Jonathan Edwards 2: ‘Eager Pursuits after Holiness’
In April 1723, Edwards left New York. He was called to the new settlement of Bolton, just 16 miles from his birthplace. However, he spent the summer at home in East Windsor. There he finished the thesis for his MA degree and immersed himself in other studies, while taking occasional services. Eventually, in November, he settled in Bolton, possibly after the call to him was renewed, and it would seem that he had a rather disputatious people for his congregation. His ministry there lasted only six months, when he was appointed a tutor at Yale, whose main – though not exclusive – function was to provide a general education for men who intended to enter the ministry.
Edwards’ first entry in his diary after coming to Yale was less than optimistic: ‘This week has been a remarkable week with me with respect to despondencies, fears, perplexities, multitudes of cares and distraction of mind – it being the week I came hither to New Haven in order to entrance upon the office of tutor in the college. I have now abundant reason to be convinced of the troublesomeness and vexation of the world, and that it will never be another kind of world’ (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, pp.59&60). So, more or less, it was to prove throughout his life, but particularly during his time in Yale.
He would have made full use of Yale’s library. He devoured everything from which he might learn whatever might prove useful. But he commented: ‘Now the world, by their learning and wisdom, do not know God; and they seem to wander in darkness, are miserably deluded, stumble and fall in matters of religion, as in midnight darkness. Trusting to their learning, they grope in the daytime as in the night. Learned men are exceedingly divided in their opinions concerning the matters of religion, running into all manner of corrupt opinions, pernicious and foolish errors. They scorn to submit their reason to divine revelation, to believe anything that is above their comprehension; and so, being wise in their own eyes, they become fools.’ (op cit, pp.69&70) But Edwards’ views were already firmly fixed in Scripture, and were being reinforced by his wide reading in Reformed authors such as Calvin, Perkins, van Mastricht, Sibbes and Owen.
Yet this was a difficult period for Edwards. There were discipline problems at the college, and his duties necessarily distracted him from more spiritual studies. He complained that his mind was diverted from his ‘eager pursuits after holiness’. In September 1725 he took ill. He tried to reach his home in East Windsor but was not able to go any farther than North Village. About three months passed before he was well enough to resume his journey. But at North Village he experienced a reviving in his soul. ‘God was pleased’, he wrote, ‘to visit me again with the sweet influences of His Spirit. My mind was greatly engaged there on divine and pleasant contemplations and longings of soul.’ (op cit, p.71).
After his recovery in both body and soul, Edwards returned briefly to Yale. Then at the end of August 1726 he received a call to become assistant to his 83-year-old grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, the noted minister of Northampton, Massachusetts. Stoddard, who had already spent 55 years in the ministry, was described as an able and faithful preacher, so the 200 or so families of Northampton were a highly privileged people. And after his grandfather’s death, two and a half years later, Edwards warned them: ‘Woe to them that go to hell out of Northampton and that lived under Mr Stoddard’s ministry! We are ready to wonder at the wickedness we hear there is in some parts of the world . . . but they haven’t one half of the sins to answer for as obstinate sinners will have that go from this place.’ (quoted in George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, A Life, p. 127). Soon after Edwards arrived, there were signs of some movement among the dry bones of Northampton. This went on for about two years, during which time about 20 people were believed to have been converted. But the years which followed were characterised by carelessness.
Within a year he had married 17-year-old Sarah Pierpont, a minister’s daughter and, on her mother’s side, the great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker, the well-known American Puritan. The home of the newly-married Edwards was to be one of evident godliness. When Sarah was just 13, he had written of her: ‘They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that Great Being who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding great delight, and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on Him – that she expects after a while to be received up where He is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven, being assured that He loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from Him always. . . Therefore, if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind and singular purity in her affections, is most just and conscientious in all her conduct, and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this Great Being.’ (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p.92).
Even if somewhat exaggerated, this was a tremendous tribute to young Sarah’s godliness. She proved to be a highly-competent wife and mother. She ensured that her children obeyed her; she believed that if children would not obey their parents they would never be brought to obey God. Their first child, Sarah, was born, in August 1728. She was the first of the seven daughters and three sons who made up the Edwards’ family. It is said that almost all of them showed signs of spiritual life.
If Edwards is famous for his theological writings and for the blessing that rested on his preaching during times of revival, we must bear in mind that he was a man of exceptional holiness. Possibly it was in 1737 that he wrote: ‘Since I came to this town, I have often had sweet complacency in God, in views of His glorious perfections and the excellency of Jesus Christ. God has appeared to me a glorious and lovely Being, chiefly on account of His holiness. . . I have loved the doctrines of the gospel; they have been to my soul like green pastures. The gospel has seemed to be the richest treasure, the treasure that I have most desired, and longed that it might dwell richly in me. The way of salvation by Christ has appeared, in a general way, glorious and excellent, most pleasant and most beautiful. It has often seemed to me that it would in a great measure spoil heaven to receive it in any other way.’
He went on to speak of riding out into the woods one day for exercise. In a secluded place dismounted from his horse and began to walk on in meditation and prayer. ‘I had a view’, he wrote, ‘that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God as Mediator between God and man, and His wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. . . The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception – which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour, which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears . . . I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust and to be full of Christ alone; to love Him with a holy and pure love; to trust in Him; to live upon Him; to serve and follow Him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have, several other times, had views very much of the same nature and which have had the same effects.’ (op cit, p.100)
Yet, as he looked back on his strivings after holiness in earlier days, he acknowledged that he was too much dependent on his own strength. ‘My experience had not then taught me,’ he confessed, ‘as it has done since, my extreme feebleness and impotence every manner of way, and the bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit there were in my heart.’ (op cit, p.101). (to be continued)
*Other articles in this series on Jonathan Edwards appear on the website as follows:
1. ‘A New Sort of Affection’ on June 20th 2006
3. A Time of Surprising Conversions on August 29th 2006.
4. ‘A Considerable Work of God’ on September 19th 2006.
5. Analysing the Revival on December 4th 2006.
6. Division in Northampton on January 11th 2007.
7. Stockbridge and Princeton on March 16th 2007.
They are taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine of June, August, September, October & December 2006, and January 2007.
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