Monday, July 07, 2008

Jonathan and Sarah Edwards: An uncommon union

Last Wednesday I attended our local Minister's Fraternal which meets at the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Jonathan Edwards, the great North American theologian of revival. As this was the occasion when wives were invited to join us at the fraternal, it was appropriate that we gave attention to the marriage of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Paul Oliver gave an excellent paper on the subject. He began by setting out the backdrop to the Edwards' lives. Jonathan was born in 1703, eighty years after the Pilgrim Fathers landed in America. The English speaking population were subject to attack from native Americans. The great European powers England and France fought for control of the New World. Jonathan Edwards was the son of a Congregationalist minister. He was converted in 1721, being given a sense of new things on reading 1 Timothy 1:17, "From about that that time, I began to have new apprehensions 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 meditation on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his Pearson, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him." He met his wife to be, Sarah Pierrpont when studying at Yale College. She was only thirteen at the time, but the twenty year old Edwards was deeply impressed,
"They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that Great Being who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for any thing, except to mediate upon him - that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up to heaven; being assured the he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love and delight for ever."
They married in 1727 and soon Edwards was settled at the assistant pastor to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard in Northampton. Stoddard had served the congregation for 60 eventful years. Edwards was to become sole pastor on Stoddard's death. Northampton was to be the scene of the some of the greatest triumphs and tragedies in the lives of Jonathan and Sarah. Together they had ten children. It is well known that Edwards would spend thirteen hours a day in his study. But this does not mean that he neglected his wife and family. He and Sarah would go horse riding together for an hour each afternoon. Edwards was careful to spend a hour every evening with his children, taking an interest in their lives and engaging them in playful conversation. Edwards could entrust the running of his household affairs to his resourceful wife. She guided their home firmly, yet with a cheerful and winsome spirit. George Whitefield stayed at the Edwards' home during the Great Awakening. The domestic bliss he witnessed at the manse made him renew his prayers for a godly wife. Other visitors were impressed by the happy piety of the Edwards household. But Sarah sometimes suffered periods of melancholy, largely brought on by the stinging criticism of Jonathan and herself by some members of the church.
The church, however experienced two seasons of revival blessing during Edwards' pastorate. There was a localised, but powerful awakening in 1735. This was the basis of the preacher's early work on revival, A Faithful Narrative of a Surprising Work of God. In late 1741/early 1741, Edwards was away from home on a preaching tour, leaving Samuel Buell to occupy his pulpit. In his absence, Northampton felt the impact of the Great Awakening. In January 1742, Sarah was given an extraordinary experience of God. After this she no longer cared about the opinions of men. She was also given to rejoice that the Lord has chosen to use another than her beloved husband as an instrument in the revival. She testified,
"I felt more perfectly subdued and weaned from the world and more fully resigned to God that I had ever been conscious of before. I felt entire indifference to the opinions, and representations, and conduct of mankind concerning me; and a perfect willingness that God should employ some other instrument than Mr Edwards in advancing the work of grace in Northampton. I was entirely swallowed up in God, as my only portion, and his honour and glory was the object of my supreme desire and delight. At the same time, I felt a far greater love to the children of God then ever before."
Jonathan Edwards was overjoyed to return home to find his church in the grip of a powerful awakening. He carefully analysed his wife's experiences and concluded that her raptures were of God. However, tensions arose between Edwards and the Northampton Church. Tensions that led to his dismissal in 1750. The pastor asked for a rise in his stipend due to rising prices, but the church would only consent after investigating the Edwards' material affairs. Some were outraged that their extravagant minister had two wigs and two teapots! In addition, Edwards argued that only those with a credible profession of faith should take the Lord's Supper. This brought into question the "Halfway Covenant" policy of Solomon Stoddard which allowed the unbelieving children of church members take the Lord's Supper. This whole area was complicated by the fact that members of the town council had to be communicants of the Congregational Church. Vested interests mobilised against Edwards. He also handled a matter of church discipline in a rather unwise and high handed way. In the end it all got too much and Edwards was voted out.
The family removed to the frontier town of Stockbridge, where Jonathan served as a missionary to the Native Americans. He wrote some of his most important theological works in the wilderness of Stockbridge, including The Freedom of the Will and Original Sin. Sarah was kept busy in the home and was active in the community. The town was affected by the Indian wars. Sarah put in a claim for providing 800 meals for needy refugees. Jonathan Edwards was later called to become Principal of the newly formed Princeton College. But died of a smallpox jab shortly after after taking office. The dying Edwards sent a message to his wife via Lucy, his youngest daughter,
"Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God, that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest regards to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue for ever. And I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now like to be fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all, to seek a Father who will never fail you."
Shortly after this Edwards looked about and said, "Now where is Jesus of Nazareth, my true and never-failing Friend?" Then, on March 22 1758, he went to be with the God of his salvation. Sarah responded to this heavy and unexpected blow with great grace,
"What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands upon our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be."

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