The Puritans and Edwards

Questions about the spiritual meaning of America have become especially vital and engaged. In the presidential election of 1984, for example, both major party candidates professed a faith in Christianity and acknowledged the Christian sources of American history. Like their predecessors in high political office, they routinely invoked God’s blessing on America and spoke of American history as that of a “redeemer nation.”

While twentieth-century identifications of America with the “Promised Land” are common, the historical sources of this identity are less clear. Great evangelical leaders of our past are rightly celebrated for their fervent gospel preaching, but their views on America are generally ignored.

This is especially true of Jonathan Edwards, America’s foremost theologian and champion of religious revival. Most studies of Edwards focus on his evangelical preaching. But, Edwards also had a good deal to say about his native New England as a “covenant people” and a “New Israel.” In articulating these themes, he followed the lead of his Puritan predecessors and anticipated much of the language we hear spoken today by political and religious leaders.

Edwards was ordained at Northampton in 1726. Within a year of that date New England experienced the “Great Earthquake” of November 1727. The quake began, according to several accounts, with a “flash of light,” which was then followed by a “horrid rumbling” and “weighty shaking” that continued to reverberate throughout the evening. Weymouth’s Thomas Paine recalled the incident: “The motion of the Earth was very great, like the waves of the sea… . The strongest houses shook prodigiously and the tops of some Chimnies were thrown down…. It affected the People of N-E, especially those near the Center of it, with more Fear Amazement than ever is thought to have befallen the Land since it had that Name.” Awakened sleepers poured into the streets in huddled groups, certain that the day of judgment had come. The aftershocks continued for nine days which, Paine observed, “mightily kept up the Terror of it in the People, and drove them to all possible means of Reformation.”

On the day following the earthquake, fasts were called spontaneously throughout the land and repeated several times in the ensuing weeks. In Northampton, Edwards mounted the pulpit and preached a “fast sermon” from Jonah 3:10: “And God saw their works that they turned from their evil way and God repented of the Evil that he had said he would do unto them and he did it not.” Unlike regular (Sunday) sermons where Edwards’ primary concern was the individual soul, his concern on this occasion was the temporal estate of New England which, he believed, was governed by their corporate covenant with God. Even as his text was devoted to the nation of Nineveh and God’s mercy to them because they repented, so also was his concern that day with the nation of New England and the warning contained in their earthquake.

Like other ministers in 1727, Edwards perceived both natural and supernatural meanings in the great earthquake. On the one hand, he drew from the most recent scientific literature to explain that earthquakes were not, in themselves, miracles but natural convulsions that occurred when bodies of water met with “subterraneous Fires” in underground caverns to produce rumblings at ground level. On the other hand, Edwards explained, earthquakes were also used by God to warn a covenant people: “earthquakes and lights in the heaven may often have natural causes yet they may nevertheless be ordered to be as a forerunner of great changes and Judgments.”

A little later in the sermon, Edwards made plain that he was speaking in temporal and “federal” (national) terms to the people of Northampton, not in eternal terms, and in so doing illustrated the different ends and logics of the two covenants:

If a nation or people are very corrupt and remain obstinate in the Evil way God generally if not universally exercises these threatenings God is more strict in punishing of a wicked people in this world than a wicked person. God often suffers particular persons that are wicked to prosper in the world and discharges them to judgment in the world to come. But a people as a people are punished only in this world. Therefore God will not suffer a people that grow very corrupt and refuse to be reclaimed to go unpunished in this world.

New England “as a people,” was understood by Edwards, then, in temporal terms of rewards and punishments. Corporate morality could not win or merit eternal salvation, but it could insure success on earth.

Edwards considered the earthquake and concluded that “our Land is very much defiled.” In particular Edwards cited an “abundance of cheating and injustice,” an increase in swearing, and insensitivity to the great concerns of religion. Too many of the inhabitants had grown “secure in riches.” Therefore, “God shows us that we are in his hand every moment by this shaking the foundation of the Earth … [He could] plunge us down to the Pit when he pleases.”

Throughout the 1730s and 1740s, most of New England’s grievances, like those deplored by Edwards, were internal. Apart from occasional forays against the Indians, New England’s borders were safe, and the chief concerns in these years were natural calamities like drought, fire, disease, and pestilence, and internal discord over questions of revival and the New Birth.

Despite New England’s precarious peace of that period, however, everyone recognized the possibility of war and presented it as the divine affliction most to be avoided. With the possibility of war ever-present, congregations needed to be constantly reminded of their national standing before God. Edwards was no exception among the Puritan clergy in doing just that.

At a fast sermon delivered in March 1737, Edwards outlined the theology of federal covenants in rich detail. Ancient Israel was the model and prototype for all subsequent covenant people, so Edwards turned to 2 Chronicles 23:16 for his text: “And Jehoiada made a covenant between him, and between all the people, and between the king, that they should be the Lord’s people.” That text, Edwards explained in his opening remarks, occurred at a point in Israel’s history after Judah had worshiped Baal and God allowed the enemy nations to attack his people for their idolatry. Now they had returned to God, renewed the covenant, implored his mercy, and received blessings. In brief compass, Edwards explained to his listeners what was meant by a covenant people:

[S]ome are distinguished of God as a Covenant People. So were the people that were spoken of in the Text. God entered into Covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and brought them out of Egypt and in a Solemn manner entered into Covenant with them in the [desert] and separated them from the [other] nations on the earth to be a Covenant people a peculiar People to the Lord.

As a covenant people, Israel could depend on divine protection and “Temporal Blessings,” as long as they honored the terms of God’s people. Indeed, Edwards went on, it was the enjoyment of “covenant blessings” that partly distinguished covenant peoples from others.

From ancient Israel, Edwards turned to New England, observing that federal covenants did not cease with the Old Testament, but continued throughout history. Citing God’s promise in Exodus 19:6, Edwards assured his listeners that, “if you keep my covenant ye shall be unto me … an holy nation.” Clearly New England was such a people, called of God to be a “peculiar people.”

However, if God’s people were to continue receiving the blessings of the land they must heed the words of their pastors on days of fasting and repent: “You are a People that have been distinguished of God as a Covenant People for a long time. You have for a long time enjoyed the Preaching of God’s Word and the visibility of the Gospel in a steady course.” Only by honoring that word and reforming the evil in their communities could God’s people expect to continue receiving temporal rewards and prosperity. Otherwise, they would surely suffer the same fate as Israel’s at the hands of neighboring enemies. Even now, Edwards warned, there were “great numbers of papists” (the French) to the North, creating in North America an ominous “mixture of dark with light.”

In the face of such a threat, New Englanders believed that, as God’s covenant people, they had a glorious mission to uphold in this world. That mission required the preservation of their civil and religious liberties against external enemies, liberties essential to their corporate identity as the New Israel. It did not matter which was threatened: remove one and the other was sure to follow. When that happened, God’s Word would cease to reign supreme and New England would relinquish its special covenant.

In 1748, when England made a treaty with France, no one saw it as anything more than an armistice, postponing for a time an inevitable conflict. Formal peace did nothing to solve the territorial disputes between France and England, nor did it ease the hatred—both political and religious—that had been accumulating for over a century.

By March of 1755 it was clear to Edwards and other colonial leaders that the armistice with France was about to end. Edwards had left Northampton for Stockbridge in 1751, and to the members of his Stockbridge congregation, set on the outer rim of English civilization, the dangers of renewed war were especially frightening. At a special fast day called in March 1755, Edwards repeated a sermon he delivered in 1744 “on occasion of war with France.” It is, Edwards began, “owing to the protection of heaven that our nation and land have not been destroyed before now by the same kind of Enemies with those that … now oppose [us].” With war approaching, the one lesson the frightened New Englanders had to remember was that “sin above all other things weakens a people in war.” When “vice prevails among a people.” defeats were sure to follow because among professing peoples, success or failure “corresponds to” their covenant keeping. Conversely, a turning back to God in Northampton or in Stockbridge would prompt God to deliver his people.

Within three months of Edwards’ fast sermon, New England’s time of trial appeared. In July 1755, General Edward Braddock and his British regulars were decisively defeated on the banks of the Monongahela River by a combined force of French and Indian allies. In New England, one out of every three men able to bear arms was enlisted for service—a figure far exceeding other regions and other colonies. Before the Seven Years’ War (or “French and Indian War,” as it was known in America) was over, virtually every New England family had at least one member engaged in what would become the largest war fought to that time on North American soil.

The clergy were united in stirring martial resolve and specifying the terms and nature of divine assistance. In this war, as others, they did not discourage armed conflict, but encouraged it for nationalistic and prophetic reasons.

Self-defense represented the major justification of war, and the covenant supplied the essential terms for victory. Despite their many wars, ministers insisted that New England was not a militaristic culture pursuing armed conquest for the sake of vain glory.

But self-defense was not the only theme invoked in weekday sermons. Millennial speculations and predictions also played a significant, if supporting, role in arousing public support for war. Evangelicals believed that the Roman Catholic Church was the dreaded “Babylon” and “Mother of Harlots” associated in the Book of Revelation with the Anti-Christ. “Popery,” Edwards explained. “is the deepest contrivance that ever Satan was the author of to uphold his kingdom.”

Equally clear to Edwards and others was New England’s own identity as the “true witnesses” of Christ. Despite temporary setbacks and smaller armies, Edwards assured his listeners that “the race is not to the swift,” and that even as God delivered his people Israel in time of distress, even so would he provide “a peculiar Encouragement for God’s people [in New England] to look for Help and Victory in war.” Before that would happen, of course, New Englanders must repent of their sins. Genuine repentance and performance of covenant duties could not merit salvation, but they could win battles. And New Englanders could be sure that any immediate losses in battle were not a final sentence of doom because Scripture clearly foretold the downfall of Anti-Christ.

Edwards’ death on March 22, 1758, prevented him from witnessing the final victory over France, though he would not have been surprised. Like other Thanksgiving preachers in 1759 and 1760 he would have ascribed triumph to New England’s ongoing covenant with God. Had Edwards lived to witness the unfolding conflict with England, he would probably have supported the “sacred cause” of liberty and turned his pen to calls for moral reformation and promises of national success.

In fact, New Englanders, like Americans later, never lost the big battles. And as long as they continued to win, the covenant was validated and the myth lived on. The vision of a redeemer nation and a covenant people was dazzling and none, including Edwards, could escape its glare. As one voice among thousands, Edwards helped perpetuate that quintessentially Puritan notion of a righteous city set high upon a hill for all the world to see. That notion apparently has yet to run its course. In this sense, we continue to inhabit a world formed largely by the Puritans and Edwards. CH

By Harry S. Stout

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

Harry S. Stout is associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut. He has written extensively on Puritanism and the Great Awakening. This article is adapted from an address given at the conference “Jonathan Edwards and the American Expenence,” held at Wheaton College, October 1984.
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