Jonathon Edwards – Preacher Essay, Research Paper
Born on October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut Colony,
Jonathon Edwards was a child prodigy. At the age of ten he wrote an
extensive essay regarding the nature of the soul. At 13 he entered the
Collegiate School of Connecticut (now Yale University) and graduated in
1720, as valedictorian of his class. After two additional years of study in
theology at Yale, he preached for eight months in a New York church.
He then returned to Yale as a college tutor, studying at the same time for
his master’s degree. He was ordained in 1727 and received a call to assist
his grandfather Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard was a pastor of the church
at Northampton, Massachusetts Bay Colony, which contained one of the
largest and wealthiest congregations in the entire colony. When Edwards
was 26, the sudden death of his grandfather left him the job of pastor. He
was a firm believer in Calvinism, which represented absolute sovereignty
of God. This conflicted with the tendency toward belief in Arminianism (a
modified form of Calvinism) that existed in the New England colonies. In
1731, in Boston, Edwards preached his first public attack on Arminianism.
Using a sermon entitled “God Glorified Man’s Dependence” he called
for a return to strict Calvinism. Three years later he delivered a series of
powerful sermons on the same subject in his own church. The series
included the famous “Reality of Spiritual Light” in which Edwards
combined Calvinism with mysticism (religious experience directly given
He was a notable pulpit orator. The result of his 1734-35 sermons
was a religious revival in which Edwards received 300 new members into
his church. Some of the converted became so obsessed by his fiery
descriptions of eternal damnation, that several suicides were noted in the
area. In 1740 Edwards teamed up with the British evangelist George
Whitefield. Together, they started a revival movement that became
known as the Great Awakening. This developed into a religious frenzy
that overtook all of New England. During one of Edward’s sermons,
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” his congregation was said to
have risen “weeping and moaning from their seats.”1 By 1742 the
movement had grown heedlessly and for the next 60 to 70 years, had a
major effect on all American religion. In Northampton, Edwards’ sermons
created a demand for harsher religious discipline. However, eventually his
entire congregation turned on him because of his insolence and bigotry.
A council representing ten congregations in the region dismissed him in
1750. The following year he received a call to Stockbridge, Massachusetts
where he became pastor of the village church. During the next seven
years he wrote his most important theological works. In 1757, Edwards
accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey, which later
became Princeton University. He was inaugurated in 1758, but five weeks
later, on March 22, 1758, he died as the result of the smallpox epidemic.
The literature Edwards created was a type completely new to the
time period. It reflected the traditional religious culture of Calvinism, but
evolved into Edwards’ combination of religious components. His sermons
were characterized by convulsions and hysteria on the part of his
parishioners. He used extreme harshness and appeal to religious fear to
get his point across to his diocese. He delt with the denial that human
beings have self-determined will. Edwards firmly believed that people
could not initiate acts that hadn’t been decreed previously by God. His
views were reflected mostly in essays and sermons. His personal diary was
found emulating personal goals, and failures.
By the mid 18th century, many people considered American
religion to be static. Sermons were seen as instructional rather than
inspirational, and there was a general sense that religion was taken
completely for granted. What was needed were sermons that
represented emotions and emphasized the spiritual side of religion. The
movement that was spurred by the dullness of the church was known as
the Great Awakening. Jonathon Edwards was one of the greatest
leaders of this movement. He was a unique man who added his
interpretation of pure religious truths to American culture. Using his passion
for writing and speaking, he inspired the Great Awakening through his
passioned sermons, strong Calvinistic beliefs, and response to his
Edwards is best known for his skills as a preacher. Each of his
sermons was known to have incredible impact on its listeners. One of the
main reasons his lectures caught on so well was that people were vitally
interested in the matter he was speaking about. The Puritans were
growing deeply concerned by what they perceived to be a striking
decline in piety. Edwards and others were deeply concerned about the
frivolity of the youth in the town. They were afraid of the impact on the
state of adolescent morals. Edwards also attempted to reverse the
decline in worship attendance. Due to the declining allegiance to the
church, congregation numbers were quickly descending. His powerful
sermons immediately began to alter this concept and people were
actually making honest attempts to attend weekly Sunday Mass. Without
his passionate sermons, response to the need for conversion (and the
initiation of the Great Awakening), would have been nonexistent.
Edwards also believed strongly in Calvinism, and used this as the
root of his theological ideas. It was unusual for people to openly preach
conversion, as Edwards did. A history professor at Wake Forest University
commented, “What Edwards said in his sermons was pure Calvinism.”2
Edwards obviously preached exactly what he intended for his audience
to hear, an honest attempt of why they should convert to Calvinism. In
New England Edward’s influence reinvigorated Calvinism. However,
opponents of the revival began preaching against everything Edwards
had worked for. In Middle Colonies, Scottish Presbyterians reacted by
arguing that their orthodox doctrine was being weakened by the
revivalists’ emphasis on religious experience. All of these arguments did,
however, bring about a sense of unity of supporters of the Great
Awakening revival. Edwards, and the Awakening, used Calvinism to
respond to the people’s need for reassurance and direction.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Edward’s contributions to the
Great Awakening, was not something he directly did, but the response
that he obtained from his preaching audience. Leonard Ravenhill put it
best in his “Portrait of a Revival Preacher” when he said, “When Jonathon
Edwards ‘uttered’ in the Spirit, the expressionless face, the sonorous voice,
the sober clothing were forgotten. The tongue of Edwards must have
been like a sharp two-edged sword to his attentive hearers.”3 In this
statement Ravenhill is trying to express how even the most solemn
member of the congregation would be touched by his words. He also
uses a metaphor to describe how painful Edwards’ words are to the
consciences of the assembly; comparing it to a double-edged sword.
Edwards’ sermons had enormous impact, sending whole congregations
into hysterical fits. He discussed topics such as the blackness of death and
the emptiness of nonbearing, and he amplified how man is subject to
spiritual weakening. Throughout his works he uses himself as a carrier of
the wrath of God the people will face, if they fail to respond to the call for
Edwards’ contributed to the Great Awakening through his sermons,
devout Calvinism, and the response of his parishioners. His additions to the
Great Awakening were his most important offering to American culture.
These contributions led to the spread of this movement throughout New
England. Edwards and his volumes of writing represent the entire
understanding of the Great Awakening. Just like Edwards, this movement
was a mixture of scientific thought and the quest for spirituality. This is why
Edwards contributions were so critical to its survival. The main basis for its
popularity was the fact that it was based on “the necessity for sinners to
be converted.”4 Many others followed Edwards’ example of invigorating
lectures, and many small local revivals merged into a “great awakening.”
Edwards’ teachings and the Great Awakening had varied and somewhat
contradictory effects on American religion. Edwards and his additions to
the Great Awakening did create a significant intercolonial movement.
Edwards led the field of theologians and philosophers during the first half
of the seventeenth century, leaving a lasting legacy of religious thought.
He lived in a world shaped by the Puritans, and yet was still able to
reconcile scientific discoveries with his own religious beliefs. Edwards had,
like most people, many sides to his character. His complete writings give
the reader a glimpse of the scholar, the pastor an the man.
In “The Mind” Edwards is portrayed as a student of thought
pondering what makes something beautiful and excellent. He writes, “It is
something we all strive for, yet, do we truly know what it entails?” 5 This
vivid description of the human mind causes the reader to reflect on their
quest for perfection. The very nature of a persons being is made up of
equality and consistencies. After concluding that excellence is
agreement and proportion, Edwards moves on to types of excellence.
“One alone,” he writes, “cannot be excellent as there is nothing for that
one to relate to and no agreement is possible.”6 In this view Edwards
describes the interaction between people, and shows how excellence
can not be achieved without this interaction. The second section of the
essay represents the way people form ideas regarding basic elements of
life. Edwards also deals with the nature of substance. In the entire essay
the reader clearly sees Edwards as a scholar and scientist. He focuses on
the beauty of the mind, but also discusses gravity, and properties of solids
and light. The apparent influence of science on his education can be
seen in the selection. Edwards wrote this as a young man, but he had
already learned to form a common bond between science and religion.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of Edwards’ most
famous sermons. In this we see another side of Edwards. The academic
professor portrayed in “The Mind” becomes a passioned orator; inspiring
fear of a “flaming hell”7 into the hearts and minds of his parishioners.
Edwards reiterates the basic tenets of Christianity in a way that reinforces
the idea that everyone in his congregation deserves to be in hell. One
can truly imagine Edwards in front of a huge crowd with his warnings, “O
sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: ‘tis a great furnace of
wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are
held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and
incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell:
you hang by a slender thread…”8 Again Edwards returns to a metaphor
so that each parishioner can behold that terrible threat of damnation
that lingers upon their heads. After experiencing this, the congregation is
not so quick to dispute thier strong Puritan beliefs.
The writings of Jonathon Edwards demonstrate the many sides of his
personality, from the scholar to the inspiring preacher. He was influenced
both by Calvinism and the Puritan legacy. Gifted with the genius of being
able to merge two seemingly opposite ideas together, he left behind a
legacy of learning and independent thought.
1 “Edwards, Jonathan.” Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. CD-ROM.
1997, p. 1.
2 Tlosty, Matthew. “Lecture Four: The Great Awakening.” Wake Forest
University. Online 1998.
(October 26 2000) p. 2.
3 Ravenhill, Leonard. “Jonathan Edwards: Portrait of a Revival
Preacher.” Online 1999.
(October 30 2000) p. 1.
4 “Great Awakening.” Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. CD-ROM.
1997, p. 2.
5 Edwards, Jonathan. “The Mind.” Jonathan Edwards Online. Online
(October 28 2000) p. 9.
6 Edwards, Jonathan. “The Mind.” (see above) p. 2.
7 Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Christian Word Ministries. Online 1998.
(October 28 2000) p. 6.
8 Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
(see above) p. 12.