Paul's Passing Thoughts

TANC 2015, Susan Dohse, Session 1 – Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Man of Many Words

Posted in Uncategorized by pptmoderator on September 23, 2015

TANC LOGOI love history, and although I give my dear husband fits when I am preparing for our conferences, this studying and doing research does give me an element of enjoyment. This is also one of my preventive measures to staving off Alzheimer’s – engaging in mentally challenging activities. However, I am motivated by truth. That is the mission of TTANC, The Truth About New Calvinism.

For our new guests either here or in cyberspace, I will quickly introduce myself. My name is Susan Deborah Dohse. I was married to Wayne St. Denis for thirty-six years, and together we had three sons: Timothy, Benjamin, and Philip. Wayne passed away in December of 2009 of congestive heart failure and diabetes. The Lord blessed me with a new husband and so I lost my “sainthood” when I married Paul 4 years ago. I actually married him twice. We eloped on January 1st and, April 9th, had a public marriage ceremony to announce our union. I am in my 42nd year of teaching, and my present title is that of a Developmental Specialist. This means I get to play with babies whose ages range from birth to age three. I have taught every grade except Kindergarten and the first fifteen years of my teaching career was at Xenia Christian. Two children were added to my clan, Heather, and Paul Jr.  Together, Paul and I have four grandchildren, Blayne, Benjamin’s son, whom you will meet on Saturday, and Hannah, Jacob, and Joanna, who live in Puerto Rico with their missionary parents Heather and David.

If I were to take a survey such as what might be taken for the game show Family Feud, and ask people to name one thing they know about Jonathan Edwards, here is what I believe the top answers might be:

1) Who?
2) He wrote that anti-war song, Sunshine.
3) Wasn’t he the man who fell into the hands of an angry God?
4) I know, he woke up during that Great Awakening.
5) He’s running for President, isn’t he?

The young, restless, and reformed call him their “home boy”, and pastors elevate him to equal importance of the Apostle Paul. There is a Jonathan Edwards Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, a Jonathan Edwards Classical Academy in Whites Creek, Tennessee, a Jonathan Edwards Conference held by John Piper, Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University which houses all his known writings, a Jonathan Edwards College at Yale, and a Jonathan Edwards Gordon Conwell Seminary. The list can go on. Just Google it. This Puritan minister of the 1700’s is immortalized, idolized, and almost canonized. The Puritan Board Blog holds Edwards in high esteem, and why wouldn’t they? It’s the Puritan Board. They extol his life and elevate his teachings to be on par with Scripture. John Piper rarely has an original sermon because of his heavy reliance on the theology and epistemology and writings of Jonathan Edwards. “Alongside the Bible, Edwards became the compass of my theological studies,” writes Piper. Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones made this claim: “I am tempted perhaps foolishly, to compare the Puritans to the Alps, Luther and Calvin to the Himalayas, and Jonathan Edwards to Mt. Everest. He has always been to me a man most like the Apostle Paul.” Author Stephen Nichols speaks of a lecturer who stated, “Next to Scripture, Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections stands as the single most important book for any Christian to grapple with.”

He is called the Prince of Pastors, America’s greatest theo-philosopher, and America’s Augustine. Do I even try to say something the least bit negative about this golden boy of the Puritans?

So, the Why question. Why study history in general and Jonathan Edwards in particular? We live in the here and now, the present. We are supposed to be planning for the future, our retirements, Christmas, our next conference, lunch. We plan for and perhaps worry much over the future. With all that we have to do today, and with all that we have to look forward to in the future, why bother with discussing someone from the past? Consider all the demands that press on us daily and the anticipation of what is. Peter Stearns said, “Any subject of study needs justification.” Why is Jonathan Edwards worth our study, worth your attention? What is the justification for my sharing what I have learned about this man?

Let’s look at it from this perspective: How can we evaluate war if the nation is at peace –unless we use historical material? How can we understand the role that beliefs play in shaping church history, and family life if we don’t study the impact of such historical figures as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Augustine, and Jonathan Edwards? Let’s use this analogy: Jonathan Edwards is our laboratory and the data learned from him and what he taught serves as the evidence in figuring out the answers to other Wh questions: Why is Protestantism, i.e. Christianity, pursuing New-Calvinism? What factors contribute to this resurgence? What elements of Protestantism persist despite change? When we unfold his record, it could provide some light on how New Calvinism works, and the road it is taking us down.

Jonathan Edwards, destined from birth to be a Puritan minister. His parents, Timothy and Esther Edwards, hearty Calvinists, believed in predestination and the sovereign will of God, but were not disposed to helping God define the direction, shape the will, and mold the mind of their only son, Jonathan. He had no other calling but that of a Puritan minister. His mother, father, and older sisters made sure that he would follow in the path of their father, Timothy, and grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He was the fifth child of eleven, and the only boy. He was extremely loved and doted on but not spoiled. His father was a micro-manager and had the highest of expectations for his only son. He learned Latin at the age of 6, and before entering the Collegiate College of Connecticut, later named Yale University, at the age of 13, he would know both Latin and Greek. His father, Timothy, a teacher himself of Latin and Greek would see to it that his son would know the languages necessary to enter college.

From an early age, religion was a preoccupation with Jonathan. He dated his interest in spiritual things to when he was 9 or 10, calling it “a time of remarkable awakening” when he had been for months concerned “about the things of religion and [his] soul’s salvation.” Moved to both private meditation and prayer, and religious exercises with other children, he often went to “secret places” in the woods, “a booth in a swamp, in a very secret and retired place, for prayer.” He later wrote, “I seem to be in my element when engaged in religious duties.”(Samuel Miller, Jonathan Edwards, and Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards.)

He entered the Collegiate School of Connecticut at the age of 13, intellectually precocious, and an un-regenerate pre-teen who did not measure up to his father’s expectations because, although overly pious, Jonathan did not show a heartfelt love of God, which was the true sign of conversion.

He went off to school with ten other boys ages 13-15; typical age for boys to attend college during those days. The course work was rigorous, and life structured. Breakfast followed morning prayers, with classes through midday; an hour and half of free time after the noon meal and before afternoon classes, more prayers, Bible reading and explication. Supper came after early-evening recitations, with study hours from 9-11. Lights out at 11. Monday through Thursday first year students studied Greek and Hebrew grammar, sophomores began work in logic, and the upper classes moved on to natural philosophy, mathematics, and metaphysics. All students studied rhetoric, oratory, ethics, and theology. This puts the common core philosophy in a bad light, doesn’t it?

The final examination for receiving the Bachelor of Arts degree was: a student had to convince his rector of his expertise “in Reading the Hebrew into Greek, and into Latin and grammatically resolving said languages and in answering such questions in their systems of logic and in the principles of natural philosophy and metaphysicks.” Edwards did so well that at the commencement in 1720 he gave the valedictory oration, in Latin. He returned to work on his Master’s degree.

Scholasticism gave him satisfaction and recognition in the collegiate community, but not peace. Although well-read and informed in the reading and study of philosophy, particularly European high culture ( Locke, Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton, Henry More, Malebranche, the Cambridge Platonists, to name a few), he still anguished over the issue of conversion. In his Personal Narrative he reported his earliest religious experiences and wrote that just prior to going to Yale he believed that he had experienced spiritual transformation. But he lost his exuberance. He had at least four spiritual awakenings, he records.

When 16, he became bed-ridden with pleurisy and almost died. He wrote that it was a divine intervention, for God held him over the pit of hell and it was his sinful life that brought him to the verge of death. Believing, as all good Puritan Calvinists do, that experiences such as this is part of the sovereign will of God and part of the spiritual conversion process, he resolved to rearrange all things in his life to allow him to focus on Christ alone. He tried to renounce his former ways and obey the Lord’s Word. He “fell again” into the “old ways of sin” which led him to many great and violent struggles in his soul. He broke off all former wicked ways, all known outward sin, and applied himself to see salvation and to practice many religious duties. (Please note these words: see salvation and practice religious duty: they are important in the pursuit of salvation) Through self-searching he felt the need to change his attitude from “seeking salvation” to contemplation of Christ’s place and role in the world—develop a new awareness of Christ’s glory. Please note the first two steps one takes to conversion: recognizing how wicked you are by identifying all known sin, and contemplation of Christ’s glory. Now he needed to shift his attention to God. Only by turning to God would he be able to experience a true spiritual transformation. He writes that when he saw the once horrible doctrine of God’s sovereignty he was able to “see further.” His reasoning was that he “apprehended the justice and reasonableness regarding the doctrine of God’s sovereignty” and became “convinced and fully satisfied as to this sovereignty of God and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men according to his sovereign pleasure.” He found the breakthrough to being converted. Only through the full realization of the glory of the Divine Being did he develop new convictions about Christ and the work of redemption. He describes his mystical and existential conversion as “an inward, sweet sense” of the work of redemption, “a calm sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of the world.” His experience had been so overwhelming that he writes in his diary that “often he had a kind of vision, or fixed ideas, and imaginations of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapped and swallowed up in God.” (Diary, Works of Jonathan Edwards)

Now on the verge of complete conversion, on the edge of self-transformation according to his new and vivid experience of the sovereign majesty of God and Christ’s glorious work of salvation, he needed a stamp of authority to certify that these spiritual experiences were indeed evidence of conversion. He traveled from New York in 1723 to tell his father his spiritual odyssey. Without the approval of his father, the long and agonizing journey of the past two years might prove invalid. “Not long after I first began to experience these things I gave an account to my father of some things that had passed in my mind. I was pretty affected by the discourse we had together.” With his father’s final affirmation and approval, his son’s process of conversion was complete. In his Personal Narrative he tells his readers that after the discourse with his father, he went for a short walk, when “[i]t came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God…The appearance of everything altered. There seemed to be as it were, a calm, sweet cast or appearance of divine Glory in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity, his love, seemed to appear in everything.” Although he writes that he does not know the exact moment when conversion happened, he knows that one day he had a “delightful conviction” accompanied by a “sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things” that he had never experienced before. He dated this remarkable change in attitude to the time between his graduation from Yale and his pastorate in New York.

It is important to keep the steps of his conversion in the back of your mind because we will revisit these again.

Throughout his life Jonathan Edwards spent a considerable amount of time and energy in fashioning the conduct and character of his person. At the beginning of his literary activity he kept to being the careful, organized writer, following the rules he wrote in his Cover-Leaf Memoranda where he would engage the reader, and gently lead them into some new dimension of belief. By the 1730’s he abandoned his rule book and became aggressive and assertive with the intent to expound serious Christian doctrine rather than just chronicle events.

The timeline of events from his conversion experience to his death revolve around Edwards establishing his ministerial authority. Called to be an assistant pastor to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, was a major role for Edwards. He was entering a territory with increasing social instability and potentially explosive situations. Corn, cattle, and land were central to the region’s interests and social divisions within the town had become significantly exacerbated. The Stoddard family controlled the military, the judiciary, and the church, and this control was a constant thorn in his flesh. Edwards did not long have the benefit of his grandfather’s counsel or authoritative position. On February 11, 1729, after 60 years in the same town and ministry, the great man finally died, leaving his 26 year old grandson to continue his work. Elijah’s mantle had fallen on his shoulders, but he was far from earning the respect it marked, for he would always live in the shadow of the Pope of the Connecticut Valley, his grandfather. From 1729 to 1743 he was on the rise as the sole pastor of the prestigious Northampton congregation that experienced awakenings in 1734-35 and 1740-42. Some historians calls these times the Little Awakening, and the Great Awakening.

His strategy during these years consisted of three elements: cultivate a patronage of influential people in Northampton, cultivate a patronage of influential people beyond Northampton, and continue to grow his self-confidence in the rightness of his personal beliefs as foundational to true religion. He accomplished this not through his preaching solely, but through his prolific writing.

The congregation of Northampton had to get used to a minister that was “stiff and unsociable”, a man of few words and a man reserved with strangers. He was never comfortable visiting people’s homes and making small talk. He wrote, “I prefer the study of books than to the company of people.” When they had spiritual concerns, he preferred to counsel them in his study, not visit them in their homes. Unlike his grandfather, who preached without notes and with much emotion, his pulpit manner reflected his constitution and habits. His voice was not particularly loud, but that did not diminish the fact that he commanded his audience with distinctness, clearness, and precision. He rarely moved his hands or looked out on his audience unless it was to stare at the bell rope in the back of the church, for he wrote out his sermons and read from his texts.

His life was marked by rigid structure –rising early, thirteen hours of study in which he wrote treatises, and prepared his sermons. Edwards wrote in his diary in 1728, “I think Christ has recommended rising early in the morning, by his rising from the grave very early.” After the evening meal, he often devoted one hour engaged with his children in conversation and singing. He also wrote “I judge that it is best when I am in a good frame of mind for divine contemplation, or engaged in reading the Scriptures, or any study of divine subjects, that, ordinarily, I will not be interrupted by going to dinner, but will forego my dinner, rather than be broke off.” After family worship, he would return to his study for 2-3 more hours before retiring to bed. Much praise must be given to his wife Sarah, for she was glue that held the household together. She was responsible for running the household, discipline and instruction of their eleven children, and caring for the steady stream of visitors and apprentices, often overseeing their home and 50 acres while nursing one child and pregnant with another. When it came to the management of a household, it has been said that Jonathan Edwards had no common sense, often unaware of how many sheep they had, or the condition of their fields. It was Sarah that helped to make the man, Jonathan Edwards.

From 1744-50, he became embroiled in controversies and conflicts in which his downward spiral in the eyes of the town led to his dismissal in 1750. Edwards had inherited a church socially fractured and in spiritual decline. His effectiveness as spiritual leader diminished with each passing year. He was dismissed from his ministerial position and on July 1st 1750, he severed his formal connection with the church of Northamption. To pour salt on his wounds, the church retained him for another year, hiring him by the week to preach to a congregation that was having difficulty in obtaining a new minister, in no part because of the town’s reputation for contentiousness. In the summer of 1751, he moved 60 miles west of Northampton where he was to be the minister and schoolmaster at an Indian mission school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Finally convinced that his talent was writing, in a few short years he completed 4 theological treatises on topics of transatlantic interest. The strategies he developed after graduation from Yale were now being played out in the wilderness of Massachusetts.

The theme of his writing was the most important and urgent: the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and excellence. He now had the self-confidence and the growing conviction that he had the duty and right to communicate this message. He had internalized the message to the point where it was shaping him, the message became the man. The message of God’s sovereignty with its human counterpart of the need for total dependency on God dominated him to where he was convinced that he had a role as proclaimer of that message. Now his role became one of quasi-apostle. He journeyed from the desire to be heard, to one who felt he had the right to be heard, to this quasi-apostle, one who must be heard.

Now more than 290 years and 4,000 words of scholarship later, we see that the person of Jonathan Edwards was shaped not by his practice, but by his writing. Is it no wonder that the young, restless, and reformed are urged to “take up and read Edwards”? He fits well in their TULIP cult; since the TULIP cult works from the principles taught in the highly fallible writings and sermons of men, men such as John Calvin, and their home-boy, Jonathan Edwards.

Session 1, Blog TalkRadio Podcast

One Response

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  1. lydia00 said, on September 27, 2015 at 10:08 AM

    I have read some Jonathan Edwards but like most Puritan reading, he simply wore me out. It is like reading about how to hate yourself. I think most YRR read him in a way that always points to other people and how they should live. As if they live to “implement” his writings.

    I did read Marsden’s bio of him and was appalled to read that several people he was “discipling” one on one committed suicide in very gruesome ways. I mean, that is very close and personal thing to happen to people you are spiritually counseling!

    On another note, it is a bit amusing to read of all the pastors/scholars from his legacy and read that today one of them is a female pastor who was in the forefront of gay ordination/marriage:


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