Those Exceptional Edwards Women

WHEN Jonathan Edwards was about to die, he dictated his final words to his daughter Lucy. His thoughts were of his wife, Sarah, who had not yet joined him at their new home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had just become college president.

"It seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you,” he said. “Therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue for ever. . . . And as to my children, you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you.”

Jonathan had, throughout his life, looked to Sarah as a spiritual paragon. But their “uncommon union” was not the only significant female influence in his life. Edwards’s mother, sisters, and daughters also evidenced both high intelligence and strong spiritual mettle. Most likely as a result of his interactions with them, Edwards had a notably high view of women for the day, repeatedly holding them up as exemplars during his ministry.

His mother, Esther Stoddard Edwards, was the daughter of Solomon Stoddard, the Puritan minister dubbed the “Pope of the Connecticut River Valley.” Growing up in a home filled with books and frequented by New England’s elite, and highly educated for a woman of the time, Esther “surpassed her husband in native vigor of understanding,” according to Edwards biographer Sereno Dwight. She instilled in the young Jonathan her own great love for books.

Sixty feet of sisters

Esther was not alone in demonstrating to Jonathan the intellectual and spiritual capacities of women. He grew up surrounded by ten talented sisters, as bright as they were tall-the patriarch Timothy Edwards called them his “sixty feet of daughters.”

Unusually for his time, Timothy prepared not only his son, but also each of his daughters for college. All but one of Jonathan’s sisters made the trek from East Windsor, Connecticut, to Boston for finishing school, with sister Mary attending a finishing school in Hadley, Massachusetts.

Young Jonathan’s sisters even assisted in his education. While serving as a chaplain during an Indian war, Edwards’s father wrote home, charging the older sisters with tutoring Jonathan in his Latin studies.

Evidence of the Edwards sisters’ intellect is found in a manuscript entitled “The Soul.” For many years, Edwards scholars mistakenly assumed that the author of this essay, which uses wit and incisive satire to criticize a philosophically materialist view of the soul, was the great theologian himself. More recently, however, Edwards scholar Kenneth Minkema identified Jonathan’s oldest sister, Esther, as its author.

A younger sister, Hannah, kept a journal later transcribed by her daughter Lucy. In this journal and in drafts of letters, Hannah not only reflects her own extensive learning, but also expresses progressive sentiments about relationships between men and women—convictions fueled by her own experiences in courting. Seriously pursued by two men, first Matthew Rockwell of East Windsor, Connecticut, and then John Sargent of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, she found herself caught in a tug of war between them. She eventually rejected both of their proposals and married a third suitor, Seth Wetmore of Middletown, Connecticut. The situation created quite a stir, however, as Matthew Rockwell had been so convinced of Hannah’s supposed obligation to him that he had built a house for her, inscribing her initials on the mantel.

Sweetness of mind and temper

Though Edwards was clearly influenced by his spirited mother and sisters, his wife Sarah inspired him even more. well-educated, Sarah was the daughter of a founder of Yale College. Edwards’s early admiration of her spiritual devotion is evident in an apostrophe he wrote on the end paper of a book. Upon first seeing 13-year-old Sarah, the 20-year-old Jonathan wrote these words:

"They say there is a young lady from New Haven who is beloved of that almighty Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on him—that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised out of the world and caught up into heaven; being assured that he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love, favor and delight, forever.”

He continued his rhapsodic praise, describing Sarah as possessing “a strange sweetness in her mind, and sweetness of temper, uncommon purity in her affections,” that gave her a “calmness and universal benevolence of mind; especially after those times in which this great God has manifested himself to her mind.”

Jonathan viewed Sarah as a model of spirituality and conversion throughout their marriage. He wrote of her exemplary religious experiences in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1743).

In A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), Edwards substantiated and described the revivals of 1735–1737 through accounts of the experiences of other females in Northampton, including four-year-old Phebe Bartlet. He used Phebe to illustrate true conversion, noting her devout prayer life and her conviction by the Holy Spirit after unwittingly taking plums from a neighbor’s tree. In the same work, Edwards also described the conversion of Abigail Hutchinson, a “company keeper"— presumably a euphemism for a less than savory profession.

Thank heaven for brilliant girls

His own daughters were also notable for their spiritual and intellectual qualities. His daughter Jerusha contracted tuberculosis in her devoted tending to the dying David Brainerd. Edwards later used Brainerd’s diary to construct a biography of this early missionary to the Native Americans.

Another daughter, Esther, gained prominence and was known for her spiritual devotion. Edwards’s correspondence with her suggests that their relationship was especially close. In one letter, Edwards offered Esther advice on the use of medicinal remedies, including a rattlesnake and some ginseng, both of which he sent with the letter.

Esther married minister Aaron Burr, Sr., after a whirlwind courtship of only five days and an engagement of less than a month. The couple lived in New Jersey, where Aaron pastored and served as president of the newly-founded College of New Jersey, later Princeton. Esther recorded her spiritual growth in extensive letters to her close friend Sarah Prince, daughter of famed Boston minister Thomas Prince. She also candidly described her joys and hardships as wife of a minister and college president and as mother to two small children.

Esther concluded her literary exchange just before her husband’s untimely death from malaria. The board of the college looked to Jonathan Edwards to follow in his son-in-law’s footsteps as college president, and Edwards traveled from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to Princeton in midwinter to accept the call, leaving Sarah behind to spare her the trek’s severe conditions.

Edwards’s tenure was short, however, and after only six weeks as the college’s president, he died from a smallpox inoculation. Aware that he would never again see his beloved wife, Sarah, Edwards described in his final words their “uncommon union.”

Esther had taken the same inoculation and died shortly thereafter, leaving her two children, Sally Burr and Aaron Burr, Jr., who would become the second vice president of the United States.

Sarah Prince eulogized Esther in her diary: “The God of Nature had furnished her with all that I desir’d in a Friend—her Natural Powers were superior to most women, her knowledge was extensive of Men and Things, her Accomplishments fine—her Prudence for thought and sagacity wonderfull—her Modesty rare-In Friendly Quality none Exceeded her—she was made for a Refin’d Friend.”

These are fitting words to mark the legacy not just of Esther Edwards Burr, but also of the many intellectually and spiritually gifted women who surrounded Jonathan Edwards. CH

By Heidi L. Nichols

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #77 in 2003]

Heidi L. Nichols is Assistant Professor of English at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA.
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