Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Congregational preacher and theologian, was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, the only son of Congregationalist minister Timothy Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth Stoddard Edwards, daughter of renowned preacher Solomon Stoddard. Raised in a rigorously pious, Calvinist environment, Edwards was a brilliant child who enrolled at Yale at age 13. It was at Yale that Edwards underwent a heartfelt conversion experience at the age of eighteen. After earning a BA and an MA degree, he served a valuable two year apprenticeship under his grandfather in Northampton, Massachusetts. Upon his grandfather’s death in 1729 Edwards took over as the church’s minister. In 1734 Edwards preached a sermon on the importance of justification by grace that triggered a profound religious awakening within his congregation. In the months that followed the awakening manifested itself in a few nearby towns as well; overall, hundreds of people were converted. Edwards’s 1737 account of the revival, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, served both as a description of, and an encouragement to, a growing religious phenomenon in the American colonies and in the British Isles.
The nascent movement solidified in 1740 as the English evangelist George Whitefield made his first trip to America and solicited Edwards’s approval and advice. As revivals spread in the Colonies in the 1740s Edwards emerged as the foremost champion of the awakenings and the “New Light” clergy who demanded a born-again experience over against those “Old Light” clergy put off by the noise, emotion, and zeal of the would-be-reformers. His primary effort in this regard was his 1741 essay, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of God. In the years that followed Edwards continued to refine his theology of the awakening, addressing some of the excesses in Some Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England (1742) and, in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), exploring the relationship between a true work of grace in the soul and its manifestations in the Christian life.
While Edwards’s sermons and essays brought him fame and regard, his home congregation proved restive, viewing him as something of an autocrat. This came to a head in 1748 with his push to repudiate his grandfather Solomon Stoddard’s policy and exclude those who had not undergone a conversion experience from taking communion. Dismissed from his pulpit in 1750, Edwards eventually found a position as a pastor in the village of Stockbridge and served as a missionary to the local Native American tribes. While he struggled in his ministry at Stockbridge, it was there that Edwards composed two of his most important works, Freedom of the Will (1754) and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758). In early 1758 the Presbyterian College of New Jersey (Princeton) selected Edwards as its new president, but within weeks of his arrival he died of complications from a botched smallpox inoculation. Jonathan Edwards left behind an enduring legacy–hailed as a founder of the evangelical movement, a rigorous theologian, and one of the finest minds in the history of American letters.
For further reading see George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards (Yale, 2003); and, Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Banner of Truth, 1987).