Review of "Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography" by Iain H. Murray

Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography, by Iain H. Murray, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, 503 pp.

This is an enjoyable introduction to the life and thought of 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards replete with references to personal letters giving the reader a good feel for New England life in that era.

Murray well details the history of the Edwards and Stoddard families—as Jonathan’s mother was a daughter of the Puritan minister Solomon Stoddard. Regarding the family my favorite note was about Edwards’ sisters, for he had ten of them, each six foot tall. They said of his father Timothy that he had “sixty feet of daughters.”

It was an interesting time religiously in New England. Murray notes that there wasn’t an Episcopal clergyman in the whole colony until 1720, (p. 60) and that “as late as 1726 Cotton Mather believed their was no Arminian minister in Boston” (p. 105). Edwards did have some connections with the early American Presbyterians, particular the Tennant family who was prominent in the New Side Presbytery. Up until the Great Awakening (c. 1740) many considered the spiritual state of New England to be fairly low. The people had heard the Puritan preaching for generations, and probably knew their Bibles; they often just didn’t believe it. The Great Awakening was indeed great, and Edwards played a significant role in it, but it certainly didn’t convert everybody. And many of those who professed faith did not produce the fruit associated with true faith.

Murray well points out that “conviction” played an important role in the awakening as it does in general for the conversion of believers. The conviction he refers to is that conviction of sin which leads one to cry out to God for forgiveness. Having preached myself recently on the Romans 3 passage Murray emphasizes in chapter 7, I was glad to see him (and Edwards) come to many of the same conclusions on the important of preaching the law to bring knowledge of sin, leading to conviction.

Pertinent to debates ongoing today, Murray notes that “Christmas Day was unobserved and virtually unknown in New England” (p. 149) and that while Edwards “always had a high regard for the Psalms” it might be incorrect to say he favored exclusive Psalmody as “he was to defend the introduction of the forms of praise and Watt’s paraphrases were introduced into his own congregation about 1743.” (p. 187)

One focus Murray has is on Edwards’ piety; noting his long hours of study, dedication to ministry and family, and the positive appraisals of his character by contemporaries including George Whitefield and Samuel Hopkins.

I was interested to find Edwards’ approval of presbyterianism in his letter to John Erskine, July 5, 1750: “As to my subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession, there would be no difficulty; and as to the presbyterian government, I have long been perfectly out of conceit of our unsettled, independent, confused way of church government in this land; and the presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the word of God.”

Though Edwards’ theology certainly is mentioned in the book, I did not come away from having read it with much in the way of knowledge of Edwards’ distinctives. Certainly, he was a Calvinist. But it is not clear to me, even having read this biography, why Edwards so stands out as to be noted in some places as the most important 18th century American theologian. I did learn that one of the greatest importances of Edwards is his book on Religious Affections following the Great Awakening. Murray speaks of it as having “enduring relevance.” (p. 267) And also of importance is Edwards An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd which Murray notes was “the first full missionary biography ever to be published.” (p. 307)

I found Edwards to be a good example when he stood on Biblical principle against the policy of the day of communion as a “converting ordinance.” But it seems that opinion on Edwards was quite mixed in his own day with the majority at his church in Northampton eventually opposed to him and forcing him out of that call. His eventual next call to Stockbridge, a frontier settlement populated mostly by natives, surely seems to be an unusual place if Edwards were then greatly respected as an eminent theologian.  Murray does in the end confirm the suspicions I had developed earlier in the book: “Edwards was not regarded in his own age, in his own country, with the general esteem which he received at a later period.” (p. 449) At the end Edwards becomes president of the College of New Jersey, but dies shortly after starting the job. Sadly, his own death was close to the deaths of a number of his family members including his own father, his daughter Esther and son-in-law Aaron Burr Sr. Murray notes that Aaron Burr Jr., who later became the Vice President of the United States, was raised by an uncle and lived “without God.”

At over five-hundred pages, the book was a fairly tedious read. But, given the interest many have in Edwards, it is a necessarily thorough book.