Edwards in Ministry

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire...[1]

Though this is arguably the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil, Jonathan Edwards preached just as much—if not more frequently—on the anticipated joys of heaven as he did the fears of hell. My goal today is to catch a glimpse of his ministry, both in the pulpit and in the mission field.

Edwards the Pastor

It was during this time in New York City that Edwards penned many of his "resolutions" which have proved beneficial to readers over the years.[2]For a short time Edwards settled as the pastor of a congregation in Bolton, Connecticut. However, it was to another congregation that Edwards would be called and would make his mark on history. Edwards's life as pastor in the western Massachusetts town of Northampton is perhaps best known. In 1726, the congregation of the church in Northampton voted to call Jonathan Edwards to assist his grandfather Solomon Stoddard in pastoring the church. A few months after his arrival in Northampton, Edwards married his sweetheart Sarah and so began an "uncommon" marriage of many years. Edwards gave years of service to the spiritual care of the Northampton congregation. He preached at least twice on Sunday and several times during the week. He is said to have spent upwards of twelve to thirteen hours a day in his study and he read with quill in hand and produced a voluminous body of semi-private notebooks, the best known simply as his "Miscellanies."[3]

It was during his time at Northampton that Edwards became best known as an advocate for the Great Awakening. This defense of the "surprising" work of God did not sit well with everyone in the New England colonies, causing dissension even within his own congregation. Societal changes also affected Edwards' relationship to his congregation. More open and democratic ways were coming into vogue and Edwards did not always share an appreciation for these. One incident is indicative of the tensions developing at Northampton. This is sometimes called the "bad book" incident. Some young men (in their twenties) in the congregation got a hold of a midwifery book that described intimate details of the female anatomy and these young men used this information to taunt young women in the congregation and town. Edwards and the church had to do something about this problem and this he sought to do. Unfortunately he did not handle the situation as well as he could have. 

In 1749 and into 1750 Edwards' pastoral troubles came to a head when he had a change of mind about the requirements for communion. For years Edwards followed the practice of his grandfather Solomon Stoddard who opened the Lord's Table to all those who affirmed orthodox Christian doctrine and lived an outwardly moral life. Edwards understandably came to question this view and sought to convince his congregation that candidates for admission to the Lord's Supper ought to give evidence of grace. While his view would become the majority report among New England congregations, it was not so at home.[4]Eventually a ministerial council was called to help settle the dispute between Edwards and his congregation. The council, for various and complicated reasons, voted with the congregation to remove Edwards from his charge. Oddly enough, the congregation would have to draw upon Edwards for pulpit supply for up to another year. Eventually God in his providence provided a new work for Edwards further west in the Massachusetts colony. 

Edwards as Missionary to the Stockbridge Indians

After his Northampton deposition Edwards would eventually receive a call to serve as a missionary at the far west outpost of Stockbridge and as pastor to the English speaking community that had been built up there. Edwards would serve in this capacity for more than seven years. Sometimes this chapter in his life has been painted as if he had little or nothing to do. The contrary was in fact the case. During his time at Stockbridge (later made famous as the home of painter Norman Rockwell), Edwards ministered to the Indians of the region, gave oversight to a school for Indian children, battled continually with members of the Williams clan (the same family, relatives of Edwards, who gave their name to Williams College in Williamstown in western Massachusetts), and penned some of his most well-known theological and philosophical treatises. During this time he also carried on voluminous correspondence with persons high and low in the colonies and in Europe. 

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. 

[1]Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 (Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, Kyle P. Farley, eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 411.

[2]The "resolutions" can be found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 16: Letters and Personal Writings (George S. Claghorn, ed., New Haven: Yale University, 1998), 252-59.

[3]There are four volumes of the Yale edition of Edwards' Works which are devoted to his "Miscellanies." These are: The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 13:The "Miscellanies," a-500 (Thomas A. Schafer, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 18:The "Miscellanies," 501-832 (Ava Chamberlain, ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000); The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 20:The "Miscellanies," 833-1152 (Amy Plantinga Pauw, ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); and The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 23:The "Miscellanies," 1153-1360 (Douglas A. Sweeney, ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[4]Writings related to the communion controversy can be found in Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 12: Ecclesiastical Writings (David D. Hall, ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).


Jeffrey Waddington