Colonial Congregational minister and theologian
Born at East Windsor, Connecticut, Edwards entered Yale College in 1716 at the age of thirteen, after receiving his early education under the tutelage of his father, who was a congregational minister. After graduating in 1720 he remained at the college to study for the ministry until August of 1722, when he went to serve as a minister to a Scottish Presbyterian church in New York. In 1723 he returned to Yale, passed the examination for an M.A. degree in September and assumed the office of tutor in May of 1724. He resigned two years later due to illness. In 1726 he accepted a call to become the colleague of his aging grandfather, the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, at Northampton, Massachusetts. He married Sarah Pierrepont the following year and assumed full ministerial duties when Stoddard died in 1729.
Under the influence of Edwards’ preaching, Northampton and neighboring parishes experienced a powerful spiritual awakening in 1734–1735. Beginning in 1739, again under the influence of Edwards’ preaching another more extensive religious revival occurred, known as the Great Awakening. During this time Edwards made the acquaintance of George Whitefield, who was instrumental in promoting Edwards abroad.
Controversy arose between Edwards and his congregation when he sought to restrict admission to Communion to only those who could give satisfactory evidence of conversion. In 1750 he was dismissed from his charge at Northampton and the following year resettled in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he led the small Stockbridge church and served as teacher and missionary to the Housatonnoc Indians who resided in the vicinity. In 1758 he reluctantly assumed duties as president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) but died a month later (March 22) of a smallpox inoculation.
Regarded as the leading theologian of his day and one of the greatest thinkers America has yet produced, Edwards’ importance rests primarily upon his contributions in the areas of practical and theoretical religion and his championing of evangelical Calvinism. Two early sermons laid the groundwork. “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” delivered in Boston in 1731 and published a month later, attacked the liberal notions of sin and salvation, attributing them to the destructive developments of incipient Arminianism. Edwards insisted that sin was inherent antagonism against God, and that salvation meant a radical change of the heart that was totally dependent upon the absolute sovereignty of God. It was a clarion call back to an unadulterated Calvinism. In the second sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” preached in 1733 and later published in 1734, Edwards described the true nature of religious experience. Salvation does not involve simply a rational understanding of God and biblical truth, but rather, the impartation by God of a “true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the word of God.” It is essentially a regenerative experience that affects the heart, imparting a new “sense” of divine things that cannot be obtained by natural means. True religion, Edwards insisted, is essentially a matter of the heart, not the mind. These sermons set forth a theological platform from which Edwards never wavered.
His reputation and influence as a preacher and advocate of experiential religion grew quickly. In 1734 Edwards preached two sermons on the subject of justification, which caused a spiritual awakening among his and neighboring congregations. News of the revival spread as far as Britain and elicited from Edwards a written account of the events that was published in 1737 as A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. In it Edwards interpreted the revival as a genuine work of God’s redemptive grace among the people of New England. Three years later, during the first Great Awakening, Edwards wrote two influential works in defense of the revival that established him as the leading theologian of the movement. The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God was published in 1741 and set forth a theological defense of the revival, explicating and defending it as authentic by distinguishing “true signs” of religious experience from “false signs.” In 1743 this work was expanded and published as Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival. In addition to answering the critics of the revival, here Edwards also stressed the aberrant nature of religious experience in order to temper revival enthusiasts.
In addition to his writings, Edwards’ preaching also was used to promote revivalism. While it is true that Whitefield’s preaching more than anything else set the colonies ablaze with revival, the most famous sermon preached during the Great Awakening, and likely the most famous sermon in all American history, was Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” delivered in Enfield in 1741.
Edwards’ most mature analysis of religious experience, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, was published in 1746, several years after the revival was spent. The work is divided into three parts. The first defines the nature of religious experience as a matter primarily of the heart, stating that true religion is seated in the affections or inclinations. The second identifies and examines those manifestations that are not sure signs of true religion. The third, which takes up nearly three quarters of the Treatise, describes twelve marks that arise from a genuine religious conversion. True religion is essentially a changed heart that manifests itself in Christian practice. Edwards’ position was attacked by Charles Chauncey, minister of the First Church of Boston, in his sermons “The Late Religious Commotions in New England Considered” and “Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion.” These sum up the position taken by the critics of Edwards and the revival.
Edwards’ emphasis on visible religion eventually placed him in conflict with his congregation at Northampton. By limiting church membership and participation in Communion to only those who professed their Christian faith as founded upon a definite religious experience, he reversed the position instituted by his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who had eliminated tests for Communion. In A Humble Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion, published in 1749, Edwards set forth in characteristically explicit terms his position, which led to his dismissal in 1750.
In the summer of 1751 Edwards resettled in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he spent seven of the most productive years of his life. Although engaged in pastoral and missionary duties, he found time to write his most important theological and philosophical works. In Freedom of the Will, published in 1754, he defended the Calvinist position by arguing that prior to an individual’s choosing or willing there is a more basic cause identified as motive. To will is to act according to the strongest motive prevailing within a person. Most important for Edwards were the implications for conversion. By God’s regenerative act, a new motive or “sense of the heart” is implanted in the soul which necessarily directs the will to God. The unregenerate are devoid of this new “sense” which comes only through God’s act of regeneration. They are not motivated by love for God but are rather given to self–love. Edwards defends this view of human nature in The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, published in 1758. The subject of these two monumental works, themselves a development of the subject treated in Religious Affection, is carried on in the shorter but no less significant work The Nature of True Virtue, published posthumously in 1765.
The larger structure of Edwards’ theological understanding is to be found in two works published after his death. Edwards placed his vision for personal salvation within a millennial design for history in a series of sermons preached during the spring and summer of 1739. This was first published in 1774 as History of the Work of Redemption. In A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, published in 1765, he set forth the belief that God’s ultimate purpose in creation, and to which all history moves, is the revelation of his own glory.
Edwards’ entire life and ministry were inextricably tied up with the investigation, identification, and promotion of a right understanding of religion. In his estimation the pursuit of true religion was the “greatest and most fundamental” duty of the Christian. The question of how to judge genuine from spurious piety was an interest so basic to Edwards that it has been suggested that “the whole of his thought might be viewed as one magnificent answer to the question, What is true religion?” This is the heart of Edwards and the reason for the continued interest in his life and thought. C.Mitchel
This Biographical Sketch comes from…
Who’s Who in Christian History
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