According to biographer George Marsden, “He was the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians.” Others have noted his importance as a preacher, writer, and leading voice in the First Great Awakening. But above everything else, Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) strove to be a pastor.
Edwards was only twenty-three when he became the assistant pastor of First Church of Northampton, Mass., a Congregational church led by his maternal grandfather, the venerable Solomon Stoddard. Just two years later, Stoddard died, leaving Edwards to shepherd the church alone. He would remain pastor of First Church until July 1, 1750. They were years of both revival and adversity. Epidemics of the late 1740s killed more than a tenth of Northampton’s population. Edwards lost his own beloved daughter Jerusha, age seventeen, in 1748. Despite the brilliant success of his preaching, powerful people in the church maligned him as harsh and narrow-minded. His stubborn opposition to the Half-Way Covenant—a deficient practice of church membership—caused his dismissal from the church. Edwards went on to serve as missionary, teacher, and pastor for a small group of Native Americans and whites in Stockbridge, wrote his most famous theological treatises, and briefly served as president of the College of New Jersey. On March 22, 1758, Edwards died of complications from a smallpox inoculation.
Considering all that he had to endure, what kept Edwards the pastor going?
It certainly was not the numerical growth of the church or the admiration of people. During the First Great Awakening, Edwards did not even publish a report on the number of conversions that occurred through his ministry. Rather than relying on outward signs of success, Edwards sought to cultivate—through prayer, Bible study, and meditation—dependence on God alone.
He was dedicated when it came to daily communion with God. “Throughout the day, his goal was to remain constantly with a sense of living in the presence of God.” Edwards believed that his labors as a minister would be no better than his own fellowship with Christ. He spent most of every weekday absorbing the Bible, pondering its truths, making notations in his notebooks, and praying. From his days as a young intern in New York City, “a new master-interest possessed him: it was to enjoy the Word of God.” Because of the abundance of time Edwards spent in the Bible, he “saturated almost every sermon, from text to doctrine to application, with scripture.” Edwards wanted to know God personally and deeply so that in turn he might live with all his might to the glory of God. Consequently, he experienced a level of intimacy with God that few in our fast-paced, pragmatic world understand. He describes this intimacy in his “Personal Narrative”: “The sense I had of divine things would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul I know not how to express.”
Edwards maintained a number of disciplines throughout his life that fueled his ministerial passions. He cherished his wife, Sarah, and helped her rear eleven faithful children. He had a high view of the Lord’s Day and kept it holy. He maintained close ties with colleagues in ministry, both in the Colonies and across the ocean, not only to work with them for revival but to find encouragement through their friendship. He took extended rides on horseback and chopped wood to refresh his spirit and body. He spent time observing nature. He often contemplated heaven and the rewards that lay ahead for the faithful.
But above all, it was Edwards’ sense of the greatness of God and his conviction that the gospel would one day fill the earth that empowered him to be true to his calling. He was optimistic that, despite the troubles at hand, the Great Commission would eventually be fulfilled. In 1747, Edwards wrote:
That the Spirit of God has been of late so wonderfully striving with such multitudes…is what I should take encouragement from that God was about to do something more glorious, and would, before he finishes, bring things to a greater ripeness, and not finally suffer this work of his to be frustrated and rendered abortive by Satan’s crafty management. And may we not hope that these unusual commotions are the forerunners of something exceeding glorious approaching, as the wind, earthquake, and fire at Mount Sinai, were forerunners of that voice wherein God was in a more eminent manner?
What can contemporary church leaders learn from Jonathan Edwards the pastor? Modern paradigms of ministry are very different from the one Edwards inherited from his father, his grandfather, and the Puritans before them. Today’s pastors find themselves spread thinner than ever. They feel the weight of expectation to be successful fund-raisers, motivators, communicators, long-range planners, marriage counselors, civic leaders, church planters, Bible scholars, vision casters, and—while they are at it—inspiring preachers and tender shepherds. Meanwhile, they are expected to maintain the model devotional life, marriage, and family. How could looking back to Jonathan Edwards profit the twenty-first century American minister?