The New Zealand Evangelist
Biographical Sketches.—No. VII
Biographical Sketches.—No. VII.
Rev. Jonathan Edwards, A.M.
President Of Princetown College, New Jersey, United States.
The following brief sketch of the life of President Edwards,—the most eminent divine that America ever produced, according to the testimony of the late Dr. Chalmers,—is extracted and abridged from the deeply interesting and copious Memoirs of his life, written by his descendant Sereno E. Dwight, and prefixed to a late edition of his works:—
Jonathan Edwards was born on the 5th of October, 1703, at Windsor, on the banks of the Connecticut. His father, the Rev. Timothy Edwards, was minister of that place about 60 years. He died in 1758, in the 89th year of his age, not two months before this his only son. He was a man of great piety and usefulness. He married Esther Stoddard, daughter of the reverend and celebrated Solomon Stoddard, of Northampton. They lived together in the married state above 63 years. Mrs. Edwards survived her husband 12 years, she died in 1770, in the 99th year of her age, and retained her mental faculties until the close of her life. In strength of character she resembled her father, and like him she left behind her, in the place where she resided for 76 years, that “good name which is better than precious ointment.” She received a superior education in Boston, was tall, dignified, and commanding in her appearance, affable and gentle in her manners, and was regarded as surpassing her husband in native vigor of understanding. She was possessed of remarkable judgment and prudence, of an exact sense of propriety, of extensive information, of a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and theology, and of singular conscientiousness, piety, and excellence of character. In her latter years she was regarded with a respect bordering on veneration. Such was the mother of Jonathan Edwards. His father was regarded as a man of more than usual learning. He was well aequainted with Hebrew literature, and was particularly distinguished for his accurate knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics. He was for that period unusually liberal and enlightened with regard to the education of his children; preparing not only his son but each of his ten daughters so as to be fit for College. When his daughters were of the proper age he sent them to Boston to finish their education. Both he and Mrs. Edwards were exemplary in the care of their religious instructions; and as the reward of their parental fidelity, were permitted to see the fruits of piety in them all during their youth.
Religious Impressions.—From the highly spiritual and intellectual attainments of his parents, it might naturally be expected that his early education would be attended with no common advantages; this was the fact. They constantly and fervently commended him to God, and manifested equal diligence in training bim up for God. Prayer excited to exertion, and exertion again was encouraged by prayer. Their prayers were not forgotten, and their efforts did not remain without effect. In the progress of childhood, he was in several instances, the subject of strong religious impressions. This was particularly true some years before he went to college, during a powerful revival of religion in his father's congregation. He, and two other lads of his own age, who had the same feelings as himself, erected a booth in a very retired spot in a swamp, for an oratory; and resorted to it regularly for social prayer. He was obviously the subject of a saving change at a very early age.
His views and feelings during childhood and youth are best stated in his own words. “Not long after I first began to experience these things,” he says, “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 was ended I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father's pasture, for contemplation. As I was walking there and looking upon the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, as I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together. It was a sweet, and gentle, and holy majesty: and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness. After this my sense of divine things increased and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of every thing was altered. Scarce any thing among all the works of nature, was so sweet 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 thunder storm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me.—I felt God, if I may so speak, at the first appearance of a thunder storm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightning play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God's thunders, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God.
“I felt then great satisfaction as to my good estate; but that did not content me. I had vehement longings of soul after God and Christ, and after more holiness, wherewith my heart seemed to be full and ready to break. I often felt a mourning and a lamenting in my heart, that I had not turned to God sooner, that I might have had more time to grow in grace. I felt a burning desire to be, in every thing, a complete christian. It was my con-page 86tinual strife, day and night, and constant inquiry, how I should be more holy, and live. more holily, and more becoming a child of God and a disciple of Christ. The heaven I desired was a heaven of holiness; to be with God, and to spend my eternity in divine love and holy communion with Christ.
“On January 12, 1723, I made a solemn dedication of myself to God, and wrote it down; giving myself, and all I had to God; so be for the future in no respect my own; and to act as one who had no right to myself, in any respect. And solemnly vowed to take God for my whole portion and felicity.”
Thus deep, decided, and powerful were the operations of divine grace upon the mind of this youthful servant of Christ. Personal examination seems to have been considered by him as a pleasing, as well as a momentous exercise. It was in these early years of his life, and under the closest application to reading, study, and prayer, that those correct views were formed, which afterwards expanded into his “Treatise on Religious Affections.”
The same parental kindness and wisdom, which under God guided the mind of Jonathan Edwards to the knowledge and love of things eternal, were also much discovered in the direction of his powers to useful objects of earthly science. When only six years of age, the study of the Latin language engaged his attention, under the care of his father, and occasionally that of his elder sisters. The whole family appear to have practised English composition and used the pen to a great extent. This course, though rarely pursued with children, is evidently advantageous, and in the case before us was obviously followed with the best results. He was educated until he entered college, at home, and under his father's personal instruction, while his elder sisters were daily pursuing their respective branches of study in his immediate presence.
At the age of 13 he entered Yale College in New Haven.—While a member of College he was distinguished for the uniform sobriety and correctness of his behaviour, for diligent application to his studies, and for rapid and thorough attainments in learning. Even while a boy, he began to study with his pen in his hand, not for the purpose of copying off the thoughts of others, but for the purpose of writing down and preserving the thoughts suggested to his own mind from the course of study he was pursuing.
At the age of 19 he was licensed to preach the Gospel. When 20 he took the degree of Master of Arts and was elected a tutor in the College. The duties of this office he discharged for upwards of two years with great success. In 1727, in his 26th year, he was ordained as a minister of the Gospel, and placed over the Church and congregation of Northampton, as a colleague to his maternal grandfather, the Rev. S. Stoddard. A few months after his ordination Mr. Edwards was married to Miss Sarah Pierrepont, the daughter of the Rev. John Pierrepont, of New Haven. She was a young lady of uncommon beauty; in her manners she was page 87 gentle and courteous, amiable in her behaviour, and the law of kindness appeared to govern all her conversation and behaviour.—She was also a rare example of early piety, and continued through life to increase more and more in holiness. They had eleven children; three sons and eight daughters.
Mr. Edwards continued at Northampton for 23 years, and during that time two remarkable revivals of religion took place; the first in 1734–5, and the second between 1740 and 42. These revivals extended to a great number of the surrounding towns and districts.
The revival of 1735 was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable events of the kind, that has occurred since the canon of the New Testament was finished. It was so on account of its universality; no class, nor age, nor description was exempt. Upwards of fifty persons above forty years of age, and ten above ninety, near thirty between ten and fourteen, and one of four, became, in the view of Mr. Edwards, the subjects of the renewing grace of God. It was so on account of the unusual numbers, who appeared to become christians; amounting to more than three hundred persons, in half a year, and about as many of them males as females. Previous to one sacrament, about one hundred were received to the communion, and near sixty previous to another; and the whole number of communicants, at one time, was about six hundred and twenty, including almost all the adult population of the town. It was so in its rapid progress, in its amazing power, in the depth of the convictions felt, and in the degree of light, of love, and of joy communicated; as well as in its great extent, and in its swift propagation from place to place.
It was after this that Mr. Edwards published his “Narrative of Surprising Conversions and Thoughts on the Revival,” a book which continues to be read with the deepest interest to the present day. But although Mr. Edwards was so eminent, so faithful, and so successful, yet his trials as a minister were peculiar and severe. Like Paul, after he had received such tokens of the divine favour, the messenger of Satan was sent to buffet him. A party grew up in Northampton, headed principally by a cousin of his own—but who lived to express publicly his deep contrition for the part he acted,—who succeeded in turning public feeling in the town se against him, that the pastoral relation was dissolved between him and his congregation.
The first ground of this controversy was his attempting to suppress some immoralities that had appeared among several of the young people. But the ostensible and principal ground that led to the separation, was the difference of sentiment, that arose between him and the majority of the congregation, about the terms of admission to the sacrament. His predecessor, Mr. Stoddard, in the latter part of his ministry, had adopted the view, that the Lord's Supper is a converting ordinance, and that, consequently, it ought to be administered indiseriminafely to all. This view, page 88 through his commanding influence, was extensively adopted in the surrounding country, and a corresponding practice had been introduced. Mr. Edwards had long felt scruples on this point, and after studying the subject thoroughly for himself, came to the conclusion, in accordance with the original sentiments and practice of the New England Churches, that the sacraments are not converting, but sealing ordinances, and that the ground of admission to the Lord's table, ought to be visible saintship; a competent knowledge of divine truth, a professed subjection to Christ, and a conduct such as, in the judgment of christian charity, will prove the profession sincere. He published a treatise on the Qualifications for Communion, and the churches of both Britain and America have long since pronounced his sentiments to be sound and scriptural.
He was afterwards settled in Stockbridge, a frontier village, where he had charge of an English congregation, and superintended a mission among the Indians. He preached to the Indians every Sabbath by means of an interpreter. Satan had in this instance overshot his mark; for it was during the seven years he laboured in this secluded village, that, in the full maturity of his mental powers, and rich in spiritual experience, he found leasure to prepare for the press those profound and elaborate works, on which his reputatation as a theologian and a philosopher rests, and by which “he being dead yet speaketh,” and will continue to edify the church of Christ, especially its ministers, while the English language continues to be a vehicle of thought, or a medium of religious instruction.
In 1758, after the death of his son-in-law, the eminent President Burr, he was elected president of Princeton College. He had just entered upon the duties of his office, when his career of usefulness was suddenly stopped. Small pox was very prevalent in Princeton, and Mr. Edwards thought it prudent to be inoculated. This was done by the advice of his physician, and by the consent of the Corporation or Trustees of the College. At first the symptons were favourable, but so many pustules came out in his throat, that he was unable to swallow a sufficient quantity of drink to keep off the secondary fever, and to the deep distress of all his friends the malady proved fatal. He died as he had lived, in the full hope of a blessed immortality. He died in the 55th year of his age.
His daughter Mrs. Burr who had been inoculated with the small pox at the same time, died sixteen days after her father. Mrs. Edwards died a few months afterwards. The father and mother, the son and daughter, were laid in the same grave in little more than a year, though a few months before their dwellings had been more than 150 miles apart: two presidents of the same college and their consorts, than whom it would doubtless have been hard to have found four persons more valuable and useful!
As a Christian, he was singularly eminent, to specify only one or two points; his observation of the Sabbath was such at to make it, throughout, a day of religion; so that not only were his conversation and reading conformed to the great design of the day, but he page 89 allowed himself in no thoughts or meditations, which were not decidedly of a religious character. It was his rule not only to search the scriptures daily, but to study them so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that he might perceive a regular and obvious growth in his knowledge of them. By prayer and self application, he took care to render them the means of progressive sanctification. His constant, solemn converse with God in the exercises of secret religion made his face, as it were, to shine before others.
As a preacher, his graphic manner of presenting truth, was perhaps, his peculiar excellence. ‘I enquired of Dr. West,’ says one of his biographers, ‘whether Mr. Edwards was an eloquent preacher’ He replied, “If you mean by eloquence, what is usually intended by it in our cities; he had no pretentions to it. He had no studied varieties of the voice, and no strong emphases. He scarcely gestured, or even moved; and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style, or the beauty of his pictures, to gratify the taste, and fascinate the imagination. But, if you mean by eloquence, the power of presenting an important truth before an audience, with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling, that the whole soul of the speaker is thrown into every part of the conception and delivery; so that the solemn attention of the whole audience is riveted, from the beginning to the close, and impressions are left that cannot be effaced; Mr. Edwards was the most eloquent man I ever heard speak,” As the result of his whole character, we are led to regard him as, beyond most others, an instructive preacher, a solemn and faithful preacher, an animated and earnest preacher, a most powerful and impressive preacher, in the sense explained, and the only true sense, a singularly eloquent preacher, and through the blessing of God, one of the most successful preachers since the days of the apostles.
As a theologian, he is distinguished for his Scriptural vieas of divine truth. Even the casual reader of his works can scarcely fail to perceive that, with great labour, patience, and skill, he derived his principles from an extensive and most accurate observation of the word of God. The number of passages which he adduces from the scriptures, on every important doctrine, the critical attention he has evidently given them, the labour in arranging them, and the skill and integrity with which he derives his general conclusions from them is truly astonishing.
Another characteristic of his theology, is the extensiveness of his views. In his theology, as in his mind, there was nothing narrow; no partial, contracted views of a subject; all was simple, great, and sublime. His mind was too expanded to regard the distinctions of sects and churches. He contended for nothing but the truth; he aimed at nothing but to promote holiness and salvation. The effects of his labours so exactly coincide with the effects of the Gospel, that no denomination can ever appropriate his name to itself, or claim him as its own. He belonged, in his feelings, to no church but the church of Christ.
For general readers, his “History of Redemption “is one of the most useful and popular of his writings.