Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

At the dawn of the 18th century, the third and fourth generations of Puritan settlers in the new world were “thinking and living on a lowered plane. Not merely spirituality, but plain morality was suffering some eclipse.” (Warfield 222) Out of this morally decadent and intellectually unexceptional setting emerged a “saint and metaphysician, revivalist and theologian [who] stands out as the one figure of real greatness in the intellectual life of colonial America.” (Warfield 221)

Born into a religious and social climate being redefined by the Enlightenment, Jonathan Edwards took upon himself the task of redefining and revitalizing a traditional theological position for a new era. Edwards was born to Timothy and Esther Stoddard Edwards on October 5, 1703. He was the fifth of eleven children, and the only son. His family, both matrilineally and patrilineally, was of solid Calvinistic and Puritan foundations. It was also a family that could be considered part of the unspoken colonial aristocracy, which included those families which were highly educated, culturally enlightened, and held positions of power and influence. Entering life in such a milieu, Edwards had all the privileges associated with the elites of New England, including a sound and thorough education and access to the most contemporary scholarly works available.

On the frontiers of the “new world,” Jonathan Edwards appears somewhat of an anomaly to historians. In childhood Edwards was precocious and inclined to study. His father, Thomas Edwards, aware of his son’s ability, began to teach him Latin at age six. Edwards’ early education was rigorous enough that, when he entered college he could already read Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In childhood Edwards was keenly interested in the operations of the mind and at one point kept careful notes on his dreams in order to determine more carefully his tendencies and inclinations. This emphasis on the function and structure of the mind inclined him toward philosophical idealism.

Although naturally inclined to the sciences, Edwards’ persistent inner questions concerning the nature of reality and existence turned him to the study of philosophy and religion. At the age of 14, while at college, Jonathan Edwards discovered the writing of John Locke. Describing his infatuation with Locke, Edwards said he “had more satisfaction and pleasure in studying [Locke] than the most greedy miser in gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some new discovered treasure.” (Warfield 222) Locke’s Essays on Human Understanding was to be seminal influence in his thought.

At the age of 17, Edwards graduated from Yale at the top of his class and remained on for the study of Divinity. It was during these years that Edwards produced his spiritualistic metaphysics and it is “chiefly on the strength of them that he holds a place in our histories of philosophy.” (Warfield 222)

Edwards pastored several churches before joining his grandfather’s church in Northampton as an assistant. Eventually, Edwards took over leadership of the congregation and led them through several revivals of national and international interest, still during this time he never stopped being a student. He read widely in the sciences, was familiar with Locke and Newton, and recorded many of his own observations on nature in his personal notebooks. His most fruitful and in-depth studies may have been his investigations into human nature. Revivals in his Northampton church provided him with occasion to study human responses to God, and the enthusiastic excesses of these revivals drove him to articulate a distinction between genuine response to God and unrestrained emotionalism and passion. Some of his most insightful work stems from this period, and the anthropology he developed in response to the revivals informs all of his later theological writings. For the next six years he bounced between pastoring a poor church in New York City and another in Bolton Connecticut, academics (returning as a tutor at Yale during a most trying period in the life of the college) and courtship.

Concerning the courtship and the eventual marriage, which has become legendary, in her book, Marriage to a Difficult Man, Elisabeth Dodds describes the “uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Edwards was totally unlike the girl who fatefully caught his eye. “Edwards was moody, socially bumbling, barricaded behind the stateliness of the very shy.” Sarah, on the other hand, “was vibrant brunette, with erect posture and burnished manners.” Sarah “was skillful at small talk—he had no talent for it at all. She was blithe—he given to black patches of introspection.” Given these qualities, his unusual tall stature and his “piercing, luminous eyes,” when he first showed interest in Sarah he scared her. (Dodds 12) Somehow, after four long years, Edwards was able to win her heart, and at the age of 17, in year 1727, Sarah Pierrepont married Jonathan Edwards.

“The mythic picture,” says Dodds, “of [Edwards] is of the stern theologian. He was in fact a tender lover and a father whose children seemed genuinely fond of him.” (Dodds 7) Together they parented eleven “believing” children. A study in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society asserts, “Probably no two people married since the beginning of the 18th century have been the progenitors of so many distinguished persons as were Jonathan Edwards and Sarah Pierrepont.” (Dodds 204)

Edwards had always been a very religious person resolving early in life to make “seeking his salvation the main business of his life.” (Warfield 223) His piety was truly remarkable. As an example, in his journals he recorded how, when faced with tempting thoughts, he would often engage his mind in something that would require the full focus of his attention, like a geometry problem. Despite his piety and his sitting under the preaching of Calvinists as a child, he found the idea of the sovereignty of God repugnant. But, it was shortly after marrying Sarah that Edwards accepted “the justice and reasonableness of the formerly horrible doctrine of God’s sovereignty.” (Tracy 330) A new and “sweet…sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God filled his soul and increased during the following years.” (Tracy 330)

This resolution, acceptance of God’s sovereignty, altered the course of his life. Despite his accomplishments in philosophical reasoning at such an early age, he henceforth turned his back on “philosophical speculations,” resigned his post as a tutor at Yale, and accepted the position of co-pastor alongside his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton—probably the largest church in the province outside of Boston.

Several congregational disputes led to his eventual ouster as pastor of the Narthampton church and his acceptance of a position as a missionary to Native Americans on what was then the frontier of European civilization. Freed from his weekly preaching duties, Edwards was able to write systematically as never before. During this period he produced several important treatises and dissertations, many of which were not published until after his death. In 1757, he agreed to return to academia and take over the presidency of what would become Princeton University. He died from a smallpox vaccine early in 1758.

Today, Edwards is best known as the preacher of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, his 1741 sermon, which emphasizes the complete dependence of humanity on the merciful whims of God. However, the extensive collection of his sermons, letters, and writings paints a very different picture from that of a pulpit-pounding revivalist. His tender affections toward his children and his wife are evident in many of his writings. His much younger wife Sarah was a continual source of amazement for Edwards. Her spiritual maturity was both a personal example to Edwards and the subject of many of his anthropological and theological speculations.

During his own lifetime, Edwards was known less as a firebrand than as a kind of journalist of missions and revival. In 1737, he published A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in response to continued requests for information about the revival in his church. His reputation as a writer continued to grow with the 1746 publication of Religious Affections, in which he attempted to respond to both the critics of enthusiastic revivals and those who would found Christianity upon mere affection. In this work the reader gets a glimpse of Edwards’ ability to address a specific practical issue while simultaneously thinking and writing within the confines of a coherent theological system. His international reputation was cemented in 1749 by the appearance of An Account of the Life of the late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd. This fusion of a religious biography and a how-to missions manual was well received all over the English speaking world and continues to be popular today.

Perhaps least known to the general public is Edwards’ systematic thought. In several works, produced toward the end of his life, Edwards returns to themes developed in Religious Affections and expands them in relation to different theological questions. Chief among these works are the two anti-Arminian pieces Freedom of the Will (1754) and Original Sin (1758), and the posthumously published dissertations Concerning the End for which God Created the World, and The Nature of True Virtue (1765). While not intended to function as a complete systematic theology, these five works cover many of the perennial theological issues, especially as they pertain to the relationship between God and humanity. An examination of these five works, therefore, offers an overview of Edwards’ main theological contributions.

Thus, Edwards was familiar with writers such as Newton and Locke from an early age. He was undoubtedly familiar with other Enlightenment thinkers as well. If he hadn’t been introduced to them during his early schooling by his father, he was certainly became acquainted with them when he began his studies at Yale in 1716, at the age of fourteen. Both before and during his years at Yale, he was of a “rebellious” heart and unable to accept some of the particulars of his parents’ Calvinism…in particular the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and all its implications for freedom of the will. Part of this rebellion was due to his precocious intellectual abilities, which led him to question and consider a wide range of issues. It can also be attributed to his personal faith struggles. Edwards graduated from Yale in 1720, but remained as a divinity student (despite, or because of, his theological struggles) and then as a tutor until the summer of 1722. At that time he accepted a call to be a supply preacher at a small Presbyterian church in New York City.

Before leaving for New York, however, Edwards had a conversion experience in the spring of 1721, at the age of seventeen, which he related to his reading of I Timothy 1:17: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” Though he acknowledged he had read this verse innumerable times before, this time – for unknown reasons – the passage touched him in a profound and life-changing way that filled him with a sense of peace. (Marsden, 40-41) His struggles with the formidable tenets of Calvinism – most notably the absolute sovereignty of God – were laid to rest and he was able to experience a sense of submission and dependence upon divine authority. (Levin, 91)

With his first pastorate behind him, graduate studies at Yale completed, and a conversion experience to humble and sustain him, Edwards accepted a call to pastor alongside his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton. Two years after his arrival Stoddard died, and so in 1729 Edwards acquired the pulpit of one of the most influential churches in New England. The church in Northampton was accustomed to sound and reasoned preaching and the occasional revival, even though the general spiritual climate was in decline in the region. However, with Edwards the pace picked up. Though his preaching was not dramatic or fiery, it was impassioned and sincere and intent on evangelization. By 1734 a notable period of revival had begun in Northampton. Edwards’ congregation was not the only place where revivals were being experienced, of course, and by the 1740’s the Great Awakening in the colonies was underway. John Wesley and Isaac Watts in England, along with George Whitefield in both England and the colonies, brought renewed spiritual power to the flaccid faith of the Atlantic seaboard.

During his years in Northampton, Edwards authored a number of memorable sermons and treatises that reflected the concerns and situations of his time as well as his revivalist inclinations and theological insights. These include A Faithful Narrative (1737), Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), and Religious Affections (1746). Unfortunately for Edwards, his theological writings and revivalist style could not sustain his ministry in Northampton. His continued study, experience and theological development led him away from the general consensus of his congregation. The particular issue that upset his congregation was his reconsideration of the “Halfway Covenant” and the question of who could be admitted to the sacraments of baptism and communion. Unlike his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, Edwards did not see the sacraments as a means of conversion, but rather as a sign and seal of grace. After a period of increasing alienation between Edwards and his parishioners and townspeople, on June 22, 1750 he was dismissed from his pulpit by a vote of 200+ to 23. With the help of a former student and friend, Samuel Hopkins, Edwards received a dual call to the frontier town of Stockbridge, both to pastor the church and to be a missionary to the Housatonic natives. (Levin, 108)

Though not particularly suited to missionary work or a frontier lifestyle, the quietude of a frontier post afforded Edwards the opportunity to write prodigiously. During his seven years in Stockbridge he wrote Freedom of the Will (1754), The End for Which God Created the World (1755), The Nature of True Virtue (written in 1755; published in 1765), and Original Sin (1758). He had additional plans for volumes on systematic and philosophic themes that would address topics only briefly touched upon in previous writings.

The reasons for the revivals in America are varied. Certainly, in part, they were a continuation of a broader wave of spiritual awakening moving across Europe and America. Also, they could be seen as a response to the rationalistic and moralistic religion of the day. Pietism, a religious movement which emphasized inner experience and religious devotion, allowed for expression of the emotions and it was common for proponents of revivalism to emphasize and elaborate on what came to be called the "religious affections." Opponents of revivalism reacted against these strong emotive elements which sometimes brought about rather strange behavior, such as fainting, screaming and weeping.

While the beginning of the Northampton revival in 1734-35 is uncertain, it is likely that Edwards’ sermon castigating Christians for complacency caused many sensitive believers to begin a series of self-evaluations that resulted, eventually, in a wholesale revival. One element that perpetuated the revival is the personal counseling that Edward's gave his parishioners in the days following the sermon. News of the small revival spread and the numerous requests for information about the revival caused Edward to write, in November 6, 1736, a treatise entitled Narrative of Surprising Conversions.

It was during this time that Edwards received some notoriety for his preaching. Although his preaching style was quite solemn, with distinct and careful enunciation, and a slow cadence, it had a significant effect on the hearers. His sermons would be the primary vehicles of the ideas that would characterize Edwards' view of the revival and its theological underpinnings. The sermons would be expanded into treatises and then published for general public use.

The revival of Northampton was advanced even further when a controversy over Calvinistic doctrine developed in a nearby church. The Arminian and Calvinist factions were arguing over the role the individual played in the scheme of salvation. Edwards took a mediating position and argued that while it is God who saves, He does so by various means. Those means included such things as one’s desire for heaven, the firm resolution of the believer to follow God, a careful self-discipline, and a commitment to obedience. By arguing this way, Edwards avoided the position of taking a passive approach to salvation that some Calvinists were advocating, as well as the Arminian position that the individual plays a much more significant role in salvation. Although Edwards’ argument placed him in bad standing with his cousin Israel Williams, who was an even stauncher Calvinist, it became the occasion for the perpetuation of the revival, since Edwards was able to emphasize, again, the importance of religious devotion.

By 1737 the results of his preaching and writing had effects well beyond the extent of his Northampton congregation. Edwards was soon to elaborate on the little revival and defended the event in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God published in 1737. He was to follow this up with The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God in 1741, and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England in 1742. These treatises dealt with some very practical issues arising out of discussion over the revival. First, how is one to distinguish between true and false religion? This was an issue that permeated 18th-century religious thought. Having an overpowering sense of Divine judgment, a firm belief in the reality of hell, and the understanding that, influenced by Satan, one may perpetuate a false religion, Edwards wanted to show that the religious experiences of the revival could be seen as evidences of God’s work and, thus, were appropriate expressions of "true religion."

Edwards learned much in the months following the revival in Northampton. He became more aware of the nature of personal conversion and advocated a "new birth" experience. In addition, he noted in detail the fact that no two persons’ experience was the same. One common theme, though, characterized the revival: there was the feeling of intense guilt and shame for past sins and individuals came to have a sense of despondency regarding God’s attitude of judgment toward them. This progressed into a sense of resolve and trust in the saving love of God, in whom they wholly and completely trusted for forgiveness and salvation.

Revival broke out even greater in 1740 extending throughout the colonies and was later to be called the Great Awakening. Edwards’ involvement as defender and supporter became even more extensive. Central to the defense of the revival, against those who saw the strong emotional experiences as contrary evidence of "true religion," was A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections published in 1746. In it Edwards asks the essential question of the Great Awakening, and indeed of every great revival, What is the nature of true religion?

A controversy over whom to admit to Holy Communion forced Edwards to resign his own church in 1750. He took a mission position in Stockbridge in 1751. Edwards used the time primarily to work on his treatises and wrote extensively. In 1754 he published A Treatise on the Freedom of the Will and, in 1758, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended.

In the early winter of 1758, Edwards received a new calling: to be the president of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University). As a protective measure upon his arrival in Princeton, Edwards received a smallpox vaccination on February 13, 1758, and died prematurely from complications on March 22, leaving his work unfinished.

Posthumous works published in 1765 include The Nature of True Virtue and The End for Which God Created the World.

2. Works (Selected List)


3. Themes

Throughout his abbreviated career, Edwards trod a narrow path between several dichotomous positions: between traditional Calvinist teachings and Enlightenment thinking; between passionate experience and cool intellectual rationality; between intellectualism and personal embodied experience; between religious orthodoxy and cultural accommodation; between rigid ecclesiastical boundaries and warm-hearted acquiescence in determining church membership. Some of these dichotomies were the outcome of the failed Puritan vision of a functional theocracy, while others came from the insurgence of Enlightenment thinking that advocated reason over faith, proclaimed a cultural optimism that negated doctrines of predestination and original sin, and encouraged the quest and expectation of human progress and growth. These ideas threatened traditional Calvinist tenets such as predestination, providence, and original sin. Enlightenment ideas also undercut the authority of Scripture by emphasizing reason over faith, and lent itself to supporting the Arminian idea (which pre-dated Edwards, but was becoming an increasingly strong element in New England theology) that humans can help move themselves towards God’s grace. At the same time the burgeoning revivalism of the era also countered the intellectual underpinnings of Calvinism by emphasizing the emotions and passionate experiences that could accompany conversion and at the same time by-pass the rigors of strict Calvinism.

Edwards would have none of these extremes. He persistently pursued a middle ground that upheld Calvin’s teachings and acknowledged the affections, ideas and possibilities implicit in contemporary culture. For example, Edwards firmly agreed that human reason could, and would, contribute to one’s understanding of God through the experience and observation of nature, history and personal experience. He was also clear that the affections were a God-given gift of grace to help us turn towards God, rather than simply dismissing the passions and emotive responses commonly associated with conversion experiences. He reframed the affections in a way that legitimated them while at the same time minimized their most dramatic expressions. He did not promote the affections as necessary or desirable, nor did he disqualify them. Edwards was, after all, a revivalist working towards the salvation of souls, and he was not inclined to establish human judgments as the primary criterion for either accepting or rejecting conversion experiences as authentic and sincere.

In all his writings, Edwards upheld the first question of the Westminster Catechism, which was issued just months after the Westminster Confession of Faith was published in 1646:

Question: What is the chief and highest end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

For Edwards, this question and answer encapsulated the absolute sovereignty of God (in its implicit assumption of God as Creator), the submission of the human will to the purposes of God, the goal and aim of existence for humanity, and the joy and fulfillment one will find by participating in this divine purpose. Where once this all might have been more self-evident, or at least more easily digestible, in Edwards’ era it was not clear how to define and implement the particulars of the chief end of man. In the Preface to The Religious Affections, Edwards opens with the contemporary questions: “What is the nature of true religion? And wherein do lie the distinguishing notes of that virtue and holiness that is acceptable in the sight of God?” (Edwards, 15) How, in fact, does one glorify God? What does it look like? How will we know when we are doing it? Can others adequately judge our efforts at glorifying God?

At no point does Edwards give solid, concrete answers, because he cannot. Humans cannot judge the works of grace in another person’s life. Only God knows for sure. Just as we cannot judge others, we cannot know for ourselves either. God’s sovereignty is an inscrutable mystery, and we can but be open to the work of the Holy Spirit upon us. We have several resources at our disposal, however, for this purpose. The Religious Affections is Edwards’ attempt to illuminate and illustrate these resources. They include:

o       the source of the affections (Edwards, 124); “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious do arise from those influences and operations on the heart which are spiritual, supernatural and divine…[to be used to] distinguish between those affections which are spiritual and those which are not so.”

o       humiliation and a sense of sinfulness (Edwards, 237); “Evangelical humiliation is a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart.”

o       practice (Edwards, 308ff): Edwards begins Section XII by stating that “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.” This will mean a way of life for a Christian, and it implies three ways of being: “That his behaviour or practice in the world, be universally conformed to, and directed by, Christian rules.” And “that he makes a business of such a holy practice above all things;” and finally “that he persists in it to the end of life.”

We are also repeatedly forewarned about the possibility of hypocritical behavior and false affections, the possibility of gradual and non-dramatic conversion, the work of Satan to confound and confuse us, and the need to avoid judging others. Edwards unpacks every nuance and implication of affections and the true religion in The Religious Affections, and by so doing he pursues his life-long endeavor to revive the Puritan faith of his congregation and to utilize every cultural and intellectual trend that can faithfully transmit the meaning of true religion and the chief and highest end of humankind.

Edwards began the Affections with a discussion of human faculties, but in order to understand the flow and arguments of his larger systematic corpus it is best to begin with his understanding of the sovereignty of God. Edwards’ God is infinitely beautiful, powerful, just and moral. As infinitely powerful, God displays all the metaphysical attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and the like. As infinitely just, God demands retribution for every offense. As infinitely beautiful, God endows all Being with beauty and appreciates the beauty in all Being. As infinitely moral, God delights only in beauty and despises all ugliness. For Edwards, God is not just the ground of Being or an uncaused first cause. God is the immediate cause of each and every being and event. Therefore, for Edwards, creation is not a past event but a present reality. The Deists are wrong to assume that God is a watchmaker and the world an independently running mechanism. The relationship between God and the world is much more intimate than that of a creator and a product. Each creature and event is what it is purely as a function of God’s continuing fancy. Our "present existence is a dependent existence." (Edwards, 1758: 223)

The complete dependence of humanity upon God has many implications, but Edwards addresses two of the most important implications in Original Sin and Freedom of the Will. Original Sin is a reply to the typical Arminian objection that a just God would never impute sin to someone on account of his or her parentage. While in Freedom of the Will, he attempts to show that an Arminian conception of a free will is nonsensical. One first goes wrong, Edwards asserts, when one treats individual people as if they were discrete entities. We know that this is not so, he argues, because we rightly understand a man to be the same person at sixty years of age as he was as an infant, even though his body is entirely different (Edwards, 1758: 222). This continuity over time and through the course of many changes is a function of God’s providence. Therefore, it is just as legitimate for God to treat humanity as a single entity with many instantiations as it is for us to treat a man as a single entity over the course of his lifetime. It is true that Adam sinned, but is it just as true to say that humanity sinned.

For Edwards, sin is nothing positive. God does not create it. Rather, God creates humanity with a natural and a supernatural character (Edwards, 1758: 217). Sin is the non-temporal rejection of the supernatural character of humanity by humanity and this rejection leaves humans with only their natural character, which is an inclination toward a particular being, i.e. oneself. Therefore, Edwards argues, humanity is tainted with sin not due to some act, but as an unavoidable outgrowth of its own received nature or character. Humans sin because they are sinful; they are not sinful on account of their sins.

This obviously has considerable implications for notions of free will. Since, as Edwards writes, "by self-love is meant nothing else but a man’s loving what is grateful or pleasing to him…which is the same thing as a man’s having a faculty of will." (Edwards, 1765: 130) Edwards thought that the Arminian position on the will necessarily led to one of two absurd conclusions. If the will is free, then it can do as it pleases. However, how does the will determine what pleases it? Does the will have its own free will, and does that free will have its own free will? If not, then the will must determine what pleases it by mere randomness or chance (Edwards, 1754, 11-12). The first option leads into an infinite regress, while the second is the very definition of absurdity.

The will, argued Edwards, is determined. It is the person that is free, for freedom is merely the capacity to do what one wills (Edwards, 1754: 4). This means that the will is not free. It is fully determined and operates according to a moral necessity, which is just as strong as a logical or natural necessity. By moral necessity "is meant that necessity of connection and consequence, which arises from such moral causes, as the strength of inclination, or motive, and the connection which there is in many cases between these, and such certain volitions and actions." (Edwards, 1754: 10) This is all to say that a person with a moral character or moral inclinations will necessarily will to act morally. This is the thesis of Freedom of the Will, and it serves to connect both Edward’s earlier work on the religious affections and his later works on virtue and God’s end in creation.

In the Religious Affections, Edwards describes two faculties of the soul or two moments in the human encounter with a phenomenon. The first moment involves the faculty of understanding, while the second involves the faculty of inclination (Edwards, 1746, 24). Upon encountering any text, experience or object one must first understand it. One’s understanding can be correct or incorrect. Having understood it (or misunderstood it as the case may be), one is then inclined either toward it or away from it. We know from his Freedom of the Will that Edwards understood a person’s inclinations to be necessary products of that person’s moral character. Therefore, the affections or feelings of inclination generated by any encounter are wholly determined by one’s capacity to understand the phenomenon in question and by one’s moral character. Genuinely religious affections or feelings of inclination are the product of true understanding and inclination toward those things that the Spirit of God dictates. Understanding devoid of inclination is not religious, since one may fully understand the plight of an injured stranger without being inclined to help him or her. In like manner, inclination without understanding is not religious, since one may be inclined to help an injured stranger out of a false belief that the stranger will reward his or her benefactor. The ultimate test, therefore, of genuinely spiritual and religious affections is also the test for a genuine moral character. True godliness is most easily known by its "being effectual in practice." (Edwards, 1746: 315) Thus, Christian practice is the most notable sign both to oneself and to others that one’s character is moral, that one’s religious affections are genuine, that one’s understanding is sound, and that one is inclined toward the Spirit of God.

Two sentences from the final sections of the Religious Affections could serve as summaries of Edwards’ dissertations: True Virtue and End of Creation. He writes, "Those acts which men delight in, they necessarily incline to do." (Edwards, 1746: 317) The practical implication of this statement is that humans always follow their inclinations. According to Edwards, in order to know what a person is inclined toward, what makes them happy, one has only to watch what they do. This is not to deny that humans often have conflicting interests or irreconcilable desires. However, insofar as humans are free to act in accordance with their wills, they will always act exactly in accordance with their own desires and inclinations. Humans always seek their own happiness. Edwards further argues that happiness consists in attaining the ends that one inclines toward. Therefore, the greater the end sought, the more happiness there is to be attained. What being, he quips, could be greater than "that Being who has most of being." (Edwards, 1765: 123) God or Being, thereby, is not only the ultimate source of one’s moral character, one’s religious affections, Christian practice and virtue, but also the source of true human happiness.

Again, in the Religious Affections Edwards writes, "Holy practice is as much the end of all that God does about his saints, as fruit is the end of all the husbandman does about the growth of his field or vineyard." (Edwards, 1746: 321) The purpose of all the actions of the saints and of all of God’s interactions with the saints is holy or Christian practice. As was learned from the Religious Affections, holy practice necessarily stems from a right understanding and a spiritual inclination toward God, which is the same as having a moral character. And, as was learned from Freedom of the Will, moral character comes from no human cause. Rather, its ultimate source is God. God, therefore, is the source of all ends. What then, Edwards inquires, is God’s ultimate goal? "Whatsoever is good, amiable, and valuable in itself, absolutely and originally…must be supposed to be regarded or aimed at by God ultimately, or as an ultimate end of creation." (Edwards, 1765: 98) Human character, happiness, actions, affections, inclinations, and virtue are all dependent upon God. As was presented above, for Edwards, God is the direct and sustaining cause of all things. Therefore, the goodness or value of all things is derivative. Only God’s goodness is sui generis. Only God is valuable in and of God’s self. Only God is originally and absolutely amiable. The final and first cause of the universe, the end and the beginning of the universe are one and the same. God’s end is humanity’s end is God.

A final word must be added concerning some glaring absences in Edwards’ philosophical and systematic works. Christ is notably absent from his system, as is scripture, tradition, and any concern for the trinity. It is clear from a series a sermons he delivered before his death, however, that he intended to publish a larger work on the history of redemption that would incorporate many of these neglected topics into his theological system.

Jonathan Edwards had been raised under, and was freshly recommitted to, the reformed tradition of John Calvin—the preeminence of God’s sovereignty, the authority of God’s word, the certainty of human depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, limited atonement, and salvation by faith alone. In college especially, he was educated and became sympathetic to enlightenment reasoning and the empiricism of modern science. As the head pastor of a church that was occasioned by revivalism he was also sympathetic to the special outworking of God’s grace through the Great Awakenings in Europe and America. All taken together, Jonathan Edwards emerged as a bridge between these various movements.

Upon the death of his grandfather, Edwards began the themes that brought these three movements together and marked him for centuries to come. Most of what he produced during his 23 years in Northampton was sermons and lectures. He developed a “hard-hitting sermon style that coupled a stark vision of human depravity, including frank details of everyday sins, with the exhilarating potential of salvation by simple faith.” (Tracy 331) It was, in fact, his sermons on the great Reformed themes of justification by faith that set off a regional revival in 1734.

4. Outline of Major Works

The Religious Affections

“What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to His eternal rewards? or… What is the nature of true religion?” are the questions he addresses in the book The Religious Affections. (Edwards 15) There was no more important question in life, according to Edwards. And given the mixed responses of revivalism, these were the hot questions of the day.

Edwards is careful to point out in the beginning of his work that, given the existence of Satan, the deceiver and enemy of our souls, one must be careful not to be misled by counterfeit religion. Satan could cause far more devastation on religion by making the friends of religion advance his agenda (by assuming that a certain expression of religious affection is rooted in true religion or from a divine source when in fact it is not) than he could by having the enemies of religion attack it. (19)

Early on in the book he explains what he means by affections (and how they differ from passions). Affections consist of the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul. Examples of affection are love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, and complacence, or hatred, fear, anger, and grief. (24)

The reason why affections are important to religion is because true religion lies much in affections. It is on this point that the combination of the double impulses of his Calvinistic theology (especially its high view of Scripture), and Enlightenment reasoning come together in his cautious support for the revivalism in America. He proceeds to explain in painstaking, analytical detail, several reasons why true religion lies much in affections. (27-48)

Having established his case for the fact that religion lies much in the affections, he goes on to say that those who discard religious affection do greatly err. We ought not only to pursue those things that arouse our affections for God, but “have cause to be ashamed and confounded before God that we are no more affected with the great things of religion.” (51)

He answers his opening question, “What are the distinguishing marks of those who are in favor with God?” by telling the reader 12 religious affections that are not certain signs of being in favor with God. His analysis of each of the uncertain signs follows a similar pattern. First, he argues, primarily from Scripture and also from experiential observations, that the specific expression of religious affection does often accompany genuine salvation. But, then he proceeds, “on the other hand,” to argue, primarily from Scripture, that these are no certain signs of salvation—after all Satan is a deceiver, or these signs may result from common grace (grace given even to the unsaved), or these signs may be dismissed simply on the basis of misunderstanding the nature of how the mind works.

If things like extreme emotionalism, personal professions of faith, knowledge of religion, expressions of love, joy, peace, conviction of sin, supernatural experiences of religious images or words coming to one’s mind, zeal for religion and external duties of worship, feelings of eternal security and outward manifestations such that they win the hearts of truly godly people, if these are not certain signs of salvation, then what are?

Before answering this question Edwards makes three important points. First, he is not suggesting that what he says will give anyone the ability to distinguish with certainty those who are true believers from those who are hypocrites. This God alone can do. (120) Second, there is no sign that can give persons certainty who are not inheritors of true grace. (121) Third, he admits that it is very unlikely that the marks that he lays down will shake the false confidence hypocrites have of their salvation, but, he hopes, it might keep some from becoming hypocrites. And, furthermore, his points may help the true saint separate out false affections from true in his or her own life. (124)

So what are truly spiritual and gracious affections? The first distinguishing character of a truly gracious affection is that it is from the Holy Spirit (126). Although the Holy Spirit may act upon natural man (this is one example of what he calls common grace) he dwells in the lives of true believers, and becomes the spring of life affecting their character. (127) Furthermore, the Holy Spirit imparts (communicates) his own divine nature (holiness) to the spiritual man. This involves giving the true believer new principles of nature. (134) The new principle of nature is not a new faculty of understanding or will, but a new foundation laid in the nature of the soul for new kinds of exercises of the same faculty of understanding and will. Spiritual affections arise from ideas in the mind that are different in nature from the natural mind. (135)

A second distinguishing sign of truly gracious affections is that their object is the excellence of divine things. It is the divine excellency in God, his words and ways, that is the primary reason why a true saint loves them and not any supposed interest that he has in them or any conceived benefit that he has received from them or shall receive from them. (166)

To be even more precise he further suggests that the kind of excellency of the nature of divine things, which is the first object of all holy affections, is their moral excellency or their holiness. (182) It is the holiness of God that renders all others of his attributes (and all others of divine things like angels, his word, saints, heaven, Jesus, doctrine) glorious and lovely. “A true love to God must begin with a delight in God’s holiness, and not with a delight in any other attribute, for no other attribute is truly lovely without this.” (183)

Another distinguishing quality of true religious affections is that they are not “heat without light,” i.e. they always arise from the information of the understanding. (192) Additionally, true gracious affections are attended with a conviction of certainty (217), evangelical humiliation (237), and a change of nature that begets the temper of Jesus (266).

True gracious affections also soften the heart (285) and have beautiful symmetry and proportion (292). Unlike false affections that rest satisfied in themselves, true gracious affections long for more true affection (303).

Edwards closes with what he considers the chief of all the signs of true grace, both as evidence of the sincerity of professors unto others, and also to their own consciences. And that sign is the fruit of Christian practice. (308)

In the Religious Affections Edwards, relying on and extending the psychological and epistemological ideas of the Empiricist John Locke, offers a defense of the view that "true religion" is action arising from the experience of "religious affections." Since the characteristic mark of the revival was emotional experience it was incumbent on Edwards to demonstrate how one could know that one’s experience was valid, or what he called "gracious," that is from God. Locke had suggested that real knowledge came through the senses and formed in the mind "simple ideas" which were then manipulated by the mind to form more complex ideas. All ideas were in some way results of information received from the senses. Edwards, accepting this empiricist theory, also thought that the new nature of the Christian became manifest by virtue of a "new simple idea" implanted in the mind of the believer by God. Although this calls into question the extent of Edwards’ empiricism, it was necessary for him to develop an epistemological theory which he could use to support his view that certain religious experience was appropriate and "from God" as opposed to other religious experience that may not be "from God." The rest of the treatise, then, elaborated on the criteria that could be used to distinguish between "true" and "false" affections.

Although his time and place, especially his provincial upbringing on the frontiers of Colonial America, did not explain him becoming one of America’s most brilliant theological and philosophical minds, it more than explained one of the most important works of Edwards—The Religious Affections.

After Religious Affections

According to Edward, “There are two ways of recommending true religion and virtue in the world which God hath made use of, the one is by doctrine and precept; the other by instance and example.” (Piper 60) The Life of David Brainerd (1749) is Edwards’ attempt to do the latter. The book consisted of the journal of a missionary to Native Americans named David Brainerd whose life served as a fitting illustration of his theological masterpiece, Religious Affections. This book has remained in print ever since and provided great inspiration to missionaries and missionary movements throughout the centuries that followed.

For 50 years the congregation of Edwards’ Northampton church had grown accustomed to an open communion that permitted even the unconverted to participate. After much heart search and careful study, Edwards called his congregation back to the original platform of the Congregational church, that Holy Communion may only be taken by true professing Christians. His insistence on this point, in conjunction with a messy church discipline issue, resulted in Jonathan Edwards being dismissed from his pastorate in 1750.

The inglorious dismissal of Edwards from his Northampton pastoral duties marked the glorious dawning of a new season of Edwards’s life—the season where he made his mark as a theologian. For seven years, while serving as a missionary to the Indians under quite difficult circumstances, Edwards penned several of his most famous theological works: his great work on The Will (1754), The End for Which God Created the World (1768), Nature and True Virtue (1768), and the unfinished History of the Work of Redemption (1772). These writings were Edward’s answer to the rising tide of Arminianism in Europe and America.

Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God

At one time the membership of the church in Northampton included nearly the entire adult population of the town (620). Stoddard acquired the nickname “Congregational Pope” and was well known for the periodic revivals in his church. In Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737) Edwards contrasted the “utopian community he had heard about and the less happy reality he found for himself: from the pulpit he saw only dullness of spirit, licentious behavior and a spirit of contention between two long-standing political factions.” (Tracy 330) Stoddard was also one of the progenitors of “laxer views” of administering communion to those who made no profession of conversion. Initially Edwards went along with this, but following his grandfather’s death he took on this issue to his own demise.

Some Thoughts Conecerning the Present Revival of Religion

By late 1742 the division over the revivalism was so acute among the clergy that there came to be two clearly defined camps “the old lights” who were opponents of revivals and the proponents, “the new lights.” In Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion (1742) Edwards continued in the vein of Distinguishing Marks insisting that “the life and soul of all true religion” was not a matter of intellectual assent, but a new disposition of the religious affections. The crowning point of his argument was to cite a well-known (to him) example of a person who was the product, 27 years prior, of a revival and who radiated the moral excellence and holy character of one captured by true grace. In Edward’s words, “Now if such things are enthusiasms…let my brain be evermore possessed of that happy distemper! If this be distraction, I pray God that the world of mankind may be all seized with this benign, meek, beneficent, beatifical, glorious distraction!” Although he was careful in this work to not disclose the name, or even the sex of this “well known person,” we now know her to be none other than his beloved wife, Sarah Edwards.

The Distinguising Marks of the Spirit of God

In 1740 Edwards invited George Whitefield, a gifted preacher from England, to preach and another “awakening” swept across the land. Although an obvious promoter of the revivals, and perhaps because of previous experiences with revivalism, Edwards was aware of the bad that mixed with the good during these times of increased spiritual focus and “religious excitement.” Not all reviews on the awakenings were good. Extreme emotionalism (fainting spells), hysteria (bonfires burning worldly books and clothes), backsliding (young converts committing terrible sins) resulted in some pastors denouncing the revivals. In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Edwards argued that none of the above proved or disproved whether those so influenced were the receptors of true grace. “But after testing the revival for evidences of true piety—devotion to Jesus as Savior, reverence for Scripture and sound interpretations thereof, and a decrease in materialism and pride—Edwards pronounced that it derived undoubtedly, in the general, from the Spirit of God.” (Tracy 331)

The Treatise Concerning Religious Affections

The “old lights” camp, however, remained unpersuaded by Edward’s argument. One, in fact, denounced affections as "passion necessarily profane.” (Tracy 332) This response called forth from Edwards what many consider to be his most important work, the Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746).


In closing I must add, since I read this book with my wife, that on his death bed it was not any philosophical musing, theological questioning, personal regrets or bitterness that filled his mind. Rather, it was most certainly a religious affection acting on the new foundation in his soul laid by God’s Spirit. The inclination of his will was, by an excessive degree, moved to the affection of love. The object of that truly gracious affection of holy love was none other than his dear wife, Sarah. And so he dictated the final words to his daughter Lucy (the only family member yet to arrive in Princeton):

Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore 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 so I 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 to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you. (Piper 73)

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

In Freedom of the Will Edwards strikes at what he thinks is the core issue in the debate with the Arminians. He believed in essence that the Arminians had misunderstood the nature of the will. It is not that the will that is free, but rather that the will is acted on. He felt that the Arminians were guilty of supporting an infinite regress.

In Original Sin Edwards attacked John Taylor’s The Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin, Proposed to Free and Candid Examination. The first part of the treatise dealt with the issue of depravity and the second with imputation of Adam’s sin. Edwards attempted to elucidate the essential tendency in humanity by observing the results of human action, a purportedly inductive approach. In effect, though, it was essentially a survey of biblical history elaborating the nature of humanity and the tendency to evil. He also thought that the world could be divided into two realms, nature and grace. Any good that occurs in the world may be attributed to divine grace, and any bad to nature. Human beings, inclined to evil as they are, are kept from following the lowest of inclinations by virtue of common grace.

6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Chai, Leon. Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy. New York. Oxford University Press, 1998

Edwards, Jonathan. The Religious Affections. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004

Fiering, Norman. 1981. Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Hatch, Nathan O. and Stout, Harry S., eds. Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience. New York. Oxford University Press, 1988

Levin, David, ed. Jonathan Edwards: A Profile. New York. Hill and Wang, 1969

Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, Connecticut. Yale University Press, 2003

McGiffert, Jr., Arthur Cushman. 1932. Jonathan Edwards. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Sherrill, Rowland A. “Jonathan Edwards.” Great Thinkers of the Western World. Ian P. McGreal, ed. New York. HarperCollins, 1992

Primary Sources

Edward, Jonathan. The Religious Affections. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Dodds, Elisabeth. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Philadelphia. The Wesminster Press, 1971.

Piper, John. God’s Passion for His Glory. Wheaton Il. Crossway Books. 1998.

Tracy, Patricia J. “Edwards, Jonathan” American National Biography. New York. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Warfield, Benjamin B. “Edwards and the New England Theology” Encyclopedia of Religion. New York. Macmillan Publishing Co, 1987.

Edwards, Jonathan. (1746) The Religious Affections. Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, Reprint, Finland: WSOY, 1997. Originally Published: Boston, S. Kneeland and T. Green.

Edwards, Jonathan. (1754) "Freedom of the Will." The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol. I. Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834. Reprint, Great Britain, 1979. Originally Published: Boston, S. Kneeland.

Edwards, Jonathan. (1758) "Original Sin." The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol. I. Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834. Reprint, Great Britain, 1979. Originally Published: Boston, S. Kneeland.

Edwards, Jonathan. (1765) "End of Creation and True Virtue." The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol. I. Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834. Reprint, Great Britain, 1979. Originally Published: Boston, S. Kneeland.

Smith, John E., Stout, Harry S., and Kenneth P. Minkema, eds. (1995) A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press.

7. Internet Resources


8. Related Topics


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