In all seriousness, though, this is a great opportunity to learn about one of the most formative theological influences on America from one of today’s most well-known evangelical theologians. But in order to make the most of this opportunity, it might help to have a little background information on who Jonathan Edwards was and what he did. If you’re already familiar with him, this can help refresh your memory in time for the talk — and if you’re not, this saves you the awkwardness of having to ask.
Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut on October 5, 1703, the son and grandson (on his mother’s side) of New England ministers, and the only son of eleven children. Always an eager learner, Edwards entered Yale University in 1716 (yes — if you do the math, that means he was 13) and graduated as class valedictorian four years later. At school he dove into studies of philosophy, natural sciences, psychology, and theology, seeking to intertwine them into a comprehensive view of reality called metaphysics. Rather than allowing the “secular sciences” to pull him away from God (as many of his counterparts did), Edwards saw the study of the universe as providing further evidence of God’s master plan.
Fast forward about a decade: in 1727 he was ordained in Northampton, Massachusetts, as an assistant pastor to his grandfather Rev. Solomon Stoddard, and married Sarah Pierpont (incidentally, the daughter of Yale University’s founder). Two years later, he became senior pastor in Northampton when his grandfather died. He dove headfirst into the role, especially when it came to his preaching. He, like many other “young upstart” preachers of the time, firmly believed that for sermons to have the most effect on listeners, they needed to incorporate emotional content as well as intellectual — in other words, they needed to touch the heart as well as the mind. Perhaps the best-known example of his homiletic style is his 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which (among other images) he likens humans to spiders dangling by the thinnest thread over the fires of hell.
But I get ahead of myself. During the winter of 1734-1735, Edwards’ work with the young adults of the Northampton church sparked a revival that quickly spread to surrounding New England towns. By 1735 the fervor had died down and Edwards had gained a few critics, but in 1741 the fire was rekindled when he teamed up with George Whitefield, an English Anglican preacher who gained the nickname “The Grand Itinerant” from his numerous trips throughout the American colonies. (The nickname was well deserved: in one year’s time, Whitefield traveled more than 5,000 miles on horseback, preached over 350 times, and was personally seen by over one quarter of the colonial population of the time. Many scholars argue that he was the first American celebrity.) This time, the revival wasn’t just a local phenomenon; not only did revival sweep from Georgia to Maine, but it kicked off a spiritual revitalization back in England and other Protestant European countries, as well.
This movement, which came to be known as the First Great Awakening, dramatically transformed the way that Protestant Christian faith was and is understood and practiced. Until this point, religious involvement was largely considered to be a passive event; people would come to church, sit in the pew, and quietly listen to passionless, intellectual discourse (which would typically have little to no bearing on how they lived their lives the other six days of the week). Now, with these “new light” preachers inviting and encouraging them to take the messages of the Bible to heart, lay men and women began reading and discussing their Bibles at home and realizing that it had something to say to them when and where they were.
Evangelists during the Great Awakening emphasized personal spiritual conversion by God’s grace, rather than mere religious participation in the institutional church, as the defining mark of a true Christian. (Take a look at George Whitefield’s sermon “On Regeneration” if you’re interested in seeing how this theology is laid out.) This personal experience of faith led to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role each individual person has to play in the life of the family, the community, and even the nation; while American history textbooks often say that the “democratic ideals” held by the Founding Fathers came from ancient Greece, these ideals were largely ushered in by the messages of individual responsibility and agency through God’s saving grace that were preached and received during the Great Awakening.
At this point in my blog entry I’ve just about hit my word limit, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of the fascinating story and powerful impact of Jonathan Edwards. Hopefully, though, I’ve whetted your appetite and you’d like to learn more. I encourage you to attend Dr. Piper’s April 23rd talks (at 11:00 and 1:00, both at ATO Chapel) — but you can also check out the following library resources:
See you in ATO on April 23rd!
“Jonathan Edwards: Biography.” Available online at http://edwards.yale.edu/research/about-edwards/biography.
“People & Ideas: George Whitefield.” Available online at http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/people/george-whitefield.html.
“People & Ideas: Jonathan Edwards.” Available online at http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/people/jonathan-edwards.html.
Piper, John. “A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: Why We Need Jonathan Edwards 300 Years Later.” Available online at http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/a-god-entranced-vision-of-all-things-why-we-need-jonathan-edwards-300-years-later.
Piper, John. “The Pastor as Theologian: Life and Ministry of Jonathan Edwards.” Available online at http://www.desiringgod.org/biographies/the-pastor-as-theologian.