Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was a pastor and theologian, thought by many to be the greatest theological mind that the New World has ever produced. His preaching, which helped spark the First Great Awakening, emphasized man’s sin, God’s judgment, God’s sovereignty, the necessity of personal conversion, and justification by faith.
Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut. From a very early age, he was thinking deeply about theological doctrine. At the age of 13, Edwards entered Yale and graduated at the head of his class at the age of 17. He was licensed to preach at the age of 20. In 1727, he was ordained in the Congregational Church and began serving in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his grandfather and great revival preacher, Solomon Stoddard. About two years later, Stoddard died, and Edwards assumed full leadership of the church.
Edwards was grieved at the spiritual condition of the church and the community. Many made outward assent to the faith and partook in the life of the church, but they gave no evidence of genuine conversion. The people of Northampton were generally complacent about spiritual things. Church discipline had become lax, and there had been very little screening for church membership.
Edwards began to preach against this spiritual lethargy. His first sermon series in Northampton was on justification by faith alone, for he feared that many had come to rely upon their own goodness for salvation. By most accounts, Edwards was not an impressive orator. He normally read his sermons with very little animation, with his face close to the manuscript as he had poor eyesight (and also, it is reported, poor penmanship). But his sincerity and the content of the messages were used by God to bring about spiritual awakening. Under Edwards’ influence, the revival known as the Great Awakening took place. Edwards penned a history of the local effects of the revival in his 1736 essay A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.
On July 8, 1741, Edwards preached his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is reported that during the message people were overcome with conviction, and members of the congregation were shrieking, groaning, and trembling with holy fear.
In spite of his tremendous spiritual results, Jonathan Edwards was discharged from his church in 1750 when he attempted to limit communion to those who gave some evidence of conversion. He relocated to a small church in Stockbridge Massachusetts, where he served as pastor and as a missionary to the Hausatonnoc Indians. In 1758 Edwards became the president of the College of New Jersey (which would become Princeton University), but he died from complications of a smallpox inoculation about a month later.
Edwards’ influence lives on through his sermons and other writings, both theological and historical (many are still readily available both online and in print). He was keenly interested in the way the Spirit moved to bring about spiritual awakening, and he carefully recorded and analyzed religious activity in his area. He made every effort to determine where God was genuinely moving and where the religious fervor was the result of emotionalism. He was also a staunch defender of Calvinism and the doctrines of the Reformation. Historian Philip Schaff has called him the “American Calvin.”