Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational Preacher, is remembered today as one of the most profound evangelical theologians America has ever produced, a defender of both Calvinism and the Puritan heritage. He was born on October 5, 1703, to Timothy Edwards, a minister at East Windsor, Connecticut, and to Esther Stoddard, a woman of unusual mental gifts and independence of character. He was the fifth of eleven children, and the only boy.
Trained for college by his father and elder sisters, the young Edwards was interested in natural history and, at the age of twelve, wrote a remarkable essay on the habits of the "flying spider". He entered Yale in 1716, at just under the age of thirteen. During the following year he became acquainted with John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which influenced him profoundly. While attending college, he kept notebooks labelled "The Mind," "Natural Science" (containing a discussion of the atomic theory), "The Scriptures" and "Miscellanies," and began a grand plan for a work on natural and mental philosophy, drawing up rules for its composition. Even before he graduated in September 1720, as valedictorian and head of his class, he seems to have had a well formulated philosophy. He spent two years after his graduation in New Haven, studying theology.
Edwards was an eager seeker after the assurance of his salvation, and was not fully satisfied with his own "conversion" until an experience in his last year in college, when he lost his feeling that the election of some to salvation and of others to eternal damnation was "a horrible doctrine," and reckoned it "exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet." Following the assurance of his conversion, he took a great new joy in the beauties of nature, and delighted in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon. Balancing these mystic joys is the stern tone of his Resolutions, in which he is almost ascetic in his eagerness to live earnestly and soberly, to waste no time, and to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
For eight months, between 1722 to 1723, he served as a clergyman for a small Presbyterian Church in New York City; the church invited him to remain, but he declined the call. After spending two months of study at home, he became a tutor at Yale; on February 5, 1727 he was ordained minister at Northampton and assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He married Sarah Pierpont, aged seventeen, a young woman with an abiding love for God and a deep belief in His personal love for her, in that same year. She was bright and cheerful, a practical housekeeper, a model wife and the mother of his twelve children.
Solomon Stoddard died on February 11, 1729, leaving to his grandson the difficult task of the sole ministerial charge of one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the colony. In 1748, a conflict between Edwards and his congregation arose over who should participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The Half-Way Covenant, adopted by the synods of 1657 and 1662, had made baptism alone the condition to the civil privileges of church membership, but not of participation in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Edwards's grandfather and predecessor, Solomon Stoddard, had been even more liberal, holding that the Supper was a converting ordinance and that baptism was sufficient for a person to gain the full privileges of the church.Edwards plainly intimated his dislike of this practice in his sermons on the Religous Affections; he believed that the Lord's Supper is not a cause of regeneration and that communicants should be professing Christians.
Furthermore, in that same year he published in a church meeting the names of certain young people, members of the church, who were suspected of reading improper books, and also the names of those who were to be called as witnesses in the case. It has often been reported that the witnesses and accused were not distinguished on this list, and so, therefore, the entire congregation was in an uproar. However, research has cast doubt on this version of the events, noting that in the list he read from, the names were definitely distinguished. Those involved were eventually disciplined for disrespect to the investigators rather than for the original incident. In any case, the incident further deteriorated the relationship between Edwards and the congregation. In a time of significant cultural foment, he was associated with the old guard. Edward's preaching became unpopular, and the widening gap between him and his congregation led to his dismissal in 1748.
Edwards and his family were now cast upon the world, but offers of aid came quickly to him. In 1750 he became pastor of the church in Stockbridge, and preached as a missionary to the Housatonic Indians, through the use of an interpreter. He wrote the Humble Relation, also called Reply to Williams in 1752, which was an answer to Solomon Williams (1700-1776), a relative and a bitter opponent of Edwards as to the qualifications for full communion; and he there composed the treatises on which his reputation as a philosophical theologian chiefly rests: the essay on Original Sin, the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, the Dissertation Concerning the End for which God created the World, and the great work on the Will, written in four months and a half, and published in 1754 under the long title An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Motions Respecting that Freedom of the Will which is supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency.
In 1757, on the death of the Reverend Aaron Burr, who five years before had married Edwards's daughter Esther and was the father of future US vice-president Aaron Burr, he reluctantly agreed to replace his late son-in-law as the president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he was installed on the February 16, 1758.
Almost immediately after becoming president, he was inoculated for smallpox, which was raging in the vicinity surrounding Princeton, New Jersey, and, always feeble, he died of the inoculation on March 22, 1758. He was buried in Princeton Cemetery. Edwards had three sons and eight daughters.
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