Jonathan Edwards, Enlightened Theologian


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 5: Jonathan Edwards, Enlightened Theologian
Sept. 16-20, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of Jonathan Edwards, John Woolman, and Elizabeth Ashbridge.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Edwards’s personal narrative.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “Jonathan Edwards” (464-466) and Personal Narrative (466-476)


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), analyze the various stages of Edwards's religious evolution. How and why does he change between stages? How would you characterize his faith at the time he composed this narrative? Cite evidence to support your characterization.

Presentation: Jonathan Edwards, Enlightened Theologian (Professor Canada); Elizabeth Ashbridge (Crissy Pridgen); John Woolman (Shannon Hershberger)

Cooperative Learning

Enlightenment: The emphasis in Edwards’s Personal Narrative certainly is on religion, but this work also reveals something of the man himself.  What does Edwards value about his own abilities?  Consider, for example, this sentence from the narrative: "It was my continual strife day and night, and constant inquiry how I should be more holy, and live more holily, and more becoming a child of God, and disciple of Christ."

Metaphor: What metaphors does Edwards use to convey a sense of his relationship with God? Why do you think he used them instead of simply describing this relationship? Are they effective? What do they suggest?

Religion and Science: As the experiences of Galileo Galelei and Charles Darwin testify, religion and science often have been at odds. Edwards, a leading theologian and minister, however, read the work of the period's greatest scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, and embraced the notion of knowledge gleaned through experience. How does Edwards tolerate science and even make it a part of his faith?

Presentations: Elizabeth Ashbridge (Crissy Pridgen); John Woolman (Shannon Hershberger)

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: Explore one way in which religion shapes the writings of Jonathan Edwards and at least one other writer from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • Jonathan Edwards
  • John Woolman
  • Elizabeth Ashbridge
  • Quakers


Make sure you are familiar with the following key date in early American history:


1730s: Great Awakening begins in colonies


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:


All American: Jonathan Edwards features a chronology and study questions.

Updated September 13, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


In this lesson, we will take a look at a kind of transitional figure between the era of the Puritans and the era often known as the Enlightenment.  Jonathan Edwards, a theologian and preacher, placed a high priority on religion, but he also valued experience and human control.  We also will hear about two other authors of spiritual autobiography when Crissy gives her presentation on Elizabeth Ashbridge and Shannon gives his presentation on John Woolman.



Since 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the West Indies on a ship called the Santa Maria and named the first place he encountered San Salvador, Christianity has been a force in the Americas.  It became especially important in New England, where William Bradford’s Pilgrims and John Winthrop’s Puritans settled in the 1620s and 1630s.  Indeed, over the remainder of the seventeenth century, both life and literature in New England largely revolved around Christianity.  By the early decades of the eighteenth century, however, the colonies were becoming more secular.  Indeed, much intellectual energy of this era, which came to be known as the Enlightenment, was directed not at the heavens, but at the earth.  Scientists such as the Englishman Sir Isaac Newton were demysifying the natural forces that surrounded human beings, and writers were exploring the lives and minds those humans themselves.

No longer the dominant force it had been in the seventeenth century, religion had by no means disappeared.  Indeed, around 1734 there emerged a period of revivalism that came to be known as the Great Awakening.  Over the next couple of decades, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other Christians—with help from preachers such as George Whitefield—participated in this revival.  One emphasis in this revival was the emotional side of the religious experience. 

Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758

Born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards graduated from Yale College in 1720 and, after a two-year period of additional study at Yale, became pastor of a church in New York.  Between 1726 and 1729, he assisted his grandfather, the Rev. Solomon Stoddard at a Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, succeeded Stoddard as pastor after his grandfather’s death.  Over the next three decades, before his death from smallpox in 1758, he played a central role in the Great Awakening and published several works, including A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734), Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), and The Freedom of the Will (1754).

One of the most important American writers and thinkers of the 18th century, Edwards embodied the spirit of his time.  Like Benjamin Franklin, he was a voice of the Enlightenment, particularly in his emphasis on experience, his interest in science, and his belief in the power of the human will.  Unlike Franklin, however, Edwards also spoke for the Puritans, whose influence had faded by the time he was preaching in Northampton, Massachusetts. As evidence of his Puritan theology, many people point to his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, perhaps the most famous sermon ever delivered in America. As a jeremiad and a tribute to God's sovereignty, this sermon indeed expresses Puritan belief and resembles the writings of Michael Wigglesworth and other early Puritans. Perhaps even more important and characteristic than this fiery sermon, however, are other writings, such as Personal Narrative and "A Divine and Supernatural Light," in which Edwards describes his personal, emotional faith.


In this lesson, we have examined Jonathan Edwards, a transitional figure between the religious era dominated by the Puritans and the secular age of the eighteenth century.  In our next lesson, we will study a man who exemplified the secular concerns of this era, Benjamin Franklin.