She was six years old the first time he saw her, and he was thirteen. She was the daughter of the pastor of the Congregational (Puritan) Church in New Haven, Connecticut. He was a newly enrolled student at Yale College, also located in New Haven, where he had come to prepare himself for God’s service. During his seven years at Yale and attending the Congregational Church in New Haven, he noticed in her a peculiar devotion to God that he found very attractive and similar to his own.
After graduating from Yale at the age of 17 and at the top of his class, he continued his studies for the M.A. and worked as a tutor in the college. During the summer of 1723 he returned to his family home in East Windsor, Connecticut where he intended to study and give thought and prayer to his future.
True Beauty and Real Love
Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) could not, however, get the young woman in New Haven, Sarah Pierpont (1710-58), off his mind. It was not her physical features that captivated and enthralled him; it was the beauty of her character and devotion to God—what King David called the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2).
One day, while trying to study New Testament Greek, his mind kept wandering to thirteen year old Sarah. As he thought on her, Jonathan, who would become the famous theologian and pastor of the Great Awakening, wrote the following in the flyleaf of his Greek grammar.
They say there is a young lady in 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 up 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 and delight forever. Therefore, if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her actions; and you could not persuade her to do anything 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 those seasons in which 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 of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, and to wander in the fields and on the mountains, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.
Sarah was from a long line of distinguished Puritan preachers. In fact, her great great grandfather was Thomas Hooker, the well-known Puritan theologian and preacher who founded Connecticut. Another great grandfather had been the first mayor of New York City. Her father, James Pierpont, was the pastor of the Congregational Church in New Haven and the founder of Yale College, now Yale University. From childhood, she was convinced that her life was to be lived for the glory of God.
A Peaceful Home that Impresses Many
Four years after writing his thoughts of Sarah, Jonathan proposed to her and she accepted. She was seventeen and he was twenty-four. They moved to Northampton, Massachusetts where Jonathan had accepted the pastorate of the Congregational Church. They would live in Northampton for twenty-three years and raise eleven children before moving to Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1750.
Although life was busy raising eight girls and three boys, Sarah maintained her intimate relationship with God. She and Jonathan made time for each other and would often take walks together during which he would share things learned in his studies and she would share out of her heart the things she was learning from God.
Their relationship impressed many of their contemporaries, who often commented on the sense of peace that pervaded the Edwards home. John Walley wrote, “I love Mr. Edwards and his wife, because I see so much of the image of God in them.” Joseph Emerson of Concord described the Edwards as “the most agreeable family I was ever acquainted with. There is much of the Presence of God there.”
They Pray for Revival
Both Sarah and Jonathan were concerned about the spiritual indifference that seemed to pervade their community and all New England. They, therefore, prayed earnestly for what they called a “revival of religion” Their prayers began to be answered in 1739 when an unusual and awesome sense of God’s presence seemed to invade the town of Northampton.
Everywhere, in homes, in places of business, and on the streets, people seemed to be gripped with an awareness of God, of eternity, and of the danger of being outside of Christ. The Spirit of God worked so powerfully that, as Jonathan said, “there was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 57).
Without any special church growth emphases or human attempts to increase the attendance, the church in Northampton suddenly filled with those seeking salvation and with those experiencing the fruit of already being born again. Jonathan wrote,
Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive in God’s service, everyone intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly were in general from time to time in tears while the word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 57-58).
Sarah Impacted by the Awakening
Sarah was powerfully affected by the awakening. At times she was so overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit that she was unable to stand. At other times she was so conscious of the joyful presence of the Holy Spirit that, “I could scarcely refrain from leaping with transports of joy.”
This sort of dynamic experience of the Spirit’s presence moved her to act outside her traditional roles of wife and mother and exhort others concerning the things of God. She not only discussed Biblical and theological themes with her husband and visiting ministers, but at times exhorted members of the congregation out of the overflow of her own experience. For example, she tells of hearing a visiting minister lament that God’s children should be cold and lifeless in their faith. She said,
I felt such a sense of the deep ingratitude manifested by the children of God, in such coldness and deadness, that my strength was immediately taken away, and I sunk down on the spot. Those who were near raised me, and placed me in a chair; and, from the fullness of my heart, I expressed to them, in a very earnest manner, the deep sense I had of the wonderful grace of Christ towards me, of the assurance I had of his having saved me from hell, of my happiness running parallel with eternity, of the duty of giving up all to God, and of the peace and joy inspired by an entire dependence on his mercy and grace (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 63).
The revival brought extra responsibilities and pressures with many visitors to Northampton and numerous visiting ministers in the Edwards home. During one particular busy season she found it necessary to withdraw into solitude because of the dryness of her soul, and there she experienced God’s presence in a remarkable way and a fresh assurance of His eternal love for her. She wrote,
Melted and overcome by the sweetness of this assurance, I fell into a great flow of tears, and could not forbear weeping aloud. It appeared certain to me that God was my Father, and Christ my Lord and Savior, that he was mine and I his. Under a delightful sense of the immediate presence and love of God, these words seemed to come over and over in my mind, "My God, my all; my God, my all." The presence of God was so near, and so real, that I seemed scarcely conscious of anything else. I seemed to be lifted above earth and hell, out of the reach of everything here below, so that I could look on all the rage and enmity of men or devils, with a kind of holy indifference, and an undisturbed tranquility. At the same time, I felt compassion and love for all mankind, and a deep abasement of soul, under a sense of my own unworthiness. I also felt myself more perfectly weaned from all things here below, than ever before. The whole world, with all its enjoyments, and all its troubles, seemed to be nothing:--My God was my all, my only portion.
When the famous Methodist revivalist, George Whitefield, visited Northampton and preached in the church, it was not the revival that captured his attention, but the couple who hosted him. Being single and having entertained thoughts of remaining single all his life, his encounter with the Edwards changed all that and he began to pray that God would give him such a wife. After departing Northampton, he wrote,
A sweeter couple I have not yet seen. She [Sarah] talked feelingly and solidly of the things of God, and seemed to be such a help meet for her husband that she caused me to pray God, that he would be pleased to send me a Daughter of Abraham to be my wife.”
Moved, perhaps in part, by Sarah’s experiences, Jonathan (considered by many to be the greatest theologian/philosopher America has produced) developed views on gender that were obviously ahead of his time. His commentary on Eve being the “the mother of all living” has been construed by some scholars as an indication that he held “proto-feminist” views, and one writer has described him as being “genuinely committed to the promotion of gender equality.” The Edwards apparently reared their eight daughters with a sense of equality for one biographer, in describing the character of their daughter, Esther, said, “She was used to being taken seriously as the spiritual and intellectual equal of men” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 64).
Life was not at all easy for Sarah. In 1749 the congregation and community in Northampton turned against them because they would not adhere to the “Half-Way Covenant,” a policy adopted by Puritans in 1662 that offered partial church membership to those who could not testify to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, allowing them to participate in communion and have their children baptized. Harsh words and accusations were raised against them and they were forced to leave Northampton after twenty-three years.
Although obviously hurt by the rejection both remained positive and congenial toward their opponents; and in his farewell sermon Jonathan, after lamenting the broken ties, said,
Nothing remains, but that I bid you all farewell. I desire that I may never forget these people, who have been so long my special charge, and that I may never cease fervently to pray for your prosperity.
They moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where Jonathan became the pastor of the church in that community and a missionary to the Housatonic Indian tribe.
Jonathan experienced an untimely death in 1758 shortly after accepting an invitation to become president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He travelled ahead to New Jersey to prepare a home for himself, Sarah, and the six children that were still at home. After arriving at the college, he took a smallpox vaccination in order to encourage others to do the same. Already in poor health, he contracted the disease and died shortly thereafter.
On his deathbed, Sarah was foremost in his thoughts and his final words were,
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 forever.
Back in Massachusetts, Sarah received the news of Jonathan’s death and was devastated, but not in despair, because of her trust in the Lord. She wrote to her daughter Esther,
What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and He has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be.
Your ever affectionate mother,
Your ever affectionate mother,
The legacy of Sarah and her husband is remarkable. One grandson, Aaron Burr, served as the third vice-president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson. Another grandson, Timothy Dwight, became the president of Yale in 1795 and delivered a series of chapel lectures that helped spark the Second Great Awakening, which changed the course of the nation. One biographer noted,
The Edwards family produced scores of clergymen, thirteen presidents of higher learning, sixty-five professors, and many other persons of notable achievements.
I am reminded of Isaiah 54:13-14, a promise from God to all those who put their trust in Him. And all your children [descendants] shall be taught of the LORD and great shall be the peace of your children [descendants].
Discovering the Beauty of Holiness
We live in a society in which beauty has been defined solely in terms of sexuality and physical features by a Hollywood culture of celebrity and entertainment. This understanding of beauty is out of touch with Scripture, which does not limit beauty to that which is physical, but defines it primarily in terms of character, particularly the character of God as it is revealed and expressed through His people.
This is what David refers to when he speaks of the beauty of the LORD (Psalm 27:4) and exhorts the people to worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2). David is enthralled with the excellences and perfection of God’s person and character. As we come to know the LORD in such a way and allow the beauty of His character to be expressed through us, this will be a light piercing the darkness and we too will serve Him and worship Him in the beauty of holiness.