Protestant Profiles #15: Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

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Born: East Windsor, Conneticut Colony, North America
Role: Pastor/Preacher; revivalist; theologian; supporter of mission to Native Americans; 3rd President of Princeton University
Emphases: Beauty, Majesty and Sovereignty of God; religious affections; justification by faith
Protested against: Arminianism, false revivalism

Jonathan Edwards looms as a giant of giants among early American Protestants. Dubbed by some “the last of the Puritans,” Edwards was a major figure in the religious revival known as the “(First)  Great Awakening” and delivered perhaps the most famous sermon in the English language. He had an incredible impact: in his native New England; throughout America; and across the Atlantic. His influence would also later inspire many missionaries as they prepared to take the gospel to unreached parts of the world.

Edwards became assistant minister to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in his mid-20s. A couple of years later his grandfather died, leaving the young Edwards in charge of one of New England’s most prestigious and important churches. Edwards was concerned with the spiritual health of many in his congregation, but in the mid 1730s (a few years into his solo ministry), he began to see some incredible results in response to his faithful, gospel preaching.

In the space of just six months, around 300 people were recorded as experiencing a meaningful spiritual conversion under Edwards’ ministry. Edwards took a great interest in how Christians should understand the nature of true conversion and this concern characterised his ministry and writing for many years to come – as religious revivals occurred across the land. Edwards rejoiced in the ministry of the revival-preachers that saw much fruit in New England during the next decade, such as George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent, but he grew concerned about some of the emotionalism and unscriptural attitudes that arose as the Great Awakening unfolded.

In addition to his production of several important treatments of the nature and characteristics of true revivals, the 1740s saw Edwards publish three of his most notable works.

In 1741 he preached his most famous sermon – perhaps the most famous ever American sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards was not theatrical or manipulative in his presentation, unlike some later revival-preachers, but the sheer gravity of his message about the imminence of divine judgement and the real and present danger of sinners falling into hell-fire at any moment, had a profound impact on many of his hearers. While many Protestants and Evangelicals in the 21st century would be embarrassed by the nature of such a message, there is little denying that Edwards’ handling of these themes in a serious manner carried spiritual potency.

In 1746, he produced a work on Religious Affections, showing his indebtedness to earlier Puritans when it came to the effect that religious knowledge should have upon the hearts of those who receive them. The gospel moved the heart to an intense fear of judgement; an intense love of God and an intense hatred of sin and worldliness. This is the kind of resource from Christian history which is invaluable to those concerned about cold, heady Reformed orthodoxy on the one hand and warm, fuzzy spirituality unanchored in doctrine on the other.

1749 saw Edwards publish the Life and Diary of David Brainerd – detailing the ministry and intense personal struggles of a sincere, Christian young man who had gone to live among Native Americans and share the gospel with them. Through making Brainerd’s life known to many Christians around the world, Edwards was used by God to challenge untold numbers of people to missionary service to the unreached ends of the earth.

A couple of years after publishing this work, Edwards became involved in ministry to Native Americans himself, as his family relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a town where relations were tense between white American settlers and local tribes. Edwards enjoyed a productive, but by no means easy ministry during the 1750s, before accepting the presidency of the College of New Jersey (today Princeton University) in 1758. In a strange and unexpected twist to the end of his life and ministry he died in March of that year after volunteering as a test subject for a smallpox vaccine in the name of promoting medical research. He was president of the college for just a few weeks.

Edwards theology and spirituality continue to have a sizeable impact on American Reformed Evangelicalism and he continues to attract the interest of lay Christians, pastors and scholars in many parts of the English speaking world: including the UK, South Africa and Australia. As we celebrate 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, Edwards not only reminds us that religious revivals do have a legitimate place in the life, ministry and history of our movement – but provides us with resources to evaluate the extent to which a “move of God” is occurring.

You can read Edwards’ well known “Resolutions” for living (produced when he was around 20 years old), here.
Or Desiring God has an extensive treatment of his life and ministry by John Piper here.

Sources

“Jonathan Edwards” at Wikipedia
R.W. Caldwell & D.A. Sweeney, “EDWARDS, Jonathan” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
Diane Severance, “The Great Awakening” http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/the-great-awakening-11630212.html

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