Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: Jonathan Edwards

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on B&H Academic Blog and is part of a series of theological biographies by Jason Duesing: Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History.

Speaking in 1976 to a conference of ministers, London preacher, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, compared “the Puritans to the Alps, Luther and Calvin to the Himalayas, and Jonathan Edwards to Mount Everest.” As the greatest theologian and philosopher in American history, Edwards is certainly a summit worth climbing. However, for all of Edwards’s brilliance and human achievements, there must be something more to the man that transcends from eighteenth century transcontinental leader to twenty-first century t-shirt icon. To be sure, Edwards’s legacy has been assessed, not to mention at least two academic centers (at Yale and at TEDS) and one society dedicated to the study of the Northampton pastor. But for a future generation that knows not Edwards, his call for prayer for revival and the manner in which that call shaped a world missions movement might prove prescient.

For a future generation that knows not Edwards, his call for prayer for revival and the manner in which that call shaped a world missions movement might prove prescient.

Born in central Connecticut as the only son of five children, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) showed advanced intellectual abilities from childhood. By age 12, he began studies at Yale and at 18 converted to Christ during May/June 1721. In response to reading 1 Tim 1:17, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen,” Edwards said, “As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before.” With this new sense, Edwards embarked on a path of devotion to the “only wise God” and ministry in his name. As Iain Murray identifies, “Nothing shows more clearly the new prevailing bent of Edwards’ mind and heart than his seventy ‘Resolutions.’” Written during 1722-1723, Edwards resolved, in part, “Never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God.”

Soon after further training, Edwards accepted a ministry position at his grandfather’s church in Northampton, Massachusetts. During that summer, Edwards married Sarah Pierpont, a marriage that would last 30 years until death parted them. Samuel Miller assessed, “Perhaps no event of Mr. Edwards’ life had a more close connexion with his subsequent comfort and usefulness than this marriage.” Before Edwards died, he asked his daughter to “give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever.” George Marsden explains that “‘uncommon union’ was an expression of the deepest affection, coming from someone for whom the highest relations in the universe were unions of affections among persons. Most important for Jonathan, the union was spiritual and hence eternal.”

Two years after starting at Northampton, Edwards’s grandfather died, and Edwards, age 25, assumed pastoral responsibilities. During the 1730s many responded to his preaching, and as Douglas Sweeney reports, “Before he knew it, revival broke out, and hundreds of locals experienced conversion.” Joining similar revivals already underway in England, by the 1740s what would become known as the Great Awakening hit its stride throughout the colonies. Edwards took to writing to explain the phenomenon and defend the revivals against counterfeits. A Faithful Narrative appeared in 1737, followed by Distinguishing Marks (1741), Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival (1743), and his comprehensive Religious Affections (1746). As the awakenings dissipated, some fracturing occurred among congregations including Edwards’s. In 1750, he was dismissed from Northampton and relocated to Stockbridge where he engaged in missionary work among Native Americans. There he continued to write, publishing his Freedom of the Will (1754) as an attempt to answer a debate between skeptics of the Awakening and the revivalists’ approaches to evangelism. As Sweeney concludes, Edwards’s work helped many skeptics to see a way to “preach the gospel freely without suggesting in the process that non-Christians had the power to save themselves.” In late 1757, Edwards accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey. After reacting poorly to an inoculation for smallpox in early 1758, Edwards failed to recover and succumbed to the effects on March 22. Marsden notes that as one transformed by the Spirit of God, Edwards was prepared to die, seeing death as “a release in which one was borne upward to see Christ’s glory.”

… Edwards was prepared to die, seeing death as “a release in which one was borne upward to see Christ’s glory.”

During his final years in Northampton, Edwards received an invitation from Scotland to participate in a Concert of Prayer as a “means” of rejuvenating the revivals. As Chris Chun deftly explains, Edwards had already come to think of prayer as an appropriate conduit for advancing the awakenings and in response he published in 1748, sermons on Zechariah 8:20-22 entitled A Humble Attempt. In the 1740s and 1750s, Edwards’s work encouraged many both in America and Scotland, “by united and extraordinary prayer, seek to God that he would come and manifest himself, and grant the tokens and fruits of his gracious presence.” For, he argued, “The greatest effusion of the Spirit that ever yet has been, even that which was in the primitive times of the Christian church, which began in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, was in answer to extraordinary prayer.” An optimistic treatise, A Humble Attempt reveals Edwards’s eschatology, classified today as postmillennialism. He saw prayer as “the means of awakening others … and disposing them to join with God’s people in that extraordinary seeking and serving of God.”  Such spiritual progress would continue until “the awakening reaches those that are in the highest stations, and till whole nations be awakened, and there be at length an accession of many of the chief nations of the world to the church of God.”

While not evident in his lifetime, Edwards’s optimistic view of the end times, though not embraced widely, nevertheless served to launch the modern missions movement. In 1784, English pastors Andrew Fuller and William Carey gained access to A Humble Attempt and read it with eyes primed for rays of hopeful light in the task of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. As McClymond and McDermott note, “Carey used the Humble Attempt to discount the contention that certain prophesies had to be fulfilled before the heathen could be converted.” Combined with Edwards’s Life of David Brainerd (1749) and Freedom of the Will, Fuller and Carey found in Edwards a “Grandfather” of modern missions. From those in England and America who read Edwards came the London Missionary Society, the Baptist Missionary Society, the Scottish Missionary Society, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

No man is more relevant to the present condition of Christianity than Jonathan Edwards. None is more needed.

Iain Murray surmises that Edwards’s enduring strength lies in the fact that Edwards “was not an originator” of theological innovation (though aspects of this conclusion are debatable). Yet, Lloyd-Jones concluded his 1976 presentation on Edwards proclaiming, “No man is more relevant to the present condition of Christianity than Jonathan Edwards. None is more needed.” Why then would an eighteenth century American Puritan have timeless staying power? Lloyd-Jones found specific transcendent relevance in Edwards’s call for prayer for revival in A Humble Attempt. In a day where often every avenue of influence and strategy is exhausted save the call to corporate prayer, perhaps Lloyd-Jones is still right. For the sake of the next generation, Edwards is still Everest, but he bids us to climb and pray.

Further Reading:

  • The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University:
  • Robert W. Caldwell, III and Steven M. Studebaker. The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Ashgate, 2012.
  • George M. Marsden. A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. Eerdmans, 2008.
  • George M. Marsden. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Yale, 2003.
  • Micahel J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Oxford, 2012.
  • Iain H. Murray. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Banner of Truth, 1987.
  • Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney, The Essential Edwards Collection. 5 Vols. Moody, 2010.