and John Murray.
I found the vivid description of family life and church life in the early 18th century America most intriguing. I loved the titles given to books and sermons in those days. For example, Edwards’ much enlarged “sermon” on Zechariah 8:20-22 was published under the title An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer, For the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, pursuant to Scripture – Promised and Prophecies concerning the Last Time.
Death in this age
As I read, I was amazed at the frequency of death and the relative youthful age of most deaths in the colonial period. Edwards made it to 54 and his wife Sarah, who died shortly after him, to 46, but many of his family and friends had much shorter lives. For example, their beloved daughter Emily died at 26 leaving behind a husband and three small children. Not long after that her 36 year old husband, who was a pastor and college president, passed away. No wonder Jonathan Edwards so often prepared his family and congregation for dying.
I also found most interesting the descriptions of revival during the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, and other preachers in New England. Here is just one excerpt:
As spring passed into summer in 1741 no one could well keep track of the number of places which were also witnessing the revival. Churches in some cases which had been cold and dry at the beginning of the year were transformed before the end. Across New England there were increases in church membership. … There was in the minds of people a general fear of sin and of the wrath of God against it.
I was reminded that our great enemy the devil is always at work. There was great opposition to revival on the part of some churchmen, as well as, at the other extreme, great confusion on the part of others. Edwards, like most men of God, suffered much for some of the stances he took, for example, his strong teaching against unregenerate people participating in the Lord’s Supper. For this he was eventually driven from his long time pastorate in Northampton, MA. At first when he was dismissed he had no church to go to, no salary with which to provide for his family, and not even any fields for his animals to graze. Eventually he accepted a missionary calling to Stockbridge, MA, a frontier town which was inhabited primarily by Native Americans. I found it encouraging, however, how graciously Edwards seemed to accept the incredible challenge of losing his pastorate in his late 40s, as well as his adjustment to his new missionary role. I loved reading an excerpt of his simple teaching to the Indians – so different from his usual deep and theological preaching.
I could go on and on with what I learned from this well written 472 page book, but I will end with Murray’s own conclusion:
“The ministry of Jonathan Edwards is, very clearly, not yet concluded. He is being read today as he has not been read for over a century and in more countries than ever before. Such a recovery of truth has commonly been a forerunner of revival. For this let all Christians pray, and let it also be remembered that the Word of God never yet prospered in the world without opposition. There is no guarantee that men faithful to God will be recognizable by their numbers, their talents, or their success. But in due course, if not in this life-time, they will witness the fulfillment of the promise, ‘for them that honour me I will honour’ 1 Sam. 2:30).”