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The Spirituality of Jonathan Edwards

The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:1 "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." Examining the lives of godly men ought to be an encouraging challenge toward greater holiness and deeper spirituality. Jonathan Edwards, through his example, models a Christian life worthy of emulation. Wise words are the ones inscribed on his tombstone: "Go hence, O traveler, and follow his pious footsteps."

In his life as a boy and as a young man, Edwards had several periods of awakening when he though himself to be converted. In his Personal Narrative, he recounts a story from his childhood when he and some friends built a booth in a swamp solely as a place of secret prayer. He prayed at least five times daily and talked about little but religion with his friends. One of the significant points in Edwards' theology is his clear distinction between times of conviction and spiritual interest and conversion itself. This is manifested in his early life. While Edwards did have some degree of delight in religious exercises, it was not like what he experienced later on in life.

The great discipline, intensity, and seriousness that he demonstrated in this time is quite frightening when one considers that he manifested these qualities while unregenerate. Many people go through life completely self-assured in their salvation with far less evidences of grace than this.

Evidencing the falseness of his earliest inclinations was their temporary character. Referring to Proverbs 26:11, he speaks of returning to his sin like a dog to its vomit. Although he had another period of awakening while battling pleurisy in his last years of college, this too ended the same way. It is dangerous to place one's assurance in the religious experiences of the past.

Hebrews 11:6 says that God "is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." Both before and after his conversion, Edwards, demonstrated a great deal of diligence in his pursuit of God. In his boyhood, he speaks of being "abundant in duties."[1] In another time of awakening and demonstrating the high opinion that he had of religious discipline, Edwards said, "I sought after a miserable manner: which has made me sometimes since to question, whether ever it issued in that which was saving; being ready to doubt, whether such miserable seeking was ever succeeded."[2] 

His intensity and zeal only increased in his life as a Christian. In 1722, he began a list of seventy resolutions that aided his spiritual discipline. In resolution 37, for example, he "Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself: also at the end of every week, month and year."[3]

There is a profound lack of this kind of strenuous effort, which is not only suggested by Edwards, but also commanded in scripture. It seems that many Christians simply use "trust" as a synonym for laziness and there is little struggle toward greater holiness.

After his conversion, Edwards developed deep Calvinistic convictions. In fact, it was in thinking about this teaching that he shows signs of regeneration. He had been taught the doctrines of grace from the time he was a boy, but had always struggled with the justness of God's sovereign purpose in election. He considered it a "horrible doctrine."[4]

The things that distinguish the saved person from the unsaved person, or even the saved person from devils, are not simply the things that they believe to be true. James says, "Even the demons believe." The difference is that Satan and his angels hate passionately everything they know about God. Satan knows that God is sovereign, but loathes his power and wishes that he had it for himself.

Such a difference between knowing and loving are clearly evidenced in Edwards' life. While before his conversion he considered God's sovereignty to be a "horrible doctrine", he later described it as "an exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet doctrine."[5] This love of Calvinism took deep root in his life. Although he does not devote a particular section to it, Calvinistic doctrine underlies the whole foundation of his Religious Affections.

This "new spiritual sense"[6] began to permeate all of his thinking. Edwards recalled that the first time he had this extreme delight in God was as he was meditating on 1 Timothy 1:17. He said that he had a new and different sense of God's gloriousness. He began praying that he might enjoy God and his prayers became completely different. Though Edwards did not know it at the time, he later recognized this as the point of his conversion.

Before his conversion, he had been seeking his own salvation, but when he had received assurance of it, he was not content with merely this. He felt a burning passionate drive to know more of God and to live as a "complete Christian."[7] He felt the hungering and thirsting after righteousness that Jesus spoke about.

The spiritual disciplines that one so admires in Edwards did not primarily stem from a sense of duty. The reader of the Personal Narrative gets a sense that his practices of reading, meditation, and prayer were far from being merely a responsibility, but they were his life and delight. The attitude of many seems far from this. People seem to be all the more confident that they love God because they have done their duty of bible reading and prayer. Edwards said, "prayer seemed to be natural to me; as the breath, by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent."[8]

Edwards speaks more about the things that were going on in his heart than the things that he was doing. He argues in the Religious Affections that "true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections."[9] He was painfully honest about the state of his own heart, as clearly evidenced in the Personal Narrative. Although he was deceived about the condition of his heart prior to his conversion, this is common to all men. What is remarkable is how well he knew himself. After recording a time of "uncommon sweetness"[10] he speaks of a time when he "sunk in religion; my mind being diverted from my eager and violent pursuits after holiness, by some affairs that greatly perplexed and distracted my mind."[11]

He was constantly speaking of how he felt about the things of God, whether it was good or bad. While it is true that people are known by their fruits, it is often tempting to disregard the thoughts and intents of the heart if ones life is in relatively good order. Edwards, recognizing that "the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked", kept close tabs on both.

Edwards believed that humility was a large part of the holiness that men are to demonstrate. This was something that he longed to see grow in his own life. He did not sugar-coat his language when speaking of his own sinfulness. Yet he did not belabour his sinfulness or exadurate in false humility. It was before God that he pursued humility and this manifested itself in his writings before men. He also, like the apostle Paul, honestly considered himself the worst of sinners. He was not content to be only as humble as other men because he felt that he was in greater need of humility because of his greater sinfulness.

Edwards was thoroughly committed to the scriptures. When he speaks of being moved by a certain passage, it is not with some hidden, underlying, personal-interpretation kind of meaning. When he was struck by the beauty and gloriousness of a text, it was a true apprehension of the original meaning. He said, "oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt an harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words."

This is evidenced not only in his personal meditation, but in his theological works as well. They reflect a careful consideration of the true meaning of the text.

Nature also played a great part in the spiritual life of Edwards. It was alone in the woods that he would go to contemplate the greatness of God and to sing. He could be away from distractions that might have either diverted his attention or made it more difficult to consider the affections of his heart. After being upset over leaving some friends in New York, Edwards records the time of sweet refreshment that he had while wandering alone in a field.

Nature also was something that drew him into worship. Edwards records how he had been terrified of thunderstorms. After his conversion, he sought them out so that he might "hear the majestic and awful voice of God's thunder."[12] He also speaks of the sun, grass, water, trees, and many other things showing the wisdom of God. It is unfortunate that a man like David Brainerd could not take the same worshipful delight in it as Edwards did. This is an important thing for the Christian to retain. It seems that meditation on nature leading to the praise of God is often regarded as "cheesy" (for lack of a better term). While this may be partially do to tasteless or lifeless presentations that use nature as a starting point, nevertheless, Christians ought to be urged to see nature as an opportunity for worship. In a letter to Judge Paul Dudley, Edwards records his observations of a spider, noting the following conclusions:

"Hence the wisdom of the creator in providing of the spider with that wonderful liquor with which their bottle tail is filled . . ."

"Hence to exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, even the insects."[13]

Singing played a great part in the worship of Edwards. In his Personal Narrative, he speaks not of congregational singing, but of singing spontaneous praise while alone. He would engage in "singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer."[14] Like the other areas of his spirituality, this seemed to flow irrepressibly from his experience of God. When meditating on 1 Timothy he "kept saying, and as it were singing over these words of Scripture."[15]

Edwards considered holiness to be "of a sweet, pleasant, charming, serene, calm nature."[16] He greatly admired the holiness of God and considered it to be one of his foremost and most beautiful attributes. In his meditations on heaven, it was the holiness of it that seemed most attractive to him. He strove to live out this holiness in his own life. His resolutions are part of his attempt at doing this. Holiness brought to Edwards "an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness and ravishment to the soul."[17] It seems that the modern unspoken idea of holiness is a deprivation of all pleasure in exchange for morbid seclusion. Edwards believed that genuine happiness consisted in holiness.

In the Personal Narrative, Edwards records his spiritual progress. It is interesting to note that as he grew and his delight in the Lord became deeper, his humility and sensitivity grew as well. Though he made great progress in the "grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ" he considered that, in some ways, he had lived as a better Christian the first few years after his conversion. This evidences his heightened sensitivity.

"I have a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, since my conversion, than ever I had before. It has often appeared to me, that if God should mark iniquity against me, I should appear the very worst of all mankind;"[18] 

Meditation played a very central role in Edwards' spirituality. Throughout his life, he did not consider it sufficient to merely read the words of scripture, but thought constantly on them and considered them deeply. It was in this posture that he was converted. The Personal Narrative and his other works are full of scripture that evidences much consideration. Not only did he meditate on scripture itself, but also on the attributes of God. He wrote the earlier comments on holiness as the fruit of his contemplation of it. He also spent a great deal of time meditating on the condition of his own heart as mentioned before.

Meditation was part of Edwards practice because of his theology. He considered the affections to be indispensably linked with true religion. He elaborates on this idea in the Religious Affections. Meditation is the means by which his affections were stirred and cultivated. It would be difficult to write about any of Edwards' spiritual experiences without mentioning meditation because it plays such a key role. When one considers the abundance of fruit that came from his hours of reflection, it is not surprising that people are struggling spiritually with their five-minute prayers and cursory glances at the scriptures in the morning. Meditation is imperative for a productive Christian life.

Edwards was deeply concerned with the salvation of those he knew, particularly his family. He longed to serve and minister to them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. He laboured in prayer and in teaching for them. God mercifully saved each of his children who continued his legacy of faithfulness.

His relationship with other believers also played a significant part in the spirituality of Edwards. His friends were those who drew him closer to Christ. Edwards said, "I could bear the thoughts of no other companions, but such as were holy, and the disciples of the blessed Jesus."[19] It seems that much of contemporary relationships and "fellowship" consists of little more than idle amusement. It is unavoidable that a Christian would desire true close fellowship with other believers around the things of the Lord. Edwards spoke of a place by the Hudson River where he and his friend, John Smith, used to walk "together, to converse of the things of God; and or conversation used much to turn on the advancement of Christ's kingdom in the world, and the glorious things that God would accomplish for his church in the latter days."[20]

After having spent quite some time in New York, he left the Smiths with many tears. On his trip back, he began to consider what it would be like to live always with his brothers and sisters in heaven and never have to leave. This is a clear example of what it means to love the brothers. The spirituality that he admired in others was also what initially attracted him to his wife. He said of her: "She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her actions and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful."[21]

Jonathan Edwards is a faithful example who is worthy to be emulated in the pursuit of Christ likeness. His spiritual sensitivity, deep love of God, rigorous prayer life, constant meditation, and spiritual friendships warrant examination, not for the purpose of self-justification, but as a challenge to strive for greater spirituality.


[1] John Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth Minkema, eds. A Jonathan Edwards Reader (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995) p.282.

[2] Ibid, 282-283

[3] Ibid, 277

[4] Ibid, 283

[5] Ibid, 283

[6] Ibid, 161

[7] Ibid, 286

[8] Ibid, 286

[9] Ibid, 141

[10] Ibid, 290

[11] Ibid, 290

[12] Ibid, 285

[13] Ibid, 5

[14] Ibid, 285

[15] Ibid, 284

[16] Ibid, 287

[17] Ibid, 287

[18] Ibid, 294

[19] Ibid, 288

[20] Ibid, 289

[21] Ibid, 281