The real Jonathan Edwards, the man, the person, was a tender husband, an effective and affectionate father, a human being quite unlike the image of him as the stern preacher of sermons about sin. His happy marriage to Sarah Pierrepont was more than a loving link between two people: it was Edwards’ link to life—to the practical; to warm fireplaces, good food, attractive surroundings; to devotion, to the dailyness of the Incarnation. What Edwards described as their “uncommon union” bonded them marvelously to one another and it also bonded them to the living God.

They met in 1723 in New Haven, Connecticut, when Edwards was twenty years old, a graduate student and tutor at Yale. Sarah was then thirteen years old, and she was the daughter of James Pierrepont, the mighty minister of the New Haven church. One of her great-grandfathers had been Thomas Hooker, and another had been the first mayor of New York City. Hers was an impeccable social background and Sarah’s burnished manners matched her breeding. When the gawky Edwards first met Sarah, he scared her. Unusually tall, in an era when men tended to be short of stature; abstemious in a society of jolly drinkers: intense and studious, Edwards made an awkward beau. Looking on as Sarah would shine in social situations, Edwards would be conscious of his own shortcomings, and would go home to admonish himself in his journal with such entries as “Have lately erred, in not allowing time enough for conversation.” When he went home to East Windsor, Connecticut, at the end of the school term, he was supposed to be studying for his M.A. degree. He had a great deal of studying to do, but the usually focused Edwards found that his mind was wandering. In the front page of a Greek grammar, he wrote this famous digression:

They say there is a young lady in New Haven …. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her conduct; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful if you would give her all the world … She is of wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind ….
She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly and seems always to be full of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what.

Edwards’ journal for the next four years reveals the ups and downs of an introspective young man in love. “If I had more of an air of gentleness, I should be much mended,” he once rebuked himself. In 1725, Yale went through a turbulent reorganization which caused much stress on its overworked tutors. Edwards’ journal entries became distraught:

Dec. 29 Dull and lifeless.

Jan. 9 Decayed

Jan. 10 Recovering.

The body’s wisdom finally intervened and sent Edwards to bed with pleurisy. He had the rest he needed. Mending began.

Jonathan and Sarah married on July 28, 1727. Sarah wore a bright green satin brocade dress. The exuberant design reflected the Puritan view of love. To call persons “puritanical” when we speak of alienation from the flesh is to be imprecise. Some Victorians may have had negative feelings about the human body, but most Puritans celebrated it. They loved robustly and gave marriage an honored place in their social order. America was still young and the whole society needed the stability of the family to give stability to the community. Everyone rejoiced in the establishment of a new household. Wives were protected well by law. For instance, a man could be punished for using “harsh words” to his wife.

The Edwards union was undergirded by the social order and given depth and complexity by the characters of the remarkable people involved. It is no coincidence that one of the words Edwards used most often was “sweetness,” and that one of his most melting sermons was preached on Genesis 2:21–25 (“when Adam rose from his deep sleep God brought woman to him from near his heart”).

The Edwardses moved to the attractive Connecticut River valley town of Northampton, Massachusetts, and began their lives together. The Reverend Samuel Hopkins who lived in the Edwards house as an apprentice preacher has given us an indispensable memoir of them. He assures us “no person of discernment could be conversant in the family without observing and admiring the perfect harmony and mutual love and esteem that subsisted between them.” It was Edwards’ good fortune, and an example of his brilliance, to choose a mate who perfectly supplemented and complemented him. He was stiff, Sarah was socially adept. He was intellectual and abstracted, Sarah the one who remembered when firewood had to be brought in and the garden hoed. Hopkins again:

While she uniformly paid a becoming deference to her husband and treated him with entire respect, she spared no pains in conforming to his inclination and rendering everything in the family agreeable and pleasant.

Though she gave so much to this relationship, Sarah gained much. Her husband treated her as a fully valuable person whose conversation entertained him, whose spirit nourished his own spiritual life, and whose presence gave him repose.

One of their customs was to go out together in the late afternoon for horseback rides. Clopping along a leafy woodland trail, they could talk without interruption and Sarah would not be distracted by the sight of dust on a mantle or by other household duties. Sarah was always welcome to slip upstairs to Jonathan’s study if she wished to speak to him. They had devotions together the last thing at night, before retiring to sleep. Edwards spoke out of experience when he wrote “Heaven is a world of love.”

Their eleven children have been a gift to American cultural history. In 1900 a reporter tracked down 1,400 descendants of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. He found that they included 13 college presidents, 65 professors, two graduate school deans, 100 lawyers, 66 physicians, 80 holders of public office, including three senators and three governors of states. Members of this clan had written 135 published books, and the women were repeatedly described as “great readers” or “highly intelligent.” These people seem also to have had a talent for making money: their numbers included a roster of bankers and industrialists. Of course there were platoons of missionaries. The report asserted: “The family has cost the country nothing in pauperism, in crime, in hospital or asylum service: on the contrary, it represents the highest usefulness.”

It was extraordinary that all eleven Edwards babies lived. At that time, infant mortality was high. The survival of the small Edwardses in that precarious era says something about Sarah’s instinctive sense of nutrition, her clean house, her good health during pregnancy, and about the remarkable eugenic combination this couple represented.

Edwards had the habit of taking one child along with him when he had to journey out of town. (Thanks to the anecdote told by one daughter, we have the story of the time Edwards was delayed in arriving at a speaking engagement in New Hampshire. When he finally turned up, the flustered presiding officer greeted him with this statement: “They say your wife is going to heaven by a shorter road than yourself.”)

Another of Edwards’ fatherly strategies was to give his full attention to the children for one hour before dinner each evening. He would sit in his high-backed chair, without his awesome wig, smoking the clay pipe which was his one public vice. This was the hour when the children knew they could ask their father to help with their school lessons, or could report problems or adventures that had come about during the day.

Jonathan and Sarah approached the discipline of their brood as a united team. The children noted this, and also saw that their father treated their mother with courtesy and respect. In one sermon about Christian nurture, Edwards proclaimed “There is such a thing as anger that is consistent with good will,” and he practiced what he preached. He also once said “Every house should be a little church,” and that, too, he made real.

In the Great Awakening the house hummed with activity, as parishioners clamored for counsel, and visitors came from many places to see what all the excitement was about. Among the many house guests in that period was the evangelist George Whitefield who went away saying “A sweeter couple I have not seen.” Edwards felt a bidding to spread news of a phenomenon he believed to be “the surprising work of God.” Thus, in addition to his greatly accelerated parish duties, he accepted a heavy schedule of out-of-town meetings.

Here we come to a part of our narrative so unlike anything else in our story that it seems out of place. We do not know what to make of this, but precisely because it was so unusual yet so intractably on the record, we must mention it. In January 1742, after fourteen years of marriage, Sarah Edwards experienced an intense spiritual crisis, brought on by the preaching of visiting minister Samuel Buell. While Edwards was away on a speaking trip, she toppled into episodes of fainting, visions, and religious ecstasy. Neighbors came in and kept the house going, and when Edwards returned, he found the town buzzing about the behavior of his wife. She assured him that she had an assurance of God’s favor she had not had before.

He sat down with Sarah and asked her to tell him everything she could remember about the weeks just past. Using a shorthand he had invented, he took down her story in full. According to Sarah, she had experienced the most intense feelings of spiritual joy and assurance. Edwards was convinced that his wife’s experience was a spiritual crisis to be attributed to the workings of God. The psychologist William James has been fascinated by this event as one variety of religious experience. Both James and Edwards concur that an unmistakable sequel of this episode was Sarah’s consequent “good disposition.” She went back to making jam and hemming pillow cases and rocking babies to sleep, as she always had, but her husband tells us “she did all as the service of love, and so doing it with a continual, uninterrupted cheerfulness, peace and joy.” Avoiding any specific mention of his wife’s name, Edwards included her story in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England.

Edwards’ dismissal from the church in Northampton was a troublesome time for the family. After lean months of unemployment, Edwards found an unlikely assignment. He and his family moved to the remote town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, then on the edge of the forested frontier. The mighty philosopher’s new congregation was a tribe of Indians, who came to church wearing bear grease to fend off insects. However, the physical setting was beautiful and the Indians were friendly. The quiet made possible the writing of Freedom of the Will. Each evening, Edwards would read to Sarah, “my dear companion,” the product of the day’s toil at his desk. Years went on. Children married. One daughter moved to New Jersey where her attractive and brilliant husband was organizing a new university at Princeton. Suddenly, in 1757, the young college president died. The trustees invited Edwards to succeed his son-in-law as president of Princeton. When the official invitation came, Edwards astonished everyone by bursting into tears, “which was very unusual for him in the presence of others.”

Edwards went on to Princeton to be with his widowed daughter, while Sarah stayed behind in Stockbridge to finish the packing. A smallpox epidemic struck that spring of 1758. Vaccination was then a new and controversial intervention. Always ahead of his time, Edwards, characteristically, chose to take a chance on the vaccination. As he lay dying from complications that followed the risky procedure, he spoke in a low voice. The doctor and two daughters of the Edwards leaned down to hear the last words of Jonathan Edwards. He spoke of Sarah:

Give my kindest love 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 I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever.

Jonathan’s last words suggest the scripture passage that was Sarah’s favorite, Romans 8:35: “Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ?”

Elisabeth S. Dodds is the author of Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts