Jonathan Edwards: A Gallery of Friends, Foes & Followers

George Whitefield (1714–1770)

George Whitefield was a famous friend of Edwards. While American revivalists such as Edwards and Gilbert Tennent limited their activities to relatively small areas, Whitefield enlarged the Awakening into an intercolonial, interdenominational effort aimed at restoring spiritual energy to churches. Whitefield, an Anglican priest, was a fiery preacher and could move vast audiences with his intensely dramatic sermons. The great English actor David Garrick claimed he would give a hundred guineas just to be able to say the word “Oh” the way Whitefield did. Practical-minded Benjamin Franklin came to hear a Whitefield sermon and ended up emptying his purse to help fund a charity Whitefield sponsored. Both the poor and the privileged turned out to hear this orator, whose popularity was unparalleled in the century. However, because many churches were closed to him as they were to his friend and advisor John Wesley, Whitefield often took to preaching in open fields, barns, or courthouses on both sides of the Atlantic. He journeyed to America seven times and impacted colonial society from New Hampshire to Georgia. So great was his popularity in America that, like Edwards Whitefield was criticized by many clergymen who resented the emotionalism and occasional disorders. Charles Chauncy was one of the most vocal critics of both Edwards and Whitefield. Edwards himself was deeply impressed by Whitefield’s presence, and when Whitefield preached in Edwards’ church Edwards wept during most of the service. While Whitefield was no match for Edwards’ skill as a theologian and thinker, his zeal and genuine piety left their mark on Edwards and on the Great Awakening. Without Whitefield the amazing phenomena of 1740–41 might never have come to pass.

Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729)

Even if Solomon Stoddard had not been the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, he would have a place in the history of Christianity in America. The greatnephew of Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop, Stoddard graduated from Harvard in 1662 and became the college’s first librarian. He went to Northampton in 1669. In the Northampton church he faced an issue that before and after his time caused commotion in New England churches: Should persons who show no evidence of spiritual regeneration be admitted to the Lord’s Supper? Young Stoddard began to urge a relaxation of membership requirements, and finally concluded that open admission to the Lord’s Supper was justified. Convinced that man was unregenerate and depraved by nature, Stoddard insisted that it was unfair to require proof of conversion. He opened the sacraments to persons of every spiritual state except those living openly scandalous lives. The practice became known as Stoddardeanism and was generally adopted throughout all western Massachusetts. Stoddard became the supreme ecclesiastical politician in the area and was known as “the Pope” in Northampton. The awed Indians referred to him as the “White Man’s God.” He was loved and admired by his parishioners, who seemed pleased that he preached hell-fire and damnation. He railed against drunkenness and adultery and worked the people up into frenzies of religious excitement. He led awakenings in Northampton years before his famous grandson was even born. In 1726 Edwards was called to Northampton to serve as assistant pastor to Stoddard who died in 1729. When Edwards tried to abolish his grandfather’s policy of open Communion years later, the Northampton parish asked for his resignation.

Charles Chauncy (1705–1787)

was Edwards’ most notable foe. After Edwards wrote Some Thoughts Concerning The Present Revival of Religion in New England, Charles Chauncy of Boston responded with Some Seasonal Thoughts on the State of Religion. A rationalist, Chauncy held that man’s religion should be governed by enlightened reason, not by the emotions. Thus he ridiculed the emotion generated by the preaching of Edwards, Whitefield, and others involved in the Awakening. (Curiously, Chauncy, like many other clergymen, was initially interested in the revival movement, but he failed in his few attempts at revival preaching and afterwards held the whole movement in contempt.) Like many of his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, Chauncy was interested in revising religion to make it congruent with optimism about human ability. During his sixty years as pastor of Boston’s prestigious First Church he helped shape a liberal theology giving reason the highest place in religious life. For Chauncy, reason and order, symbolized in the church ordinances, were more important than a stress on personal faith and assurance. Besides deriding the emotionalism of the Awakening, Chauncy also came to criticize the whole Calvinistic notion of election. He came to reject the idea of eternal damnation and concluded that after death the wicked would only be punished for a time proportionate to their sin. While the revivalists worked to encourage conversion in their listeners, Chauncy insisted that orderly Christian habits would ultimately fit persons for happy immortality.

Eleazar Wheelock (1711–1779)

was a friend and fellow evangelist. When a group of five ministers descended on Enfield, Connecticut, to start a religious revival there, two of the five men were Jonathan Edwards and Eleazar Wheelock. Like Edwards, Wheelock was often away from his home parish, being invited by other New England pastors to help awaken their congregations out of spiritual lethargy. Wheelock traveled extensively and was a leading figure in the Awakening. Perhaps his most lasting influence lies, however, in the field of education, not evangelism. Wheelock began a charity school designed to drill Indians in the rudiments of religion and send them back to their native cultures as agents of the Christian church. His star pupil, Samson Occom, was evidence that Indians could indeed become civilized and even scholarly Christians. In 1769 Wheelock obtained a charter for the school, which he named Dartmouth College. Dartmouth opened its doors to whites as well as Indians. The institution survived hard times including the disruptions caused by the American revolution. Wheelock, a skilled administrator, helped see the school through hard times and saw it arise as a supplier of preachers for the northeast frontier.

Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764)

was a friend and fellow minister. The son of the famous pastor and theologian William Tennent, Gilbert studied theology and took pastorates in Delaware and New Jersey. While pastoring in New Brunswick, New Jersey, he came under the influence of Theodorus Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed pastor who was already leading revivals in the area. By 1729 Tennent was involved in the revival movement, working by means of personal counseling and pulpit addresses. In 1740 George Whitefield asked Tennent to visit New England to continue the revival started by Whitefield and others. While preaching there, Tennent, like others in the Awakening, tried to convince listeners of their need for regeneration and for something more intense than merely formal religion. However, lacking Whitefield’s oratorical gifts and the more restrained persuasiveness of Edwards, Tennent shouted, raged, stomped, and set listeners’ nerves on edge with his hellfire sermons. Though he preached with the same purpose as Whitefield and Edwards, he focused in his sermons almost exclusively on hellfire and damnation, setting a pattern for some later evangelists in America. He was severely criticized by many of the less revival-oriented clergy, and he in turn criticized them for their spiritual lethargy. Along with Edwards and Whitefield, Tennent set the tone for the Awakening and for the whole pattern of evangelism in America.

Samuel Hopkins (1721–1803)

was Edward’s most famous follower. If Jonathan Edwards can be said to have had a theological successor, Samuel Hopkins was that successor. Hopkins came from Yale in 1741 seeking for spiritual help. Later, when Hopkins was serving his first pastorate in Housatonic, Massachusetts, he became a loyal friend and disciple of Edwards. A more sedentary man than his renowned teacher, Hopkins became the systematizer of Edwards’ theological genius. Never known for his ability as a preacher, Hopkins applied his theological mind to Edward’s Calvinism and created a system now known as the New Divinity movement. Hopkins made his modified Calvinism a weapon of defense against Arminian critics who gave more freedom to human will in their system. Hopkins’ theology lacked the feeling of heartfelt adoration and devotion that permeates Edwards’ best work, but Hopkins was largely responsible for passing on Edwards’ theology to a new generation of ministers. He also produced the first biography of his friend and mentor providing us with numerous details about the Edwards family life that we might otherwise lack.

Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Hymn-writer and pastor of a Dissenting church in London, Watts also found time to comment on religious happenings in the English colonies. Hearing of the Northampton revival led by Edwards in 1734–35, Watts wanted to know more. He perceived the “wonderful work of God” in the revivals of America. After Edwards delivered the address “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God” at the Yale commencement in 1741, Watts sponsored the London publication of this brilliant defense of the Great Awakening. Later, however, he came to criticize the Awakening for some of the emotional excesses and disorder engendered by the evangelists. He also expressed some concern that some of the preachers—including Jonathan Edwards—spoke in their sermons of the American colonies as the new arena for God’s kingdom thus implying that the mother country was spiritually dead. While the Awakening was shaking the colonies. Isaac Watts made his own lasting contribution to Christianity by producing some six hundred hymns, some of which are among the finest in the language. Breaking the stranglehold of psalm-singing on English hymnody, Watts produced beautiful scripturally-based hymns that revolutionized public worship in England and America. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” and “Joy to the World” are only a few of his great hymns. Edwards encouraged the singing of Watt’s hymns in churches.

Ezra Stiles (1727–1795)

Ezra’s father Isaac was one of Edwards’ peers at Yale, but unlike Edwards, the older Stiles was generally opposed to the Great Awakening. He did not pass on his antipathy to his son, who looked more favorably on the Awakening and its aftermath. Ezra became a kind of chronicler of his age, making many astute observations that have helped historians view the period more accurately. During his lifetime he was recognized as the most learned man in New England. He studied widely in many fields and was alert to new ideas in the sciences and in theology. He was a kind of enlightened liberal, though he did not support the Old Light Calvinists in their attack on revivalism. In an age of much bitter quarreling among church groups, Stiles adopted a moderating position, hoping that religious truth would benefit from a free exchange of doctrinal opinions. From 1778 to 1795 he served as president of Yale, where he also taught church history. As president of Yale he contributed significantly to religious training in Connecticut and beyond.

David Brainerd (1718–1747)

was a friend and, almost, a family member of Edwards. He died at the home of Edwards, being nursed during his waning months by Jerusha, his fiancee and one of Jonathan Edwards’ daughters. During his short life he espoused the cause of the Great Awakening. His unfavorable comparisons between the zealous work of Edwards and the sedateness of the clergymen at Yale caused him to be expelled from that institution. His zeal to spread the gospel was unaffected, and he found an opportunity in 1742, when the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge commissioned him to work among Indians in New York and, later, Pennsylvania. Brainerd traveled over 3000 miles on horseback. A genuine revival occurred among the Indians in New Jersey, though Brainerd was dogged throughout his ministry by poor health. He left to posterity his diary, which has become a devotional classic. Jonathan Edwards published his friend’s diary and added a short biography. He saw. Brainerd as an example of selfless Puritan virtue. Brainerd would probably be forgotten today if Edwards had not helped make his name a byword for missionary zeal.

Timothy Dwight (1752–1817)

the grandson of Edwards, succeeded Ezra Stiles as president of Yale. Renowned as a teacher, preacher, poet, and hymn-writer, Dwight set high goals for Yale, working to raise academic standards and increase the spiritual vitality of the college. He preached to students twice on Sundays and saw himself as pastor to the school. His discourses on religion helped bring about a campus revival, convincing many students to adopt orthodox beliefs and join the ranks of learned Calvinists. Dwight also waged a bold campaign against the deism and rationalism of such writers as Thomas Paine. He proved himself an able defender of traditional theology. Even so, Dwight did not conform strictly to the ideas of his famous grandfather. Rather, he occupied a mediating position between the New Divinity and Old Calvinism. His chapel sermons, expressing a modified Edwardsean theology, were published after his death as Theology Explained and Defended. Like Edwards, he stoutly defended orthodox Christianity, a great task in an age of skepticism and rationalism. He is perhaps best remembered as the author of the hymn “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.”

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #8 in 1985]

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