“The Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in. Revival grew, and souls did as it were come by floods to Christ” (Works, 1:348). That is how Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) described the remarkable progress of the gospel in Northampton in 1734, one local manifestation of what would come to be known as the First Great Awakening.
Many were overjoyed at what they regarded as a glorious work of God. Others were horrified, regarding it all as dangerous fanaticism. When Edwards later set out to analyze the true and the false in revival, the experience of his own wife, Sarah, provided him with a remarkable case study of the genuine work of the Spirit.
Although the first part of Sarah’s life appeared outwardly peaceful, her inner life was sometimes troubled. Later in life, however, she endured a series of crises, through which she remained serene. The most significant turning point came in 1742, when she was given a fresh appreciation of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love (Ephesians 3:18).
From a young age, Sarah enjoyed an awareness of the beauty and glory of God. Famously, when she was just 13, Jonathan (aged 20) wrote a delightful eulogy to her piety and lovely character. By 16, Sarah was powerfully aware of her own sin, and trusted God for mercy. She valued “nearness to Christ as the creature’s greatest happiness,” and she could say, “My soul thirsted for him, so that death meant nothing to me, that I might be with him; for he was altogether lovely” (quoted in Haykin, “Nearness to Christ the Creature’s Greatest Happiness”).
Seventeen-year-old Sarah married Jonathan in 1727 and moved to Northampton. Jonathan was assisting his grandfather Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729), who had ministered at the church there since 1669. When Stoddard died two years later, Jonathan succeeded him as sole minister.
A baby girl was born to Sarah and Jonathan in 1728, the first of eleven children. Visitors to their home testified to the warmth and love of their family life. Meanwhile, Sarah continued to know God’s smile. By 1735, she had gone through labor four times (then immensely risky), but she wrote,
During a time of great affliction, I could often say: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none on earth that I desire beside thee. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.” (“Nearness to Christ”)
Up to the age of 31, Sarah’s life was reasonably smooth. She did experience mood swings and depression, no doubt associated in part with the rigors of childbearing. She depended a lot on the approval of her husband. She was sometimes overprotective of his reputation, and feared the bad opinion of the townspeople. At times she was beset with anxiety. Even still, she continued to know and rejoice in God. With the psalmist, she desired ever closer fellowship with God (Psalm 27:4), and longed for greater holiness (Psalm 139:23–24).
Delighting in God
Jonathan had begun his ministry at a time when most people in Northampton attended church, but many were nominal Christians. Most of the youth were unconverted, with low moral standards.
The sudden death of one young man in 1734, however, shook the community. At the funeral, Jonathan preached on Psalm 90:5–6, challenging all to prepare for death and judgment. Small prayer groups sprang up. By early 1735, many were convicted of sin, repented, and found assurance of forgiveness. Jonathan reported an average of thirty conversions a week over a five- to six-week period (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 117). Six months later, three hundred people were converted.
Throughout the next year, revival continued in Northampton and in many other communities in New England, as well as in Britain and beyond. When George Whitefield (1714–1770) visited New England in 1740, he preached to crowds of thousands. At such times of revival, God draws near in a special and widespread way: unbelievers are convicted and converted, and believers are given a deeper awareness of spiritual reality.
While Jonathan was preaching away from home early in 1742, there was further revival in Northampton. Between January 19 and February 11, Sarah was so overwhelmed with assurance of the love of God that some wondered whether she would survive until her husband’s return. She did, and was able in due course to give him a precise account of what she had experienced during that time.
In those days, Sarah had felt crushed by awareness of her own indwelling sin, but then overjoyed by the glory of salvation. She rejoiced in the ministry of each person of the Holy Trinity. Truths she had enjoyed for many years brought her almost unbearably intense happiness. Her delight in God was so overpowering it was as if she were already experiencing the joy of heaven.
I never before, for so long a time together, enjoyed so much of the light, and rest and sweetness of heaven in my soul. . . . I continued in a constant, clear, and lively sense of the heavenly sweetness of Christ’s love, of his nearness to me, and of my dearness to him. (Works, 1:lxv)
‘Your Will Be Done’
Along with that personal sense of God’s love, she felt intense love and compassion for others. She no longer feared the ill-will of the town or the disapproval of her husband. Nor did she care whether it was her husband or another preacher who was more effective in ministry.
She envisaged the worst scenarios that could possibly befall. What if the townsfolk turned on her and she was thrown out into the wilderness in the midst of winter? What if her husband turned against her? Or if she had to die for Christ? (And what about living her daily routine uncomplainingly, and facing the risks and traumas of repeated childbirth?) God loved her, so Sarah could trust him. Whatever happened, her response would be “Your will be done” and “Amen, Lord Jesus!”
The priority was that God should be glorified. If that involved suffering, so be it. His glory was all in all.
Depending on God
The reality of Sarah’s “resignation of all to God” would soon be tested as she faced a series of crises: war, poverty, rejection, and multiple bereavements.
When England and France declared war in 1744, inhabitants of towns such as Northampton became targets of attack. (French Canadians paid allies among the North American Indians to kill English settlers.) The town was on constant alert. Several were killed. Jonathan and Sarah stayed calm, remaining there to minister. Nevertheless, war resulted in economic hardship. Parishioners struggled to feed themselves, and the Edwardses’ salary often went unpaid. Sarah had to submit detailed household budgets to the church and engage in every conceivable economy.
Meanwhile, by 1744, Jonathan had become convinced that only believers should take communion — a position that caused uproar. Those baptized as infants expected to be able to take communion, whether or not they had professed faith. At the same time, a controversial case of church discipline also caused friction. Factions in the church, including some of Jonathan’s own relatives, turned against their pastor. The church eventually dismissed Jonathan in June 1750, leaving the family without financial support. Yet Jonathan and Sarah remained free of bitterness, shut up to the opinion of all but God. Later on, a relative admitted that he had spread numerous untrue slanders about them, but they never demanded public vindication.
In 1751, Jonathan accepted a call to minister to a remote mission station at Stockbridge. The family relocated to the frontier, where conditions were harsh compared to Northampton. The settlement was made up of twelve English families, as well as two different groups of North American Indians. Tensions abounded, however, and all lived in fear because of ongoing war between the English and the French, with the Indians caught in between. Each day, news came in of horrible atrocities. Sarah had to provide meals for streams of refugees leaving the interior, as well as for soldiers billeted with them. Friends and family begged the Edwardses to leave, but Jonathan and Sarah felt they were safer in the path of their calling than out of it.
The Edwardses had great vision for the North American Indians, even sending their 9-year-old son off to a remote place with a missionary in order to learn another Indian language. Jonathan commented in a letter, “The Indians seem much pleased with my family, especially my wife” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 391).
Death upon Death
Worst of all, however, were the series of bereavements the Edwards family endured from the late 1740s on. Jerusha Edwards, Jonathan’s and Sarah’s second-oldest daughter, died in 1748 at the age of 17. She had offered to care for a visiting missionary, David Brainerd, as he died of tuberculosis, but she too succumbed to the disease. Exceptionally godly, Jerusha had been regarded as the “flower of the family.” But her parents submitted to God’s sovereignty, knowing their daughter was with her Lord.
In 1752, 20-year-old Esther married Aaron Burr, the 36-year-old president of New Jersey College at Princeton. They soon had two children — the youngest, Aaron Jr., would famously kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, while U.S. Vice President — but Aaron Sr. died at just 41 years old in 1757. Jonathan then was invited to take his place as President of the New Jersey College. He moved down to Princeton ahead of the family.
Soon after taking up the post, in March 1758, Jonathan died after a smallpox vaccination. While dying, he sent word to Sarah, thanking God for the “uncommon union” that they had enjoyed, and looking to the eternity that lay before them in Christ. When Sarah received the terrible news of his untimely death, she responded with towering faith:
The Lord has done it: He has made me adore his goodness that we had him [Jonathan] so long. But my God lives and he has my heart. (Works, 1:clxxix)
She soon received further terrible news. Esther had died a few days after her father. Sarah immediately left her own children and traveled down to Princeton to collect her two orphaned grandchildren. On the way home, she herself fell critically ill and died on October 2, 1758, at age 48.
Throughout this tragic series of events, and in her final hours, Sarah still could testify,
Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)
Desiring God’s Glory in all the Earth
From an early age, Sarah Edwards had delighted in God. That delight was intensified during revival, it endured through suffering, and she died knowing that death would be her entry to unbroken delight in him. Her delight in God gave her a passion that he be glorified. She knew that God is worthy of the praise of every person on earth (Psalm 148), and she could not bear to think of him not receiving his due:
I felt such a disposition to rejoice in God, that I wished to have the world join me in praising him. I was ready to wonder how the world of mankind could lie and sleep when there was such a God to praise! (Works, 1:lxvii)
Sarah longed for revival, not only in her own life, in her own family, or in Northampton, but throughout the earth. The Edwardses’ ambitions and prayers went far beyond personal, family, or parochial concerns — they were certain of the ultimate and cosmic triumph of Christ. And so, Jonathan urged all believers to unite in prayer for global evangelization and revival.
As we love God more, and enjoy his love, we too long for him to be honored by all, and for his glory to fill the earth. We too are to pray and work for revival — in our own experience, our family, our church, our nation, and the world:
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen! (Psalm 72:19)