Jonathan Edwards, one of the leaders of the First Great Awakening and among the most important Christian leaders in American history, continues to exert a powerful influence in the twenty-first century. His writings have shaped the discussion on human free will and divine sovereignty, and many have looked to him as an example par excellence for evangelistic preaching. Sadly, however, Edwards has often been as maligned as John Calvin.
Because of his importance in American history, many people have been exposed to Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The sermon contains extensive descriptions of hell, and for this reason, many people view Edwards as an angry preacher obsessed with fire and brimstone. Yet Edwards, like all faithful preachers, did not preach the reality of hell as an end in itself. Instead, he preached the truth of hell in order to give the good news that sinners can escape eternal condemnation through the grace and mercy that God provides in Christ Jesus for all who believe. It is also worth noting that Edwards covered no topic more often in his writings and sermons than the sweetness, beauty, and excellence of Christ. Because Edwards had such a sound view of divine justice, he was able to grasp the exquisite loveliness of Christ as few others could.
Edwards was born in 1703, and he displayed a phenomenal intellect at a young age. A lover of the natural world, Edwards was a keen observer of nature and even wrote essays on his observations that later scientists would respect. Edwards attended Yale University and read widely in philosophy, particularly the writings of John Locke. But his love for God’s Word and God’s people led to his ordination as the assistant pastor of a Congregational church in Northampton, Mass., at age twenty-six. During 1734–35, revival broke out at this church under Edwards’ preaching.
Edwards’ congregation later ousted him after twenty-three years of ministry on account of charges that later were proven false. Edwards, however, continued in ministry, serving as a missionary to Native Americans for eight years. He also served as the third president of the College of New Jersey, which is today known as Princeton University. His time as college president was brief, lasting only two months and ending in his death after a smallpox inoculation. His stature as a churchman and a theologian remains strong more than 250 years later.