Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758) was a Protestant preacher, philosopher, and theologian. Edwards “is widely acknowledged to be America’s most important and original philosophical theologian,” and one of America’s greatest intellectuals.
During his undergraduate years (1716-1720) and graduate studies (1721-1722) at Yale College, Edwards engaged all manner of contemporary issues in theology and philosophy.
He studied the debates between the orthodox Calvinism of his Puritan forebears and the more “liberal” movements that challenged it, such as Deism, Socinianism, Arianism, and Anglican Arminianism, as well as the most current thought coming out of Europe, such as British empiricism and continental rationalism.
From early in his life, Edwards committed himself to vindicating his beliefs before the foreign luminaries of the Enlightenment by recasting Calvinism in a new and vital way that synthesized Protestant theology with Newton’s physics, Locke’s psychology, the third earl of Shaftesbury’s aesthetics, and Malebranche’s moral philosophy.
The widespread revivals of the 1730’s and 1740 have stimulated one of the two most fruitful periods for Edwards’ writings.
In this period, Edwards became very well known as a revivalist preacher who subscribed to an experiential interpretation of Reformed theology that emphasized the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humankind, the reality of hell, and the necessity of a “New Birth” conversion.
While critics assailed the convictions of many supposed converts as illusory and even the work of the devil, Edwards became a brilliant apologist for the revivals.
In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1742), A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), and The Life of David Brainerd (1749), he sought to isolate the signs of true sainthood from false belief.
The intellectual framework for revivalism he constructed in these works pioneered a new psychology and philosophy of affections, later invoked by William James in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
Edwards’s preaching became unpopular.
For four years, no candidate presented himself for admission to the church, and when one did, in 1748, he was met with Edwards’s formal tests as expressed in the Distinguishing Marks and later in Qualifications for Full Communion, 1749.
The candidate refused to submit to them, the church backed him, and the break between the church and Edwards was complete.
Even permission to discuss his views in the pulpit was refused.
He was allowed to present his views on Thursday afternoons.
His sermons were well attended by visitors, but not his own congregation.
A council was convened to decide the communion matter between the minister and his people.
The congregation chose half the council, and Edwards was allowed to select the other half of the council.
His congregation, however, limited his selection to one county where the majority of the ministers were against him.
The ecclesiastical council voted that the pastoral relation be dissolved.
Edwards’s writings and beliefs continue to influence individuals and groups to this day.
Early American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions missionaries were influenced by Edwards’s writings, as is evidenced in reports in the ABCFM’s journal “The Missionary Herald,” and beginning with Perry Miller’s seminal work, Edwards enjoyed a renaissance among scholars after the end of the Second World War.
The Banner of Truth Trust and other publishers continue to reprint Edwards’s works, and most of his major works are now available through the series published by Yale University Press, which has spanned three decades and supplies critical introductions by the editor of each volume.
Yale has also established the Jonathan Edwards Project online.