In February 1740, Jonathan Edwards addressed an ordination sermon to the congregation of Cold Spring, Massachusetts. He reminded their new pastor, Edward Billing, that God had not left it to ministers to determine their mission.
"Ministers," proclaimed the Northampton divine, "are only sent on his errand. They are to preach the preaching that he bids them. He has put into their hands a Book containing a summary of doctrine and bids them go and preach that Word."
Just as the Word they preached came from beyond them, often clashing with merely human assumptions, so—Edwards believed—did the care of souls. Soft comfort must be mixed, at times, with hard challenge.
Such a time was the occasion of Edwards's accession to his Northampton pastorate. On February 11, 1729, the town had lost two prominent spiritual leaders—their minister of the previous 57 years, Solomon Stoddard, and their ruling elder, Ebenezer Strong.
Though sympathetic with the grief of his congregation, Northampton's new spiritual leader saw these deaths as signs of God's displeasure, and he pled for the townsfolk to repent:
"Let us consider what we have done to displease God. … It should now be everyone's work to reflect on himself, to view his past life, to be looking into his own heart and turning his feet into God's testimonies."
From his earliest days as their pastor, Edwards mixed assurances of God's loving care for his covenanted people with stern reminders of what that covenant required of its human beneficiaries.
Pastoral care but not coddling
Impressions of sternness—even coldness and distance—were reinforced by a decision Edwards made at the outset of his 21-year ministry at Northampton. He resolved not to pay the customary pastoral visits to his congregants, but rather to come to their side only when called in cases of sickness or other emergency.
His "disciple" Samuel Hopkins wrote that Edwards based this decision on a clear-eyed assessment of his own gifts. He simply decided that he was unable to match the graceful gregariousness of those ministers who had a "knack at introducing profitable, religious discourse in a free, natural, and … undesigned way." Thus, he felt he would "do the greatest good to souls … by preaching and writing, and conversing with persons under religious impressions in his study, where he encouraged all such to repair."
Hopkins remembered warmly the Northampton pastor's affection and concern for his people: "For their good he was always writing, contriving, labouring; for them he had poured out ten thousand fervent prayers; and they were dear to him above any other people under heaven."
Throughout the famous Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, the study at Edwards's home was "thronged," Hopkins said, with people seeking to "lay open their spiritual concerns to him." Edwards counseled them all.
Edwards also carefully and methodically catechized the town's young people. Based on his acquaintance with the children, Edwards crafted questions suited to their ages and abilities.
For example, Roger Clap's "short son" was to know that during Jehoram's reign the worship of Baal was first established in Judah. Questions were often personalized. Edwards expected Zadok Lyman to know something of his namesake, "Zadok that Solomon made high priest." Edwards examined African American children as well, for example asking "Amos, Negro" to number the kings who reigned in Judah after the captivity of the ten tribes.
During the revival years, Edwards continued performing all of the regular duties of a minister to his flock—among them, some forty weddings. Some of these involved young people he had counseled and catechized, such as Zadok Lyman, who wed Sarah Clark on January 31, 1745.
In addition to giving his parishioners spiritual counsel, teaching their children, and uniting them in marriage, Edwards encouraged their intellectual development by lending out his books. In the early 1730s, at least nine among his congregation received books from Edwards's personal library, ranging from a catechism by Isaac Watts to a treatise on infant baptism.
The kind of preaching God wants
As the Awakening swept through Northampton, Edwards addressed what he saw as his primary pastoral responsibility—preaching. The faithful minister, he instructed, "labors to find out acceptable words and does what in him lies to speak so as to influence and affect his hearers, to see them attentive, willing to hear and learn, accepting of what he delivers with due concern to practice the same."
Like most Puritans, Edwards preached from the Bible, dividing his sermons into three sections—"Text," "Doctrine," and "Application"—each saturated with Scripture. Even his own phrasing was often strikingly biblical. He chose his words carefully for the images they created in the minds of his hearers.
Though early on, he relied on notes while preaching, Edwards came to view this habit as "a deficiency and infirmity" and so moved toward an outline format during the 1740s. His style, though restrained, was powerful.
"His words," remembered Hopkins, "often discovered a great degree of inward fervour, without much noise or external condition, and fell with great weight on the minds of his hearers."
Another person who heard him preach recalled his "power of presenting an important truth before an audience, with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling, that the whole soul of the speaker is thrown into every part of the conception and delivery."
The result, reported the observer, was that "the solemn attention of the whole audience is riveted, from the beginning to the close, and impressions are left that cannot be effaced." This admirer, at least, proclaimed Edwards "the most eloquent man I ever heard speak."
Open arms, blunt rebuke
Not only did Edwards hope to see souls converted under his ministry, he also desired to create a vibrant community of professing believers. Longing for all of Northampton to experience a true religion of the heart and mind, Edwards did not overlook the town's women, children, and slaves.
In his revival writings, he highlighted the awakening experiences of townsperson Abigail Hutchinson and another, unnamed woman who was actually his wife Sarah. He rejoiced in seeing the town's young people, like 4-year-old Phebe Palmer, who learned of the grace of God in 1735, "spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ." And he opened the church's doors to African Americans to a degree rare in his day, admitting several black slaves as full members in the 1730s.
Edwards's concern for the spiritual welfare of his community led him to take disciplinary actions that seem harsh today, though they were common in colonial churches. One such action occurred in 1744, when several Northampton girls informed their pastor that some young men had used a midwife's manual to taunt them.
First, Edwards preached a sermon from Hebrews 12:15-16, speaking out against the sin. Then he called a church meeting. Shortly after this assembly, Edwards compiled a list of people involved or acquainted with the actions of the young men. In the days that followed, a church committee met to hear the facts about the case.
While the accused young men ridiculed the church and their pastor during the course of the proceedings, at least two of them ultimately confessed to "contemptuous behavior toward the authority of this church."
Throughout the proceedings, and indeed throughout his Northampton pastorate, Edwards defended this authority. He did this not out of pride for his position, but because he saw that when the people failed to respect the church's covenant, they often also failed to live up to their profession of faith.
Conditions for communion
During his pastorate at Northampton, Edwards's understanding of this profession of faith changed. Solomon Stoddard, the town's former pastor and his maternal grandfather, had taught that the Lord's Supper was a converting ordinance, or a means by which God might impart saving grace. For the first decade or so of his ministry, Edwards agreed with his grandfather. As the fires of the Awakening cooled, however, Edwards grew concerned over the converts who failed to remain interested in spiritual matters. Consequently, he rethought his understanding of true religion and its effects on Christians.
His focus on religious affections, "the vigorous and sensible exercises" of the heart, prompted Edwards to expect religion to influence both the heart and the mind. Convinced that many of the conversions of the Awakening were counterfeit, he urged his congregation to adopt a stricter admissions policy, which required new members to profess their faith publicly before they were allowed to participate in communion. This move intensified tensions within the church and ultimately prompted his dismissal.
To Edwards, this was the price a faithful pastor must be prepared to pay for upholding an effective discipline. The stakes were too high to admit any ministerial waffling. At the ordination of David White in November 1736, he reminded his listeners that the "work of ministers is to rescue the lost souls and bring them to eternal happiness, which is the work that Christ himself came into the world upon and shed his blood for. It is to be instruments of Christ's success in the work of redemption, which God looks on and speaks of as the most glorious of all works."
Throughout his career, Edwards took with utmost seriousness this highest of callings.
Richard A. Bailey is a doctoral student in American history at the University of Kentucky.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.
Support Our Work
Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month