Heroes of the Faith - The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards

I am an enthusiast for Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He is not as well known as his English contemporaries John and Charles Wesley. He didn't cross the Atlantic as they did, but lived most of his life within a couple of days horse-ride from Boston. He did not speak with the oratorical style of George Whitefield, and was said to stare at the bell rope at the back of the church while preaching. Indeed, he is chiefly known for using spiders as sermon illustrations, and his sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” is often anthologised, making him the model preacher of damnation. A man in need of a public relations makeover. A man of provincial tastes. A man with little to communicate to a modern audience? A man worth studying?

Jonathan Edwards is regarded as one of the greatest minds in North American history, and has had an enduring legacy in theology, philosophy, politics and social engagement. He has recently been listed in the Atlantic Monthly as one of the most influential thinkers ever in American history. Even in his own lifetime, he was used by God to bring hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children to faith in Christ through the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, known cumulatively in North America as the Great Awakening. Do I still need to ask, why study Edwards?

1. He was the last Puritan and the first modern Evangelical. In his life and ministry we witness the changeover from a world in which the Church dominated its community, to a world where the Church could no longer presume upon any social status. The church had lost some of its authority in the lives of its members, and the clergy no longer were the final arbiters of spiritual experience. We live in that world.

2. His explanations of the revivals stand today as some of the most trenchant theological and psychological insights into the nature of mass conversions. He would not accept that it was all of Satan, nor that it was all of God. He carefully discriminated between experiences, and expected that the long-term spiritual fruit of the awakenings was its best validation. We need his balance.

3. His own personal life was exemplary. While the marriages and family life of other leaders of the Evangelical Revival were patchy, Jonathan's marriage to Sarah, resulting in their brood of eleven children, was uncommonly harmonious. Not only that, many male suitors came to the Edwards's house in Northampton, Massachusetts, ostensibly to be mentored by Jonathan but actually to win the heart of one of his ten daughters! We need good models.

4. Edwards was committed to Reformed faith, but saw the need to adapt its expression to categories more familiar to his own age. Given the physics of Newton and the epistemology of Locke, Edwards recalibrated received Puritan teaching to speak of the forces of attraction, and the new sense of the heart. Reality was relational and dynamic, which described God as Trinity for Edwards as well. He speaks easily to us in a postmodern world.

5. Educated at Yale, and briefly working there as tutor and sometime Rector, he spent the last days of his life as President of Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey), before dying of a smallpox vaccination. He saw no contradiction between scholarly pursuits, revivalist expectations, and a pastoral charge. We would do well to foster a similar breadth of skills and interests in our leaders.

6. Until the eighteenth century, most Europeans feared anarchy more than tyranny, but Edwards was an advocate of historical development and expected change within the world, to be fuelled by the church. He acknowledged the voice of men and women who were moved by the Spirit outside of the inherited and hierarchical institutions of the church. His teaching funded revolutionary aspirations in the decades after his death, and if he had lived longer would very likely have supported the American cause against Britain. Democratic forms of political and church life draw nourishment from him.

7. Not only the American Revolution, but also the American Civil War was impacted by Edwards's thought. Two generations after him, disciples of Edwardsean teaching in New England advocated “disinterested benevolence,” or pursuing the social good of others even at great personal cost. The movement for abolition in New England did not have a counterpart in the American South. The leaders of churches which had been established as a result of the revivals were often outspoken in defence of the abolition of slavery (though it should be noted that Edwards himself owned a slave named Venus). His influence on American history was significant.

8. Edwards spent the last eight years of his life on the frontier at Stockbridge ministering to displaced Indians, whom he regarded in every way equal to him as a human being (not universally held in the eighteenth century). He mentored a youth, David Brainerd by name, whose diary describes the trials and tribulations of missionary endeavour without recognised structures of accountability and support. Edwards held that the revivals of Anglo-Americans and conversions amongst the Indians heralded the dawning of the millennial reign of Christ. He had a vision for international outreach, and was, if not the father, then the grandfather of modern missions. William Carey took a copy of Brainerd's diary to India. Christians who live at the ends of the world should be grateful for his vision.

9. Edwards did not invent the expectation of concentrated periods of conversions with broad social impact, known as revivals, but he did introduce them to the world of modern America. Addressing the will and the affections and appealing for response was novel in his day, but has become a constant feature of American religious life. Revivalists like Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham or John Chapman represent Edwards's legacy.

10. And the sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” wasn't typical of Edwards's preaching anyway. He had been invited to Enfield, a neighbouring church, to fill the pulpit while his friend was away. His colleague had asked for a particularly awakening sermon. His design was not to stress the imminent threat of falling to hell like a spider being dangled by its thread over a fire, but rather to highlight God's mercy that you and I haven't yet fallen. God is holding on. We have another day of grace to enjoy. Edwards more regular style was to preach “heaven as a world of love”. And that message resonates just as powerfully today too.

Visit http://edwards.yale.edu to learn more.


Rhys Bezzant is Dean of Missional Leadership at Ridley Melbourne, and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Centre at Ridley.