Edwards, Jonathan

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Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758): American Theologian.

Jonathan Edwards was a Massachusetts Congregational minister, one of the most prominent and significant evangelical ministers in colonial America, the author of an impressive body of theological writing, and leader of New England’s “Great Awakening,” the religious revival of the 1730’s.

Educated at Yale, Edwards entered the ministry in 1726 and served as the Associate Minister of the First Church of Northampton, Massachusetts, under his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, and, following Stoddard’s death, as the Minister until 1750, when he was dismissed following a controversy over standards for church admission. He then became pastor and minister to the Indians in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

During Edwards’ time, Calvinistic Puritanism in the colonies was losing ground to the waves of Enlightenment thought coming from Europe. Although Edwards was committed to the traditional theology of the Bible and his Puritan heritage, he was familiar with and strongly influenced by the thought of such men as Isaac Newton and John Locke. Thus, while Edwards’ theology may be the best expression of the Puritan mind, but it is also a late expression, coming as modern, more liberal, doctrines were winning the day.

Edwards’ early sermons--"God Glorified in Man's Dependence" (1731), "A Divine and Supernatural Light" (1733), and "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741)—emphasize human depravity and sinfulness, rooted in antagonism toward God, and God’s free gift of grace, by which He arbitrarily saves those whom He wishes to save. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the work for which Edwards is best remembered today, presents one of the most memorable—and most horrifying—images of the relationship between God and man: “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 . . . you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.”

The terror and harshness of Edwards' sermons had profound emotional impact on congregations, even producing hysterical fits of weeping. The frantic emotionalism fanned by Edwards, George Whitefield, and other preachers of the Awakening was at odds with the rationalism and more discreet conduct of the more conservative faction. These anti-revivalists, best represented by the Rev. Charles Chauncy, emphasized the role of human reason in the process of salvation and the power of the “passions,” or the “affections,” to lead one astray. Edwards’ Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742) acknowledged the possibility of abuses inherent in the emotionalism, yet defended it as an instrument in God’s work. These works by Edwards were produced near the height of the Awakening itself, but Edwards continued to examine the question of the role of the passions in the religious “experience” and even denounced the excesses of revivalism in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746).

Tensions in Northampton mounted for years, and Edwards eventually lost his pulpit over his conviction that, although God was the final judge of human character, the church had the responsibility to keep itself as “pure” as possible, and therefore had to restrict membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper to those making a public profession of a conversion experience. This position contradicted that of Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’ grandfather and predecessor in the Northampton pulpit, as well as the growing liberality in other churches. It was a fight that Edwards could not win.

Following the break with First Church and during his ministry at Stockbridge, Edwards produced some of his most significant theological works, including A careful and strict Enquiry Into The modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, Which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, and the posthumously published The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (1758), Concerning the End for Which God Created the World (1765), and The Nature of True Virtue (1765). Although much more intellectual than his sermons, Edwards’ theological works are consistent with them in general thought and in their blending of Calvinism with Augustinian thought.

In 1758, he became president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), but died of a smallpox inoculation only a few weeks later.

Further Reading:

M. X. Lesser, Jonathan Edwards, 1988.

William J.Scheick, ed. Critical Essays On Jonathan Edwards, 1980.

Robert Russ

Elon University