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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 349


This is the grave of Jonathan Edwards.

Born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut to a minister and the daughter of another minister, Edwards grew up in a family deeply committed to education to all their children, including the girls. He entered Yale in 1716. He was 12 years old. This came a year after he had written an essay on the behavior of spiders that received positive attention. At the age of 13, he was blown away after reading John Locke and became very interested in science, believing it demonstrated God’s masterful design of the world. He followed the work of Isaac Newton closely and was interested in what became known as the Enlightenment. As expected, he became a minister, first at a church in New York and then he became a tutor at Yale.

What made Edwards famous was his critical role in the Great Awakening. Even before George Whitefield visited the United States, Edwards was given well-known sermons and leading revivals that significantly increased church membership, starting in Boston in 1731. There was some criticism of these revivals by the mid-1730s, especially after a couple of people committed suicide after feeling despair that they were not converted, but Whitefield’s arrival in 1739 restarted them. Edwards gave his legendary sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in 1741. That it was about the need to accept God’s grace in order to be saved sounds pretty basic to me, but I am the first to admit that my knowledge of Puritanism and its descendants is very sketchy, not to mention the entire eighteenth century. A lot of the hatred toward Edwards and his sermons was the physicality of the response to them, as the older-style ministers distrusted the emotion and the swooning and the like. As bodily effects were now seen as a sign of conversion, I suppose one could see where some would be suspicious over whether these were real or affected.

Edwards actually became pretty unpopular with his own church because he wanted to reject the Halfway Covenant, which was the deal that the Puritans had made nearly a century earlier that gave partial rights in the church and community without full conversion. This was the only way the church really survived as the old men who decided if a conversion was real or not were cranky and were rejecting everyone. Well, Edwards started doing this too. For years, no one was given church membership. Finally, in 1748, a candidate simply refused to allow Edwards to grill him, the congregation backed the candidate by a 200-23 vote, and Edwards was gone. But he was famous and easily got another church, this time in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he was also interested in missionizing among the Housatonic people. Finally, in 1757, his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr. died. He was the president of the College of New Jersey and Edwards was persuaded to replace him. A scientific man, Edwards was determined to promote inoculation against smallpox and so he did so to convince his congregation to do it. But inoculation did kill a small percentage of those who went through the process and that included Edwards. He was 54 years old.

Jonathan Edwards is buried in Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey.

If you would like this series to cover other religious figures of American history, you can donate to help cover the required expenses here. I will be in Nashville next week in part to visit graves and I understand that some people in Tennessee may in fact by religious. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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