Sunday, March 22, 2009

March 22 - Jonathan Edwards, Preacher, Theologian, Leader in the Great Awakening

Jonathan Edwards had seen something and in the seeing he had lost the happy ability to avoid its truth for the rest of his life. While serving as a minister, he had become aware of a startling truth that rattled his soul and demanded proclamation. At first, he struggled with the idea and the calling and described the idea as "horrible." Jonathan had realized that the people he interacted with on a day to day basis were walking in the valley of the shadow of death. They couldn't see it but there was a sword hanging over each and every one of their heads. Jonathan became overwhelmed by the ease of the path of sin and destruction but had been startled to find out that even he himself was regularly choosing the path of sin and death. Of course, this was not often a conscious or informed decision. Instead, it was found in the everyday, little decisions. In each little decision was the seed of redemption or the choice of destruction. Once he had seen this reality, he couldn't believe that others were failing to see it. So, he decided he would spend the rest of his life trying to wake people up.

On the 8th day of July, in the year 1741, Jonathan preached a sermon that would become linked with his name through the ages. It was in Connecticut that he preached this sermon entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Though the modern reader is likely to recoil at the shocking imagery that Jonathan selects it must be remembered that this was Jonathan's goal--not to persuade people to give the Christian faith a chance but to wake them up to the state of their soul and the impact that all the little things had on their lives. Though this sermon is often portrayed as nothing but "fire and brimstone" it's not entirely fair to focus on the hellish imagery when Jonathan's express purpose was to highlight God's mercy in the face of our continued practice of choosing the things that were and are destroying us. Again and again he repeated "There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." Jonathan wanted to highlight that our condemnation was not something heaped upon us but, rather, something that we've freely chosen and definitively deserve. Justice decreed consequences for choices and yet we seemed to miss that point. He preached, "The sword of divine justice if every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God's mere will, that holds it back."

In response to Jonathan's (and others') work and preaching, people in the colonies began experiencing a revival that would later be termed the "Great Awakening." Further, he endeavored to challenge the people of the colonies not simply to be Christian in name but Christian in thought and deed, as well. Though many fainted, swooned, and had emotional reactions to his sermons, he did not let this go to his head. Instead, he wrote at length about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. He concluded that the movement of the Holy Spirit was often occasioned by emotional reactions but that these reactions themselves were not sufficient evidence to confirm the presence of the Holy Spirit in the meeting. Near the end of his life, he struggled with the politics of a local congregation and eventually his position was terminated by the congregation he served. In 1757, he went on to become the acting President of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University). As part of his position there he was inoculated against smallpox. He did not survive the inoculation and died on the 22nd day of March in the year 1758.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

This one is different from most of your "stories that matter" in that it does not highlight a martyer or Christian pacifist.
I also agree that Edwards is far more complex than reading "Sinners" would show, but what drew you to his story--especially the aspects of it you tell?

mitchell said...

I love your stuff. Thank you for making it available. I am encouraged as I read about our faithful brothers and sisters who have walked the path of faith before us. Have you studied much early Eastern Christianity, I mean outside of the Roman Empire in Persia and Eastward along the old silk road? Just curious. Thanks for the material!

Joshua said...


I have set up a calender that determines who I'll write about on a given day. I consult several other calendars to determine who to do when and try to link people to the day of their death or birth (giving martyrs priority for the day of their martyrdom). Then, I tinker with the calendar so that everybody I'll write about has a day. I try to pick people from a variety of traditions and whom I agree and disagree with.

I'm looking for variety but I admit that the stories that often are most initially compelling to me are the stories of martyrs. I think these stories communicate a fundamental identity of those who follow Jesus: an allegiance to something beyond this world that transcends even death.

Many pacifists are included because my own nonviolent stance probably predisposes me toward hearing and telling their story with passion. But, I've worked hard to include people on the other side of the nonviolence issue.

In short, I'm trying to trace Christian identity through story instead of statement--through lives and actions of individuals that typify what it is to be Christian (good or bad). So, I pick the stories that tell "the story" most clearly in my estimation.

Several things about Edwards led me to include him in the calendar: 1) the text of the sermon "Sinners...", 2) his status as one of the greatest "American" philosophical theologians, 3) a previous reading of "Religious Affections," 4) the sword dangling over the head imagery, and 5) his eventual removal from his congregation.

But, the main thing that led me to his inclusion was how his story emphasizes our brokenness and need for redemption--even if we don't recognize or accept it. It seems to me that Edwards couldn't imagine how people were missing what seemed so clear to him (God isn't assigning you death. You've already selected it and are now marching eagerly toward it!).

Thanks for reading, Michael. I'd love to talk with you more at length if you're interested. I hope you'll continue reading.

Joshua said...


Thank you very much for your kind words. They mean very much to me and I am encouraged reading them. I hope you'll continue to read and give me your feedback.

I've studied some early Eastern Christianity but I am admittedly limited in my education on this topic. Do you have any suggestions or material worth reading/studying? I try to escape a "western bias" in my writing and include as many of the great Eastern Christians as I can but I'm admittedly weaker in this area of knowledge. Any reason you ask?

mitchell said...

Joshua- I am limited in this area as well but what I have read by Samuel Hugh Moffett has been amazingly informative. For what it is worth. In the mean time keep your posts coming. Peace.