Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, the only son of Timothy Edwards, a Puritan minister. Jonathan graduated from Yale College in 1720, and earned his master’s degree in 1723 at the same school. In 1726, he answered a call to serve as an assistant to his grandfather, the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, of Northampton, Massachusetts.
The following year Edwards was ordained as a minister, and married Sarah Pierrepont; eventually they would have 12 children.Upon the death of his grandfather in 1729, Edwards became the pastor of the Northampton congregation.
Although not a loud or fiery speaker, Edwards was a forceful preacher. His parishionersresponded to the clarity of his logic and to his convictions. More than most preachers of his day, Edwards was moved by the ideas of the European Enlightenment; he saw science and logic as extensions of God’s will.
In the early 1740s, a movement known as the “Great Awakening” took place in New England. Churches that had experienced declining membership foryears suddenly found new members, and reports of visions of Christ and Satan were widespread. Edwards delivered his greatest sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” at Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741.
The sermon was typically Puritanical in that it was based on the belief that a person’s salvation or damnation was unknowable to himself. The sermon marked him as a standard bearer for the old Puritan cause, but he was in truth much broader in both his mind and spirit.
Throughout the 1740s, in both sermonsand publications, Edwards continued to advocate strict standards for admission to the church. Edwards claimed that a man’s profession of faith was not sufficient; his life had to show some visible evidence of God’s grace for the man to become a true church member. This view brought him into conflict with his Northampton parishioners, andin 1750, they voted to dismiss him.
Edwards and his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he served as a missionary to the Native Americans. The family lived in humble poverty for seven years, and Sarah Edwards made do by working as a seamstress. In 1757, Edwards was asked to serve as the first president of the College of New Jersey, which would later become Princeton University.
He went to New Jersey, and early in 1758 he took an inoculation for smallpox. Edwards hoped his example would encourage others in the community to follow suit. However, the doctor had administered too large a dose in the inoculation and Edwards died. He remains to this day one of America’s most influential religious philosophers.