Jonathan Edwards’ Passion

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is the famous, and to some, infamous sermon of Jonathan Edwards.  Some use this powerful sermon to attack the character of Edwards, Puritans, and Christianity.  So prevalent is the stereotype that the word “Puritan” tends to bring up the imagery of an angry, passionless, judgmental, and harsh man.  There is no doubt that Puritan history has some dark periods, however, the stereotyped reputation is largely undeserved.

Jonathan Edwards, one of the most famous Puritans in American history, displays the positive passion within the Puritans in the early to mid-18th century.  The man lived out a strong love for people, nature, and his family; especially his wife Sarah.  An article from Christianity Today by J. Stephen Lang and Mark Noll gives us a glimpse at Jonathan Edwards’ passion:

Later generations have not always been kind to the memory of Jonathan Edwards.  They have often depicted him as an inhuman monster, the stereotyped hell-fire preacher notable for his fanaticism and his contempt for a detestable humanity.  They have portrayed him as the essence of Puritanism at its worst – cold, inhuman, completely otherworldly, devoid of any relevance for real people in the real world.  In truth, this “monster” was a devoted husband, the proud father of eleven children, and a tireless letter-writer whose favorite words seem to have been love and sweetness.  He enjoyed long walks in the Massachusetts woodlands and saw all nature as an evidence of a beautiful loving creator God.  He was a diligent pastor and on occasion, an evangelist who always tempered fiery images with soothing words of the love of God for repentant sinners.  He was, to all who knew him, a brilliant scholar whose gifts of head combined comfortably with immense gifts of heart. 

Elisabeth Dodds, who has placed a great amount of time studying the life and marriage of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards echoes the positive passion of Jonathan Edwards.  Dodds summarizes the marriage for Christianity Today:

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… What Edwards described as their “uncommon union” bonded them marvelously to one another and it also bonded them to the living God.

Dodds helps clarify the Puritan marriage for modern ears: “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… 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.”

Dodds also shows how the joy of marriage is exemplified in the matrimony of Jonathan and Sarah.  George Whitefield declared, “A sweeter couple I have not seen.”  Jonathan referred to his wife as “my dear companion.”  They went for late afternoon rides in order to spend time alone away from the busyness of the house and study.  They had devotions together at night and esteemed one another highly.

Tragically and suddenly, Jonathan Edwards had his life cut short due to a new smallpox vaccination.  The last words from his lips to his doctor and two of his daughters who were by his bed (Sarah was out of town) were of his wife and a reference to her favorite verse (Romans 8:35 – “Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ?”):

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.

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