Few people seem to be celebrating the 300th anniversary of Jonathan Edwards’ birth. At least I wasn’t invited to any parties, nor did I hear of any great festivities on Oct. 5, the day he was born in 1703.
The lack of excitement about this milestone in history may be attributed to the fact that most Americans know only one thing about Edwards. They know he wrote a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Their forced reading of that one sermon has driven people to either despise Edwards for his hellfire-and-brimstone preaching or to dismiss him as a half-crazed, ranting preacher.
But the fact is, Edwards was not a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, and “Sinners” is not the best representation of either the content or presentation of his preaching.
In 1727, Edwards became a minister at the Congregational church in Northampton, Mass. Upon his arrival at the church, he found much spiritual deadness. The young people were immoral and uninterested in church or Christianity.
His eventual response to the situation was to preach a series of sermons on justification by faith alone, and in 1734, revival broke out. “By December,” wrote Edwards, “the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in. Revival grew, and souls did as it were come by floods to Christ.” Over a six-month period, Edwards recorded 300 conversions.
In 1741, Edwards preached his most famous–or infamous–sermon, the one we were all forced to read in high school.
Remember the content of “Sinners?” Edwards used the image of a spider dangling by a web over a hot fire to describe the human predicament. His point was that at any moment, a person’s hold on life could break, and that unrepentant soul would be plunged into fires of eternal damnation.
Although “Sinners” was undeniably a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, it was not typical of Edwards. Of the 1,000 sermons that he produced, only about 12 were of this variety.
“Sinners” also does not reveal much about the true nature of Edwards’ preaching style. We tend to assume, based on that one sermon, that Edwards must have been a dramatic, forceful preacher. But the reality is that he usually spoke quietly, although emphatically. His voice was unsuitable for preaching to large crowds. He seldom used loud volume or exaggerated gestures to make his points. Instead, Edwards, especially in the early days of his ministry, tended to read his sermon straight from the cards on which he had written it.
And the way in which he wrote his sermons is also a bit surprising. Edwards liked to ride his horse into the woods and to take long walks. During these solitary times of meditation, he wrote notes on scraps of paper, and then pinned the notes to his coat. When he returned home, his wife met him at the door and helped him unpin his notes. Using the notes, Edwards would compose a sermon, write it on small cards, and then read from those cards in the pulpit.
Perhaps Americans would like Edwards better if they were to read some of his other sermons or even some of his books. He wrote several fascinating books describing the revival and its effects on the life of the town and offering a detailed account of the wider revival movement.
In 1746, he published his most mature examination of revivalism and the religious experience in Treatise on Religious Affections. In it,he painstakingly detailed the varieties of religious emotions, and concluded that it is not excessive emotionalism that indicates the presence of true spirituality, but rather all true religious experiences originate with God.
Because of his writing and his leadership, Edwards became the theological defender of the Great Awakening. He defended the revivals as authentic religious experience based on the thousands of individuals whose lives demonstrated a higher moral standard and a serious religious commitment as their result.
Despite the earlier popularity of Edwards in Northampton, his congregation dismissed him in 1750, after he served for 23 years as their pastor. The cause of conflict was Edwards’ insistence that only persons who had made a profession of faith could participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Edwards’ dismissal from the church led to some lean months of unemployment, and then he took on an unlikely assignment. He moved his family to Stockbridge, Mass., on the edge of the forested frontier, and there he led a congregation of Native Americans.
Edwards’ career was given a boost in 1757 when he was invited to be president of the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton College). He was moved to tears by this invitation and soon set off for New Jersey. He was inaugurated as president in 1758.
A few months later, a smallpox epidemic struck. A new and controversial smallpox vaccine had been produced, and Edwards took a chance and was inoculated. The risky procedure led to his death on March 22, 1758, several weeks after his inauguration.
Edwards’ legacy is that he served as the theologian of the First Great Awakening, provided detailed accounts of the revivals, and sought to explain the emotions and psychologies behind religious experiences. Because of his many contributions, many rank him among the great American theologians.
Perhaps we should, after all, plan a party and celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards.
Pam Durso is associate director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.
President of Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.