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Jonathan Edwards: missionary to the Indians

February 2016 | by Jon Payne

On a wintry Lord’s Day in January 1751, in the frontier village of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards preached one of his first sermons as a prospective missionary to the Mohawk and Mohican Indians.

Edwards made a connection between the biblical narrative and the situation unfolding before him, not only for his Native American Indian hearers but also for himself. The recently dismissed Northampton preacher had embraced a new role in God’s great work of redemption: missionary to the Indians.

First sermon

Edwards began his sermon with a brief description of the history and nature of biblical missions. He informed the Indians that, during Christ’s public ministry he ‘chose twelve men … that he might teach … instruct … and fit [them] to be ministers to preach the gospel’.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and in response to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), the twelve disciples ‘went all over the world, and a great many turned to the true God and to the Christian religion’. Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius’ household and ‘they all gladly received the word and it filled [them] full of joy to hear [the good news] concerning Jesus Christ, the Saviour of men’.

The disciples then ‘preached the gospel to others in all parts of the world, so that … a great many nations turned Christian … who before were heathen’.

In what may have been the most dramatic moment in the sermon, Edwards declared to the Indians: ‘Now I am come to preach the true religion to you and to your children, as Peter did to Cornelius and his family, that you and all your children may be saved’.

Edwards would go on to serve as a missionary pastor to the Mohawk and Mohican Indians in Stockbridge for almost seven years (1751-1758), a fact that might come as a surprise to some readers. His work as a preacher, pastor, theologian, philosopher and seminary president all tend to be better known…

First priority

Christ’s mandate for making disciples through the proclamation of the whole counsel of God was Edwards’ first priority in mission. The divinely ordained message, means and aim of the gospel were never minimised in order to accommodate the unique characteristics of Mohican culture.

Edwards was sensitive to his context without attempting to ‘contextualize’ the message he communicated. His confidence was not grounded in his understanding of, or identification with, Indian culture –– dress, music, language or art. Rather, his confidence was in the bold and faithful proclamation of the Word of God, that which God promised to bless for the salvation of the elect (cf. Romans 10:14-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5).

Edwards catechised his children in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and surely approved of its teaching that the ‘Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation’ (Q.89).

The efficacious nature of gospel preaching was just as true for the American Indians as it was for the British colonists. And it is just as true for our hearers today. God, in his divine wisdom, has chosen the ‘foolishness of preaching’ to save his elect (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

Notwithstanding his commitment to unashamed biblical preaching, Edwards was far from being insensitive to his surroundings. In fact, he took pains to make the ministry of God’s Word accessible to the Indians, as well as to facilitate the provision of their basic temporal needs. In this, Edwards’ preaching to the Indians becomes for us a stellar example of accommodation without compromise.

Old Mission House, Stockbridge, built 1740Fresh ministry

At the most fundamental level, Edwards demonstrated his approach simply by composing over 200 original sermons for the Indians rather than simply preach old Northampton sermons.

In so doing, Edwards showed the attention to his audience that any faithful preacher will have: ‘It is clear from the extant manuscripts that Edwards worked hard to adapt his rhetoric to the limited capacity of his hearers’.

A fellow missionary familiar with Edwards’ preaching ministry to the Indians wrote in a letter that: ‘to the Indians, he was a plain and practical preacher; upon no occasion did he display any metaphysical knowledge in the pulpit. His sentences were concise and full of meaning; and his delivery, grave and natural’.

While tailoring his sermons to better accommodate the Indians through his highly valued interpreter, John Wauwaumpequunnaunt, Edwards clearly retained his deep and abiding commitment to the bold proclamation of the whole counsel of God. The intellectual level, language, and illustrations may have changed, but the deep theological content and searching spiritual message did not.

One example of this is found in Edwards’ early sermon to the Indians entitled, ‘Heaven’s dragnet’. Interestingly, this sermon was essentially an abstract of a series on the ‘Parable of the net’ (Matthew 13:47-50), that he preached to his Northampton congregation in the summer of 1746.

It is possible that Edwards chose to preach on this particular passage early in his ministry at Stockbridge in ‘an attempt to engage the hunter-gatherer culture of the Indians’. However, the main thrust of the message was precisely the same as it was in Northampton: the sobering truth that every person, rich or poor, white or brown, is either a member of the kingdom of heaven or a member of the kingdom of hell…

Lucid teaching

In preparation for the Lord’s Supper in August of 1751, Edwards preached a brief sermon to the Indians from Psalm 1:3: ‘He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither’.

Having been raised near the banks of the Connecticut River, this rich imagery was meaningful to Edwards and his Indian congregation alike. He explained to the Mohicans that ‘Christ is to the heart of a true saint like a river to the roots of a tree that is planted by it’. Then, in a profoundly pastoral and lucid manner, Edwards outlines the way in which Christ is a river of life to his redeemed people.

Through his faithful interpreter, Edwards provides five simple but profoundly meaningful points to prepare the congregation for communion:

‘1. As the waters of a river run easily and freely, so the love of Christ. [He] freely came into the world. [He] laid down his life and endured those dreadful sufferings. His blood was freely shed: blood flowed as freely from his wounds as water from a spring.

‘2. Christ is like a river in the great plenty and abundance of his love and grace. The love of Christ is great, [and he has] done great things from love. The good things that are the fruits of his love are infinitely great. The happiness that he gives [is] worth more than all the silver and gold in the world.

‘3. Waters of a river don’t fail: [it] flows constantly, day and night … little brooks dry up in a very dry time, but the waters of a great river continue running, continually, and from one age to another, and are never dry. So Christ never [leaves] his saints that love him and trust in him: the love of Christ never [ceases].

‘4. A tree planted [by a river] is never [dry]: so Christ is never [exhausted]. The soul [of a saint] is joined to Christ and they are made one. As the water enters into the roots [of the tree], so Christ enters the heart and soul of a godly man and dwells there.

‘5. Water refreshes; so [Christ] refreshes and satisfies [the heart], and makes us rejoice. Water gives life and keeps it alive; so [Christ enlivens the heart and] makes it grow: makes it grow beautiful and fruitful.’

Biblical approach

The pattern that we see in Edwards’ ministry to the Stockbridge Indians is an example for missionary-pastors today. Firstly, supreme attention is given to the ministry of the Word. Edwards’ confidence does not reside in his own abilities or innovative outreach techniques, but in the life-giving Word of God.

Making disciples through the regular preaching and teaching of ‘all that Christ commanded’ was an unmistakable priority (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 20:27). The Stockbridge Indians’ greatest need was deliverance from Satan, sin, and eternal damnation.

As with Christ and the apostles, Edwards understood his and the church’s primary calling and purpose to be the proclamation of the gospel, which is the ‘power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16-17).

Secondly, Edwards’ approach to missions was informed and fuelled chiefly by biblical theology, and not by cultural or pragmatic considerations. His first question was not ‘What does the culture require?’, but rather ‘What does the Bible say?’

Edwards believed that man is essentially the same in every age, a depraved and rebellious sinner, and thus has the same essential need: God’s grace and forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ. Whether one is preaching to first century Greeks or eighteenth century American Indians, the root problem and ultimate need are the same.

In his History of the work of redemption, Edwards eloquently elucidates the grand narrative of God’s unfolding plan of redemption, a sovereign and gracious plan to apply the accomplished work of Christ to the elect in every age and every nation. While circumstances change, the message and means of the gospel do not. He writes:

‘The work of redemption is carried on in all ages, from the fall of man to the end of the world. The work of God in converting souls, opening blind eyes, unstopping deaf ears, raising dead souls to life, and rescuing the miserable captives out of the hands of Satan, was begun soon after the fall of man, had been carried on in the world ever since to this day, and will be to the end of the world. God has always had such a church in the world. Though oftentimes it has been reduced to a very narrow compass, and to low circumstances; yet it has never wholly failed.’

The destruction of Satan’s kingdom ‘will not be accomplished at once’, however, ‘as by some great miracle, like the resurrection of the dead’. No, Edwards clearly states that ‘this work will be accomplished by means, by the preaching of the gospel, and the use of the ordinary means of grace, and so shall gradually be brought to pass’.

Effective means

This gradual, yet powerful influence of the ordinary means of grace in the establishing and strengthening of churches is what we witness in the early church (Acts 14:21-23; 15:41). It is also what will serve to build Christ’s church in every age and in every place.

The ministry of God’s Spirit and Word are trans-temporal and trans-cultural, efficacious to save, gather and perfect, in every age and culture, those whom the Father set his love and affection upon before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).

Therefore, the strategy of churches and missions agencies to reach the nations by sending and supporting Christian artists, musicians, baristas and athletes to redeem culture and do life with the community for the sake of the gospel may be well-intentioned, but it is foreign to Scripture and the Great Commission.

In our zeal to be relevant to our culture and identify with unbelievers, we too often exchange God’s strategy for our own. Well-meaning Christians who head to the mission field to carry out their sundry vocations (often at a high price to the church) may fulfil the Great Commandment (love your neighbour), but not, by definition, the Great Commission (preach, baptise, make disciples, and teach all that Christ commanded).

The church must renew its commitment to identify, call, and support qualified, trained, gifted and ordained men to plant churches at home and abroad.

Rev. Dr Jon D. Payne is church-planting minister of Christ Church Charleston (PCA), in Charleston, South Carolina, USA. This edited extract is used, with permission, from Jonathan Edwards for the church (Various contributors, ed. W. M. Schweitzer; EP Books, 310 pages, £12.99; ISBN: 9781783971169)