for mercy, come as beggars,
and not as creditors:
they come for mere mercy,
for sovereign grace, and not
for anything that is due.
- jonathan edwards
(b. Oct. 5, 1703, East Windsor, Conn. —d.
March 22, 1758, Princeton, N.J.),
"greatest theologian and philosopher of British
American Puritanism, stimulator of the religious
revival known as the "Great Awakening," and one of
the forerunners of the age of Protestant missionary
expansion in the 19th century.
"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, [edwards wanted to have believer's
only take the supper-stephen]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...
Many of Edwards' important works were collected into a two-volume
set, available as a reprint from [Banner of Truth]. Yale University is now publishing Edwards' works and many are available. Some shorter works
are available from various publishers.
i was first introduced to jonathan edwards in my junior year of high school
when we read "sinner's in the hands of an angry god". it did not make much
of an impact to my 16 year old heart or mind.
through the years as i was reading more and was involved in more
disciplined study, edwards' name would come up in various places.
but when i began reading books and listening to sermons by john piper,
i took an interest in edwards himself.
almost ten years exactly from the time i first read "sinners in the hands of
an angry god", i took a class in seminary on edwards himself: his life, his
thought, his writings, and his ministry.
it was by far the most difficult reading i have ever done.
scholars who are antagonistic to edwards' religion nevertheless widely
recognize his intellectual might. yale university (hardly a hotbed of christianity)
has a department devoted entirely to the study and preservation of his works.
but what i did gain from reading works as "religious affections",
freedom of the will", "a history of the work of redemption" and many,
many sermons was well worth the effort.
edwards proves that one can be an intellectual and still have a rigorous faith.
if all you know of jonathan edwards is his sermon "sinners in the hands...", then you
owe it to yourself to know more. because out of context, it is nearly impossible to "get"
that sermon that was life changing for so many. read what john piper says of him in a
pastors conference address:
Most of us don't know the real Jonathan Edwards. We all
remember the high school English classes or American
History classes. The text books had a little section on
"The Puritans" or on "The Great Awakening."
And what did we read?
Well, my oldest son is in the 9th grade now and his American
History text book has one paragraph on the Great Awakening,
which begins with the sentence that goes something like this:
"The Great Awakening was a brief period of intense religious feeling
in the 1730's and '40's which caused many churches to split."
And for many text books, Edwards is no more than a gloomy
troubler of the churches in those days of Awakening fervor. So
what we get as a sample of latter-day Puritanism is an excerpt
from his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."...
And so the kids are given the impression that Edwards was a
gloomy, sullen, morose, perhaps pathological misanthrope who
fell into grotesque religious speech the way some people fall into
But no high school kid is ever asked to wrestle with what Edwards
was wrestling with as a pastor. When you read "Sinners in the Hands
of an Angry God" (which you can do in the Banner of Truth two-
volume collection of his works), you see quickly that Edwards was not
falling into this kind of language by accident. He was laboring as a pastor
to communicate a reality that he saw in Scripture and that he believed
was infinitely important to his people.
And before any of us, especially us pastors, sniffs at Edwards'
imagery, we had better think long and hard what our own method
is for helping our people feel the weight of the reality of Revelation 19:15.
Edwards stands before this text with awe. He virtually gapes at what he
sees here. John writes in this verse,
"He [Christ] will tread the wine press of the fierceness
of the wrath of God the Almighty."
Listen to Edwards' comment in this sermon,
The words are exceeding terrible. If it had only been said,
"the wrath of God," the words would have implied that
which is infinitely dreadful:
but it is "the fierceness and wrath of God! The fierceness of
Jehovah! O how dreadful must that be! Who can utter or
conceive what such expressions carry in them?
What high school student is ever asked to come to grips with what
really is at issue here? If the Bible is true, and if it says that someday
Christ will tread his enemies like a winepress with anger that is fierce
and almighty, and if you are a pastor charged with applying Biblical
truth to your people so that they will flee the wrath to come, then what
would your language be? What would you say to make people feel the
reality of texts like these?
Edwards labored over language and over images and
metaphors because he was so stunned and awed at the
realities he saw in the Bible. Did you
hear that one line in the quote I just read:
"Who can utter or conceive what such expressions carry in them?"
Edwards believed that it was impossible to exaggerate the horror of
the reality of hell.
High school teachers would do well to ask their students the really
probing question, "Why is it that Jonathan Edwards struggled to find
images for wrath and hell that shock and frighten, while contemporary
preachers try to find abstractions and circumlocutions that move away
from concrete, touchable Biblical pictures of unquenchable fire and
undying worms and gnashing of teeth?"
If our students were posed with this simple, historical question,
my guess is that some of the brighter ones would answer:
"Because Jonathan Edwards really believed in hell,
but most preachers today don't."
But no one has asked us to take Edwards seriously, and so most of
us don't know him. Most of us don't know that he knew his heaven
even better than his hell, and that his vision of glory was just as
appealing as his vision of judgment was repulsive.
Most of us don't know that he is considered now by secular and
evangelical historians alike to be the greatest Protestant thinker
America has ever produced. Scarcely has anything more insightful
been written on the problem of God's sovereignty and
man's accountability than his book, The Freedom of the Will.
Most of us don't know that he was not only God's kindling for
the Great Awakening, but also its most penetrating analyst and critic.
His book called the Religious Affections lays bare the soul with such
relentless care and Biblical honesty that, two hundred years later,
it still breaks the heart of the sensitive reader.
Most of us don't know that Edwards was driven by a great longing
to see the missionary task of the church completed. Who knows
whether Edwards has been more influential in his theological efforts
on the freedom of the will and the nature of true virtue and original
sin and the history of redemption, or whether he has been more
influential because of his great missionary zeal and his writing
The Life of David Brainerd.
Does any of us know what an incredible thing it is that this
man, who was a small-town pastor for 23 years in a church of
600 people, a missionary to Indians for 7 years, who reared
11 faithful children, who worked without the help of electric light,
or word-processors or quick correspondence, or even sufficient
paper to write on, who lived only until he was 54, and who
died with a library of 300 books – that this man led one of the
greatest awakenings of modern times, wrote theological books that
have ministered for 200 years and did more for the modern
missionary movement than anyone of his generation?
Mark Noll, who teaches history at Wheaton and has thought
much about the work of Edwards, describes the tragedy like this:
Since Edwards, American evangelicals have not
thought about life from the ground up as Christians because
their entire culture has ceased to do so. Edwards's piety
continued on in the revivalist tradition, his theology continued
on in academic Calvinism, but there were no successors to his
God-entranced world-view or his profoundly theological
philosophy. The disappearance of Edwards's perspective
in American Christian history has been a tragedy.
(Quoted in "Jonathan Edwards, Moral Philosophy,
and the Secularization of American Christian Thought,"
Reformed Journal (February 1983):26.
i now include my disclaimer from previous "biographical" sketches about not agreeing
with everything any mere man writes or teaches, but that scripture is my sole authority....
the language in edwards writings is a bit difficult for the modern reader (along the lines
of a work by shakespeare), but the benefits of laboring through it can be life changing.
edwards most notable works are:(click for links)
- The Religious Affections
- The Freedom of the Will
- The End for Which God Created the World
(this edition includes a helpful introduction by john piper)
these, along with many other writings and several sermons have been collected into
two volumes that represent a large part of edwards works. they can be found here.
john piper and justin taylor have edited a book of collected essays on the life of edwards that serves as an excellent introduction. it is titled " a god entranced vision of all things" (found here)
if nothing else, read the whole of piper's talk on edwards (here), his life, and ministry. if you really listen, you might be compelled to begin your own study into the writings of this man who loved his god with all of his mind...