America’s finest

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.






23 responses to “America’s finest”

  1. Excellent and enjoyable list! Laughed out loud when I got to the Brangelina comparison.

  2. Jason Myers

    Dr. Wittmer,

    What did you think of Marsden’s comparison between Edwards and Benjamen Franklin? I heard Marsden speak on this book and his Eerdmans title a few weeks ago at Eerdmans. I found the comparisons and contrasts between the lives of Edwards and Franklin fascinating. The two really do mirror opposite postures to the social-philosophical developments around them. Especially in their response to Newton.


  3. I love that biography, and you certainly gave a memorable summary of it.

    Jason, I think the comparison is actually developed in Marsden’s other Edwards biography, *A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards*

  4. mikewittmer

    Whew! Thanks, Jennifer. I was afraid that I had missed something. I slowed down for the parts on Franklin, and I remember Marsden saying that Ben and John (can I call him that) may have met, but I don’t remember a detailed comparison. Looks like I get to read more Marsden!

  5. Jason Myers

    Ah, I wondered which book it was exactly. Thanks for the clarification and sorry for the scare Dr. Wittmer. 🙂

  6. Adam F.

    Is there much about Edwards’ views on literature in the longer biography?

    Or on war? I am intrigued by this man, and especially interested in his views on art & war. Thanks for the list!

  7. eph5v2

    Thanks for the summary. He is my biography focus of the year. I am currently reading Murray’s bio, and look forward to reading Marsden’s in the next few months.

    #14 sounds much like today though for different reasons and lacking the revival part. Maybe we should encourage people to marry earlier….


  8. Glad my comment was helpful.

  9. […] 8 04 2010 Mike Wittmer has a great post on interesting facts about the life of Jonathan Edwards. My favourite (at point […]

  10. Jack H


    Given the lighthearted nature of your comments I cannot help but relate to #14 and the issue of available farmland. Does that mean I can find comfort in the realization that my past efforts in farmland preservation as a county commissioner may potentially contribute to a decrease in immorality?

  11. mikewittmer


    I think the way to look at this is thanks to you there will be less babies in the world.

  12. Jack H


    Wow! And I thought my correlation was a stretch.:)

  13. Way to shoot down 30 years of what appeared to be “pro-life” politics. Looks like more “recovery” is needed than we originally thought.

  14. Jack H


    Good point. But since you are a biological part of my “pro-lific” legacy I am not too worried about the false impressions one might be tempted to draw.

  15. […] A few things we can learn from Jonathan Edwards […]

  16. Andrew Ford

    But we all want to know- would Edwards have Warren preach at his conference?

  17. Adam F.

    Andrew: Hahaa!

    Maybe we could play a matching game between pastors of today and Edwards’ time. Who is the Warren of 1704? Who is the Whitefield of now?

  18. I agree, Marsden’s book is an excellent treatment of an amazing life. And Edwards’ “Farewell Sermon” preached to the church that essentially expelled him is fascinating and compelling for a number of reasons.

  19. […] Posted by Don Bryant on April 11, 2010 Nothing like a review of Edwards that connects with the 21st century. The following words are from […]

  20. I’m not positive about this. But I think the ‘post-its’ that Edwards pinned on himself as he rode horseback didn’t have anything written on them (and it’s hard to imagine how he would write while on horseback). The point of pinning them to his jacket was so that he could mentally identify a thought with a spot on his jacket. He would pin a piece of paper there and then as he took them off later, he would remember the thought associated with that paper-spot.

    If this is true, he gets 2 extra points.

  21. mikewittmer


    I think you’re right about that, as Marsden mentioned that Edwards pinned the paper on parts of his body that he associated with his thought, a move which wouldn’t be necessary if he wrote a detailed note on them.

  22. This was a great post! I’m sorry I missed it right away. I’ve been preoccupied writing a “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” VBS curriculum.

    One scene from Edwards’ life could probably win an award for “most awkward moment.” After his ugly dismissal from the church in Northampton, Edwards and his family had nowhere else to go and stayed in the town for about a year. On certain weeks the church was not able to find pulpit supply and had to suck it up and ask Edwards to fill in. I’m sure those Sundays were fun for everyone.

    One of the effects that Edwards’ biography had on me was to remind me not to covet anyone’s life. It is easy for an aspiring theologian to see grand achievements and accolades in Edwards’ life and think that he would like to have them for himself. However, it is one thing to pick and choose the highlights of someone’s life but another thing to want the whole package. After reading Prof. Marsden’s book, I realized that although I admire Jonathan Edwards, I do not actually want his life.

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