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Biography on Jonathan Edwards: Notes and Quotes

November 23rd, 2007 · No Comments

By Dr. Phil Corr (c) 2007

In my previous post I relayed Dr. Roger Olson’s perspective on Jonathan Edwards’ contributions to the history of doctrine. In this post I am going to share from George M. Marsden’s excellent biography, “Jonathan Edwards: A Life.”

Published in 2003 (the three hundredth anniversary of Edwards’ birth), Marsden does an excellent job of relating previous scholarship as well as providing further helpful material from original sources. He sets the context on Edwards from birth to his legacy after death. The following are quotations from Marsden.

On the launching of his life’s work(s)
– “Amid both the exhilarations of New York and the tensions of the summer back at East Windsor, the nineteen-year-old Jonathan was laying out a monumental design. At the same time that he was pursuing his spiritual goals with such intensity he was organizing his views on everything. To do this, he began what would become great notebooks, formed from carefully sewn folded pages…. The pastorate was calling, yet he was resolved that his life’s work would not be just local. He was determined to be an international figure. This was part ambition–of which he had a lot–yet he also saw it as his larger calling, if God granted him the grace, to play a role in promoting God’s earthly kingdom at a crucial moment in the history of redemption.”

On the Great Awakening
– The “light of the awakening had been brightening in Northampton during August and September 1741, and Edwards was dealing every day with new confirmations that the work was truly of the Holy Spirit. He was
also much in demand as the revival firs continued to blaze all over New England.”

“Jonathan was so impressed by [his wife] Sarah’s spiritual example that he incorporated a disguised version of her account into a long treatise he was writing (“Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion” [1742] as a sequel to “The Distinguishing Marks.”) Sarah’s experience, he argued, perfectly fit the highest spiritual standards to which the most mature Christian should aspire.”

On his forced exit from the Northampton pulpit– “Edwards had some tragic flaws that contributed to his undoing in Northampton, so that the issues can not be reduced to inevitable social tensions or to his being out of step with the times, even if these were factors. Edwards was a perfectionist who had insufficient ways of coping with imperfections in others.”

“Part of Edwards’ problem was that he was building his nearly perfectionist hopes for the long-term spiritual strength of the town on the inherently unstable sands of revival.”

“Perhaps the greatest tragedy for Edwards was that his pastorate was undone by his commitment to principle.”

“On July 1, 1751, after he had arrived in Stockbridge, Edwards sat down to write his own analysis of the town dynamics in a letter to Thomas Gillespie of Scotland. Usually Edwards wrote history in purely theological terms, of God’s or Satan’s actions, and he has been criticized for not understanding history in the modern sense of analysis of temporal causes. Yet his examination of the underlying factors in the Northampton controversy, though written from a deeply interested perspective, showed that he could deal with history in that mundane sense when the occasion arose.”

Edwards at the Stockbridge Mission– “Edwards’ sermons to the Indians reflect a good sense of his audience. For one thing, he did not just preach simpler versions of his sermons to the English, which were almost all old Northampton sermons. Rather, consistent with his advice regarding Indian education, he picked themes that involved narratives and plain vivid metaphors.

Edwards at Death– “Dr. William Shippen immediately wrote to Sarah assuring her of the peacefulness of his passing. ‘And never did any mortal man,’ the doctor consoled, ‘more fully and clearly evidence the sincerity of all his professions, by one continued, universal, calm, cheerful resignation, and patient submission to the divine will, through every stage of his disease, than he; not so much as one discontented expression, nor the least appearance of murmuring through the whole. And never did any person expire with more perfect freedom from pain;–not so much as one distorted hair–but in the most proper sense of the words, he really fell asleep. Death had certainly lost its sting, as to him.’

“Although this account was written by a devotee to a bereaved widow in an era when it was conventional to give embellished accounts of how the saintly had ‘died well,’ it is also consistent with eth everything else we know about Edwards. Edwards, despite some evident shortcomings, was a saint according to the highest Reformed spiritual standards to which he aspired.”

The Edwards Legacy
– “One of my hopes is that this book may help bridge the gap between the Edwards of the students of American culture and the Edwards of the theologians.”

“My belief is that one of the uses of being an historian, particularly if one is part of a community of faith, is to help persons of such communities better understand what they and their community might appropriate from the great mentors of the past and
what is extraneous and nonessential.”

“We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from great figures in the past–both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings. Otherwise we are stuck with only the wisdom of the present.”

“Edwards challenges the commonsense view of our culture that the material world is the ‘real’ world. Edwards’ universe is essentially a universe of personal relationships. Reality is a communication of affections, ultimately of God’s love and creatures’

Edwards’ solution to the mystery of the sovereignty of God and the free will of man– “a post-Newtonian statement of classic Augustinian themes–can be breathtaking. God’s Trinitarian essence is love. God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is
permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures. The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving…. [People] will be drawn from their self-centered universes. Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as the true center or reality, they will love God and all that he has created.”

Phil Corr’s work on the web can be seen at: and

Tags: History · Theology