The Early Life of Jonathan Edwards

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.[1]

So said Jonathan Edwards in arguably the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil. In fact, if you are like most people, the only exposure you have had to Edwards is this sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Typically included in American literature anthologies, this sermon is taken as a specimen of the fire and brimstone sermon preached to scare the living daylights out of its listeners. Truth be told, Edwards preached just as much, if not more frequently, on the anticipated joys of heaven as he did the fears of hell. Edwards did not preach such sober sermons merely to scare his hearers, but to warn them of the very real dangers facing them and calling them to flee to Christ. This and other sermons and writings are filled with vivid and concrete images. Edwards was such a master of this expressive and picturesque language that we to want to know more about him. 

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a Reformed Congregational pastor, theologian, missionary, and for a brief period of time, college president. The story of Edwards is fascinating and often told. He is the subject of more than four thousand books and articles. My goal in this article is to crack the book cover and reveal some of the early chapters of Edwards' storied life. Before Edwards became famous as a philosophically-inclined theologian, he was a son, a student, and a husband. Let's blow the dust off the story of Edwards's life and settle in for some good reading.

Edwards's Childhood

Jonathan Edwards was a son of the manse. His father was the Reverend Timothy Edwards, pastor of the Congregational church in East Windsor, Connecticut, and his mother was Esther Stoddard Edwards, daughter of the influential pastor Solomon Stoddard. Jonathan was the only boy in his family and was surrounded by seven sisters. Edwards was educated at home with a view toward the ministry.

As you might expect, Edwards was reared with the rigorous Christian piety of his Calvinistic Puritan heritage. His father's congregation in East Windsor was visited with seasons of revival and Edwards was not left untouched by them. His spiritual life had its ups and downs and there were times when Edwards thought he had true faith in Christ. But it was not until he was a college student that he "closed with Christ" in a saving way.

Edwards at College

As was typical of the day, Edwards entered the "Collegiate School" (Later Yale University) at the young age of 13 in 1716. His student years were not all that wonderful. Edwards tended to be shy, studious, and somewhat judgmental towards his less than fully committed classmates. He experienced illness and periods of depression at college too. But it was at college that he came to faith in Christ.

After completing his bachelor's degree Edwards stayed on to work on his MA degree with a view to the pastoral ministry. On 20 September 1723 Edwards graduated from Yale and presented his "Master's Quaestio" on the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone.[2]Between the completion of his M.A. studies and his graduation Edwards briefly pastored a splinter scotch Presbyterian congregation in New York City. Eventually Edwards returned to Yale where he served as a tutor for the next two years (1724-26). Being on campus allowed him access to some of the most significant books of his day in the Dummer collection. 

I should mention one more important thing about Edwards' time in New Haven: It was here that he met his future wife, Sarah Pierpont, the daughter of a well-known minister in the New Haven area.

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]This thesis can be found in Latin and in English in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 14: Sermons and Discourses, 1723-1729 (Kenneth P. Minkema, ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 47-66.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in December 2011.


Jeffrey Waddington