Years ago I was challenged by one of my seminary professors to make a habit of reading the biographies of great Christians. Perhaps no other single pursuit has yielded richer treasure or been of greater spiritual profit.
However, I had repeatedly passed over one biography on my shelf – one on Jonathan Edwards. I am at a loss to explain my reticence toward reading the life of one so intimately tied to the Great Awakening and who held such a biblical perspective on true revival. Perhaps it was the severe picture of Edwards on the cover of the book combined with the incredibly heavy reading that his writings require that affected me.
Quite honestly, more than anything else it was a personal resistance to the unhealthy over-emphasis on the sovereignty of God so recently popularized in certain evangelical circles and the constant appeal to Edwards’ writings as justification for this theological imbalance that discouraged me. However, I found quite a different picture in the fascinating work by Iain Murray entitled, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography published by Banner of Truth.
I was immediately captivated by Edwards’ life. I found myself writing extensive comments in the margins of the book so that by the time I was finished, Murray had not only set many of my misconceptions at ease, but he had also created in me genuine admiration and warm appreciation of the man and his theological contributions. After finishing the book, I found myself agreeing with Lloyd-Jones’ assessment of Edwards’ life:
“No man is more relevant to the present condition of Christianity than Jonathan Edwards . . . . He was a mighty theologian and a great evangelist at the same time . . . He was pre-eminently the theologian of revival. If you want to know anything about true revival, Edwards is the man to consult. Revivals have often started as the result of people reading volumes such as the two volumes of Edwards’ Works.”
Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703. As the only son in a family of ten sisters, he came from good ministerial stock. His father and grandfather were both preachers. In fact, Edwards would eventually succeed his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard after fifty years of ministry in Northampton.
Converted at a young age, Edwards was part of the first student body at Yale. Yale’s first years were tumultuous times, creating a period of spiritual unrest for Edwards. During this time he wrote his famous list of seventy resolutions by which he would live his life. After graduating, he served for a period of time as an official tutor at Yale.
However, in 1727, he accepted a call to serve as the associate minister to his famous grandfather at Northampton. Later that same year, he would marry Sarah Pierrepont who was his life companion for over 30 years.
Under Stoddard’s ministry, the Northampton congregation experienced five specific periods of spiritual awakening, and many souls were soundly converted. Not content to merely inherit a history of revival, Edwards longed to see God so move during his own ministry.
His prayer to that end was answered eight years after his arrival. During this season of refreshing, Edwards observed that for a period of about six weeks more than thirty people were converted each week! This first taste of genuine revival had a deep impact on Edwards’ theology and his preaching.
Contrary to the general conception of Edwards as a boring preacher who read his messages, Murray presents strong evidence that Edwards’ was a passionate preacher who touched often on themes designed to stir slumbering men and shake them from their positions of ease and comfort in preparation for the Spirit’s work in their midst. The secret to Edwards’ power in the pulpit is found in the long hours spent each day in his study.
He was not just striving to understand God’s Word – he was hungry to know God intimately.
In 1740, Edwards’ prayers and longings were answered by the arrival of the Great Awakening. Suddenly, men everywhere were strangely awakened to spiritual things. There was an unusual interest in preaching.
Edwards’ role in the Great Awakening, as well as the controversies that subsequently developed, are forthrightly presented in the book. Murray makes a compelling and refreshingly unapologetic defense of Edwards’ role in the Awakening as well as his theological argumentation against the Arminian and Antinomian opposition that followed the Awakening.
Unfortunately, the congregation that had seen such powerful evidence of God’s hand upon their preacher ultimately rejected the very man whom God had used to stir them to spiritual things. After a lengthy and difficult controversy over the admitting of nominal professors into church membership, Edwards was fired by the congregation he had faithfully served for 23 years.
During the final years leading up to his dismissal, Edwards became fast friends with David Brainerd. This friendship would result in one of Edwards’ greatest spiritual contributions to the modern missionary movement – his famous book, The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.
After his removal from the church at Northampton, Edwards served as a missionary pastor in the frontier village of Stockbridge. Here among the Indians he had come to evangelize, Edwards finally found the time to write, and many of his literary works were written during this period. In time, Edwards would reluctantly assume the presidency of Princeton upon the unexpected death of his son-in-law who served as the first president.
His tenure was cut short by a failed inoculation against small-pox. Edwards contracted the disease and died shortly after on March 22, 1758 at 54 years of age.
Edwards’ influence continued long after his death. Andrew Fuller, friend of William Carey and father of the American missionary movement wrote the following letter to his old friend, John Ryland.
“We have some who have been giving out, of late, that if some had preached more of Christ, and less of Jonathan Edwards, they would have been more useful. If those who talked thus preached Christ half as much as Jonathan Edwards did, and were half as useful as he was, their usefulness would be double what it is. It is very singular that the mission to the East should have originated with men of these principles; and, without pretending to be a prophet, I may say, If ever it falls into the hands of men who talk in this strain, it will soon come to nothing.”
One has but to consider the state of missions in the American church to see how tragically prophetic were Fuller’s words.
What is needed today is not so much a renewed interest in one aspect of Edwards’ theology but rather a balanced approach to the fuller picture of his theological convictions.
If men were as passionate and verbal for Edwards’ intimacy with God, his uncompromising stand for the application of holiness to specific practices in life, and his consuming desire to see revival as some of these men seem to be for one aspect of Edwards’ theology, perhaps once again God would be pleased to visit all of us with a new season of spiritual revival.