Last week I made the time to carefully read through George Marsden’s magisterial biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. This is an important book for pastors, especially those in America. It seems important to know the finest pastor-theologian that our country has ever produced. At risk of oversimplifying an engrossing 500 page story, here in random order are a few things that we can learn from and about Edwards. Nate Archer recently took a doctoral class from Marsden on Edwards, so Nate, if you’re around, feel free to chime in.
1. Edwards died from a smallpox vaccination which he received when he became the president of Princeton. So there you have it—America’s greatest theologian, killed by Wellness Week.
2. Edwards was frugal. He wrote his indecipherably small script on the front and back of receipts and other scraps of paper. Edwards didn’t believe in wasting things, and he would probably approve of me and my old CRX.
3. Edwards always had scraps of paper with him so he could jot ideas down as they came to him and then pin them to his clothes. When he came home from a ride on his horse he would unpin his notes and organize them. He would have gone nuts with post-its.
4. Edwards was a perfectionist who probably wouldn’t have been too much fun to have around. He was better than you and he wasn’t shy about letting you know it. He was willing to die on principle, which is admirable but also got him fired.
5. America’s greatest theologian was fired from his pastorate in Northampton. This should encourage any pastor who feels like a failure in ministry.
6. Edwards intended to become an international figure. I didn’t appreciate this until I read Marsden, but Edwards’ rise was not an afterthought. He believed that he had the ability to become a significant theological force and he went for it.
7. It’s easy to go liberal but it’s hard to come back to a conservative position. The church in Northampton easily adopted the half-way covenant and even gave the Lord’s Supper to non-Christians (Solomon Stoddard called it a “converting ordinance”). But when Edwards sought to restrict the Lord’s Supper to genuine believers he got into trouble and ultimately lost his job.
8. Edwards emphasized both right doctrine and right practice. He taught that following Jesus lay as much in the affections as it did in sound theology and he sought ways to determine that a professing Christian truly was converted. See his Nature of Religious Affections for the definitive word on the subject.
9. Edwards and his generation lived under the constant threat of death. Whether it was from disease or from Indian attacks, death was never far away. Today we are more insulated from death and don’t appreciate how quickly we can die, even those of us who drive a CRX.
10. Whitefield was more gregarious and extemporaneous than Edwards. God uses a variety of temperaments and personalities, and we don’t have to become someone we’re not to have a worthwhile ministry.
11. Because it focused on the authenticity of the individual’s walk with God, the Great Awakening encouraged individualism and anti-authoritarianism. This in turn fostered the rise of those denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, who favored a more democratic, bottom-up approach.
12. In ways that sound similar to today’s world, Edwards sought to defend and develop orthodoxy to confront the dangers of rising secularism and liberalism. We are not the first American Christians to care about the boundaries of orthodoxy. For his part, Edwards seemed concerned about the slippery slope of Arminianism.
13. Edwards had one of the few good marriages among our Christian heroes of his day. Compared to Whitefield’s loveless marriage to an older woman and John Wesley’s decades-long separation from his wife, Edwards and his wife were the Brangelina of the 18th century. I’m pretty sure that last phrase has never been written before.
14. Because of the lack of available farmland and jobs, young people in Edwards’ day didn’t marry until their late twenties. This gave rise to sexual immorality, immaturity, and general debauchery, which provided fertile ground for the revivals to take hold (there were many unconverted church members).
15. Genuine conversion requires both drop and rescue. People must recognize their sin and guilt before they can be saved, but if they drop too far they may fall into despair and give up hope of salvation. We probably don’t drop sinners far enough today, while the first Great Awakening ended when Edwards’ uncle fell too far and committed suicide.