Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jonathan & Sarah Edwards: An Uncommon Union (Part 2)

Life in the Edwards' Manse
Northampton Meeting House
Samuel Hopkins arrived at the Edwards' manse one winter’s day in December 1741. He hoped to complete his studies for the ministry under Jonathan Edwards. But he was off on one of his preaching tours. Sarah took him in and Hopkins was able to witness life in the Edwards’ household. He was not yet converted at that point. But he was labouring under deep conviction of sin. Sarah noticed this and was able to give him valuable spiritual counsel. When Jonathan Edwards did eventually arrive home, Hopkins’s found that his fears that his tutor was a somewhat remote and austere figure were misplaced. Although Edwards was no garrulous “people person”, he was kind, affable and unreserved with those who got to know him.

Hopkins noted that Edwards was a hard worker, who 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. The ministerial student was impressed with the closeness of the Edwards’ marriage saying, “No person of discernment could be conversant with the family without admiring the great harmony and mutual love and esteem that subsisted between them.” Jonathan would preach against husbands who treated their wives like servants.

Regular times of family worship were observed in the Edwards household. Everyone was expected to keep to the same timetable, with bed at nine in the evening. Even when the daughters were old enough to have admirers and suitors and be on heir own were left on their own with a room and a fire, it was lights out at nine. Nothing was allowed that might ‘intrude on the religion and order of the family.’

Studious pastor as he was, Jonathan Edwards was careful to spend an hour every evening with his children, taking an interest in their lives and engaging them in playful conversation. He entrusted the running of his household affairs to his resourceful wife. She guided their home firmly, yet with a cheerful and winsome spirit. Parental discipline of children in the 18th century was often rather harsh compared with what would be acceptable today. But according to Hopkins, Jonathan Edwards was a kindly father, who corrected his children “with the greatest calmness, commonly without striking blow.” Of Sarah he wrote she,

"knew how to make [her children] regard and obey her cheerfully, without loud angry words, much less with heavy blows. She seldom struck her children, and in speaking to them adopted mild, gentle and pleasant terms."

Those modern day Evangelicals who seem to give the impression that "spare the rod spoil the child" is the be-all-and-end-all of biblical-style parenting would be wise to note the Edwards' approach. Such was the success of Jonathan and Sarah's parenting skills that Hopkins remarked, “Quarrelling and contention, which too frequently take place among children were not known among them.” Maybe the young house guest was painting a little too idealised picture. A house full of children and never a cross word between them? I don’t think so. By all accounts Jershua may have been mild and Esther obedient. But what about Sarah, the eldest daughter? When Elihu Parsons asked Jonathan Edwards for her hand in marriage, he plainly disclosed the unpleasant temper of his daughter. ‘But she has grace, I trust?’ asked Parsons, to which Edwards replied sardonically, ‘I hope she has, but grace can live where you cannot’.

George Whitefield visited Northampton in October 1740, during the Great Awakening. He preached to Edwards’ Northampton congregation, noting in his journal entry for Sunday October 19,

"Preached this morning, and good Mr Edwards wept during the whole time of exercise. The people were equally affected, and in the afternoon the power increased yet more…Oh, that my should be refreshed with joyful news, that Northampton people have recovered their first love; that the Lord has revived his work in their souls and caused them to do their fist works."

During his brief stay at Northampton, Whitefield was deeply impressed with Edwards, writing, “Mr Edwards is a solid, excellent Christian… I think I have not seen his like in all New England.” Of Jonathan, Sarah and their family he wrote, “A sweeter couple I have not yet seen. Their children were not dressed in silks and satins, but plain, as becomes the children of those who, in all things, ought to be examples of Christian simplicity. Mrs Edwards is adorned with a meek and quiet spirit…”

The domestic bliss he witnessed at the manse made Whitefield 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, or depression, largely brought on by the stinging criticism of Jonathan and herself by some members of the Northampton 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 inspiration for the preacher's early work on revival, A Faithful Narrative of a Surprising Work of God. And in the 1740's the Great Awakening came to Northampton.
* Notes of a talk given at our Penknap Ladies' Meeting.

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