Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan theologian, helped ignite a religious revival known as the First Great Awakening across the 13 colonies. He converted ‘many hundreds’ to his church – and then he got fired from his job.
It all started when he tried to discipline some young men in his church. He caught them with bad books that ‘promoted lascivious and obscene Discourse among the young People.’
Those same young men had been among Edwards’ first converts. Apparently they fell back asleep.
The 1st Great Awakening
The First Great Awakening made it exciting to go to church. It drew the colonies together in the first major event they all shared. And it challenged established authority, preaching that God viewed all as equal.
Those two developments get credit for paving the way for the American Revolution.
Benjamin Franklin, commenting on the impact of the First Great Awakening, wrote,
…it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street…
Jonathan Edwards helped start it all.
Jonathan Edwards was born Oct. 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Conn., the only son of the 12 children of a minister and a minister’s daughter. He entered Yale at 12 and graduated at 17, then studied theology for two more years.
From his boyhood, he struggled with the Puritan idea that God predestines people for salvation. His own conversion experience solved the problem for him. He described how he experienced a personal, emotional connection to God:
…in my father’s pasture, I looked up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God that I know not how to express it. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything, in the sun, moon, and stars, in the clouds and blue sky, in the grass, flowers and trees, in the water and all nature, which used greatly to fix my mind.
In 1727 he married 17-year-old Sarah Pierpont, who possessed remarkable piety and common sense. Edwards wrote of her,
She will sometimes go about from place to place singing sweetly and seems always to be full of joy and pleasure, and no one knows for what!?
They then had 11 children.
That same year he became assistant pastor to his grandfather’s church in Northampton, Mass. Two years later his grandfather died and he found himself sole pastor of one of the largest and most influential parishes in New England.
In 1733, his sermons sparked a revival in Northampton that resulted in 300 converts to the church over the next few years. The religious fervor spread up and down the Connecticut River Valley.
The revival took a dark turn in 1735, when the revivals unsettled some New Englanders, but didn’t convert them. They grew despondent over their inevitable damnation, and at least two took their own lives. One suicide was Jonathan Edwards’ own parishioner and uncle, Joseph Hawley. The revival cooled for a while.
In 1740, Edwards helped arrange a visit to America by George Whitefield, the British evangelical minister who spread the First Great Awakening throughout the American colonies.
The First Great Awakening again gathered momentum, and on July 8, 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached one of his greatest sermons, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in Enfield, Conn. Today it is considered a classic of American literature.
“Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering,” he preached. His voice was mild but his message was so powerful his listeners gripped their pews.
Though vast multitudes of God’s enemies lock arms together, they are easily broken in pieces. They are like dandelions blowing in the wind, or a large dry field in the path of a wild brush fire. It is easy for us to step on and squish a worm that we see crawling on the ground, or cut a tiny thread holding something together. It is that easy for God, when He pleases, to cast His enemies down to hell.
‘Didn’t Care a Turd’
In the spring of 1744, Edwards learned about 10 young men who had passed around a midwifery book detailing the anatomy of women. Worse, they made lewd wisecracks about what nasty creatures women were. Edwards brought the matter to the church brethren, who appointed a committee. The committee deliberated while the young men waited in an anteroom. They played leapfrog, climbed a ladder to peek at women waiting upstairs and finally left to drink flip at a tavern. One of the young men said he would not ‘worship a wig,’ that he didn’t ‘care a turd’ for the committee because they were ‘nothing but men, molded up of a little dirt.’
Several of the young men confessed to disrespecting authority, and the matter seemed closed.
But it wasn’t.
The incident showed how Jonathan Edward’s influence was waning, for he had converted the young men in the first years of the Great Awakening. He made matters worse by refusing to continue his grandfather’s practice of allowing communion to anyone who had been baptized. Edwards only served communion to converts. For four years, no one joined his church.
Finally, a candidate came forward to join the church in 1748. Edwards insisted he meet formal tests that he had devised, and the candidate refused. The church backed the candidate, and on June 22, 1750 a vote was taken on whether Jonathan Edwards should continue as pastor. By a vote of 230 to 23, he was fired.
Jonathan Edwards 2.0
After he lost his pulpit in 1750, he was named pastor to the church in Stockbridge, Mass., and missionary to the Housatonic Indians. There he wrote the book The Life of David Brainerd, a missionary who died in his home. The book inspired thousands of missionaries throughout the 19th century.
In 1758, Jonathan Edwards accepted the position of president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) to replace his son-in-law, the Rev. Aaron Burr, who died. He moved to Princeton, N.J., in January 1758. As the town required, he was inoculated against smallpox, but died of the disease March 22, 1758.
His descendants include his grandson, Aaron Burr, Yale College President Timothy Dwight, First Lady Edith Roosevelt, writer O. Henry, Margaret Van Horne Dwight Bell and poet Robert Lowell.
This story about Jonathan Edwards was updated in 2022.