About the Commemoration
Jonathan Edwards, a man of exceptional intellect who influenced theology not only in America but in Britain as well, was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, October 5, 1703. He was a fifth of eleven children and the only son of his father, who was the pastor of the Congregational Church there. After a rigorous education at home, the son enrolled at Yale when he was thirteen and received the B.A. in 1720. He continued in the study of divinity there for a time before a short pastorate in New York, from August 1722 to May 1723. He returned to Yale for the M.A., which he received in 1723 and stayed on again as tutor until 1726, when he became assistant to his grandfather Samuel Stoddard at Northampton, the most important church in Massachusetts outside Boston. He was ordained February 22, 1727. Five months later he married the seventeen-year-old Sarah Pierrepont; they were to have eleven children. In 1729 he succeeded his grandfather as pastor of the Northampton church.
As a young man he had already shown remarkable powers of observation and analysis and a wide variety of interests. At the age of fourteen, before any other American thinker, he had discovered in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding a new theory of knowledge and a psychology that he was able later to use in support of traditional Calvinist doctrines. He had passionately worked through intellectual objections to his theological heritage and in a conversion experience early in 1721 had discovered a “delightful conviction” of divine sovereignty. He joined his profound learning with mystical experience and remarkable gifts in logic.
Edwards became convinced that the ills of the time were attributable to Arminianism, a popular theological position that minimized original sin, stressed free will, and tended to make morality the essence of religion. He preached a series of sermons on justification by faith alone in November 1734, which resulted in a revival of religion in the Connecticut valley in 1734-1735. Edwards reported the events in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737) in which he examined the several kinds of conversion experience.
Shortly after this revival of religion, the preaching of George Whitefield, the English Methodist evangelist, and Gilbert Tennant, a New Jersey Presbyterian preacher, led to the Great Awakening of 1740-1742. This widespread revival was defended by Edwards, notably in A Treatise Concerning Human Affections (1746), in which he maintained that the essence of all religion lies in holy love that proves itself by practical results. He was thus able to bridge the eighteenth-century polarization of intellect and emotion.
Despite the increasing reputation of the pastor (and in some measure perhaps because of it), Edwards’s relations with his congregation became strained. Edwards restricted admission to the Holy Communion to the converted and so opposed the more liberal policies of his grandfather who had accepted the “Halfway Covenant,” which allowed those who were baptized but not clearly converted to share the Lord’s Supper and have their children baptized. Edwards’s position was more in keeping with the situation of the Congregational Church after disestablishment, and the position eventually triumphed. Edwards himself, however, was dismissed by his congregation. He preached a dignified and moving farewell sermon July 1, 1750, and went to the frontier of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to be a missionary to the Native Americans. Despite difficulties with language, sickness, conflict with personal enemies, and Indian wars, he nonetheless was able to publish his Freedom of the Will (1754) and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758).
Late in 1757 Edwards accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) and took up his duties in January. Princeton was at the time suffering from an outbreak of smallpox. Edwards was inoculated but suffered from a secondary infection and died March 22, 1758, in his fifty-fifth year. His worn gravestone is still to be seen in the cemetery there.
Edwards is on the calendar in the Lutheran Book of Worship, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and the Methodist For All the Saints.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Jonathan Edwards (theologian)
From Jonathan Edwards’s Personal Narrative
The sense I had of divine things would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express.
Not long after I began to experience these things, I gave an account to my father of some things that had passed in my mind. I was pretty much affected by the discourse we had together; and when the discourse ended, I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father’s pasture for contemplation. And as I was walking there and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together; it was a gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; a high, great, and holy gentleness.
After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost every thing. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity, and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for continuance; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the mean time, singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so delightful to me as thunder and lightning; formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, so to speak, at the first appearance of a thunder storm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to new the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural to me to sing, or chant for my meditations; or, to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice.
The Works of President Edwards, ed. S. B. Dwight, vol. 1 (New York: Converse, 1829), 60—62.
Almighty God, you gave to your servant Jonathan Edwards great gifts to understand and to teach your majesty and your grace: Grant that by his teaching your church may know you in your gentle and holy majesty and serve you in love and gratitude; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 119:89-104; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10, 13-16; John 17:6-10
Hymn of the Day: “My God, how wonderful thou art” (H82 463, LBW 524, ELW 863); “Majestic sweetness sits enthroned” (H40 353, SBH 570); “Eternal God, whose power upholds” (SBH 322)
Prayers: For a deepened sense of the majesty of God; For the spirit of inquiry; For an awakened conscience.
Preface: A Saint (1) (BCP)