Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) is widely acknowledged as one of America’s most influential theologians and original religious thinkers. Scholars still study his work two centuries after his death, gleaning insight from Edward’s sermons, treatises, dissertations, journal entries, and books. Beyond his key role in the Great Awakening, historians believe Edwards provided pre-revolutionary America with an ideology that impacted the American Revolutionary effort.
10 Events in the Life of Jonathan Edwards
1. 1703: Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, to Timothy and Esther Edwards. His father was a respected Puritan pastor, and his mother was the daughter of well-known pastor Solomon Stoddard. His parents provided rigorous home training during the first 12 years of his life, and Edwards’ keen intellectual prowess came to light. And at age 13, he began his studies at the Collegiate School of Connecticut, later known as Yale University.
2. 1726: Having graduated from Yale at the top of his class in 1720 and continued studying divinity, Edwards became a pastor scholar at the Congregationalist Church in Northampton, where his grandfather served as primary pastor. The same year, Edwards married Sarah Pierrepont. Sarah has been described as a devout woman who exuded a rare combination of piety and joy wherever she went. Edwards cherished his wife and their 11 children all the days of his life and prioritized quality time with them.
3. 1729: Edwards’ grandfather died, and he assumed the Northampton pastorate. He prepared two sermons per week and spent 13 hours a day on Bible study, prayer, and sermon preparation. His congregation loved him for not only his faithful service but also his care. He welcomed parishioners into his home for counsel and spiritual guidance.
During this time in history, religious division prevailed among the 13 colonies. With the rapid expansion of the Enlightenment, suspicion of traditional ideals emerged, and religious fervor waned. An undercurrent of complacency, secularism, and rationalism invaded, leaving many churches lifeless. Many cried to God with prayer and petitions. In the late 1720s, moved by the Holy Spirit, local and visiting clergy began preaching along the eastern seaboard, communicating repentance to whoever would listen. These efforts resulted in The Great Awakening—a time of spontaneous far-reaching revival.
4. 1735: Edwards’ church caught the wave of revival early. Edwards was so astounded by the transformations he witnessed that year that he shared them in an essay, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.” God added over 300 converts to the Northampton church through the revival and called countless others from lives of apathy to holiness.
5. 1741: As revival fires continued their slow burn across New England, English evangelist George Whitefield visited Northampton. Edwards welcomed him, even though other churches rejected Whitefield because of his theatrical and charismatic preaching style. Whitefield preached over 350 sermons to people of all races and walks and covered more than 5,000 miles while visiting the colonies. Thousands gathered to hear him speak wherever he went.
Whitefield and Edwards are considered the two chief fathers of the Great Awakening. Though their preaching styles greatly differed, God used each man to bring about powerful reformation. In 1741 Edwards delivered his best-known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” As he preached about repentance and the wrath of God, a spirit of conviction swept over his audience, bringing them to their knees in sobs and wails.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is considered one of the Great Awakening’s most influential sermons. Edwards’ direct language and vivid metaphors depicting God as fierce and angry gained critics then and now, labeling him a fire and brimstone preacher. A deeper look at his overall work shows that he did not limit his teachings to unregenerate souls’ torment. His writing and sermons about the unfailing love of the Father provide deep insight into the pastor’s heart and the balanced nature of God’s character.
6. 1746: When controversy arose over the heightened emotional response of converts, Edwards published “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.” Edwards asserted that true religion isn’t based solely on doctrinal belief but also on the affections of one’s heart toward God. While Edward does agree that the devil can counterfeit an outward emotional response of true inward affection, he argues that affection should always be apparent in the life of a believer, in as much as it accompanies the genuine spiritual fruit of righteous living.
7. 1750: Edwards’ congregation voted to remove him from pastoral service for barring “unconverted” people from partaking in communion. His grandfather had welcomed all to participate in communion, believing the sacrament could become a “converting ordinance” helping bring the lost to Christ. Edwards disagreed and maintained that only believers should partake in the Lord’s Supper.
8. 1751: Edwards and his family moved west to the frontier town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Edwards pastored a small congregation of settlers and preached through an interpreter to Housatonic and Mohawk tribespeople. Edwards genuinely loved and cared for the Native America, frequently writing about the quality of their character and culture. The two tribes showed reverence for Edwards, and his ministry bore lasting spiritual fruit.
9. 1754: Now in the latter part of his frontier period, Edwards penned some of his most famous theological works. “On the Freedom of the Will” and “The Unfinished History of Redemption” are just two of his many treatises and dissertations that influenced American evangelicalism and still challenge religious thinkers today.
10. 1758—Edwards reluctantly agreed to leave his writing retreat and effective ministry in Stockbridge for full-time academia. In October 1757, he accepted an appointment as President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Shortly after Edwards assumed his post, in January 1758, Edwards received a smallpox inoculation. Less than a month later, at 54 years old, Jonathan Edwards died from the inoculation’s complications.
10 Quotes by Jonathan Edwards
1. “When indeed it is in God we live, and move, and have our being. We cannot draw a breath without his help.” – quoted in Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer by Brian G. Najapfour
2. “The divine excellency of real Christianity is never exhibited with such advantage as when under the greatest trials; then it is that true faith appears much more precious than gold, and upon this account is found to praise and honor and glory.” – Religious Affections
3. “A man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his will.” – Jonathan Edwards: Freedom of the Will
4. “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” – Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
5. “Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influenced and governed by his rules.” – quoted in “Jonathan Edwards, America’s Humble Giant” by Diane Severance
6. “The Spirit of God is a Spirit of love, and when the former enters the soul, love also enters with it.” – Charity and Its Fruits
7. “To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here.” – The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 17: Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733
8. “I have been before God, and have given myself, all that I am and have, to God; so that I am not, in any respect, my own. I can challenge no right in this understanding, this will, this affection, which are in me. Neither have I any right to this body, or any of its members–no right to this tongue, these hands, these feet; no right to these senses, these eyes, these ears, this smell, or this taste.” – The Self-Dedication of Jonathan Edwards
9. “Alas, how much pride have the best of us in our hearts! It is the worst part of the body of sin and death; the first sin that ever entered into the universe, and the last that is rooted out; it is God’s most stubborn enemy!” – Undiscerned Spiritual Pride
10. “O, how desirable that we should be able to say, with the highest degree of conscientious sensibility, ‘Be ye followers of us, as even we are of Christ!” – A Narrative of the Revival of Religion in New England
5 Fun and Interesting Facts about Jonathan Edwards
1. Edwards was a child prodigy. At age 11, Edwards began his writing career with an essay, “On Insects.” From a young age, Edwards possessed a curiosity about nature nurtured through his keen observational skills, his mother’s diligent educational instruction, and an innate ability to see God’s fingerprints on everything from insects to rainbows to the human soul. He was Yale’s first and foremost child prodigy, beginning his matriculation just before his 13th birthday. At that time, the college required students to be fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew upon entrance. He graduated as valedictorian four years later and, in 1722, received his Master of Divinity degree.
2. He adored chocolate. In September 1750, shortly after his dismissal from the Northampton pastorate, Edwards placed an order for seven pounds of chocolate. Edwards put an entry of the order in his accounts, which Kate Abbot observes may have been the “earliest record of chocolate in the Berkshires. It would have been a cake of crushed, refined cocoa beans: about 54 percent cocoa butter, and the rest the caffeine-rich essence of chocolate.”
3. He was a prolific writer, avid notetaker, and organizational genius. Besides the volumes of journal entries, sermon notes, and other teaching tools, Edwards wrote over 1,400 notebooks, collectively called “Miscellanies,” in which he recorded theological reflections on various topics. He numbered, indexed, and cross-referenced all his writing projects in such a meticulous way that scholars today still marvel over and attempt to emulate his organizational style.
4. His marriage and family life were exemplary. Despite his reputation as a stern and harsh theologian, Edwards was a loving and gentle man, husband, and father. His wife, Sarah, cherished her husband, and their 11 children not only respected their father but seemed genuinely fond of him. Edwards dedicated time each day to give his offspring his full and undivided attention, and his children joyfully took advantage of their appointments with their father to share adventures, glean wisdom, and receive help with their studies. Every evening he and Sarah shared a time of prayer and devotion.
5. His legacy reaches far beyond his own work. Statistically speaking, the fact all 11 of Edwards’ children continued in the Christian faith and lived out that faith for their entire lives is notable. Beyond that, according to a study conducted by A. E. Winship, Edwards’ 1,400 living descendants in 1900 included 100 missionaries, pastors, and theologians, 100 attorneys, 80 public officials (including a U.S. Vice President), 65 professors, 30 judges, 13 college presidents, and countless authors and public servants.
“Probably no two people married since the beginning of the 18th century have been the progenitors of so many distinguished persons as were Jonathan Edwards and Sarah Pierrepont.” – The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society
Photo Credit: 1855 engraving by R Babson & J Andrews/Wikimedia Commons
Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.
This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity: