Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical

Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical

by Philip F. Gura

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An important new biography of America's founding religious father.

Jonathan Edwards was America's most influential evangelical, whose revivals of the 1730s became those against which all subsequent ones have been judged.

The marvelous accomplishment of Philip Gura's Jonathan Edwards is to place the rich intellectual landscape of America's most formidable evangelical within the upheaval of his times. Gura not only captures Edwards' brilliance but respectfully explains the enduring appeal of his theology: in a world of profound uncertainty, it held out hope of an authentic conversion—-the quickening of the indwelling spirit of God in one's heart and the consequent certitude of Godly behavior and everlasting grace.

Tracing Jonathan Edwards' life from his birth in 1703 to his untimely death in 1758, Gura magnificently reasserts Edwards rightful claim as the father of America's evangelical tradition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809061969
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/18/2006
Series: American Portrait (Hill and Wang) Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Philip F. Gura is Professor of English and Adjunct Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the American Renaissance and A Glimpse of Sion's Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620-1660, and editor, with Joel Myerson, of Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism.

Read an Excerpt

Jonathan Edwards


A Place in Time: The Connecticut Valley (1703)


In 1703 the Reverend Timothy Edwards and his wife, Esther, welcomed their sole male child, Jonathan, into a family that already included five girls and was to grow by five more.1 For the previous nine years Timothy had ministered to Windsor Farms, the east parish of Windsor (later South Windsor), where he remained his entire career, which spanned another fifty-five years. One of the oldest towns in the colony of Connecticut, Windsor is situated where the Farmington River joins the great Connecticut River, New England's chief northsouth waterway. This region, the Connecticut River valley, is one of the most storied in New England's history, in good measure because of Jonathan Edwards's long association with it.

For millennia the home of New England's native inhabitants, the Connecticut River valley by 1703 had been long settled by European colonists.2 From its source in a ridge along the present-day United States—Canadian border, the Connecticut, or Long, River flows four hundred miles to the Long Island Sound at Saybrook. In the seventeenth century the river, a half mile wide along its lower reaches, was navigable as far north as Hartford, fifty miles above the Sound and a few miles south of Windsor. Farther north, rapids and falls, most notablyat South Hadley, made travel by boat more treacherous and less appealing for trade. Despite such impediments, below the present-day Vermont border the river's banks were low and its current was manageable enough to encourage settlement. Of equal significance, to Native Americans and Europeans alike, the great river and its tributaries offered access to such distant regions as the Hudson River and Lake Champlain valleys.

The fertility of the alluvial meadows was as important to the early settlers as the river's navigability or its salmon and shad. During the spring thaw the Connecticut overflows its banks and deposits on its borders large quantities of fine, rich soil washed from its watershed. These constantly replenished alluvial lands are notably wide—as much as two miles across—as the river slows south of Agawam in Massachusetts to Windsor and Wethersfield in Connecticut, sites of the earliest settlement in the region. In such places the deep soil proved ideal for staple crops like wheat, rye, and corn, and the settlers frequently paid their colony and town taxes with the surpluses from their agricultural labor.

When Timothy Edwards's contemporaries spoke of the valley, however, they meant more than just the majestic river and its fertile interval lands. In the early nineteenth century Jonathan Edwards's grandson Timothy Dwight, who knew as much about the geography and history of New England as anyone, observed that for two hundred years the phrase Connecticut Valley had referred to a series of"expansions" where large tributaries like the Farmington, Agawam, Deerfield, Miller's, and White rivers met the Connecticut, made the terrain less rugged than in other parts of the region, and marked the location of clusters of towns and villages that defined the chief early settlements of the area.3

In 1703 the two most important of these subregions had at their centers communities pivotal to the social, intellectual, and religious development of the valley and of New England as a whole: Hartford in Connecticut and Northampton in what then was the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The larger, southern "expansion," where JonathanEdwards was born, began in the vicinity of present-day Middletown, Connecticut, continuing northward for fifty miles into Massachusetts, to Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom, near the South Hadley falls. This region encompassed Hartford, Wethersfield, Windsor, Suffield, and Springfield, among other communities. The other opening embraced Northampton, Hadley, and Hatfield and terminated on the north in Deerfield, at Mount Toby and Sugarloaf, from whose heights one viewed the Deerfield and Miller's rivers cutting through the rugged terrain to the east and west. Near Northampton, where Jonathan Edwards settled in 1727 as an assistant to his grandfather and made his indelible mark as a clergyman, the valley's breadth was close to twenty-five miles. Virtually contiguous and linked by the great river, these two parts of the valley marked separate spheres of influence. Even as most trade moved up- and downriver, politically Northampton had little to do with the colony of Connecticut. Rather, the upper valley's focus was Boston, 120 miles east and the capital of the province.


The Connecticut Valley was distinguished as much by its complex and volatile religious history as by its unique geography. Like their compatriots along the coast of New England, the vast majority of whom had ventured across the Atlantic to serve their religion, the valley's settlers were preoccupied with their faith. Most were English Puritans, heirs to the Protestant Reformation who had left England in the late 1620s and early 1630s rather than live with what they regarded as the incomplete reformation of the Church of England begun by Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547). After the Catholic Church had refused to grant his divorce from Catharine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII severed the English church's relation to the papacy and installed the archbishop of Canterbury in the pope's stead, but he allowed the Church of England to retain many of Catholicism's trappings,both doctrinal and liturgical. Further change occurred during the reign of Edward VI (reigned 1547-1553), but his successor, Mary Tudor (reigned 1553—1558), a Catholic, severely repressed the reformers, executing many of the movement's leaders and forcing others to flee to Europe in what became known as the Marian exile.4

Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) restored Protestantism and accommodated reformers as much as she could without jeopardizing the support of those to some degree still attracted to Catholicism. By the end of her reign, however, increasing numbers of clergy and laity, influenced by those who had returned from Europe on Mary's death and who had been greatly influenced by their contact with Continental reformers, were seeking the church's full reorganization. In particular, they wished to abolish the use of clerical vestments and such symbols as the sign of the cross during services. They also objected to the continuing iconic stature of saints that had been canonized by the pope. Meeting resistance from the church hierarchy, they argued as well for a more decentralized church structure and a ministry that spoke more directly to the spiritual needs of the laity. In other words, these English reformers sought to purify the English church of all corruptions; hence their epithet, Puritans.

English Puritans also quarreled with their brethren in the Church of England on doctrinal matters, for their theology still reflected the Catholic emphasis on humanity's ability to repent and turn to God for forgiveness of their sins. On the contrary, Puritans adhered to the tenets of the Swiss reformer John Calvin, who in the early sixteenth century, along with the German clergyman Martin Luther, had fomented what became the Continent-wide challenge to Roman Catholicism.5 Following Calvin, English Puritans worshiped an omnipotent and finally unknowable God who had irrevocably destined some individuals to heaven and others to hell, action justified because following Adam and Eve's primal transgression of God's law, all humanity was born into a state of sin. Christ's sacrifice on the cross, with his death the punishment for humankind's sins, satisfied divine justice, and now God saved whom he chose through his own freely proffered grace. God made known his intention toward the believer byradically transforming his or her heart, something that the individual recognized as a psychological experience marked by a turn from selfishness to selflessness. To acquire such knowledge of the state of one's soul was to have experienced "saving faith" or "conversion," and Puritans devoted their lives to searching for signs of what they termed their election.6

The English Puritans believed that such individual experience was also intimately related to how one joined with others to practice religion and thus sought to reorganize their churches more in line with what they understood as the scriptural injunction for the "communion of the saints." Indeed, their migration to the New World was fueled in great measure by their conviction that membership in the church was not automatic. It did not come, for example, as a result of where one lived, as was the practice in the Church of England, where one's abode in a parish guaranteed membership in the local church. Rather, the Puritans regarded a church as a group of like-minded individuals voluntarily "gathered" from the corruption of the world to pursue a more pure form of worship. The product of vigorous and unresolved debates in England over how such bodies were constituted, the Puritans, when they arrived in the New World, were agreed on little more than the imperative of removal from the utterly corrupt Church of England. In New England they continued to argue many ecclesiastical matters but none more vigorously than how one became a member of their newly formed churches. Was mere assent to Christian doctrine acceptable, or should one have experienced the transforming power of God's grace, implying one's election?7 Because church membership conveyed with it both religious and political status and privileges, it was central to a New Englander's sense of personal identity.

Many of the settlements in the Connecticut Valley originated in rancorous debates over just such issues.8 In the late 1630s the region's first outpost, at Hartford, comprised colonists who had left Newtown (later Cambridge), Massachusetts, because of their disagreement with clergy and magistrates in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had begun to require of prospective church members a personal narration of how God's grace had changed their lives. On this matter, Dorchester,Massachusetts's minister John Warham and neighboring Newtown's Thomas Hooker disagreed with the emergent majority so strongly that they resigned their important pulpits and set out with their supporters for the Connecticut Valley across a hundred miles of wilderness. Believing such rules too restrictive, they required only public affirmation of sound doctrine as the requisite to church membership in the new towns they established, Windsor and Hartford, respectively.

Upriver in Northampton, settlement began even more problematically, for this community had delayed installing a minister until 1661, even though their choice, Eleazer Mather, had been preaching there for three years.9 The largest number of this town's settlers also came from Dorchester, where Mather's father, Richard (who had succeeded John Warham), had had difficulty establishing a church in light of the colony's stringent new membership requirements. When he accepted Northampton's offer to be installed, Mather sought to bring some of his father's disgruntled parishioners with him, and as enticement he pressured the town to guarantee them choice property grants, a request that did not win him any friends among the established prominent landholders. Adding to the volatile mix, the town drew people from Hartford who had become dissatisfied with Hooker and others from Springfield, the commercial center of the upper valley, who viewed the new settlement primarily as an opportunity to further their economic ambitions. Predictably, in the decades immediately following the settlement of the northern part of the valley, disagreements arose primarily from the opposing views of church polity held by settlers from the various Connecticut and Massachusetts churches.10


Clearly, there was need for a more authoritative statement on questions of church membership and its attendant privileges, which included participation in the sacraments of the Lord's Supper and of baptism of one's children. In the spring of 1662 the Massachusetts General Court took the unusual step of calling a synod, a meeting towhich all churches were asked to send lay and clerical delegates, to sort out who should be given which benefits of membership. At one end of the spectrum were colonists who had acquired membership through what by then had become the predominant practice in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, by making a public profession of the way God, through his free grace, had changed their hearts to see and accept the truth of Christianity. Approved by the minister or a standing committee of church members, such an individual could vote in church affairs, partake of the two sacraments (the Lord's Supper and baptism) that the Puritans recognized, and could bring his or her children to the latter sacrament. Of equal significance, in Massachusetts, where the General Court limited the franchise to males who were church members, this status also conferred significant political privileges.

At the other end of the spectrum were those who, while members of local congregations by reason of where they lived, served what might be termed spiritual apprenticeships. Such Puritans, who had not yet had a change of heart that led to a genuine acceptance of Christianity, came under the church's watch and care but were prevented from voting in church affairs and participating in the sacraments. Because of their intellectual assent to Puritan doctrine, however, they were subject to clerical encouragement and censure. Always constituting a significant portion of any community, such individuals presumably hoped and prayed for God to allow them to accept uncritically the truths of Christianity.

But there was a complication. In the Massachusetts churches the children of church members were themselves guaranteed special consideration because of God's promise, in Genesis 17:10, to bless the seed of Abraham. Thus, as long as one parent was a full member of an established church, he or she could offer a child for baptism. The church nurtured these young people in the hope that as the offspring of those who believed that God indeed had conferred his grace on them and so strengthened their faith, they too would eventually know such favor and advance to full membership. But what rights and privileges did these probationary individuals have when they reached maturity without such an experience? Could their children be baptized?

After 1662 these children, of baptized but still unconverted church members, formed New England's new, third category of church membership, for at the synod a majority of the attendees voted to endorse these children's baptisms, even as they withheld any other prerogatives of membership.11 Thus, like their unconverted parents, the "half-way" members could neither vote in church or civic affairs nor participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. They occupied tenuous ground in New England society, constantly subjected to pressure to assume full membership.

Practical as this compromise appeared, to many it seemed a sleight of hand. The lack of unanimity among the delegates and of any legal mechanism to compel intractable clergy (or parishioners) to accept and institute the recommendations caused new fissures among the Massachusetts churches. Animosity was noticeable in the upper valley, where both Eleazer Mather and his neighbor John Russell of Hadley openly attacked what they regarded as this unscriptural extension of membership. Mather's resistance to the new policy caused no small consternation among his parishioners as well as among ministers in the eastern part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (including his father, Richard) who sought agreement on the new measures to preserve their influence over the laity.

Mather already had antagonized Northampton's original settlers by his insistence on guarantees of land for his supporters among the Dorchester emigrants, and his difficulties only increased when after the town had requested his compliance with the halfway measures, he refused outright. For five years he held the line, but in 1668, with Mather weakened by what proved a fatal illness, the church voted not only to endorse the result of the synod but also to liberalize church membership by eliminating the need for any personal testimony and opening it to all morally upright inhabitants who assented to the chief points of Christian doctrine. In doing so, they followed the pattern already established in most churches downriver in Connecticut. Mather died before any new church members were added under these revised provisions, but he lived long enough to chastise his community in a series of sermons delivered in the summer of 1669.12

Across the river in Hadley matters were equally complicated, with Russell adamantly opposing the extension of membership privileges to the children of those who had been baptized but still did not believe that they had experienced God's grace. And Russell's voice counted, for at that moment he was the intellectual leader of the northern valley. Twenty years after the synod, he still bristled at what he regarded as its members' betrayal of New England's true principles. "It now stands them in hand, who were of the Synod of 62," he wrote Boston's Increase Mather, Eleazer's brother, "to looke to the maintaining of the churches from pollutions by unp[re]pared ones incroching upon full Communion in the Lord's Supper and voting [in church affairs]." Not coincidentally, in this same letter he also reported what he took as the logical conclusion of the synod's recommendations. Across the river in Northampton, Eleazer Mather's successor, Solomon Stoddard, had concurred in the congregation's wish to go beyond the synod's recommendations and welcomed to full communion any adult member of the community not openly a sinner.13

The lack of consensus in the synod's wake revealed the clergy's confusion about the scriptural bases of, as well as the practical rationalizations for, the new class of membership. When a minority of dissenters—well-respected men like the Reverend John Davenport of Boston's First Church, Increase and Eleazer Mather, and John Russell—resisted the compromise, the colonies witnessed the appalling sight of God's viceroys scratching and clawing at one another in ways never previously seen in New England. The Synod of 1662 thus created as many problems as it solved, some of which still dogged Jonathan Edwards almost a century later.


When Timothy Edwards settled in Windsor in 1694, the valley had already seen forty years of religious bickering. To be sure, these disagreements reflected sharp divisions in New England's colonies, as their leaders sought to adapt the founding generation's ideas aboutchurch organization to new social conditions. With the arrival in Northampton in 1672 of Solomon Stoddard, however, matters took a new turn and set the course of the valley's religious history. After graduating from Harvard College in 1662, the year of the synod, Stoddard spent two years in Barbados before returning to New England to search for a suitable pulpit, which he eventually found in the valley.14 Installed in Northampton, he promptly married his predecessor's widow, making him Increase Mather's cousin. He also began to cut a path through the ecclesiastical briar patch in which ministry and laity were caught, and he irrevocably molded the community his grandson Jonathan Edwards inherited.

Stoddard linked New England's often remarked spiritual malaise to the clergy's defense of what he regarded as an outdated and erroneous system of church government. In particular, he believed that the morass in which the colonists found themselves (most manifest in the extensive wrangling over church membership) had originated in his peers' misguided attempts to sustain religious fervor by methods no longer effective, particularly the concept of restricted church membership. In the first generation, when the New England Puritans' piety had burned brightly because it was fanned by hardship and persecution, many had experienced what they took to be the moving presence of God in their lives. They could speak convincingly of such matters, and church membership came easily, even under the stringent rules that the clergy had put in place. But by the 1670s, with the colonies economically well established and relatively safe from English interference, and piety not fueled in so dramatic a fashion as it had been among the first generation, Stoddard saw a need for a different, more inclusive definition of church membership.

In Northampton he discovered a congregation eager for him to move in this direction and especially to institute broadened criteria for the baptism of infants. In 1677, not satisfied that complicated distinctions among church members were at all scriptural (or expedient), he abruptly stopped entering into the church's record book members' particular status—that is, "full" or "half-way" memberships.More radically, he soon allowed any member to participate in the Lord's Supper, regardless of whether he or she had offered an account of how God had worked to strengthen his or her faith, a requirement the Synod of 1662 had reaffirmed. By 1690 he had gone even further. Openly declaring that the Lord's Supper was an aid to conversion rather than just a sign of one's election, Stoddard argued that it should be administered to any who sought it as long as he or she was morally upright. To such individuals, he believed, meditation on the significance of the sacrament might bring home the truth of Christianity more convincingly and thus help a congregant know whether he or she had experienced conversion.

Three years prior to Edwards's birth, Stoddard sprang one more surprise. He stirred a vipers' nest with the publication in London of The Doctrine of Instituted Churches, a pamphlet so critical of New England's churches that supposedly no Boston printer would issue it. Herein he rejected the long-standing notion that New England should pattern itself on a New Testament model of churches of true believers gathered from the world. Instead, he reached back to the Old Testament to affirm the efficacy of the Instituted Church, an inclusive institution that offered the entire community the promises of the Gospel. Through regular exposure to preaching, discipline, and baptism and the Lord's Supper, any believer had reason to hope that God might work on his or her soul to strengthen faith. Stoddard's church, in other words, would not be divisive, as so many New England churches then seemed, but would open its doors to all who sought its ordinances.

In this pamphlet Stoddard lamented the chaotic situation in which New England's churches had found themselves in the wake of the Synod of 1662. Many parishioners, he wrote, now seemed "left at a loss whether there be any certain Rule to Guide" them or even if any certainty could be attained about such matters as baptismal privileges. Further, some were so confused by the incessant clerical bickering and ecclesiastical hairsplitting over these issues that they even willfully abstained from the Lord's Supper from fear of profaning thesacrament. Stoddard was convinced that most clergy misunderstood scripture when they argued for restrictive churches gathered from the world. "The Nature of the Church is the same under both Testaments," he wrote, but most colonists looked only to the New Testament churches as a guide because they had become so "exceeding Tenacious of the Traditions and Ancient Usages" of the New England churches, without considering that "a Corruption and Degeneracy" now prevailed in them.15

New England's problems thus stemmed from an embarrassing misunderstanding by the colony's founders, who in the eyes of their spiritual descendants could do no wrong. What the influential Mathers and other supporters of New England's established churches regarded as sacrosanct rules, Stoddard observed, were only "Blemishes and Errors" of the first generation of settlers, who in their zeal to establish a Puritan commonwealth on New England's shores mistook their own notions for timeless truth. Stoddard singled out for particular criticism the notion of requiring prospective church members to offer testimonies of God's confirmation of their faith. There was no such instruction in the New Testament, he wrote, and thus "We have no precept for it, we have no president [sic] for it ... . There is no Syllable in the Word of God, intimating any such thing, neither is there any need of it." In this matter as in too many others, Stoddard observed, his contemporaries displayed an obsessive "Veneration for antiquity and adopt[ed] the sayings of the Ancient Fathers as Canonical." In place of this restrictive church membership, which made invidious distinctions among good Christians and gave so much power to those who attained membership, Stoddard encouraged a "National Church" in which all members of the community pledged to uphold Christian principles in exchange for God's promise of prosperity for them.16

The publication of Stoddard's radical tract was the first round in a vitriolic pamphlet war between him and Increase and Cotton Mather, the colony's two most prominent clergymen and now his relatives. In his rebuttals Stoddard pointed to his opponents' excessive and misplacedregard for the colony's first-generation leaders. In words that resonated for his grandson almost half a century later, Stoddard insisted that it was possibly "a fault and an aggravation of a fault, to depart from the ways of our Fathers," but it also might be "a vertue, and an eminent act of Obedience to depart from them in some things" if experience demanded it.17 Hearing the shrill cries of the Mathers as paranoid attempts to reestablish a basis for their eroding authority, Stoddard reminded readers that "We may see cause to alter some practices of our Fathers, without despising of them, without priding ourselves in our own Wisdom, without Apostasy, without abusing the advantages that God has given us, without a spirit of compliance with corrupt men, without inclinations to Superstition, without making disturbance in the Church of God." Progress toward God's kingdom was assured by judicious examination of one's religious inheritance and redirection of faith, the better to align the church with the supreme logic of the Gospel plan. "Let our ancestors have as high a character as belongs to them," he concluded, but do not "look upon their principles as Oracles."18 The true Christian Church was not to be realized through the worship of golden calves, even if they were called by the names of those who had founded the Puritan commonwealth.

By the time of Jonathan Edwards's birth Stoddard was the unchallenged intellectual leader of the valley, his ministry based on a refusal to venerate a past that did not serve the complexity of the present. His unique contribution to New England's development (not lost on his grandson, an assiduous reader of his works) was to tell the truth about the emperor's new clothes. He saw the New England churches as in constant evolution because of the demands of new social conditions. "Experience best fits men to teach others," he once declared, and experienced spiritual navigator that he had become, he understood how frequently a society might have to alter its course to account for the vagaries of time and chance above which no men, no matter how they practiced their religious beliefs, could rise.19 Stoddard's legacy to his grandson thus comprised in part this willingness to challenge what others regarded as timeless wisdom.Ironically, it also included a congregation that had come to regard Stoddard as little less than an oracle, like those against whom he inveighed.


The Edwards family had been in the New World since the 1630s, for Timothy's grandfather William Edwards had moved from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then, around 1636, to Hartford, very likely with Thomas Hooker's contingent. There both he and his son Richard became successful merchants, moving from coopering (barrelmaking) to other business ventures. Richard's life was not easy, however, for he eventually took the highly unusual step of divorcing his first wife, Elizabeth Tuttle, after twenty-four years of marriage, during which her infidelity, coupled with an often remarked mental instability, severely tested his commitment to the marriage bond. The court that denied his first two petitions for the divorce granted his third, in 1691, and the next year he married Mary Talcott, who remained with him throughout the rest of his life.

Richard's son Timothy had successfully prepared for Harvard College with the Springfield minister Peletiah Glover and received both his A.B. and his M.A. in 1691, just as Stoddard was revising his notion of church membership. Three years later Timothy became the minister in the new east parish of Windsor, where he spent the remainder of his long life.20 Windsor Farms, as the community then was known, stood across the Connecticut River from Windsor proper, and prior to Edwards's settlement its inhabitants had ferried themselves to the weekly church meetings in the larger town. Their decision to form a new church on their side of the river, however, was not greeted with unanimity; and when Timothy moved there, the precinct was still disorganized and had neither meetinghouse nor parsonage. By the time of Jonathan's birth, however, its hundred-odd families had begun to prosper spiritually as they already had economically;their rich alluvial meadows produced good crops of rye and Indian corn, which they sold downriver to Hartford and New Haven.

The house in which Jonathan was born was Richard Edwards's gift to his son when he assumed his new position. It was a plain two-story structure typical of the period, with the upper story jutting out slightly over the lower. A huge chimney, with openings into each of four rooms, bisected the whole dwelling. On the first floor were a combination of kitchen and sitting room and a parlor that also served as Timothy's schoolroom for his tutees. Upstairs were the family's bedrooms, with the younger children probably still sleeping with their parents; privacy was at a minimum, especially in a family of this size. At times the downstairs sitting room might also have housed some of the children. As the years passed, Timothy added vestibules and ells to provide more space.21

Here Timothy prepared his sermons and instructed the young men who came to him to prepare for the ministry. He was particularly well regarded as a scholar in the classical languages and in Hebrew, and at an early age his only son joined this tutorial, as did some of his older sisters. Jonathan's parents doted on him as the only male heir, and his five elder sisters (particularly Mary, with her penchant for theology) shared their own growing knowledge with him as he prepared for what everyone expected, a career in the ministry.22 In this house, too, Timothy might have met with neighboring clergy to discuss and debate the ecclesiastical issues that animated the region. Although not a major participant in the church controversies that rocked the valley in the 1690s, Timothy, like many other younger clergymen, supported the recommendations of the Synod of 1662. But with a few others in the valley (notably, Westfield's Edward Taylor, posthumously to achieve fame as a poet), he resisted Stoddard's drive to open communion to all morally upright townspeople and continued to examine prospective candidates for membership. Although he occasionally quarreled with his flock (particularly about his salary), they respected his ecclesiastical positions.

Timothy's views on communion must have caused him some soul-searching,for in the same year that he was called to Windsor Farms he had married Solomon Stoddard's daughter Esther Warham Mather Stoddard, whom he had met while teaching school in Northampton. Esther's matrilineal pedigree was equally distinguished, for her mother was the granddaughter of John Warham, Windsor's first minister, and she had become Eleazer Mather's widow. She was remembered as "tall, dignified, and commanding in appearance, affable and gentle in her manner," and "a woman of distinguished strength of mind, of superior education, peculiarly fond of reading, and of ardent piety."23 Like her daughters, Esther had finished her education in Boston. She also was hardy, living to ninety-eight. Marrying her, Timothy Edwards aligned himself with an extended family that controlled the economic, military, and religious life of the upper valley.

In this household there was always talk of religion and, in particular, of conversion, for with his father-in-law, Stoddard, Timothy Edwards shared a strong interest in and eventually a well-regarded success at evangelism. Yearning for times of religious revival when a heightened spiritual concern brought numbers of new members into the church, Timothy frequently preached on the need for God freely and generously to allow the sinner to accept the truths of Christianity. Indeed, by the early eighteenth century in the upper valley such sowing for spiritual harvest had become a local industry in which several other clergy, including Timothy Edwards's cousin William Williams, another of Stoddard's sons-in-law, participated.

Williams was an important contributor to the intellectual tenor of the upper valley. Graduating from Harvard a decade before Timothy Edwards, by 1686 he had settled in Hatfield, on the river just north of Northampton. After the death of his first wife in 1698, Williams married Christian Stoddard and thus joined the politically incestuous tangle of Connecticut River valley families, which now included his brother-in-law in Windsor.24 Like Stoddard, Williams was a pragmatist unafraid to reconsider the constitution of the true church. In the early eighteenth century he did precisely that. Prompted by his observation that few took advantage of Stoddard's unorthodox ideas,Williams argued in a 1707 published sermon that the clergy should try new tactics to bring townspeople into the churches. He stressed the importance of presenting the Gospel message to sinners and of providing a clear notion of the way God worked in conversion. Soon enough, he drew Stoddard to his point of view. Williams's affecting and uncompromising presentation of the great truths of the Christian religion complemented Stoddard's interest in how God worked to convince sinners to abandon any confidence in their own efforts toward salvation and so to trust in God's free grace to confirm their faith. Together these two men established a pattern of institutional response to spiritual awakening that Jonathan Edwards, trained by a father who equally valued conversion, found instructive and amenable.


At the time of Jonathan Edwards's birth, the Connecticut River valley had thus acquired a unique identity within New England, defined as much by the response of the region's intellectual leaders to ecclesiastical problems as by economic and social circumstances. To be sure, the valley's concerns were not all church-related, for frequently other matters impinged more viscerally than any controversies over baptism or communion. Since its settlement, for example, the region periodically faced threats from New England's Native inhabitants, incensed by the increasing usurpation of their ancestral lands. Such matters came to a head most memorably in Deerfield, just a few miles upriver from Northampton, in 1704, when Jonathan Edwards was only four months old. Without warning, the town was devastated by an Indian raid, and its minister, John Williams (William Williams's cousin and college classmate), and his family were carried off to Canada for ransom. Other encounters with Native Americans, no less frightening and violent, filled the region's early history.25

There were more mundane concerns, the lateness of a spring frost that delayed timely planting, say, or the severity of a winter thatclosed the great river to traffic. There were worries about who represented one's interests in the General Court or whether there was an adequate supply of legal tender to pay the militia. But for most early-eighteenth-century New England settlers, religion remained the preeminent concern. Theology was the undisputed queen of the sciences, and the church the locus of one's personal and social existence. The valley's inhabitants plowed, sowed, and reaped; traded surplus vegetables and grain downriver in exchange for imported staples; wrote letters to their relatives in Boston or across the Atlantic; and, in what news sheets they could secure, followed the course of warfare in Europe as Protestant Englishmen fought the French and other supporters of the Catholic Church. Above all, they contemplated the states of their souls and, through assiduous study of the Bible, sought to understand the ways in which God worked out his plan in their very lives.

The history of the Connecticut River valley is integral to the study of Edwards, for the region's geography and institutions indelibly marked him. Born into a region in good measure defined by its peculiar religious heritage and into an extended family counted among the region's most powerful, with deep investments in the local and colony-wide ecclesiastical debates, Edwards, whatever his genius, was undeniably a product of his time and place.

Copyright © 2005 by Philip F. Gura

Table of Contents


Title Page,
[ONE] - A Place in Time: The Connecticut Valley (1703),
[TWO] - Season of Youth (1716–1727),
[THREE] - Sowing for the Harvest: Northampton (1727–1734),
[FOUR] - The Chief Scene of These Wonders: Hampshire County (1734–1739),
[FIVE] - A great Deal of Noise About Religion (1740-1743),
[SIX] - Northampton in Turmoil (1744–1750),
[SEVEN] - Stockbridge and the Housatonics (1750-1757),
[EIGHT] - Transatlantic Debate (1754–1758),
[NINE] - Princeton (1757–1758),
[TEN] - Coda: Thinking Through Edwards,
A Note on Sources,
Copyright Page,

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