Subscribe now

Article

More in this category:

‘The dungeon flamed with light’ – Evangelical revival of the 18th Century

October 2003 | by Michael Haykin

Jonathan Edwards (2)

J

onathan Edwards was born exactly 300 years ago on 5 October 1703 at East Windsor, Connecticut, a town then far from the centres of power and influence in the transatlantic Anglophone world.

His father, Timothy Edwards (d.1758), was pastor of the town’s Congregational Church for more than 63 years. His mother, Esther, was the daughter of Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729), the powerful pastor of the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1669 till his death.

Edwards received his elementary education from his father — an education that included beginning Latin at seven. He also received a thorough nurture in Puritan piety.

Childhood spirituality

In Edwards’ Personal Narrative he notes of this time in his life: ‘I had a variety of concerns and exercises about my soul from my childhood; but had two more remarkable seasons of awakening… The first time was when I was a boy, some years before I went to college, at a time of a remarkable awakening in my father’s congregation…

‘I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys; and used to meet with them to pray together … I, with some of my schoolmates joined together, and built a booth in a swamp, in a very retired spot, for a place of prayer.

‘My affections seemed to be lively and easily moved, and I seemed to be in my element, when engaged in religious duties.’

But this childhood spirituality, although a prognostication of his future interests, soon disappeared. In his own words, he ‘returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in ways of sin’.

No inner peace

Meanwhile, in 1716, Edwards entered the Collegiate School of Connecticut in New Haven (later to become Yale University). Although he went on to graduate from the Collegiate School in 1720 at the head of his class academically, Edwards had neither inner peace nor saving faith.

Writing later of his life at this time, he said that it was characterised ‘by great and violent inward struggles’ regarding wicked inclinations and objections against God’s sovereignty in salvation.

Conversion

It was probably in the spring of 1721 that Edwards was converted. He later said that as he was reading 1 Timothy 1:17, ‘there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before.

‘Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in Heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever…

‘From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehension and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them.

‘And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation, by free grace in him.’

Scripture central

It is vital, first of all, to note that Scripture was central in Edwards’ conversion. Not surprisingly, he would later maintain that Scripture needs to be central in all preaching, for the Scriptures ‘are the light by which ministers must be enlightened, and the light they are to hold forth to their hearers; and they are the fire whence their hearts and the hearts of their hearers must be enkindled’.

In the above account of his conversion, Edwards also highlights the ‘inward, sweet sense’ that gripped his soul as he meditated upon what Scripture says about God and Christ, and on their utterly free and sovereign grace in salvation.

Such biblical meditation would become central to his piety. Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), one of his close friends and his first biographer, noted that Edwards was, ‘as far as it can be known, much on his knees in secret, and in devout reading of God’s word and meditation upon it’.

Resolutions

Not long after his conversion Edwards drew up what are known as the Resolutions (1722-1723) in which, at the outset of his Christian life, he committed himself to keeping a list of 70 guidelines to help him stay passionate in his pursuit of God and his glory.

Hopkins commented that these resolutions ‘may justly be considered as the foundation and plan of his whole life’.

Though young when he wrote them, they bespeak a mature understanding of genuine piety — and the way such piety should be evident in all of life, and pursued with ardour and zeal.

In Resolution 26, for example, he ‘resolved, to cast away such things as I find do abate my assurance [of salvation]’. Resolution 40, written on 7 January 1723, subjected his eating and drinking habits to scrutiny: ‘Resolved, to inquire every night, before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking’.

The final resolution, the seventieth, recognises the importance of being circumspect in all of his speech: ‘Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak’.

And in Resolution 56, Edwards admits to times of spiritual failure but was resolved ‘never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be’.

The Scriptures

One resolution deals especially with God’s Word. Resolution 28 stated what he hoped would be a life-long characteristic of the way he approached Scripture: ‘Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same’.

The adverbs Edwards uses here — ‘steadily, constantly, and frequently’ — surely indicate his desire to steep his mind in Scripture.

What Edwards appears to be encouraging here is nothing less than saturating the heart and mind with scriptural truth and the meta-narrative of the Bible, something accomplished by the practice of biblical meditation.

This can be readily seen from a second statement, in which he describes his encounter with Scripture after his conversion. This text also makes it abundantly clear that he is not merely thinking of academic Bible study in Resolution 28.

‘I had then, and at other times, the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever. Oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt an harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light, exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing ravishing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading.

‘Used oftentimes to dwell long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.’

Pattern

This pattern of meditation on God’s holy Word, one that was part of Edwards’ Puritan heritage, appears to have been central to his walk with God in the latter years of his life as well.

Samuel Hopkins noted that Edwards ‘had an uncommon thirst for knowledge, in the pursuit of which, he spared no cost nor pains’. He thus ‘read all the books, especially books of divinity’, that he could get hold of.

But, Hopkins emphasised, ‘he studied the Bible more than all other books, and more than most other divines do. His uncommon acquaintance with the Bible appears in his sermons, and in most of his publications; and his great pains in studying it are manifest in his manuscript notes upon it’.

To be concluded

Tags:
Historical