Jonathan Edwards

1703-1758. “The greatest philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene” (Perry Miller). After a precocious childhood (before he was thirteen he had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and was writing papers on philosophy) he entered Yale in 1716. It appears that it was during his time at college that he “began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him.” After a short pastorate in New York, he was appointed a tutor at Yale. In 1724 he became pastor of the church at Northampton, Massachusetts, a colleague of his grandfather Samuel Stoddard until the latter's death in 1729. Under the influence of Edwards's powerful preaching, the Great Awakening* occurred in 1734-35, and a geographically more extensive revival in 1740-41. Edwards became a firm friend of George Whitefield,* then itinerating in America.

After various differences with prominent families in his congregation, and a prolonged controversy over the question of the admission of the unconverted to the Lord's Supper, he was dismissed as pastor in 1750 (though, curiously, still preached until a suitable replacement could be found) and became, in 1751, pastor of the church in the frontier town of Stockbridge, and a missionary to the Indians. He was elected president of Princeton in 1757, but was reluctant to accept because of his desire to continue writing. Finally yielding to pressure, he was inaugurated in February 1758. One month later he died of the effects of a smallpox injection.

Edwards was, and was content to be, firmly in the tradition of New England Calvinism and the Westminster Divines. Efforts to demonstrate that he consciously shifted away from this position do not carry conviction. The influence of the “new way of ideas” of John Locke was mainly confined to his anthropology and is clearest in Edwards's classic Freedom of the Will. Because of his commitment to salvation by sovereign grace, Edwards was agitated by what he considered to be the religiously destructive developments in New England, particularly incipient Arminianism and Socinianism, and revivalistic excess. The first concern prompted the Freedom of the Will and, later, Original Sin. The second inspired a group of writings, notably the Religious Affections.

In Edwards, as in Augustine, there is a union of a highly intellectual and speculative spirit and an often ecstatic devotion to God-in-Christ. The same mind deployed the relentless logic of the Freedom of the Will and resolved “to cast and venture my whole soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him.” Edwards was a complete stranger to that separation of “heart” and “head” that has often plagued evangelical religion. Edwards's influence has been widespread. Some of his successors in America, such as Emmons, Hopkins, and Nathaniel Taylor, while appealing to Edwards, developed the “New England Theology”* in directions that he would surely have disapproved of. He had a wide circle of correspondents, compensating somewhat for his cultural isolation. His writings greatly influenced Thomas Chalmers, Andrew Fuller, and Robert Hall, among others.

O.E. Winslow, Jonathan Edwards (1941); P. Miller, Johathan Edwards (1949); P. Miller (ed.), The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1957- ).