Like Christians today, revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) faced an intellectual climate that challenged biblical truth-claims. Edwards’ steadfast convictions and ability to integrate reason (the mind) and personal devotion (the heart) helped him remain unwavering in his dedication to the sovereign God revealed in creation and Scripture.
Part 1 of this two-part series summarizes Edwards’ life and theology. Here, in part 2, I conclude with a discussion of his philosophy and ministry.
Apologist in the Enlightenment
Edwards’ lifetime overlapped the eighteenth-century philosophical movement called the Enlightenment.1 According to Immanuel Kant, one of the era’s best known advocates, “enlightenment” meant critically scrutinizing, no longer blindly trusting in the authorities of the past—such as the Bible, the church, and the state. Everything must stand before the bar of human reason and conscience. Enlightenment thinkers affirmed innate human goodness and the intrinsic rationality of the human mind. This powerful paradigm shift posed a direct challenge to historic Christianity by declaring the supremacy of human reason over divine revelation.
As a philosophizing divine (philosophical theologian) Jonathan Edwards wrote a body of apologetic work that is largely a Christian theistic response to the advancing claims of the Enlightenment.2 Edwards argued that all realities of life and being uniquely depend upon God, including the world, knowledge, moral virtue, and, of course, salvation from sin. The Enlightenment view of human autonomy was the very antithesis of Edwards’ theological description of fallen humans as desperate, weak, depraved, and utterly dependent creatures. Edwards strongly critiqued the Enlightenment’s “new moral philosophy” and the movements toward it within Christianity. He argued that morality is rooted and grounded in God and in His revealed Word.
True morality then flows, he asserted, from God’s gracious acts toward humanity. In Edwards’ own words: “Nothing is of the nature of true virtue, in which God is not the first and the last.”3 His posthumously published work, Nature of True Virtue, explores this relationship between God and human virtue.
When colonial America experienced the profound revivalist movement known as the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards held center stage. Church historian Williston Walker (1860–1922) called this revival event (lasting approximately 20 years) the “most far-reaching and transforming movement in the eighteenth century religious life of America.”4 The breezes of revival began blowing in sections of New England in the late 1720s and early 1730s and then gusted throughout colonial America, impacting tens of thousands of people with the gospel of Jesus Christ during the 1730s and 1740s.
These revival winds blasted through Edwards’ own town of Northampton, MA, beginning in 1734–1735, when evangelistic services led to the mass conversion of hundreds of people to Christianity. And, the numbers steadily increased. Through the preaching of George Whitefield (1714–1770), an itinerant Anglican, the number of converts swelled into the thousands throughout the colonies. The large crowds attracted by Whitefield in Philadelphia even impressed Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), Edwards’ contemporary.5 On some occasions, when Edwards and Whitefield combined their fire-and-brimstone-type preaching, they drew several thousand people a day for weeks on end. Writing about the effects of the Awakening in his hometown, Edwards noted:
There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world . . . souls did, as it were, come by flocks to Jesus Christ.6
Edwards preached a bold and uncompromising message of “justification by faith alone.” His most famous sermon, however, the one that appears in American literature anthologies, is entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Considered a terrifying message by some for its vivid metaphors and explicit references to divine punishment, the sermon displays Edwards’ remarkable rhetorical skills. It also demonstrates his profound insights into the human psyche.
Astutely aware of the psychology of religion, Edwards not only shaped the preaching of the First Great Awakening, but he also provided a fair-minded psychological-theological analysis of this extraordinary religious phenomenon. He strongly criticized the various excesses of the movement—emotionalism, hysteria, disorder, and ecclesiastical and civil disruptions. Seeking to correct these problems, Edwards confronted Whitefield for occasionally encouraging their practice. Ultimately Edwards concluded that the Awakening was a genuine work of God because it produced enduring change in peoples’ lives, intense worship, and long-term community and social change.
Edwards wrote a book describing the spiritual happenings in Northampton entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Extremely popular throughout the colonies, the book brought international attention to the Awakening through three editions and twenty printings. The Awakening so strongly impacted Edwards that he began to believe that a latter-day millennial dawn was beginning in colonial America.7
Later, Edwards wrote A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, a classic work addressing the psychology of religion. Considered one of the two best books yet written on this subject (along with William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience), Edwards’ treatise provides a penetrating analysis of the phenomenon of religious experience.8 In it, he defines the “marks of the true religion,” which include both virtuous attitudes and practices.
More than a Preacher
The Northampton church dismissed Edwards (then in his late 40s) when a contentious ecclesiastical dispute arose concerning the proper qualifications for those receiving the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion). Edwards differed with his church, arguing that only those who clearly exhibited signs of Christian faith and virtue should partake. Leaving Northampton, he chose to oversee a congregation in the frontier town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Several hundred Indians lived near the settlement, and Edwards also carried the gospel to them. Along with discharging his pastoral and missionary duties, he finished some of his most important writings during this period.
Hampered by language barriers and ill health at Stockbridge, Edwards accepted a call (at age 54) to serve as president of New Jersey College (later Princeton University). Shortly after his inauguration the next year, he contracted smallpox through an inoculation. Edwards died from the disease in Princeton on March 22, 1758.
By his example, Jonathan Edwards challenges Christians today. This man fully engaged his head and his heart as he sought to live according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. With the coming of the American Revolution and its optimistic view of human nature, Edwards’ staunch Puritanism began to lose significant ground to Arminianism (with emphasis on the human will) and Unitarianism (with emphasis on inclusivism), which hold large territory to this day. And yet, Edwards’ legacy as an extraordinary Christian thinker who stood close to God—in awe of His majesty and ever aware of His sovereignty—gives Christians (both then and now) someone worthy to emulate.
1. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1984), s.v. “Enlightenment, The.”
2. Trevor A. Hart, gen. ed., The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”
3. As cited in Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”
4. Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 464.
5. Alister E. McGrath, An Introduction to Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 309.
6. As cited in Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word, 1995), 346.
7. Millennial dawn signifies the beginning of the millennium. For Edwards, the First Great Awakening might have been the possible beginning of God’s gracious reign evidenced by the mass conversions to Christ.
8. Hart, gen. ed., The Dictionary of Historical Theology, s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”