InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Jonathan Edwards

Nearly a century after the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth, the writer who, according to novelist William Dean Howells, “first gave our poor American provinciality world standing” was born in East Windsor, a new settlement in the Connecticut River valley. Edwards’s father Timothy was a well-read Harvard graduate who held the sole pastorship of the small town’s Congregational church. Edwards’s maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, pastor of a much larger and more influential congregation upriver in Northampton, Massachusetts, was, like Edwards, a significant theologian. Opposing his more conservative peers, Stoddard devised a policy of relaxing the requirements for full membership in the established church.

Edwards was prepared for college by his father and matriculated in 1716 to the recently opened Collegiate School (later Yale University), which Cotton Mather had helped to found in hopes of counteracting the “liberal” drift of the younger generation of faculty at Harvard. During Edwards’s junior year, the College received a major gift of recent books in science and philosophy, a gift that introduced Edwards and his classmates to such famous authors as Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. Valedictorian of his class, Edwards received his B.A. in 1720. He remained in New Haven for postgraduate study until 1722, when he accepted a job as pastor of a Presbyterian church (identical in theology but more formal and hierarchical in governance than the Congregational churches of his father and grandfather) in New York City.

After nine months, Edwards left the New York pastorate to complete a master’s thesis in theology in New Haven. From the year 1720, he had made sporadic entries in a conventional personal diary, but returning home after taking his graduate degree, he began making voluminous notes on his original inquiries in physical science, theology, and philosophy. At the urging of his father, Edwards prepared a scientific paper on the so-called flying spider, and his father sent it to a member of the British Royal Society. In 1724 Edwards accepted an appointment as a tutor at Yale.

Edwards left the College in 1726 to return to the ministry, settling down as assistant to his grandfather Stoddard at Northampton and then, after Stoddard’s death in 1729, as sole pastor of the Northampton congregation. He married Sarah Pierrepont, the daughter of a New Haven minister whom he had known since college. In response to influential colleagues who proclaimed the soul’s power to affect its own conversion, Edwards preached in 1734 a series of corrective sermons emphasizing the Calvinist (but in fact traditionally Augustinian and Pauline) tenet of the passivity of the convert before God’s all-powerful offer of grace.

In 1735, Edwards’s more “evangelical” emphasis brought about a number of conversions in the Northampton congregation. Hearing of the revival in Northampton, the Reverend Benjamin Colman, pastor of Boston’s “liberal” Brattle Street Church (founded in Edwards’s childhood to open a pulpit to theological opponents of the Mathers), asked Edwards to prepare an authoritative account of the awakening. Published by Colman in pamphlet form, Edwards’s letter had a wide circulation, spreading his fame among Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic. While the pamphlet remained in circulation, Edwards expanded and re-wrote it for book publication as A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (published in America in 1737 and in England later the same year).

Northampton’s small revival seemed temperate compared to the sensation attending the 1739–1740 colonial tour of a young English preacher, George Whitefield, who had an established reputation in Britain in the “methodist” or evangelical Anglican movement. Whitefield traveled throughout the provinces of British North America from Georgia to Massachusetts. Barred from speaking by local ministers and universities, he evoked thousands of conversions among audiences. Meanwhile, within the native anti-Anglican establishment, Presbyterian and Congregational alike, homebred American awakeners like Gilbert Tennent and Joseph Davenport achieved effects similar to Whitefield’s.

Particularly in scholarly New England, the Great Awakening drove American ministers to their pens. Some defended, some denounced as heresy the conversions and the itinerant evangelical preaching that had produced them. Edwards, who was at one with his contemporary Benjamin Franklin in finding Whitefield personally likeable, nevertheless perceived the statements of both parties as confused. With the premise that ministers could not meaningfully celebrate or condemn the particular emotional experiences of converts without having a clear theory of the place of emotion in religion, and trusting that clarification of the terms and points at issue would be welcome in the debate, Edwards devoted himself to producing a systematic study. Edwards’s Treatise Concerning Religious Affections attempted to transcend the politicized issues by lifting the discussion to a philosophical plane. While too subtle to have a direct practical effect on the passions of the time, the book became indispensable to such major modern philosophers and psychologists of religion as William James.

For Edwards as author, the results of the Awakening were happy; for Edwards as pastor, they ultimately were not. Emboldened by the increase in parishioners testifying to grace-begetting experiences, in 1748 Edwards attempted to abolish Stoddard’s practice of admitting to the Lord’s supper anyone who had been baptized, returning instead to the original “New England Way” of first requiring formal profession of a saving experience. Although a considerable number of the seriously devout in Northampton were prepared to accept Edwards’s reform, many—reflecting the decreased respect for local ministerial authority that was becoming the legacy of the Awakening’s itinerant revivalists—were not. In 1750, in a climate of accumulated family rivalries, Edwards’s attempted return to pre-Stoddard membership requirements became the formal issue over which his congregation ultimately voted in sufficient numbers to dismiss him.

With his family of eleven surviving children, Edwards remained in Northampton, working on various writing projects. In spite of financial hardship, Edwards refused to return to ministry, rejecting pastorships in the American South and as far away as Scotland and opting instead for an administrative position at a Congregational mission for the Housatonic Indians at Stockbridge, on the western border of Massachusetts. Compared to his pastoral responsibilities, administrative duties posed no intellectual competition for Edwards’s primary work as an author.

The fourth year after he moved to Stockbridge, Edwards produced a book that was instantly accepted as a major contribution to an international debate on human self-determination. Edwards’s Careful and Strict Enquiry into the modern prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will Which is supposed to be essential to...Praise and Blame (familiarly called The Freedom of the Will) would be used as a standard textbook at Yale and other colleges for decades. Here, Edwards averred that people enter the world in a state of total depravity and carry no disposition to good or bad action. The sole liberty people possess, in Edwards’s view, is the liberty that “I can do, if I will.” Yet the will, Edwards concluded in this treatise, is not free; it is determined by motives toward “apparent good” or “that which is agreeable.” So long as people can do what they will to do, Edwards argued, they are free. Freedom of the Will was a complicated treatise for complicated philosophical times.

In 1757 Edwards was called to another post, again in administration, this time as president of the College of New Jersey at Nassau Hall (now Princeton). He was at first disposed to resist the offer but finally agreed to take the post. Ahead of his family, Edwards traveled alone to Princeton. He had barely arrived when, in the aftermath of a failed inoculation for smallpox, he died at age fifty-five. Before his death, publishers in Northampton, Boston, New York, and London had published twenty-four original titles by Edwards, making him indisputably one of the few major figures in colonial American literary history.

Edwards seems to have early dedicated himself to speculative thought, laid speculation aside for the practical purposes of marriage and child rearing, then turned again to speculative writing shortly before he died. He clearly pursued his writing with the expectation of eventual publication, yet, as he got further and further behind on his projects, he evidently accepted that the audience he was addressing was one of the future.

Carol M. Bensick
University of California at Riverside

Wendy Martin
Claremont Graudate University

Carol M. Bensick
University of California at Riverside

Wendy Martin
Claremont Graudate University

In the Heath Anthology
On Sarah Pierrepont (1730)
from A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1736)
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)  [n.b., Published in 1829-1830]
from Images of Divine Things (c. 1750)  [n.b., First published 1948]
Personal Narrative (1765)

Other Works
A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746)
A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, Which Is Supposed to be Essential to . . . Praise and Blame (1754)
The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; Evidence of Its Truth Produced and Arguments to the Contrary Answered (1758)

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


Jonathan Edwards
  A long biographical essay on Edwards's life and work.

Jonathan Edwards on the Web
  An extensive collection of student web projects on Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards On-line
  Index providing an extensive collection of Edwards's writings.

The Works of Jonathan Edwards
  A comprehensive site about a collaborative project (through Yale University) to "publish a modern critical edition of the entire corpus of Edwards's published and unpublished works" offering biographical information and valuable links.

Secondary Sources