Jonathan was born on 5 October 1703, the one son among the 11 children who made up the family of Timothy Edwards, minister of East Windsor in the New England state of Connecticut. Jonathan grew up in an atmosphere of religious awakening; in later life he would note that there were at least four outpourings of the Holy Spirit during his father’s ministry. During one of these awakenings, when he was perhaps just 7 or 8, he became very concerned for his soul. He experienced great delight in religion — what he later called ‘much self-righteous pleasure’. With two of his schoolmates he built a booth in a swamp, in an out-of-the-way spot, where they could go to pray. Jonathan himself had secret places of his own in the woods where he used to go away by himself; he could even say, ‘I seemed to be in my element when I engaged in religious duties’.
But his delight in religion did not last. In later years, he looked back to much of his youth as a time when holiness seemed ‘a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing’. He commented on his time of great religious activity: ‘I am ready to think many are deceived with such affections and such a kind of delight as I then had in religion and mistake it for grace’. And his subsequent observations no doubt reinforced such an assessment.
During his time at college — at what was later to become Yale University — he was at times ‘very uneasy’, especially when he was ill with pleurisy, when God, as he expressed it, ‘brought me nigh to the grave and shook me over the pit of hell. And yet it was not long after my recovery before I fell again into my old ways of sin. But God would not suffer me to go on with any quietness. I had great and violent inward struggles.’ Edwards spoke of his repeated resolutions to give up outward sin and to perform many religious duties seriously. But such striving after salvation in his own strength was doomed to failure. In the final year of his BA course and in the first year of the MA course which followed, he became more and more aware that he needed an inward change and a salvation which he could not bring about by his own efforts. ‘I was indeed brought’, he wrote, ‘to seek salvation in a manner that I never was before. I felt a spirit to part with all things in the world for an interest in Christ.’
It was probably in the early summer of 1721, when he was still 17, that Edwards became conscious that the great change had taken place. He looked back on what he had experienced and said, ‘The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words: ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (1 Tim 1:17). As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up in Him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in Him for ever! I kept saying, and as it were singing over, these words of Scripture to myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy Him, and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to, with a new sort of affection.’
Yet he did not at first realise that there was anything of a saving nature in his experience. But he went on: ‘From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ and the work of redemption and the glorious way of salvation by Him. An inward, sweet sense of these things at times came into my heart, and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of His Person and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in Him. I found no books so delightful to me as those that treated of these subjects.’ And he made this fundamental distinction between his present enjoyment of the things of religion and what he had when he was younger: ‘Those former delights never reached the heart, and did not arise from any sight of the divine excellency of the things of God, or any taste of the soul-satisfying and life-giving good there is in them’.
Not yet 19, Edwards decided to leave Yale without finishing his second degree and was licensed to preach the gospel. He was undoubtedly young — extraordinarily young — for the work of the ministry, but Samuel Miller, the Princeton professor, gave, in his Life of Edwards, this testimony to his suitability: ‘The character of his piety, from its very commencement, bears the stamp of unusual depth, fervour, clearness and governing power. . . To some readers a portion of this language may appear to indicate an excited imagination and a state of feeling bordering on enthusiasm. . . The truth is, he entered more heartily and thoroughly into the character of the great object of pious emotion than most Christians do, and no wonder that he spoke a corresponding language.’ In a very early sermon, perhaps his first, Edwards showed how heartily and thoroughly he had entered into the spirit of true religion: ‘When a man is enlightened savingly by Christ, he is, as it were, brought into a new world. . . The excellency of religion and the glorious mysteries of the gospel seemed as a strange thing to him before, but now . . . he sees with his own eyes and admires and is astonished’.
He began to preach to a small congregation of Scots-Irish Presbyterian settlers in New York in August 1722. From that period, 24 manuscript sermons survive, and one scholar has commented that the young preacher ‘manages to touch upon most of the issues and themes of his later writings’. Clearly, not only his piety, but also his knowledge of spiritual things, bore the stamp of unusual depth at this early stage in his life.
After going to New York, he wrote in his Personal Narrative: ‘My longings after God and holiness were very much increased. Pure and humble, holy and heavenly Christianity appeared exceeding amiable to me. I felt a burning desire to be in everything a complete Christian, and conformed to the blessed image of Christ. . . I had an eager thirsting after progress in these things. . . It was my continual strife day and night, and constant inquiry, how I should be more holy, and live more holily, and more becoming a child of God and a disciple of Christ. . . The heaven I desired was a heaven of holiness — to be with God and to spend my eternity in divine love and holy communion with Christ. My mind was very much taken up with contemplations on heaven and the enjoyment there, and living there in perfect holiness, humility and love; and it used at that time to appear a great part of the happiness of heaven that there the saints could express their love to Christ. It appeared to me a great clog and burden that what I felt within I could not express as I desired.’
Clearly also the character of his piety was maturing rapidly. Yet there were days when he felt cold and downcast, probably arising, in part at least, from the unsettled state of the congregation. He was sometimes quite distressed when he thought about the sins of his past life and how much time he had allowed to go by before he ‘began to be truly religious’ — in spite of the fact that he was noted for the orderliness of his life and that he was no more than a teenager when the great change took place.
During his time in New York, and for some months afterwards, he began to note down a series of 70 resolutions which were intended to guide him for the future. Among them were: (4) Never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God . . . (5) Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can. (7) Never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life. (16) Never to speak evil of anyone, so that it shall tend to his dishonour, more or less, upon no account except for some real good. (28) To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same. (42) Frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism, which I solemnly renewed when I was received into the communion of the Church . . . (53) To improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in Him and consecrate myself wholly to Him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer. (62) Never to do anything but my duty, and then, according to Ephesians 6:6-8, to do it willingly and cheerfully, as unto the Lord and not to man: knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord. (70) Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak.
Yet he was learning ‘by experience that, let me make resolutions and do what I will, with never so many inventions, it is all nothing and to no purpose at all without the motions of the Spirit of God; for if the Spirit of God should be as much withdrawn from me always as for the week past, notwithstanding all I do, I should not grow, but should languish and miserably fade away. I perceive if God should withdraw His Spirit a little more, I should not hesitate to break my resolutions and should soon arrive at my old state.’
Culled from Banner of Truth and written by Kenneth D. Macleod, Leverburgh, Isle of Harris, Editor of the Free Presbyterian Magazine