Sarah Edwards: Jonathan’s Home and Haven

“What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands upon our mouths!”

Sarah Edwards was the supporter and protector and home-builder for Jonathan Edwards, whose philosophy and passion for God is still vital 300 years after his birth. She was the godly mother and example to eleven children who became the parents of outstanding citizens of this country, and — immensely more important to her — many are also citizens of heaven…At the heart of all she was, she was a child of God, who from early years experienced sweet, spiritual communion with him, and who over the years grew in grace, and who at least once was very dramatically visited by God in a way that changed her life.

 

We are interested in Jonathan Edwards because of his influence on our way of understanding the world and seeing God. Of course, that makes us curious about his wife, Sarah. But I’d be wasting our time if I were satisfied just to dig around for interesting tidbits. So I pray that this biography and our time in it will be biblical and will be for our edification and encouragement.

Biography is important, and the book of Hebrews is a good place to remind ourselves of that. Perhaps 13:7-8, in particular, can help us read with clearer purpose the story of a saint, of one who leads us in our faith.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Remember. Consider. Imitate. We should never think that we can’t be a saint like Sarah Edwards. I expect that Sarah Edwards would be the first to tell us that she isn’t great. She would tell us she has a great God — the same God we have. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Let us look for him as we consider Sarah’s story.

The Backdrop

For the sake of context, let’s remember that Jonathan and Sarah’s whole lives were lived in the colonies of the New World — colonies, not one country. Thirteen small British colonies hugged the Atlantic coast. And a vast western wilderness stretched who knew how far into the unknown.

New England and the other colonies were Britain’s fragile fingertip grasp on the edge of the continent. The colonists were British citizens surrounded by territories of other nations. Florida and the Southwest were Spain’s. The Louisiana Territory was France’s. The French, in particular, were eager to ally themselves with local Indians against the British. Today the Edwards story should elicit the sight of garrisons on hilltops, the sounds of shots in the distance, the discomfort of soldiers billeting in their homes, the shock and terror of news about massacres in nearby settlements. This was the backdrop, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout much of their lives.

The Courtship of Jonathan Edwards and Sarah Pierrepont

In 1723, at age nineteen, Jonathan had already graduated from Yale and had been a pastor in New York for a year. When his time in that church ended, he accepted a job at Yale and returned to New Haven where Sarah Pierrepont lived. It’s possible that Jonathan had been aware of her for three or four years, since his student days at Yale. In those student days, when he was about sixteen, he probably would have seen her when he attended New Haven’s First Church where her father had been pastor until his death in 1714 (Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography [Banner of Truth, 1987], 91).

Now, on his return in 1723, Jonathan was twenty and Sarah was thirteen. It was not unusual for girls to be married by about sixteen.

As this school term’s work began for him, it seems he may have been somewhat distracted from his usual studiousness. A familiar story finds him daydreaming over his Greek grammar book, which he probably intended to be studying to prepare to teach. Instead we find now on the front page of that grammar book a record of his real thoughts.

They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who is loved of that Great 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. . . . [Y]ou could not persuade her to do any thing wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this Great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and universal benevolence of mind; especially after this Great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure. . . . She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have some one invisible always conversing with her. (Quoted in ibid., 92)

All the biographers mention the contrast between the two of them. Sarah was from one of the most distinguished families in Connecticut. Her education had been the best a woman of that era typically received. She was accomplished in the social skills of polite society. She enjoyed music and perhaps knew how to play the lute. (In the year of their marriage, one of the shopping reminders for Jonathan when he traveled was to pick up lute strings [George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life [Yale University Press, 2003], 110]. That may have been for a wedding musician, or it may have been for Sarah herself.) People who knew her mentioned her beauty and her way of putting people at ease. Samuel Hopkins, who knew her later, stressed her “peculiar loveliness of expression, the combined result of goodness and intelligence” (Quoted in Elisabeth D. Dodds, *Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan and Sarah Edward*s [Audubon Press, 2003], 15).

Jonathan, on the other hand, was introverted, shy, and uneasy with small talk. He had entered college at thirteen, and graduated valedictorian. He ate sparingly in an age of groaning dining tables, and he was not a drinker. He was tall and gangly and awkwardly different. He was not full of social graces. He wrote in his journal: “A virtue which I need in a higher degree is gentleness. If I had more of an air of gentleness, I should be much mended” (Quoted in Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man, 17). (In that time, gentleness meant “appropriate social grace,” as we use the word today in *gentle*man.)

One thing they had in common was a love for music. He pictured music as the most nearly perfect way for people to communicate with each other.

The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other, is by music. When I would form in my mind an idea of a society in the highest degree happy, I think of them as expressing their love, their joy, and the inward concord and harmony and spiritual beauty of their souls by sweetly singing to each other. (Quoted in Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 106)

That imagery was just the first thought-step into a leap from human realities to heavenly realities, where he saw sweet human intimacy as only a simple ditty compared to the symphony of harmonies of intimacy with God.

As Sarah grew older, and Jonathan grew somewhat mellower, they began to spend more time together. They enjoyed walking and talking together, and he apparently found in her a mind that matched her beauty. In fact, she introduced him to a book she owned by Peter van Mastricht, a book that later was influential in his thinking about the Covenant (Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man, 21). They became engaged in the spring of 1725.

Jonathan was a man whose nature was to bear uncertainties in thought and theology as if they were physical stress. The years of waiting until Sarah was old enough to marry must have added even greater pressure. Here are some words he used to describe himself, from a couple of weeks of his journal in 1725, a year and a half before they would marry:

December 29 Dull and lifeless

January 9   Decayed

January 10  Recovering

(Quoted in ibid., 19)

Perhaps it was his emotions for Sarah that sometimes caused him to fear sinning with his mind. In an effort to remain pure, he resolved, “When I am violently beset with temptation or cannot rid myself of evil thoughts, to do some sum in arithmetic or geometry or some other study, which necessarily engages all my thoughts and unavoidably keeps them from wandering” (Quoted in ibid.).

The Beginnings of Their Married Life

Jonathan Edwards and Sarah Pierrepont were finally married on July 28, 1727. She was seventeen. He was twenty-four. He wore a new powdered wig and a new set of white clerical bands given him by his sister Mary. Sarah wore a boldly-patterned green satin brocade (Ibid., 22).

We get only glimmers and glimpses into the heart of their love and passion. One time, for instance, Jonathan used the love of a man and a woman as an illustration of our limited grasp of another person’s love toward God. “When we have the idea of another’s love to a thing, if it be the love of a man to a woman . . . we have not generally any further idea at all of his love, we only have an idea of his actions that are the effects of love. . . . We have a faint, vanishing notion of their affections” (Ibid.).

Jonathan had become the pastor in Northampton, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He began there in February 1757, just five months before their wedding in New Haven.

Sarah could not slip unnoticed into Northampton. Based on the customs of the time, Elisabeth Dodds imagines Sarah’s arrival in the Northampton church:

Any beautiful newcomer in a small town was a curio, but when she was also the wife of the new minister, she caused intense interest. The rigid seating charts of churches at that time marked a minister’s family as effectively as if a flag flew over the pew. . . . So every eye in town was on Sarah as she swished in wearing her wedding dress.

Custom commanded that a bride on her first Sunday in church wear her wedding dress and turn slowly so everyone could have a good look at it. Brides also had the privilege of choosing the text for the first Sunday after their wedding. There is no record of the text Sarah chose, but her favorite verse was “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35), and it is possible that she chose to hear that one expounded.

She took her place in the seat that was to symbolize her role — a high bench facing the congregation, where everyone could notice the least flicker of expression. Sarah had been prepared for this exposed position every Sunday of her childhood on the leafy common of New Haven, but it was different to be, herself, the Minister’s Wife. Other women could yawn or furtively twitch a numbed foot in the cold of a January morning in an unheated building. Never she. (Ibid., 25)

Marsden says, “By fall 1727 [about three months after the wedding] Jonathan had dramatically recovered his spiritual bearings, specifically his ability to find the spiritual intensity he had lost for three years” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 111).

What made the difference? Perhaps he was better fitted for a church situation than for the academic setting at Yale. In addition, it seems likely to me that the recovery was closely related to their marriage. For at least three years prior to this, in addition to his rigorous academic pursuits, he had also been restraining himself sexually and yearning for the day when he and Sarah would be one. When their life together began, he was like a new man. He had found his earthly home and haven.

And as Sarah stepped into this role of wife, she freed him to pursue the philosophical, scientific, and theological wrestlings that made him the man we honor.

Edwards was a man to whom people reacted. He was different. He was intense. His moral force was a threat to people who settled for routine. After he’d thought through the biblical truth and implications of a theological or church issue, he didn’t back down from what he’d discovered.

For instance, he came to realize that only believers should take Communion in the church. The Northampton church was not happy when he went against the easier standards of his grandfather who had allowed Communion even for unbelievers if they weren’t participating in obvious sin. This kind of controversy meant that Sarah, in the background, was also twisted and bumped by the opposition that he faced. He was a thinker who held ideas in his mind, mulling them over, taking them apart and putting them together with other ideas, and testing them against other parts of God’s truth. Such a man reaches the heights when those separate ideas come together into a larger truth. But he also is the kind of man who can slide into deep pits on the way to a truth (Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man, 57).

A man like that is not easy to live with. But Sarah found ways to make a happy home for him. She made him sure of her steady love, and then she created an environment and routine where he was free to think. She learned that when he was caught up in a thought, he didn’t want to be interrupted for dinner. She learned that his moods were intense. He wrote in his journal: “I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping . . . so that I have often been forced to shut myself up” (Quoted in ibid., 31).

The town saw a composed man. Sarah knew what storms there were inside him. She knew the at-home Jonathan.

Samuel Hopkins wrote:

While she uniformly paid a becoming deference to her husband and treated him with entire respect, she spared no pains in conforming to his inclination and rendering everything in the family agreeable and pleasant; accounting it her greatest glory and there wherein she could best serve God and her generation [and ours, we might add], to be the means in this way of promoting his usefulness and happiness. (Quoted in ibid., 29-30, emphasis added)

So life in the Edwards house was shaped in large degree by Jonathan’s calling. One of his journal entries said, “I think Christ has recommended rising early in the morning by his rising from the grave very early” (Quoted in ibid., 28). So it was Jonathan’s habit to awake early. The family’s routine through the years was to wake early with him, to hear a chapter from the Bible by candlelight, and to pray for God’s blessing on the day ahead.

It was his habit to do physical labor sometime each day for exercise — for instance, chopping wood, mending fences, or working in the garden. But Sarah had most of the responsibility for overseeing the care of the property.

Often he was in his study for thirteen hours a day. This included lots of preparation for Sundays and for Bible teaching. But it also included the times when Sarah came in to visit and talk or when parishioners stopped by for prayer or counsel.

In the evening the two of them might ride into the woods for exercise and fresh air and to talk. And in the evening they would pray together again.

The Growing Family

Beginning on August 25, 1728, children came into the family — eleven in all — at about two-year intervals: Sarah, Jerusha, Esther, Mary, Lucy, Timothy, Susannah, Eunice, Jonathan, Elizabeth, and Pierpont. This was the beginning of Sarah’s next great role, that of mother.

In 1900 A.E. Winship made a study contrasting two families. One had hundreds of descendants who were a drain on society. The other, descendants of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, were outstanding for their contributions to society. He wrote of the Edwards clan:

Whatever the family has done, it has done ably and nobly. . . . And much of the capacity and talent, intelligence and character of the more than 1400 of the Edwards family is due to Mrs. Edwards.

By 1900 when Winship made his study, this marriage had produced:

  • thirteen college presidents
  • sixty-five professors
  • 100 lawyers and a dean of a law school
  • thirty judges
  • sixty-six physicians and a dean of a medical school
  • eighty holders of public office, including:
  • three U.S. senators
  • mayors of three large cities
  • governors of three states
  • a vice president of the U.S.
  • a controller of the U.S. Treasury

Members of the family wrote 135 books. . . . edited 18 journals and periodicals. They entered the ministry in platoons and sent one hundred missionaries overseas, as well as stocking many mission boards with lay trustees (Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man, 31-32).

Winship goes on to list kinds of institutions, industries, and businesses that have been owned or directed by Edwards’s descendants. “There is scarcely a Great American industry that has not had one of this family among its chief promoters.” We might well ask with Elisabeth Dodds, “Has any other mother contributed more vitally to the leadership of a nation?” (Ibid., 32)

Six of the Edwards children were born on Sundays. At that time some ministers wouldn’t baptize babies born on Sundays, because they believed babies were born on the day of the week on which they had been conceived, and that wasn’t deemed an appropriate Sabbath activity. All of the Edwards children lived at least into adolescence. That was amazing in an era when death was always very close, and at times there was resentment among other families.

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