Acts America

Biographies of Great Christians


Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards, 1703-58, American theologian and metaphysician, was born in East Windsor. He was a precocious child, early interested in things scientific, ijonathan edwardsntellectual, and spiritual. After graduating from Yale at 17, he studied theology, preached (1722-23) in New York City, and tutored (1724-26) at Yale. In 1727, he became the colleague of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in the ministry at Northampton, Mass.

In 1729, on his grandfather's death, Edwards took sole charge of the congregation. The young minister was not long in gaining a wide following by his forceful preaching and powerful logic. These abilities were in the best

Calvinist tradition and were enriched by his reading in philosophy, notably Berkeley and Locke. His favorite themes were predestination and the absolute dependence of humble man upon God and upon divine grace, which alone could save man. He rejected with fire the Arminian modification of these Calvinist doctrines. He exhorted his hearers with great effect and held in 1734-35 a religious revival in Northampton that in effect brought the Great Awakening to New England.

Edwards was stern in demanding strict orthodoxy and fervent zeal from his congregation. He was unbending in a controversy over tests for church membership, and in 1750 his congregation dismissed him from Northampton. At Stockbridge, Mass., where he went to care for the Native American mission and to minister to a small white congregation. He completed his theological masterpiece, The Freedom of the Will (1754), which sets forth metaphysical and ethical arguments for determinism.

In 1757, he was called to be president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), but he died a few months later. Edwards's influence on American Christian thought was immense for a time, and he is often regarded as the last of the great New England Calvinists. However, his emphasis on personal religious experience and his use of the revival, leading to the Great Awakening, were partially responsible for the advent of evangelical revivalism, which was based on a belief contrary to Calvinist doctrine--that salvation was possible without predestined election. His theological writings are perhaps less read today than his more casual writings and some of his burning and poetic sermons, such as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and God Glorified in the Work of Redemption by the Greatness of Man's Dependence on Him in the Whole of It.

The Great Awakening (Second Turning, 1727-1746) began as a spiritual revival in the Connecticut Valley and reached a hysterical peak in the northern colonies (in 1741) with the preachings of George Whitefield and the tracts of Jonathan Edwards. The enthusiasm split towns and colonial assemblies, shattered the old light establishment, and pitted young believers in faith against elder defenders of works. After bursting polite conventions and lingering Old World social barriers, the enthusiasm receded during King George s War.

The Great Awakening was a series of religious revivals that swept over the American colonies about the middle of the 18th century. It resulted in doctrinal changes and influenced social and political thought. In New England it was started (1734) by tjonathan edwards preachinghe rousing preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Although there were early local stirrings in New Jersey in the 1720s under the evangelical preaching of Theodorus Frelinghuysen of the Dutch Reformed Church, the revival in the Middle Colonies actually began in New Jersey largely among the Presbyterians trained under William Tennent. His son Gilbert Tennent became the leading figure of the Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies. Other preachers followed, and with the tour (1739­41) of the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield, the isolated currents of revivalism united and flowed into all the colonies. The revival reached the South with the preaching (1748­59) of Samuel Davies among the Presbyterians of Virginia, with the great success of the Baptists in North Carolina in the 1760s, and with the rapid spread of Methodism shortly before the American Revolution.

In New England, the movement died out rapidly, leaving behind bitter doctrinal disputes between the New Lights and the Old Lights. The latter was led by Charles Chauncy, a Boston clergyman, who opposed the revivalist movement as extravagant and impermanent. The theology of the New Lights, a slightly modified Calvinism, crystallized into the Edwardian, or New England, theology that became dominant in New England, whereas the liberal doctrines of the Old Lights, strong in Boston and the vicinity, were destined to develop into the Universalist or Unitarian positions. A similar division between New Sides and Old Sides took place in the Middle Colonies, causing a schism (1741­58) in the Presbyterian Church.

The Great Awakening also resulted in an outburst of missionary activity among Native Americans by such men as David Brainerd, Eleazar Wheelock, and Samuel Kirkland; in the first movement of importance against slavery; and in various other humanitarian undertakings. It led to the founding of a number of academies and colleges, notably Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth. It served to build up interests that were intercolonial in character, to increase opposition to the Anglican Church and the royal officials who supported it, and to encourage a democratic spirit in religion.

  What historians call "the first Great Awakening" can best be described as a revitalization of religious piety that swept through the American colonies between the 1730's and the 1770's. That revival was part of a much broader movement, an evangelical upsurge taking place simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic, most notably in England, Scotland, and Germany. In all these Protestant cultures during the middle decades of the eighteenth century, a new Age of Faith rose to counter the currents of the Age of Enlightenment, to reaffirm the view that being truly religious meant trusting the heart rather than the head, prizing feeling more than thinking, and relying on biblical revelation rather than human reason.

The earliest manifestations of the American phase of this phenomenon, the beginnings of the First Great Awakening, appeared among Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Led by the Tennent family, Reverend William Tennent (a Scots-Irish immigrant) and his four sons. Alllergymen--the Presbyterians not only initiated religious revivals in those colonies during the 1730s but also established a seminary to train clergymen whose fervid, heartfelt preaching would bring sinners to experience evangelical conversion. Originally known as "the Log College," it is better known today as Princeton University.

Religious enthusiasm quickly spread from the Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies to the Congregationalists (Puritans) and Baptists of New England. By the 1740s, the clergymen of these churches were conducting revivals throughout that region, using the same strategy that had contributed to the success of the Tennents. In emotionally charged sermons, all the more powerful because they were delivered extemporaneously, preachers like Jonathan Edwards evoked vivid, terrifying images of the utter corruption of human nature and the terrors awaiting the unrepentant in hell. Hence Edwards's famous description of the sinner as a loathsome spider suspended by a slender thread over a pit of seething brimstone in his best known sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." from Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1893

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