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Jonathan Edwards: America’s Greatest Mind

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Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is considered by many to be the greatest mind that America has ever produced and he is certainly this country’s greatest theologian and was a leading figure in the First Great Awakening and that revival’s learned supporter and advocate.

He was born on October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, CT. His mother was a daughter of Solomon Stoddard, pastor of the famed Congregational church at Northfield, Massachusetts for fifty-seven years. He began study of Latin at six years of age under the tutorship of his father and four older sisters. Before he was 13, he had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew and he entered Yale at age 13 in 1716 and in 1720 he graduated with the highest honors (at age 17). His conversion took place around the age of 17. He stayed on for two more years at Yale to receive a Masters degrees in theology. In 1722, before age 19, he went to New York City where he preached at a small Presbyterian church for eight months. Edwards then received a call from Yale to become a tutor and he returned to Yale for two years. In 1726, he was ordained a colleague of his grandfather, Rev. Stoddard, and married Sarah Pierrepont, the following year. He then assumed full ministerial duties when Stoddard died in 1729. He would remain pastor there until 1750.

In a sermon entitled A Divine and Supernatural Light, preached in 1733, Edwards described religious knowledge as “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God.” Edwards’ all-important distinction is between a “sense” of divine truth and an “understanding” of it. The first concerns the innermost will (the heart), whereas the the second applies to rational speculation (the head). He stressed that unless the heart is affected through regenerative grace, religion is nothing more than what unregenerate man can know through natural reason. 

And religious experience on a large scale describes New England’s Great Awakening (1733-1745) which by 1735 involved not only Northampton but the whole Connecticut River Valley. Edwards saw the revival as evidence of God’s redemptive work in New England. In 1737, he published an account of the revival entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which was widely read in America and abroad. Notwithstanding the dramatic sermons of George Whitefield, who visited in Northampton in 1740, the most famous sermon preached during the Great Awakening if not in all of American history was Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of Angry God preached in 1741, which had a powerful effect upon its hearers. In order to make religious revivalism theologically understandable, Edwards wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1743). 

Edwards believed that God performs saving works, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but he also stressed that vital piety, consisting of holy affections seated in the heart, requires constant self-scrutiny. His analysis of religious experience culminated in a Treatise Concerning Religious Affections published in 1746. It affirms the heart as the locus of religious experience and the integration of the transformed heart and visible acts. 

In 1750, after he had been in Northampton for 23 years, an old controversy concerning the terms of full admission in the church was revived. Edwards opposed the view and practice held by his predecessor and held on to his own views. He was shortly ejected from the pastorate preaching his Farewell Sermon on July 1, 1750.

In 1751, he became pastor at the Congregational church at Stockbridge, MA and missionary to the Housatonic Indians. His years at Stockbridge proved to be his most productive.

In 1754, he published the Freedom of the Will which was a defense of the doctrines of foreordination, original sin, and eternal punishment, a masterpiece of philosophical reasoning. Man’s natural will is free in time but his depraved moral will can only choose grace when divinely inclined. In 1757, he was elected president of Princeton College in New Jersey. Five weeks after his inauguration in 1758, at the age of fifty-six, died as a result of a smallpox inoculation. Jonathan Edwards was the outstanding Calvinist preacher and theologian of colonial New England and the founder and leader of Edwardean or New England theology. One of the brightest minds America’s ever produced, his legacy and influence continues to this day.