Jonathan Edwards 7: Stockbridge and Princeton
This is the final article in the series on Jonathan Edwards.1 Last time we looked at the communion controversy, which resulted in Edwards’ ministry in Northampton being brought to an abrupt end.
From June 1750 Edwards was without a charge, though for some time he occupied the Northampton pulpit when no one else was available. John Erskine, the prominent Edinburgh minister, suggested that he might come over to Scotland. Though Edwards did not reject the possibility, nothing ever came of the matter; he had further work to do in America. In July 1751 Edwards was telling a correspondent in Edinburgh:
I with my family have for this two years past gone through many troubles. But I hope the Lord has not forsaken us, nor suffered us to sink under our trials. He has in many respects exercised a fatherly care of us in our distresses. A door seems to be opened for my further improvement in the work of the ministry in this place.2
Edwards was writing from the Massachusetts frontier settlement of Stockbridge and the following month saw him installed there as a missionary to the Indians. On a Sabbath he would preach to the Europeans in the settlement, who numbered only about a dozen families in contrast to the hundreds of hearers in Northampton. Many years later, a Dr West, who as a boy used to listen to Edwards in Stockbridge, told Edwards’ descendant and biographer, S. E. Dwight, his impressions. Dwight wrote:
On one occasion, when the sermon exceeded two hours in its length, he told me that from the time that Mr Edwards had fairly unfolded his subject, the attention of the audience was fixed and motionless until its close, when they seemed disappointed that it should terminate so soon. There was such a bearing down of truth upon the mind, he observed, that there was no resisting it.3
And after addressing the Europeans, Edwards would, through an interpreter, preach to the Indians.
What follows is Edward’s outline of a sermon to the Indians, on 2 Timothy 3:16:
‘Tis worth the while to take a great deal of pains to learn to read and understand the Scriptures. I would have all of you think of this. When there is such a book that you may have, how can you be contented without being able to read it? How does it make you feel when you think there is a Book that is God’s own Word?. . . Parents should take care that their children learn. . . This will be the way to be kept from the devil. . . Devil can’t bear [the Bible]. Kept from hell. To be happy for ever. But if you let the Word of God alone, and never use, and you can’t expect the benefits of it. . .
You must not only hear and read, etc, but you must have it sunk down into your heart. Believe. Be affected. Love the Word of God. Written in your heart. Must not only read and hear, but do the things. Otherwise no good; but will be the worse for it. And you should endeavour to understand. To that end to learn the English tongue. If you had the Bible in your own language, I should not say so much. Consider how much it is worth the while to go often to your Bible to hear the great God Himself speak to you. There you may hear Christ speak. How much better must we think this is than the word of men. Better than the word of the wisest man of the world. How much wiser is God than man. Here all is true; nothing false. Here all is wise; nothing foolish.4
Shortly after he settled in Stockbridge, Edwards, along with the Commissioners for his mission, met some of the Mohawk chiefs. His notes for his speech of welcome to the chiefs have been preserved:
Your coming here will rejoice the hearts of all good men as they will hope it will be a means of your coming into greater light and knowledge in the Christian religion and so be a means of your eternal salvation and happiness. We don’t desire to keep you from the knowledge of the Bible, the Word of God, as the French priests do their Indians. We are willing that you could read the Word of God as well as we, and know as much as we. While I continue here I shall be willing to come from time to time and to do my utmost to instruct you in the true Christian religion.5
Many of the Indians in Stockbridge were already communicants, and some others professed faith during Edwards’ time among them.
Edwards’ time in Stockbridge also was marred by controversy; the tensions in his previous congregation followed him, as the leading family on this part of the frontier belonged to Northampton — they were in fact related to himself, as were a number of those who had been most vocal in their opposition in his previous congregation. Many of the difficulties in Stockbridge had to do with the running of the mission school. ‘I still meet with trouble,’ he wrote to Scottish minister Thomas Gillespie,
and expect no other as long as I live in this world. Some men of influence have much opposed my continuing a missionary at Stockbridge and have taken occasion abundantly to reproach me and endeavour my removal. But I desire to bless God, He seems in some respects to set me out their reach. He raises me up friends who are exerting themselves to counteract the designs of my opposers. . . My people, both English and Indians, steadfastly adhere to me, excepting the family with whom the opposition began and those related to them.6
Complaints against Edwards’ conduct were sent to Boston and Commissioners came to Stockbridge to investigate. They concluded that they were ‘well satisfied as to the general conduct of Mr Edwards’. And they went on:
He has acquired the general affections of the Indians, and influence over them, which he constantly employs for the best purposes, and the success thereof will doubtless be more evident were it not for the unwearied opposition of some people from personal prejudices.7
Edwards’ belief in missionary work among the Indians is confirmed by his action in 1755 in sending his nine-year-old son, also called Jonathan, with another missionary Gideon Hawley, who was setting out to begin work among Indian tribes at Onohoquaha, about 200 miles west of Stockbridge. The idea was that Jonathan junior would learn the Mohawk language in the hope that, when he grew up, he might himself become a missionary among them.
Some time later his father wrote:
I am full of concern for you, often think of you, and often pray for you. Though you are at so great a distance from us and from all your relations, yet this is a comfort to us that the same God that is here is also at Onohoquaha and that though you are out of our sight and out of our reach, you are always in God’s hands, who is infinitely gracious; and we can go to Him and commit you to His care and mercy. Take heed that you don’t forget or neglect Him. Always set God before your eyes and live in His fear and seek Him every day with all diligence; for He, and He only, can make you happy or miserable as He pleases; and your life and health and the eternal salvation of your soul, and your all in this life and that which is to come, depends on His will and pleasure.
The week before last, on Thursday, David died, whom you knew and used to play with and who used to live at our house. His soul is gone into the eternal world. Whether he was prepared for death, we don’t know. This is a loud call of God to you to prepare for death. You see that they that are young die, as well as those that are old; David was not very much older than you. Remember what Christ said, that you must be born again or you can never see the kingdom of God. Never give yourself any rest unless you have good evidence that you are converted and become a new creature. . .8
Life in Stockbridge had its difficulties but, as the congregation was so much smaller, Edwards had much more time for his studies, and for writing. Previously most of his books had developed from sermons he had preached, but most of his Stockbridge output was different.
He had long been concerned about an incipient Arminianism in New England, and in his latter years in Northampton he was hard at work studying the subject. And the extent to which he had already pondered the subject and filled his notebooks with his thoughts meant that he was now able to produce several volumes in a relatively short period of time. First there was, to give it its full title, his Careful and Strict Inquiry Into the Modern Prevailing Notions of That Freedom of Will Which is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame.9 In a letter to a Scottish friend — referring to the Arminian view that sinners have the power to direct their wills to good or to evil as they please — he expressed the concerns which lay behind this collection of writings:
The longer I live and the more I have to do with the souls of men in the work of the ministry, the more I see of this. Notions of this sort are one of the main hindrances of the success of the gospel and other means of grace, in the conversion of sinners. . .
With respect to self-flattery and presumption, nothing can possibly be conceived more directly tending to it than a notion of liberty, at all times possessed, consisting in a power to determine one’s own will to good or evil, which implies a power men have, at all times, to determine them to repent and turn to God. And what can more effectually encourage the sinner in present delays and neglects and embolden him to go on in sin, in a presumption of having his own salvation at all times at his command?10
This was followed by works on The End for Which God Created the World,11 and The Nature of True Virtue.12 And in May 1757 Edwards completed his last work: The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended.13
Stockbridge was always open to attack from hostile Indian tribes, but in 1754 war broke out between France and Britain, of which America was still a colony. The local Indians stayed loyal but for various reasons many of them moved away. The war did not go well and there were sporadic small attacks on Stockbridge which resulted in occasional death.
Meantime Edwards was hearing encouraging news from the College of New Jersey, which was later to grow into Princeton University. In February 1757, its president Aaron Burr — who had married Edwards’ daughter Esther — wrote his father-in-law about an awakening among the students in the College. He concluded with the words: ‘I never saw anything in the late revival [of 1740-42] that more evidently discovered the hand of God’.
In just over 18 months, Burr was dead, and the Board of the College decided that Edwards was the man to replace him. But Edwards saw a number of difficulties. For one thing, the move would interfere with his studies, particularly his aim of writing a History of the Work of Redemption, a much bigger work than eventually appeared under that title.14 It was to be ‘a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of a history; considering the affair of Christian theology. . . in reference to the great work of redemption by Jesus Christ’. He also questioned his ability to teach the wide range of subjects he was afraid would be required of him. Eventually, after consulting a council of ministers, he consented to become president of the college at Princeton.
On Edwards’ last Sabbath in Stockbridge, he preached from the words: ‘For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come’. He moved to Princeton in January 1758 alone, expecting the rest of his family to follow when the weather would improve. He began his duties cheerfully, accepting that it was the will of God that he should take up his new post. Smallpox was prevalent in the area at the time and Edwards deemed it wise to be inoculated. However, the inoculation was not a success; Edwards, it would seem, took full-blown smallpox and died four weeks later. ‘Never’, wrote his doctor, ‘did any mortal man more fully and clearly evidence the sincerity of all his professions, by one continued, universal, calm, cheerful resignation and patient submission to the divine will, through each stage of his disease’.
This was altogether consistent with what he had written in his will five years previously:
First of all, I give and commend my soul into the hands of God that gave it, and to the Lord Jesus Christ its glorious, all-sufficient, faithful and chosen Redeemer, relying alone on the free and infinite mercy and grace of God through His worthiness and mediation, for its eternal salvation; and my body I commend to the earth, to be committed to the dust in decent Christian burial. . . hoping, through the grace, faithfulness and almighty power of my everlasting Redeemer, to receive the same again, at the last day, made like unto His glorious body.15
He had no continuing city in this world but, by the grace of God, he had made preparation for his departure to the ‘city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God’.
An author of the early twentieth century owned a chair made from wood which had been originally part of Edwards’ now-demolished home in Stockbridge and declared: ‘As oft as I sit in it, I congratulate the world that it has escaped the tyranny of Edwards’ theology’. His confidence, thankfully, was more than premature. It is probably true that more of Edwards’ writings have been circulated during the past 50 years than ever before.
And the truths which Edwards sought to spread around the world will yet triumph. He himself pointed to the time when
the Spirit of God shall be gloriously poured out for the wonderful revival and propagation of religion. . . This pouring out, when it is begun, shall soon bring great multitudes to forsake that vice and wickedness which now so generally prevails, and shall cause that vital religion, which is now so despised and laughed at in the world, to revive.16
Jonathan Edwards’ name will always be associated with revival — both because of the outpourings of the Holy Spirit which so remarkably accompanied his preaching and because of his own writings on the subject. But as we long for further outpourings of God’s Spirit, this is the revival which the Scriptures specially point to us to, and for which the people of God are to pray, when
the visible kingdom of Satan shall be overthrown and the kingdom of Christ set up on the ruins of it, everywhere throughout the whole habitable globe.17
- This, the final article in the series, is taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, January 2007. Other articles in this series on Jonathan Edwards appear on the website as follows:
1. A New Sort of Affection on June 20th 2006
2. Eager Pursuits after Holiness on August 22nd 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.
They are taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine of June, July, August, September, October & December 2006.
- Quoted in Iain H Murray, Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography, p. 341.
A New Biography
This is the final article in the series on Jonathan Edwards.1 Last time we looked at the communion controversy, which resulted in Edwards’ ministry in Northampton being brought to an abrupt end. From June 1750 Edwards was without a charge, though for some time he occupied the Northampton pulpit when no one else was available. […]
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 392.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 386.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 369.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 381.
- Quoted in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, A Life, p. 403.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, pp. 394-5.
- This appears in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, pp. 3-93, published by the Trust.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 426-7.
- Works, Volume 1, pp. 94-121.
- Ibid., pp. 122-142.
- Ibid., pp. 143-233.
- A History of the Work of Redemption (Banner of Truth Trust, 2003 reprint). This also appears in Works, Volume 1, pp. 532-619.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 422.
- History of Redemption, pp. 372-373.
- Ibid., p. 384.
All Things For Good? June 29, 2020
The Banner of Truth was due to hold a Ministers’ Conference in the UK in March, and another in the USA in May. These had to be cancelled due to the COVID crisis. It was the first time for about 60 years of running conferences that this had happened. Over the last week or so […]
Are We There Yet? June 26, 2020
We Christians are heaven-bound pilgrims. The question is, do we see ourselves that way? Have we fostered this kind of pilgrim mentality in our own lives? If not, impatience may be the culprit. In this respect, many of us have been shaped by our culture more than we care to admit. To put it mildly, […]