Jonathan Edwards as Father

Many see Jonathan Edwards as a terrifying preacher. Some consider him one of the greatest American theologians. A few know a couple of endearing details of his life, such as his loving relationship with his wife Sarah. Very few know him as a father.

A Large Family

            Born on October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut, Edwards grew up as a pastor’s son. His father Timothy had great expectations for his only son, who was born in a family with ten daughters. Given that his maternal grandfather was also a pastor, Timothy nurtured hopes that Jonathan would receive the same call.

            Timothy’s wife Esther was a very intelligent woman. Together, the couple opened a neighborhood school where they taught their children together with those of their community. Jonathan learned much from there example.

            After studying at what now is Yale University, Jonathan served as a temporary pastor and college tutor until his grandfather called him to assist him in the pastoral care of his church. This stable position allowed him to marry the girl who had charmed him a few years earlier: Sarah Pierpont. Together, they had eleven children: Sarah, Jerusha, Esther, Mary, Lucy, Timothy, Susannah, Eunice, Jonathan, Elizabeth, and Pierpont.

            Edwards manifested his love for his children in many ways, but their spiritual wellbeing was first in his mind. When the popular evangelist George Whitefield visited him in 1740, Edwards (who was then senior pastor) asked Whitefield to speak privately to his oldest children (all girls, 5-12 years old). Whitefield was very impressed with them, and noticed with pleasure how they wore simple clothes, unlike many fashionable families of his time. As for Edwards, he commented with joy that the meeting bore much fruit.

            The children’s behavior that Whitefield admired was probably a result of their parents’ consistent and swift discipline which, according to a later visitor, Edwards “exercised with the greatest calmness.”[1]

            Several records give us charming snippets of the Edwards’ family life. Music was very important, both in daily devotional meetings and other occasions. So was chocolate, especially as a beverage served at breakfast. It was still a rare item in those days, but Edwards made a point of bringing some home whenever he traveled to a large city.

            At home, the children kept busy with school and work, since many things were still home-made. For example, Sarah and the girls used silk paper to make fans and decorate them with watercolors (while Edwards, ever so frugal, collected the scraps and bound them into notebooks).

            When the children were sick, there were plenty of natural remedies, such as ginseng root infusions (very popular in Europe), raisins spread to regain strength, or rattlesnake. It’s not clear whether the flesh or the venom of the rattlesnake was used for medicinal purposes.

When Flowers Wither

            Unusually for his time, all of Edwards’ children survived until adulthood. In 1747, however, he suffered the greatest pain of his life when his seventeen-year old daughter Jerusha died suddenly of a high fever. Perhaps the most pious of the girls, she was considered “the flower of the family.” She had become very close to 29-year old missionary David Brainerd, who had died of tuberculosis in their home only a few months earlier.

            He preached the funeral sermon from Job 14:2, “He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.” (KJV). He found comfort in knowing Jerusha was with the Lord, and used the sermon to warn others to be prepared. Then he buried Jerusha next to Brainerd’s grave. But the pain continued. Eight months later, he described himself as “the subject of an afflictive dispensation” which taught him “how to sympathize with the afflicted.”[2]

Missionary Life

            Most likely, Edwards made the most difficult decision in his life in 1750, when his congregation voted almost unanimously (230 out of 253) to ask him to leave. The main issue was the administration of the Lord’s Supper, which Edwards’s grandfather allowed to all those who were baptized (which, in those days, was virtually everyone), while Edwards insisted it should be given only to those who had openly professed their faith in Christ.

            He considered different options, including moving to Scotland. “I am now as it were thrown upon the wide ocean of the world and know not what will become of me and my numerous and chargeable family,”[3] he wrote. His youngest son, Pierpont, was only a few months old.

            In February 1751, he accepted a call to pastor a church in a small colonial town called Stockbridge, built specifically as a mission to the Native Americans. It was composed of about 250 Mohicans, 60 Mohawks, and only a few people of English descent – mostly Edwards’ cousins.

            Not everyone liked the idea. The man in charge of the mission thought Edwards was not sociable enough, was too old to learn new languages, and wrote difficult essays. In reality, Edwards proved to be a good choice. He cared deeply for his flock and protected them from the British who tried to abuse them. He also communicated well, using an interpreter to convey the simple truth of the gospel with images which were familiar to his hearers.

            As for the children, they integrated perfectly well, playing with the native children and learning their language. “Here at present we live in peace, which has of long time been an unusual thing with us,”[4] he wrote.

            Remembering his parents’ small school-house, Edwards applied the same principles in Stockbridge’s local school, insisting that (uncharacteristically for that time) English and Native American children learn together.

            The greatest test of his commitment to missions came in 1755, when the schoolmaster, Gideon Hawley, decided to reach other natives by going into their villages, and asked Edwards to allow his ten-year-old son Jonathan Jr. to go along as an interpreter. Edwards agreed without hesitation. He and Sarah accompanied the missionaries as far as the paved roads took them, then went back home and waited in prayer for their son, who returned safely the following year.

Last Farewell

            In 1757, Edwards received an invitation to lead the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University) in place of Aaron Burr, who had just died. The decision was again difficult to make, but all the pastors he consulted encouraged him to go.

            His farewell to his family was emotional, “as if he knew he should not come again,”[5] his daughter Susannah remarked. According to plans, he was supposed to get situated at the college and send for his family. Besides, his third daughter, Esther, was already there. She was now Aaron Burr’s widow, and must have appreciated the comfort her father was able to give her and her two children. Edwards’ fifth daughter, Lucy, had also moved there the previous year.

            But God had other plans. On March 22, 1758, Edwards died of complications from a smallpox inoculation. Esther died two weeks later. In September, Edwards’ wife died of an illness, and their last daughter Elizabeth followed two weeks later. It was, once again, “an afflictive dispensation” for the whole family, but the remaining children must have held on in earnest to their father’s last words, “Trust in God, and ye need not fear.”[6]

[1] Samuel Hopkins, Memoirs of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, J. Black Publisher, Convent Garden, 1815, p. 89.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, Works, vol. I, London, Ball, Arnold, & Co., 1840, p. cxiv

[3] Ibid., p. clxii

[4] Ibid., p. clxxxiii

[5] Ibid, p. ccxxi

[6] Ibid., p. ccxx


Simonetta Carr