Biography of Jonathan Edwards

Born in Connecticut in 1703, Jonathan Edwards is widely considered to be the greatest theologian and philosopher of colonial America. Over the course of his 55 years, Edwards had many roles—teacher, pastor, revivalist, missionary, college president—but he was always, and above all else, a profound thinker, widely learned, and a serious literary artist whose genres of choice were theology, philosophy, and, occasionally, the natural sciences. Though today, regrettably to some scholars, many associate Edwards primarily with his scorched-earth sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he also produced works such as Religious Affections (1746) and Freedom of the Will (1754), which still stand as significant contributions to the history of Christian thought.

Edwards was an only son, and both his father and maternal grandfather were significant members of the New England clergy. From a very young age, he received rigorous ecclesiastical training, before leaving home to attend Yale College in 1716, when he was just 13 years old. Though he never once wavered from his desire to serve as an instrument in advancing the cause of Christ, Edwards’s intellectual curiosity was by no means limited to the strictly theological, and he read widely and deeply in both the natural sciences and philosophy. Essays such as “Of Being” and “The Mind,” though published only posthumously, show that Edwards was at least as astute, passionate, and skillful as a philosopher as he was as a preacher.

Edwards brought all of these considerable talents to bear in his role as a leading figure of the Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in the colonies in the 1730s and 40s which emphasized a return to a more austere, traditional form of Puritanism and Christianity. It was in this context that Edwards wrote and delivered “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which quickly gained renown as a powerful statement of the spirit of the movement. His severe, uncompromising attitude, and his staunch rejection of what he saw as the increasing materialism of his parishioners—especially the wealthier, more powerful ones—as the New World grew in wealth ultimately led to his ejection in 1749 from the Northampton pulpit he had occupied for roughly two decades. For the last decade of his life, while he continued to write prolifically, Edwards was the pastor for the small town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he also served as a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. He died after receiving a smallpox inoculation in 1758, just months after accepting a position as the president of the College of New Jersey.

Study Guides on Works by Jonathan Edwards