Today we remember the revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards who died today in 1758. His legacy is significant and the ripples from his preaching spread out all over the world. The most important theologian and philosopher of British American Puritanism, and stimulator of the religious revival known as the “Great Awakening,” A forerunner of the age of Protestant missionary expansion in the 19th century.
The grave of Edwards is located in Princeton Cemetery and it stands out for its large horizontal gravestone which has a large inscription in Latin which is essentially a long emotional epitaph, that eulogizes his life and career and laments the great loss of his passing. It invites the passer-by to pause and mourn, extolling the virtues of the deceased. So what can we learn from his life?
Edwards entered Yale College in 1716, and his precocious intelligence made sure that he stood out. The young Edwards kept notebooks labelled "The Mind," "Natural Science" (containing a discussion of the atomic theory), "The Scriptures" and "Miscellanies," and had a growing interest in natural history. He became very interested in the discoveries of Isaac Newton and other scientists of his age. As a young boy he was fascinated with spiders and at age of 11, observed and wrote an essay detailing the ballooning behaviour of some spiders. He saw the natural world as evidence of God's masterful design, and throughout his life, Edwards often went into the woods as a favourite place to pray and worship. He often wrote sermons and theological treatises that emphasized the beauty of God and the role of aesthetics in the spiritual life, this has been seen as a precursor to the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar in the twentieth century (for more on Balthasar see the pod of May 29th) .
At the age of 24, Jonathan Edwards was ordained minister at Northampton and married Sarah Pierpont whose father was the founder of Yale College. He saw himself as a scholar-pastor, not a visiting pastor, committed to 13 hours of study a day. In his early years of ministry, a Protestant revival began in Northampton and reached an intensity in the winter of 1734 when in 6 months, nearly 300 of 1100 youths were admitted to the church. The revival gave Edwards an opportunity for studying the process of conversion in all its phases and varieties, and he recorded his observations in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton (1737). A year later, he published Discourses on Various Important Subjects, the five sermons which had proved most effective in the revival. However, criticism of the revival began, and some New Englanders feared that Edwards had led his flock into fanaticism.
A committed Calvinist, with the central doctrine of double predestination, Edwards most famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has been widely reprinted as an example of "fire and brimstone" preaching but Edwards did not shout or speak loudly, but talked in a quiet, emotive voice. He moved his audience slowly from point to point, towards an inexorable conclusion: they were lost without the grace of God. Although many were inspire to change their lives, some of the locals were shaken by the revivals but not converted, and became convinced of their inexorable damnation, tragically leading to suicides.
The First Great Awakening describes a series of Christian revivals that swept Britain and its thirteen North American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. In the United Kingdom the movement is referred to as the Evangelical Revival. Their legacy is mixed. Overall they renewed individual piety and religious devotion and helped forge a common evangelical identity across disparate denominations. Preachers such as Edwards gave listeners a sense of deep personal conviction of their need of salvation by Jesus Christ and fosters introspection and commitment. Religious conversion had to be a "new birth" experienced in the heart. However they produced not only conversions and changed lives but also excesses, disorders, and ecclesiastical and civil disruptions. Some churches supported the revivals and others were very suspicious, In the American colonies the Congregational and Presbyterian churches split, while it strengthened both the Methodist and Baptist denominations. Throughout the southern colonies, in America the revival movement increased the number of African slaves and free blacks who converted to Christianity. It also inspired the founding of new missionary societies, such as the Baptist Missionary Society