John Erskine & Jonathan Edwards: Truth Unified An Ocean Apart

The following article is used with permission by the author from his own website, tobyeasley.org. Dr. Toby Easley (D.Min., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), is a theologian, author, and independent speaker  who has twenty-nine years of public speaking and instructional experience. 

John Erskine was Scottish born seven years after the Colonial American Jonathan Edwards but their life spans would end up differing by more than twenty-seven and half years. However, the years of their lives that juxtapose from 1721 to 1758, eventually kindled a true kindred spirit through Edwards’s writings on the American spiritual awakening and Erskine’s generosity to send European books.

1460770340 Erskine was born into a family that had financial means and many expected him to follow his father in a life’s vocation of jurisprudence. Nevertheless, he sensed the calling of God upon his life to enter the ministry and focus on the eternal realm. According to Jonathan Yeager, Erskine’s preaching differed from Edwards by simplifying “his sermons in the manner that the leading rhetorician George Campbell taught: to use only a few subordinate points to support one main argument…As opposed to many former Calvinist divines, Erskine did not ramble on in his discourses, using intricate and hard-to-follow metaphysical assumptions.”

As the 1740’s passed and the early 1750’s brought many trials into Edwards’s life, Erskine served as a means of encouragement through the letters they exchanged. Edwards shared many of the details of his ejection from his Northampton pulpit and his concerns for the future of his entire family. All throughout these difficult years, Erskine remained a faithful friend, correspondent, and crucial supplier of books that would have otherwise been unavailable to Edwards. Yeager also accurately claimed, “Since the number of bookshops in America paled by comparison to Britain, Edwards benefited from a patron who resided near a publishing epicenter like Edinburgh.”

Although Erskine and Edwards realized many of the intellectual ideas coming out of Europe were contrary to theirs, both men desired to read the conflicting doctrines.  Erskine certainly had the intellectual capacity to think and speak against doctrinal error but Edwards could also wield the pen as an apologist and polemicist! Edwards was not only concerned about the doctrinal tremors at Harvard and Yale, he was becoming more aware of the doctrinal shift throughout Europe. After pastoring for almost two and a half decades in Northampton, he had reason for concern regarding the younger generation and the doctrinal movement within the Congregational Churches. On July 5, 1750, Edwards wrote a letter to Erskine and in sadness expressed, “I desire your fervent prayers for me and those who have heretofore been my people. I know not what will become of them. There seems to be the utmost danger that the younger generations will be carried away with Arminianism, as with a flood.” Bit-by-Bit, his prophetic words came true regarding the abandonment of Reformation Theology, and acceleration toward an Arminian majority in the two centuries following his death.

Erskine on the other side of the Atlantic lived into the early nineteenth-century and continued to impact theological discussions. During his ministry as a younger man he had stood against the Arminian principles of Wesley, and warned the Scottish people against his Methodist soteriology. Erskine’s influence within Scotland during the Eighteenth-century helped preserve the Calvinistic soteriology among Presbyterians and stifled the growth of Wesley’s Methodist groups inside Scotland. Although Erskine and Edwards lived on separate continents and ministered across the Atlantic Ocean from one another, they both had the foresight to discern the doctrinal changes of the Enlightenment and its far-reaching effects.

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