You Must Read ‘Jonathan Edwards: a New Biography’
While a ‘new biography’ no longer, Iain Murray’s Jonathan Edwards (1987) is a book which fires the mind, warms the heart, and calls us to fervent prayer. Sharon James explains how the book has proved an encouragement to her time after time.
When the Banner of Truth published Iain Murray’s Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography in 1987, it was the first full-length biography of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) to have been published for nearly fifty years. In contrast to many previous biographers who had not shared Edwards’ faith, Murray wrote with the conviction that he was not dealing merely with the historical account of an eighteenth century church leader, but that he was describing the living reality of God’s presence and activity. While drawing on the primary sources, and always aiming for truth and accuracy, he hoped that this ‘popular’ level biography would inspire many readers to explore the writings of Jonathan Edwards for themselves. He was also humble enough to look forward to future contributions on the same subject: ‘One day, we trust, a definitive and theologically dependable Life of Edwards will yet be written.’ Murray begins by setting the scene, and then outlines Edwards’ life. Converted at the age of seventeen, and having studied at Yale College, in 1726 Edwards was called to assist his grandfather at the Congregational Church, Northampton, Massachusetts. The following year, he married Sarah Pierrepont, an exceptionally godly young woman aged seventeen.
In 1729 on his grandfather’s death, Jonathan succeeded him as sole minister. He would see remarkable spiritual awakening in 1737, and then again between 1739 and 1741. At this time revival was experienced in communities throughout New England, leading to fierce controversy. In 1750, the church at Northampton dismissed Edwards from the ministry. Eventually he and his family relocated to a remote frontier settlement called Stockbridge, where he pastored a small number of British colonists, as well as two more sizeable communities of Mohican and Mohawk Indians. In 1757, Edwards’ son-in-law (the President of Princeton College), died, and Edwards accepted an invitation to succeed him. Shortly after arriving in Princeton, he died from a small pox vaccination.
Edwards left a vast corpus of writing, both published and unpublished, and Murray includes helpful discussion of all Edwards’ major works. Each is placed within the context of Edwards’ own life and ministry, as well as within the historical context. An Appendix outlines all Edwards’ published writings.
I will mention just three of the themes of Murray’s biography which I have found helpful.
Enjoying the beauty of the Triune God
When my husband Bill and I left our church at Geneva Road, Darlington in 1988 to embark on three years of theological training in Toronto, the church gave us a goodbye gift: Murray’s recently published biography of Jonathan Edwards.
There could have been no better gift, and, in subsequent years, this biography is one I have returned to many times. For while Jonathan Edwards is remembered for his powerful intellect, the heartbeat of his life and ministry was the necessity of holy affections. ‘Knowing God’ is not just about intellectual understanding. It is about our heart.
In 1972, the first Carey Family Conference was held in Sussex, where Pastor Wayne Mack from the US preached two unforgettable messages on Hell and Heaven. He commended a new Banner of Truth booklet, on sale for just thirteen new pence (or 2 shillings and sixpence). At a young teenager I could afford that! And so I read Heaven, a World of Love by Edwards, a powerful sermon on I Corinthians 13: 8-10. Edwards began:
God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light. And therefore the glorious presence of God in heaven, fills heaven with love, as the sun, placed in the midst of the visible heavens in a clear day, fills the world with light. The apostle tells us that ‘God is love’; and therefore, seeing he is an infinite being, it follows that he is an infinite fountain of love. Seeing he is an all-sufficient being, it follows that he is a full and overflowing, and inexhaustible fountain of love. And in that he is an unchangeable and eternal being, he is an unchangeable and eternal fountain of love.
The power of this sermon lay in Edwards’ vision of the beauty of the Triune God, a vision that gripped me as a young teenager as I read his words. And Murray’s biography of Edwards wonderfully evokes the excitement the young Edwards experienced as he increasingly glimpsed the infinite beauty of God.
The popular caricature of Edwards as merely a ‘hell-fire preacher’ could not be more wrong. Edwards commitment to God was the commitment of a lover, transfixed with the beauty of the beloved. The infinite, eternal, Triune God is the source of all true beauty, and the One who himself is infinitely beautiful.
The Reality of Revival
By the spring of 1735 Jonathan Edwards reported that he was seeing thirty conversions a week. Three hundred people were converted in a six-month period. Excitement in the town was intense. The Edwards found their home crowded with people wanting spiritual advice. Northampton was not the only town affected: similar scenes were taking place in towns throughout New England.
The revival caused bitter division among the ministers of New England. Around a third of them dismissed it as merely human emotion and mass hysteria. Jonathan Edwards was realistic enough to understand this reaction. He agreed that a dramatic ‘conversion experience’ meant precisely nothing unless it was followed by a lifetime of obedience. It could be worse than useless, because the excitement of the ‘experience’ could lead individuals to believe that they were infallible. ‘Revival’ could overflow into fanaticism. Heightened excitement could lead people into actions that were misguided, while they claimed it was the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Uneducated people were thrilled by the notion that God would speak directly to them, and make claims that were ineffably silly. Newly converted individuals denounced mature leaders as lacking the Spirit. Yet the presence of the false did not negate the presence of the true.
To defend the reality of true revival, Jonathan Edwards wrote an analysis entitled the Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. He also set out a description of the revival of religion at Northampton in 1735 in the Narrative of Surprising Conversions, as well as a detailed description of the revival of 1740-1742 which was originally set out in a letter to a fellow minister in Boston.
When Edwards set out to analyse the unusual scenes that had resulted from this phenomenon called ‘revival’ he had a case study beside him. His own wife had an extraordinary experience. Indeed, when he returned from a preaching engagement early in 1742, the whole town was wondering whether she would even survive until his return. She had been prostrated physically with religious ecstasy, she had been so taken up with a sensation of the love of God that she had leaped for joy, she had sometimes been unable to stop talking, and at other times unable to speak.
Edwards did not rush to conclusions. He was willing to face the possibility that this could be due to nervous instability. He asked Sarah to sit down and describe every detail. She gave him a precise account of her spiritual experience which had lasted for seventeen days from January 19th to February 4th 1742. It was, concluded her husband, the most intense, pure, unmixed and well-regulated of any he had seen. He went on to explain that the long term effect in Sarah’s life was remarkable. She was now entirely resigned to God. She had given over to God the choice of life or death, for herself and her loved ones. She let God choose comfort or pain. Jonathan Edwards, of all people, would know if this was just a passing phase. It was not. He could testify to her continual peace, cheerfulness and joy in the coming months and years
The reality of Sarah’s ‘resignation of all to God’ would be tested all too soon. While carried away with a sense of the love of God, she had visualised some ‘worst-case scenarios’. What if the townsfolk turned on her and she was thrown out into the wilderness in the midst of winter? What if her husband turned against her? What if she had to die for Christ? She felt that:
The whole world, with all its enjoyments and all its troubles seemed to be nothing: My God was my all, my only portion. No possible suffering seemed to be worth regarding: all persecutions and torments a mere nothing
Murray’s biography vividly describes the challenges presented to the Edwards family in the years following Jonathan Edwards’ dismissal from the church in Northampton. They had to face war, slander, intrigue, bereavement, poverty, and a move to an isolated and dangerous frontier settlement. Their serenity and poise in the face of trials demonstrated that the powerful sense of God’s presence during revival had not been mere passing emotion.
During the past nearly twenty years, I have often drawn encouragement from the example of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards during these difficult times. They proved that when every earthly prop was removed, nothing could separate them from the love of God (Romans 8:39).
The Call for Prayer for Revival
In 1747, Edwards wrote an appeal for concerted prayer for God to bring blessing to the nations by means of revivals, entitled:
An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture Promises and Prophecies concerning the Last Time.
Edwards was responding to the call issued by a number of Scottish ministers for a concerted effort among the churches to pray together for revival. He wished to support this effort with a work which laid out Scriptural encouragements, as well as answers to objections. He began with an exposition of Zechariah 8:20-23, which depicts the gathering of people from many nations gathering for prayer:
And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go speedily to pray before the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts: I will go also. Yea, many people and strong nations shall come to see the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to pray before the LORD.
Edwards anticipated that if God poured out a spirit of prayer, this would in turn be used in the fulfilment of his purposes. The Humble Attempt needs to be read alongside The History of Redemption, Edwards’ survey of God’s purpose for the history of the world. From passages such as Psalm 110 he argued:
It is natural and reasonable to suppose, that the whole world should finally be given to Christ as one whose right it is to reign . . . Such being the state of things in this future promised glorious day of the church’s prosperity, surely it is worth praying for.
The Northamptonshire Association of Baptists in England responded to this call with a monthly prayer meeting for revival, and then in 1795 the directors of the newly formed London Missionary Society urged that the first Monday of every month be set aside for concerted prayer for world mission. Prayer meetings multiplied, and many believe that prayers were answered in the Second Evangelical Revival (sometimes referred to in Britain as ‘the Forgotten Revival’) as well as in the great nineteenth century Protestant missionary movement. While the spread of the gospel throughout the world might have seemed an impossible dream in Edwards’ own day, many would regard the prayers stirred up by his appeal as being one factor in the tremendous expansion of the church into every continent.
Now nearly twenty years old, Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards can no longer be described as ‘a new biography’. But it still speaks powerfully into our contemporary situation. In the light of the claims of the charismatic movement, Edwards’ analysis of what is genuine and what is counterfeit in spiritual awakening is still of vital importance. The overwhelmingly subjective focus of contemporary evangelicalism means that Edwards’ insistence on God-centred religion is more timely than ever.
And I will no doubt be returning to this book again, as I have so often in the past, when I want to be pointed afresh to the beauty of the Triune God, when I need to be reminded of the truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and when I need to be revived in my own prayers for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done throughout the whole earth.
This post is an excerpt from You Must Read: Books That Have Shaped Our Lives. Many of us want to ask, ‘Can somebody please tell me what books I should read?’ You Must Read provides some answers from the pens of a number of well-known Christian leaders, including Joel R. Beeke, Alistair Begg, Jerry Bridges, Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., John MacArthur, Stuart Olyott, R. C. Sproul , Derek W. H. Thomas, Geoffrey Thomas, and many others.
Dr. Sharon James is a Social Policy Analyst with the Christian Institute. She has degrees in history (Cambridge), theology (Toronto Baptist Seminary), and a doctorate (University of Wales). She is the author of a number of books, including Gender Ideology: What Do Christians Need to Know? (CFP, 2019) and How Christianity Transformed the World (CFP, 2020), as well as Elizabeth Prentiss: More Love to Thee, published by the Banner.
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