Jonathan Edwards: A Brief Theological Biography (Pt. 1)

Jonathan Edwards has been recognized by many as the most important, if not the greatest, American theologian, philosopher, and preacher. His work and writings have been the subject of much academic interest, and it is without a doubt that he did much to shape American Evangelicalism. However, despite his prominence in academic studies most Americans know very little about him. Although almost every student in the United States has read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” however most Americans, and even most Christians have had little exposure to him aside from this hellfire and brimstone sermon. In this blog series I would like to explore the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards (a theological biography). I’ll begin by giving a brief sketch of his life. Having done that, I will explore some key themes in Edward’s theology in the following blog post.

Edward’s Life

Edwards was born in 1703 in Windsor, Connecticut into a family of ministers. His father was a local pastor and his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, was a preacher of utmost importance in the Connecticut River Valley[1]. At the young age of twelve he was sent off to Yale, then called the Collegiate School[2]. During his studies at Yale he moved to the forefront of the class and even delivered the valedictory address in Latin. Before he was twenty years old Edwards began preaching at a Presbyterian congregation in New York. The reasons why Edwards came to this church were rather complicated, and involved a split in the church, however a year latter these issues were resolved and resulted in Edwards moving on from this position.[3] Having left New York he was assigned to Bolton where he was called to be a minister, however once again he ran into trouble. Due to the fact that the church could not support him, either by salary or with a parsonage to make his home, he never actually began to work in Bolton.[4] Needing some sort of financially support he eventually made his way back to Yale to serve as a tutor, however as was the often the case even this job was short lived. During this time Edwards fell seriously ill and was unable to work for a period of time. However once he recovered he received an invitation from his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard the great preacher of the Connecticut River Valley, to assist him in his work of ministry in Northampton.[5] Stoddard died in early 1729 and was succeeded by Edwards. Five months into his appointment he married Sarah Pierrepont, who during the course of their marriage bore him eleven children[6].

Edwards spent twenty-one years in Northampton[7]. This period was an extremely busy and productive time for Edwards. It has been said that Edwards devoted hours upon hours of his day to studying. His diligence is without comparison today. Another interesting aspect of Edward’s life during his time at Northampton was his involvement during the season of revivals in the mid 1700’s. For instance during 1734-1735 over three hundred people appeared to have been converted, and this spirit of renewal and revival began to spread throughout the Connecticut River Valley.[8] In addition to his ministerial duties Edwards spent much time writing. One such book was the Treaties Concerning Religious Affections in which Edwards analyzed the revivals. This great book “still takes a high place amongst theological (rather than psychological) analyses of religious experience.[9] In 1750, due to a church scandal Edwards was asked to leave his position at the church. Later that year he received an invitation to be a missionary among the Native Americans, and he gladly accepted. His time as a missionary was extremely difficult both financially and emotionally for his family, yet it was during this time that he developed some of his greatest writing[10] including Freedom of Will, True Virtue, and Two Disserations: Concerning the End for which God Created the World. In 1757 Edwards was called to Princeton in order to become the president, he arrived in January of 1758 but died in February of that year due to the side effects of an inoculation for smallpox.[11]

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[1] Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeny, Jonathan Edwards: Lover of God (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), 24.

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 1.

[3] Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 2.

[4] Strachan and Sweeny, Jonathan Edwards: Lover of God, 47.

[5] Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 2.

[6] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 70.

[7] Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 2.

[8] Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 2.

[9] Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 4.

[10] Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 6.

[11] Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 74.

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