The Extraordinary Life of Jonathan Edwards
At the Westminster Conference at Westminster Chapel last December  the opening paper was given by Iain Murray on the above title.1 The following are his opening words, and the remainder of this fascinating lecture has now been printed with the other five lectures in Knowing the Mind of God, published by the Westminster Conference and available from the Conference Secretary, John Harris, 8 Back Knowl Road, Mirfield, WF14 9SA.
I will plunge at once into a justification of the word extraordinary.
1. It is not extraordinary for ministers to find that they are no longer wanted in their congregations, and to have to leave. But it is extraordinary for a man to serve a church in times of revival, to make that church’s name famous, and then to be dismissed by his people after twenty-three years service. It happened to Jonathan Edwards.
2. It is extraordinary for the character and reputation of a minister to meet with such contradictory evaluations in his own lifetime as Edwards did. In the opinion of some of his contemporaries he was: ‘A very great bigot’; ‘Haughty and morose’; and ‘A person not a little obnoxious’. Others said almost the exact opposite. George Whitefield wrote of him, ‘A solid and excellent Christian, I think I have not seen his like in New England.’ Another who stayed in the Edwards’ home reported: ‘The most agreeable family I was ever acquainted with. Much of the presence of God here.’
3. There is an extraordinary difference of opinion over what was the central theme in Edwards’ teaching. Some are of the opinion that the main element to his preaching was fear and for proof they point to his best-known sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’. However, who it was that made this his best known sermon is an issue that deserves consideration. The Edwards’ church at Northampton commemorated the tercentenary of his birth in October 2003 with a conference at which all were given a fourteen inch pencil inscribed with the words, ‘That God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider … over the fire, abhors you.’ That a now liberal church should want to highlight these words is significant. But Edwards himself says, ‘It is manifest that love is the very essence of Christianity,’ and Edwards’ latest biographer writes:
That God was in essence love was no novelty in Christian or Calvinist theology or in other thought of the era, yet Edwards’ emphasis on this theme in a rigorously Reformed context was at the core of his revitalization of that tradition. (George Marsden, p.191).
4. Another extraordinary thing is the fact that Edwards may be said to be the fountainhead for two different streams of influence that were to follow in later history. One stream had much interest in what may be called a semi-philosophical, speculative approach to theology. Men in this stream – such as Samuel Hopkins – presented themselves as disciples and apologists for Edwards but their writings had limited and only temporary value. Andrew Fuller, writing to Hopkins in 1798, said of these would-be successors to Edwards:
It appears to me that several of your younger men possess a rage of imitating his metaphysical manner, till some of them become metaphysic mad.
But another stream of men who admired Edwards and read him closely received a very different impression of him and they became evangelists, preachers, and missionaries. Some of the most honoured names in subsequent church history belong to this stream and include Edward Payson, Robert M’Cheyne, William Carey, and Henry Martyn, to name but a few. The difference between these two streams was also well illustrated in the nineteenth century when Princeton Seminary rightly opposed the so-called ‘New-England theology’, upheld by professed successors to Edwards.
5. It is an extraordinary thing that a man who died at the age of fifty-four, and earned his living as a pastor, could leave so much written material. Another eighteenth-century figure believed that Edwards’ books would in after ages simply gather dust on the library shelves of colleges. On the contrary, the two-weighty volumes of his Works published in 1834 are still in print today,2 while Yale University Press has currently reached volume twenty-two in another edition which includes a good deal of hitherto unpublished material. The truth is that there is near phenomenal interest today in Edwards as an author, and one writer has recently said that ‘since 1950 or so, approximately three thousand books, dissertations, and articles have been written on Edwards.’
- Iain Murray has written Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, published by the Trust in 1987.
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