“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]

FOOTNOTES

[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.

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