“A New and Great Business and a Dark Cloud”: Reflecting on the Death of Jonathan Edwards. By John T. Lowe.

On March 22, 1758, Jonathan Edwards took his final breaths. A little over a month prior, he was installed as President of the College of New Jersey (what is now Princeton).[1] His son-in-law, Aaron Burr, had died, leaving the position vacant. Reluctant take this “new and great business,” Edwards did so with wise counsel. There, in the town of Princeton, smallpox had been rampant in the surrounding areas. Always wanting to do what was best for his family, Edwards decided he and his family should receive inoculation—the new and risky way of combating the smallpox epidemic.[2] On February 23, William Shippen, a well-known physician from Philadelphia, agreed to adminiGravesster the inoculation and oversee their recovery. After a few days everything seemed to be fine. Esther and her children had begun recovering, but Edwards had contracted smallpox inside of his mouth and throat.[3] After weeks of a fever and starvation from being unable to swallow, Edwards knew his time had come to an end. His daughter Lucy who was caring for him recorded his last words:

Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore 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: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now likely to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father, who will never fail you.[4]

There, in his short time, at Princeton, Edwards died in the afternoon on March 22, 1758.[5] As he expired, Shippen wrote his wife Sarah assuring her of his peaceful death. He wrote:

And never did any mortal man more fully and clearly evidence the sincerity of all his professions, by one continued, universal, calm, cheerful resignation, and patient submission to the divine will, through every stage of his disease, than he; no so much as one discontented expression, nor the least appearance of murmuring through the whole. And never did any person expire with more perfect freedom from pain;–not so much as distorted hair—but in the most proper sense of the words, he really fell asleep.[6]

Sarah, still on the frontier in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, received the news of her husband’s passing and shone herself equally pious and resolved. To their daughter Esther, Sarah wrote,

What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. Oh that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! 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 us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be.[7]

While these words would have comforted her in the midst of losing her husband and father within the span of months, Esther never saw the letter. Sixteen days after Edwards died, Esther had been suffering from a fever unrelated to smallpox and also died. If that had not already been enough heart ache to the Edwards family, Sarah had traveled to get her grandchildren only to die from dysentery on October 2 in Philadelphia.[8] The Edwards family had been broken.

Marsden reminds us, Edwards had “spent his whole life preparing to die.”[9] Despite his many imperfections, he aspired to know God and for others to know the same “beauties” and “excellencies” that he discovered. Even in his final moments, Edwards was instructing to “submit cheerfully to the will of God” and to “seek a Father who will never fail.” What began as an “inward sweet sense” of new birth did not end with his death, but instead had bloomed full force. Shippen observing Edwards’ passing stated, “Death had certainly lost its sting.”[10]


[1] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 491.

[2] Ibid., 493.

[3] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 493.

[4] Quoted in Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 494. The original manuscript is William Shippen to Sarah Edwards, March 22, 1758 held at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, transcribed by George Claghorn.

[5] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 494.

[6] Quoted in Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 494. The original manuscript is William Shippen to Sarah Edwards, March 22, 1758 held at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, transcribed by George Claghorn.

[7] Sereno E. Dwight, Life of President Edwards. In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol.1, ed. Edwards Hickman, xi-ccxxxiv, 1834. Reprint, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), clxxix.

[8] Whitney, Finding God in Solitude, 73.

[9] Ibid., 490.

[10] Quoted in Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 494. The original manuscript is William Shippen to Sarah Edwards, Ma.rch 22, 1758 held at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, transcribed by George Claghorn.


Author Interview: Brandon Crawford – Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement

EdwardsStudies is talking today with Brandon Crawford, the author of the new book Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement: Understanding the Legacy of America’s Greatest Theologian published by Wipf and Stock. Brandon, tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I am 33 years old, and I serve as a pastor in Marshall, Michigan. I hold an M.Div. and a Th.M. in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology. My wife, Melanie, and I will celebrate our 11-year anniversary this June, and we have two children—Daniel and Sarah. I love reading, writing, stargazing, visiting sites of historical importance, and spending time with my family.Brandon Crawford

So, how did you get started studying Jonathan Edwards? 

I tell the full story in the preface of my book. In short, my interest in Jonathan Edwards was ignited during my freshmen year of college after reading John Piper’s book, Desiring God. While I wasn’t sure I liked the term “Christian Hedonism,” the overall message of Piper’s book really resonated with me. On the back cover there was an endorsement from J. I. Packer that said, “Jonathan Edwards, whose ghost walks through most of Piper’s pages, would be delighted with his disciple.” If Piper was getting his inspiration from Jonathan Edwards, I knew I needed to study Edwards too. I began with a couple biographies of Edwards, and then turned to his own writings. I began with his famous treatise, The End for which God Created the World, and went on from there. That was about 15 years ago. I have been a disciple of Edwards ever since.

Where are you doing ministry right now? 

I was ordained in August of 2010, and was installed as the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Marshall, Michigan, immediately thereafter. I have been at Grace ever since.

So give us the overall picture of your book. 

Jonathan Edwards had no true intellectual successors, but he did leave behind a group of admirers now known as the “Edwardeans” or “New Divinity” men. Without exception, these New Divinity men rejected the penal substitutionary view of Christ’s atonement in favor of a view that sees Christ’s death merely as a penal example. So the perennial question is, “To what extent did Jonathan Edwards influence the New Divinity toward this view?”One reason for the continuing debate on this question is the paucity of secondary literature examining Edwards’s doctrine of atonement on its own terms. This is where my book comes in. My aim was to provide a thorough presentation of Edwards’s doctrine of atonement as revealed in his collected works, with the goal of (1) filling that lacuna in our understanding of Edwards’s doctrinal perspective; (2) generating interest in this subject from other authors; (3) settling the question of Edwards’s influence on the New Divinity; and (3) stirring greater interest in the doctrine of atonement in general.The first three chapters of the book offer a brief history of the doctrine of atonement from the Apostolic Fathers to the Age of Enlightenment. The remaining four chapters explore Edwards’s own doctrinal perspective. A concluding chapter offers a few summary thoughts.

Do you think you turned over any stones that haven’t already been turned over by other scholars? 

Thanks to the good work of the scholars at The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, most of Jonathan Edwards’s extant writings have been digitized, posted online, and made accessible with a searchable database. This allowed me to scan the massive Edwards corpus for statements on the atonement in a way that has never been possible before. As a result, I was able to offer a more complete survey of Edwards’s doctrine of atonement than anyone before me. I trust that the greater level of information has also led to a greater level of insight.

What drew you to the theme of atonement? 

The gospel is the heart of the Christian faith, and the atonement is the heart of the gospel. No doctrine is more worthy of our reflection, affection, and careful application than this one.

Okay, so what, if anything, does Jonathan Edwards contribute that is unique to our understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Atonement among Reformed theologians? 

Unique to Jonathan Edwards is the way he brings together the concepts of penal substitution and penal example into a single, coherent system. Very briefly, he taught that Adam’s sin involved a twofold offense: he violated God’s law, and he dishonored God himself. As a result, Christ’s atonement necessarily involved a twofold work: he bore sin’s penalty in the sinner’s place, and he publicly vindicated God’s honor through his life and death. The symmetry of his doctrine of atonement is quite stunning. Most Reformed writers tend to emphasize the former at the expense of the latter.

What biblical texts or primary sources does Edwards draw upon in his construct of the Atonement? 

Edwards relies on two sources in constructing his doctrine of atonement: Reason and Revelation. His sermons on Psalm 40:6-8, Isaiah 53, Luke 22:44, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 5:25-27, Hebrews 9:12-14, and Revelation 5:12, along with his works History of the Work of Redemption and Justification by Faith Alone, all contain rich material on Christ’s atonement.

What original sources of his (sermons, treatises etc.) did you primarily consult in his massive corpus? 

The sermons and treatises mentioned previously were very helpful. Additionally, I found quite a bit of information on the atonement in his Miscellanies, Controversies Notebook, Notes on Scripture, and other sermons.

Finally, do you have any books on JE to recommend to our readers? 

I would recommend my book, of course! But beyond that, readers looking for a good devotional biography on Edwards should consult Iain Murray’s classic work Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Those interested in a substantive critical biography should read George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Those who want to start reading the works of Edwards himself should begin with his sermons. They are generally easy to understand, and they are very helpful. Many of them are available online through The Jonathan Edwards Center. After spending some time in his sermons, interested readers could move on to his more taxing works like The End for Which God Created the World and Religious Affections.


Video Book Review: Meet the Puritans (Beeke & Pederson)

Today, EdwardsStudies.com is having a look at the excellent volume entitled Meet the Puritans by Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson. This is a wonderful compendium that introduces Edwardseans and other interested readers to the lives and the writings of the great Puritans of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.