Jonathan Edwards was one of the most significant religious thinkers in American history. Born October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut Colony, Edwards was a child prodigy. At the age of ten he wrote an essay on the nature of the soul. At 13 he entered the Collegiate School of Connecticut (now Yale University) and he 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 and 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, pastor of the church at Northampton, Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the colony.
On January 12, 1723, he entered into his diary, "I made salvation the main business of my life." He also made a resolution, "Never to do any manner of things, whether in soul or body, less, but what tends to the glory of God..."
When Edwards was 26, his grandfather died, and the young man became pastor at Northampton, and remained there until 1750. He was a notable pulpit orator. He was a firm believer in Calvinism and the doctrine of predestination; a tendency toward belief in Arminianism, a modified form of Calvinism, however, existed in the New England colonies. In 1731, in Boston, Edwards preached his first public attack on Arminianism and, in a sermon entitled "God Glorified in Man's Dependence," called for a return to rigorous 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 the preacher combined Calvinism with mysticism, religious experience directly given and experienced.
The result of Edwards's 1734-35 sermons was a religious revival in which a great number of conversions were made; he received 300 new members into his church. Some of the converted were so obsessed by his fiery descriptions of eternal damnation that they contemplated suicide. In 1740 the British evangelist George Whitefield visited Edwards. Together, the two men started a revival movement that became known as the Great Awakening and developed into a religious frenzy engulfing all New England. The conversions were characterized by convulsions and hysteria on the part of the converts, and the harshness and appeal to religious fear in one of Edwards's sermons, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," caused his congregation to rise weeping and moaning from their seats.
His sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, first preached at Enfield, Connecticut, on Sunday, July 8, 1741, has long been recognized as one of the great sermons of history. During the previous night godly women had prayed for a spiritual visitation. It came. A special service had been called for by a group of ministers with Edwards as the speaker for the afternoon session. As the ministers entered the meeting place, they were shocked by the levity of the congregation. They appeared thoughtless and vain, and hardly conducted themselves with common decency. As Edwards preached, he used no gestures but stood motionless. His left elbow leaned on the pulpit, and his left hand held his notes. His text was Deuteronomy 32:35, Their foot shall slide in due time! Strong men held onto their seats, feeling they were sliding into hell! Men shook, some losing their reason. His words would so grip the audience that they felt, should he cease speaking, the doom he pronounced would immediately come upon them. He flashed before the people the fiery prospects of eternal damnation, as hell was a living reality to him. Yet, unlike Whitefield, he did it with calm tones. So vivid was his imagination that he could graphically picture the eternal torments of the lost. The theme of the message was, "The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over a fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked." Men and women stood up and rolled on the floor, their cries once drowning out the voice of the preacher. Some are said to have laid hold on the pillars and braces of the church, apparently feeling that at that very moment their feet were sliding, that they were being precipitated into Hell. Through the night, Enfield was like a beleaguered city. In almost every house, men and women could be heard crying out for God to save them. Before it was all over 500 were saved in the community that day. Someone has said about that sermon, "New England might forgive it, but she could never forget it."
By 1742 the revival movement had grown out of control, and for the next 60 to 70 years it had the effect on American religion of preventing any attempt at a liberal interpretation of doctrine.
Eventually Edwards's congregation turned against him. He instituted disciplinary proceedings in church against young people who had been reading what he considered improper books; later, he objected strongly to the Halfway Covenant, a New England church custom that permitted baptized persons to have all the privileges of church membership except communion although they had not openly professed conversion. A council representing ten congregations in the region dismissed Edwards in 1750. The following year he received a call to Stockbridge, in Massachusetts, then on the frontier, where he became pastor of the village church and missionary to the Housatonic people. In Stockbridge, during the next seven years, he wrote his most important theological works. Among them was A Careful and Strict Enquiry into ... Notions of ... Freedom of the Will ... (1754), A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World (1754), and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758).
Edwards was fired on June 22, 1750, by a vote of 230 to 23. On July 2, 1750, he preached his Farewell Sermon. Edwards wrote two books defending his position, Qualifications for Communion (1749) and A Reply to Solomon Williams (1752), who was a pastor at Lebanon, Connecticut. Edwards' position was vindicated later and facilitated the separation of church and state after the Revolution. Years later many of his parishioners wrote him, asking for forgiveness.
In 1757, Edwards accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). He was inaugurated in 1758, but five weeks later, on March 22, 1758, he died as the result of an inoculation against smallpox, which was then epidemic.
Edwards's thinking combined two intellectual traditions. He defended standard doctrinal categories of the Puritan tradition, but he did so by using contemporary ideas from the British philosophers John Locke, Isaac Newton, and the Cambridge Platonist Henry More. The center of his theology was the glory of God depicted as an active, harmonious, unfolding source of absolutely perfect Being marked by supernal beauty and love. He defended Augustinian convictions of the lostness of humanity and the need for divine grace to initiate the process of redemption. His intellectual cast of mind led to many theorems and as a result his theological convictions were worked out in abstruse metaphysical questions. As a Christian thinker he most resembled the Catholic Nicole Malebranche and the Anglican George Berkeley, who also developed forms of theistic idealism in response to what they perceived as the materialist drift of their age.
In his work A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Edwards drew upon his experience in the revival to argue that true religion was a matter of affections and details at length the kinds of religious emotions that were largely irrelevant to a determination of true spirituality. He argues true spirituality to be shown by twelve marks of affectional attachment to God, of which the last and most definite was consistent Christian practice. In Freedom of the Will he argued that "will" was not an independent faculty but only a way of talking about a person's choices. To "will" something was to act consistently with one's character in accord with one's motives. Edwards shows that 18th century arguments for the indeterminacy of the will lead either to the nonsensical idea that no action could be uncaused or to an amoral randomness.
The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended expanded the view of human nature in Freedom of the Will. He attempted to show that because of Adam's fall individuals were both responsible for their own sinfulness and bound by a fallen nature until converted by God's sovereign grace. His ideas were reinforced by drawing upon Locke, arguing that current psychology vindicated the doctrine of man's total dependence on God. Since man's mind is originally a tabula rasa on which his practical experience records impressions, and since God controls the destiny of every individual, human understanding can be considered to be the product of what God determines a person should experience. Edwards's reading of Isaac Newton also supported traditional convictions about the supremacy of God and the helplessness of man in the face of causes that lie beyond human control.
Edwards read widely in his era's scientific and philosophical literature and was fascinated by the discoveries of Newton and his successors. Yet fearing the drift of such ideas into materialism, he argued that the laws of science were not self-subsisting but were products of God's self-conscious intellectual activity. He was not threatened by the discoveries of science because he felt they revealed the harmony of the Divine Being. A division between the spiritual and material was uncongenial to the pattern of Edwards's thought.