A Frontier Childhood by Ola WinslowBiographical Writings of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
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This is an interesting chapter from Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758: A Biography by Ola Elizabeth Winslow. The author gives a good historical perspective on Edwards’ boyhood, which is missing in Samuel Hopkins’ biography.
Jonathan Edwards was born in the East Windsor parsonage on October 5, 1703. This was precisely nine years after Timothy Edwards had come with his bride, Esther Stoddard, to the newly gathered congregation across the river. He was now thirty-four years old and his wife was thirty-one. Four daughters had already been born into their home and six more were to follow. Jonathan was their first and only son. Was he named Jonathan for what the name means, “Gift of Jehovah,” for some English ancestor now lost to view, or for the Welsh theologian and controversialist, Jonathan Edwards of Jesus College, Oxford, whose Preservative, Against Socinianism had been completed and published earlier in the year 1703? Any one of these reasons might have seemed the best reason to Timothy Edwards.
One cannot but remember that three months earlier, in a Lincolnshire parsonage on the Isle of Axholme, another son had been born to another minister and his godly, strong-minded wife. The two great religionists were never to meet, or even to know why such a meeting would have seemed significant to historians of another century. On two continents John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards were to go their separate and quite different ways, changing the meaning of religion for many thousands, and with it also the cultural pattern of their generation.
In 1703 the East Windsor parish was still a young enterprise, full of promise. During the nine years he had been among them as their pastor, Timothy Edwards had definitely succeeded. The bitter controversy incident to the separation of his small flock from the parent congregation across the river had gradually slipped into the background and, in spite of occasional reminders that the new parish was made up of both factions in the dispute, withdrawal had abundantly justified itself in the growth and contentment of the new congregation. To go safely to meeting on their own side after years of perilous canoe crossings in all weathers was blessing untold. Month by month new families had come to reside on their fertile holdings across the river and the six-year-old meetinghouse was already too small. The new parish was now a separate township with full power to order its own affairs. This too was a great blessing. For the most part the pews liked the minister, and though no revival had yet come to bless his labors among them they believed God was merely testing their faith; and they waited confidently.
By 1703 life in this far-flung settlement had taken on a fairly settled character and was growing steadily safer year by year in spite of periodic alarms and very real dangers. When Jonathan Edwards was four months old the ever present Indian peril came close to the parsonage in the murder at Deerfield, Massachusetts, of Eunice Williams, half-sister of Esther Edwards. Two of Mrs. Williams’ children were also killed, her husband and four more children carried into captivity. The news brought deep personal grief; it was also a grim reminder of the time when churchgoing Windsor had been fined for not carrying muskets to meeting, according to order. Indians were not very numerous in Connecticut by this time, and they were for the most part friendly; but there was still cause for fear. Not for another generation could a child grow up without the memory of a thousand cautions as to what was by no means a phantom danger. From all perils within and perils without, the village must be sufficient unto itself, for this part of the “Lord’s Waste” was still a remote frontier. Except for Timothy Edwards and a few other great ones of the village, who occasionally took horse and rode away to Boston, the town limits were the very boundaries of life. One was born, had children, and died without ever going so far as Hartford — two centuries later, only twenty minutes away. As for the vast worries of the land of their grandfathers — Whigs and Tories battling over the nature of the monarchy at home, the War of the Spanish Succession raging abroad, and a stupid queen on the throne — these things were no longer the realities of life. Connecticut colony, East Windsor in particular, was all the world.
Agricultural pursuits made up the background of village life and, as in all country parishes of the day, the minister was perforce a farmer among farmers. He divided his time between his study and his acreage, directing the spring plowing or taking a hand at skinning a cow quite as naturally as he expounded the Scriptures or conducted a funeral. The isolation of East Windsor made the separation between parsonage and parish, sacred and secular, even less sharp than would have been true of Hartford or Northampton. In consequence, Timothy Edwards, for all his austere dignity, was not a man apart from his people. They cut and carted his wood as part of his “rate,” made his children’s shoes, brought him sugar and mutton and spice as they happened to have abundance, and advised him when to cut the hay. He gave them credit in his Rate Books for their services and donations, and in his turn taught their children for pay, bought their cider, distilled it into brandy and sold it back to them again, and engaged in many other sorts of barter convenient to both parties. He was their pastor whom they respected, to a degree feared, and sometimes opposed bitterly; but he was also their neighbor whom they knew in his second-best clothes. On Sundays and Thursdays he preached and assumed the full dignity of his priestly office; on other days he was one of themselves, taking part with them in the exchange of commodities and services by which this isolated little community maintained its independent life.
According to family tradition he was irked by these weekday details and inclined to delegate responsibility for them to his capable wife. Possibly, for he had been town-bred and as a boarding pupil in Mr. Glover’s home had escaped chores at an early age; but as an East Windsor husbandman he could not have claimed immunity from farm tasks. The Edwards acres were fairly extensive: there were fields to be fertilized, crops to be harvested, woods to be cut down and put under cultivation, stock to be cared for, hides to be tanned, extra acres to be rented for pasture, and numerous routine chores to be performed daily. Some supervision of all these multiple concerns fell to him as head of the house, no matter how distasteful it may have been. Besides, there is plenty of evidence that he knew the details first-hand and had some share in the actual labors which came with the seasons.
By his son in his own country parish days, these tasks would be assumed far more naturally. Born part villager, part farmer, he would be able throughout life to accept the routine of field and barnyard as a necessary, normal part of life, to be performed without protest or apology. The difference between father and son in this as in so many other directions was a difference of emphasis. Jonathan Edwards hewed his life to the line of his main interest, consciously subordinating those things which he considered lesser; Timothy Edwards often became confused under tasks hostile to his main interest, scattered his energies in a fretful and futile busyness, and was at times defeated by the very details he hated. Both men handled minutiae with a conscience; only the son chose to split hairs in an argument, not to measure corn to the half pint.
Jonathan Edwards grew up in the house built as the gift of Richard Edwards of Hartford at the time of Timothy’s settlement in East Windsor. It stood on the east side of the present highway, about a quarter of a mile from the old burying ground. As described by Sereno E. Dwight, who saw it in 1803, and by John Stoughton, who added memories of the oldest settlers in the mid-century, the house conformed to the general plan of substantial middle-class dwellings of the 1690’s. It was a severely plain, two-story structure of moderate size, built low to the ground and with the second story projecting slightly beyond the first. A single chimney separated the two first-floor rooms, one of which was the kitchen-living-room — possibly also a bedroom as the family increased — the other, called by Timothy Edwards the “parlor,” was really the schoolroom. In this room, which was equipped on three sides with benches fastened to the wall, Jonathan Edwards and his ten sisters, together with the village boys who aspired to college and some who did not, received their elementary education. Like other Connecticut houses of the period the parsonage grew with the family, various lean-tos being added, and also an eight- or nine-foot projection at the middle front, spoken of as the “porch” but really a vestibule.
Tradition has built this house of somewhat better materials, more ample proportions, and more expensive appointments than the other houses in East Windsor. Possibly, although its alleged “elegant ornaments” would hardly seem consistent with the character of the donor, Richard Edwards. More probably like the Grant Mansion built in the same decade, it merely introduced architectural improvements hitherto unknown along the “Street.” Any house built in the 1690’s would naturally have been superior to the log houses of the first residents. Extant expense accounts show the parsonage to have been built of hewn lumber, probably brought by sledge from the nearest mill at Scantic, and of bricks carted from Podunk. The labor of building was the donation of the parishioners, who put a year of their spare time into the task. How well they did their work became a village legend to be repeated confidently generations afterward when the house was being torn down. During all its one hundred and eighteen years, said the great-grandchildren of the pioneer builders, this house had but one covering of shingles — those originally nailed in place by the brethren. Such statements are best left unchallenged, if only to perpetuate the picture of deacons in their old clothes, armed with hammer and saw to a godly end.
In this frontier parish and in this house, its recognized center, Jonathan Edwards lived for the first thirteen years of his life. In many ways he was fortunate, not only for what he missed but for what he gained by such isolation. No wonder the beauty and majesty of nature stamped themselves unforgettably on his early thought. In such a setting nature would have been the most important daily fact to a sensitive child. With a horizon in all four directions he could hardly have escaped impressions of a spacious world: a world of meadows, unending forests, the river; a world of ever changing beauty, not a world of man’s making. Even today, standing on the slight eminence which marks the site of the Edwards parsonage, the virgin forests gone and the meadows turned into tobacco fields, one still has a sense of spaciousness and isolation amounting almost to loneliness. Before 1716 isolation meant also helplessness, for danger lurked beyond the dark line of the forest, and miles beyond there were still no habitations.
From the “Street” running in front of the house he could see to the west, beyond the meadows and beyond the river, the turret of the Windsor meetinghouse — larger than his father’s — and the more numerous dwellings of the parent settlement. Trips to Windsor in the homemade canoes, so much feared by the older folk, would have been events in his boyhood. In the foreground, a little to the right of the parsonage and just across the ravine from his father’s meetinghouse, stood the small fort or Palisado built a generation earlier as a place of rendezvous in time of Indian attacks, but in his boyhood used for more peaceful purposes. Even so, to every boy in the village, acquainted with the tales of earlier raids, a blast on the infrequent Palisado trumpet would have sounded a hope of high adventure for his generation also.
Scattered along the “Street” beyond the meetinghouse and beyond his own home were the houses of the other families of the parish, fewer than one hundred in all. They stood scarcely closer together than the farmhouses along the present highway, on which life now goes so rapidly by; for East Windsor was not a huddled village. Each house was built on its own acres; and the tracts, small for farms, were large for town plots. The house nearest the Edwards home was that of Captain Thomas Stoughton who, in the year the parsonage was built, married Abigail, sister of Timothy Edwards. In the Stoughton home there were also eleven children, with ages corresponding almost exactly to those of the Edwards eleven. Seven of these were boys — three older, three younger, and one almost the exact age of Jonathan Edwards — so that the companionship with boys which he missed in his own home he had with his seven boy cousins next door. The assumption that, as the only son in his father’s house, he had to endure being petted by his ten sisters and made to share their girl games is absurd. In addition to the Stoughtons similar hosts could have been mustered from almost every one of the hundred houses in the village, for in spite of the “throat distemper,” upsetting canoes, and home remedies, East Windsor, as well as the rest of colonial New England, was full of children.
At the rear of the house, toward the east, there was scarcely a suggestion of man and his concerns. The land slopes gently down to a brook on the Edwards side, then up a hill — at that time densely wooded. Somewhere along this brook Jonathan Edwards built the booth in which he and his boy companions used to meditate and pray. These were the fields in which “multitudes of times” he had “beheld with wonderment and pleasure” the spiders marching in the air from one tree to another, “their little shining webbs and Glistening Strings of a Great Length and at such a height as that one would think they were tack’d to the Sky by one end were it not that they were moving and floating.” One may be sure he had also watched other living and growing things with the same philosophic eye. He may even have committed his observations, to paper frequently, for the spider essay, so often cause for the marvel of posterity, can hardly have been his only excursion into a realm so minutely known and so confidently possessed. When he wrote of spiders, he wrote not of something which transiently caught his eye but of a world which belonged to him by right of long and deep intimacy.
Inevitably in his speculations about the universe he shared the belief of his contemporaries that the processes of nature went on by personal manipulation of the Almighty and therefore had a logical relation to the shortcomings of man; but having accepted this major tenet his mind went freely on to other queries. Although when he wrote of the rainbow he was probably still young enough to believe that the ends of it stood in basins of gold, his orthodoxy had been corrupted by no such pleasant fables. But to believe instead that it was the symbol of God’s covenant with Noah did not paralyze his boyish inventiveness when it came to making a little rainbow of his own. There were several ways. He could take water in his mouth, stand between the sun and “something that looks a little Darkish,” spurt the water into the air, and make a rainbow as complete and perfect as any ever seen in the heavens. He could get the same result by dashing up drops of water from a puddle with a stick. Unfortunately (and unforgivably) he had been deprived of a visit to the sawmill at Scantic; but he had heard his “Countrymen that are Used to sawmills” say that rainbows could be seen in the violent concussion of the mill waters. It is pleasant to imagine the picture of this serious-faced and persistent small boy catechizing his sawmill countrymen for purposes of his own philosophic speculation. In the spider essay he accepted the current notion that spiders are the most despicable of the insect kind. They are the “corrupting nauseousness of the air,” and yet this assumption, borrowed from his elders, did not vitiate his own clear-sighted observation as to the spider’s ballooning habits, or his inspired guess (for a twelve-year-old) as to the liquid character of the unspun web.
In an eager desire to discover the child as father of the man, this unit of boyish composition, possibly written even earlier than his twelfth year, has been dignified more than once into a truly remarkable piece of scientific observation for its day and assumed to contain proofs that Jonathan Edwards had potentialities for a career in science as great as, if not greater than, in theology. Such enthusiasm is pardonable, and the conjecture is perhaps warranted. Argument spends itself vainly on such matters. The fact is that Jonathan Edwards’ observation of flying spiders is accurate so far as it goes, even when tested by the findings of mature observers in a later day. As the findings of a boy who had no training in scientific observation, no microscope, no body of specialized knowledge by which to test his own observations or his conclusions from them, this juvenile effort is indeed arresting. It might do credit, in the observation alone, to an amateur twice his age.
The deductions leading from his observations are even more arresting: the basis for classification, the theory of equilibrium by which he explains the spider’s navigation of the air, the character of the web, even his naive justification of nature in providing creatures with just such equipment. That he took great pains with the essay is apparent, especially in the extant manuscript which was probably a first draft. The erasures and substitutions suggest that he had set himself to deserve a hearing from his learned correspondent, not realizing that the boyish letter accompanying his effort would easily have gained the hospitality of one not interested in spiders.
“Forgive me, sir, [he wrote] that I Do not Conceal my name, and Communicate this to you by a mediator. If you think the Observations Childish, and besides the Rules of Decorum, — with Greatness and Goodness overlook it in a Child & Conceal Sir, Although these things appear very Certain to me, yet Sir, I submit it all to your better Judgment & Deeper insight. . . . Pardon if I thought it might at Least Give you Occasion to make better observations, on these wondrous animals, that should [be] worthy of Communicating to the Learned world, respecting these wondrous animals, from whose Glistening Webs so much of the wisdom of the Creatour shines. Pardon Sir
your most Obedient humble servant,
As to spiders, how many kinds were there? Why did they always fly in a southeasterly direction? How was it possible for them to navigate the air? Determined to satisfy his curiosity as to the “manner of their Doing of it,” he became, as he said, “very conversant with Spiders,” spending in their interest days in the woods — exploring rotten logs, tracking them down, classifying them, and trying to understand how they stretched their webs from tree to tree. Like any other wide-awake boy he was sufficiently inventive to devise ways and means of finding out what he wanted to know; but unlike most boys his age he was unable to rest until he had finished what he had begun. After he had evolved a satisfactory technique of observation, he “Repeated the triall Over and Over again till I was fully satisfied of his way of working.” When presently he saw the second string issuing from the tail of the spider he held on his stick, he concluded that he had “found out the Whole mystery.” Stick in hand, he gave demonstrations to his companions of the spider’s habit of “mounting into the air,” discussed his theory with others and no doubt set his sisters and the Stoughton cousins to watching spiders and reporting their observations. One hopes also that he hoarded a collection of specimens on the parsonage windowsill.
Years later when he preached on the spider as one of the four things on earth which are exceeding small and yet exceeding wise, how did he remember this boyish attempt to solve the spider’s mystery for itself, not as the prop to doctrine? Perhaps he did not remember it at all, for long before that time the door to this early world was shut, and he had lost the key.
Whatever its precise date, this precocious essay, as perhaps the earliest of his voluminous writings, is of unquestioned biographical importance. More than precocity is involved. The quality of mind revealed in these boyish observations and deductions would be equally significant whether he was eleven or thirteen when he wrote them down. The essay is a chapter in his mental development, a glimpse into the world he lived in, a world of speculative thought reached through objective fact. It is illuminating also as a personal document out of his East Windsor boyhood, testifying to long afternoons in the meadow when as a little boy he lay on his back, apparently idle, but his mind and eye intent on the life of the fields. There was no reason two and a half centuries ago for any East Windsor neighbor to set down a description of Jonathan Edwards as a child; but if his portrait were to be imagined in characteristic pose, the open fields should be the background, the figure that of a healthy boy dressed in sturdy homespun, sitting alone, doing nothing with his hands, but mentally as active as though bent over his books. Aged eleven or twelve he was no daydreamer, or even Boy of Winander, taking sensitive pleasure in bird calls and cloud movements or in listening to the rhythms of nature, heard and unheard; he was already a thinker, pushing his natural boy’s curiosity about the universe as far as infinity. On such days his East Windsor boyhood was indeed “fair seed-time” for the soul of a philosopher.
In the light of his mature development one need scarcely wonder why he did not continue to devote his great powers of mind to scientific thought. The answer is that science would not have satisfied him. The physical universe was to him only the skeleton of reality, and scientific investigation was the means of stripping off only the outer layers of the mystery. From the utmost bounds of material science other speculative minds likewise have been teased along until they have leaped from the known and measurable to the intangible and infinite. To such minds only the ultimate questions as to the whence and whither of being seem worth the asking. Even as a boy, Jonathan Edwards was one of this company. Why a world at all? he was saying. “What need was there that any thing should be?” To Pascal, Newton, Swedenborg, and other giants in scientific reasoning his intellectual history would be an open book. These men also turned from physical science to religion; but they turned late in life after they had made contributions which changed the direction of scientific thought in their day. Jonathan Edwards turned away before he had made more than a bare beginning, but he obeyed the same impulse.
Had he been the son of Josiah Franklin he might have carried his boyish observations further; but as the son of Timothy Edwards he was not allowed to grow up in the meadow watching spiders, unsupervised. Like Aunt Mary Emerson’s famous nephew he was “born to be educated,” and indications are that the process began as early as speech. The setting was favorable. Whether Timothy Edwards had begun to prepare boys for Harvard College as early as Jonathan’s infancy is not clear, but there were already four other Edwardses needing his services, and the “parlor” was in daily use. Under a discipline more rigorous than obtained in any “dame school” of the period, Jonathan Edwards laid substantial foundations for his ministerial career from the time he could first read. He began with the “Tongues.”
Some few hints of the pedagogical process survive in several letters written by Timothy Edwards to his wife, when she was obliged during his absence on military duty in the fall of 1711 to take over his schoolroom duties. He admonished her not to let Jonathan, aged seven, lose the Latin he had already learned by heart, suggesting that she have him “say pretty often” to the girls from the Latin Accidence and both sides of “propria Quae moribus,” and also that he help his younger sisters to read as far as he had learned. More than economy of effort for the teacher was back of this law of the Edwards schoolroom, by which the older child taught the younger. Timothy Edwards knew that, by the time the young Latinist had said “pretty often” to one group and heard “pretty often” the “sayings” of another group, he would have the Latin Accidence and both sides of “propria Quae moribus” for life; and to learn them less permanently was not to learn them at all.
His parent-teacher could hardly have been one whose teaching brought joy of the vision or made discipline seem more than an end in itself; but by his tireless persistence, which brooked no indolence and no half-knowledge, Timothy Edwards fortified his son for life against textual errors, major and minor, and made thoroughness one of the ten commandments. Unlike the tutor of Cotton Mather he did not encourage his pupils to compose poems of devotion in the tongues they were set to master. He preferred that they be letter-perfect in their verbs. Jonathan Edwards accepted his father’s standard when he was too young to question it, and several years later, when the unlucky “Stiles” who was also a “parlor” product could not tell the “Preteritum of Requiesco” in a Yale examination, Jonathan shared his father’s humiliation. The fact that Stiles committed no error in Tully’s Orations, which “he had never Construed before he came to Newhaven, nor in any other Book whether Latin, Greek or Hebrew,” would seem to a modern college board examiner something of an extenuating circumstance, if indeed he could believe the sight of his eyes; but not to Timothy Edwards. No wonder Harvard and Yale were glad to accept his pupils. The lesson of strict accuracy was perhaps the most valuable lesson which Jonathan Edwards learned in the East Windsor schoolroom, along with his own unforgettable preterits.
Parental discipline was not limited to schoolroom exercises. The other minutiae of daily life were likewise under a supervision all but omniscient though never harsh, and filial obedience was the first law of the household. Timothy Edwards’ elaborate catalogues of instruction, written on march and sent back to his partner in authority, re-create more fully than it has been elsewhere preserved the panorama of parsonage life as it was lived under the watchful eyes of the heads of the house. These letters are therefore an, important part of Jonathan Edwards’ childhood story. Written in homesick mood, they constitute a kind of last will and testament of affection to those Timothy Edwards had left behind and might not see again. In the light of his phrase “If I Live to come home,” his exaggerated worries become understandable. As he called up the familiar round, his homesickness took the form of imagined disaster for each child of the flock. In his absence something might go wrong. Hence the pyramid of hypothetical woes and multiple cautions which, taken out of their emotional context, appear almost ludicrous.
The letter of August 7 is the richest in household detail. It is also a strange medley and a revealing glimpse into a man’s mind. See Letter
If the legend of Esther Edwards’ strong-mindedness be true, these marginal additions must have somewhat mitigated her joy in the pleasure her letter had given. For one of her instincts and her breeding to be reminded of what she could not possibly forget — her children’s safety, and, on one later occasion, her manners — would seem to have been a severe strain on her Christian forbearance.
In these multiple admonitions Timothy Edwards sat for his own mental portrait. Like his son he had the kind of mind which visualizes its concepts, an excellent kind of mind to possess if one would be a preacher of the Last Judgment, but requiring sterner terrors than scalding whey, flying chips, and neglected medicine to summon its powers appropriately. The son’s resources of imagination were, by contrast, reserved for the agonized suspense of the final day and, the subsequent tortures of the damned, not unleashed to conjure up minor injuries to the children around the kitchen stove. As he lays bare his characteristic ways of thought in these intimate letters Timothy Edwards shows himself to be a man careful and troubled about many things, one who forgot nothing and yet assumed that everyone else forgot everything continually, one who busied himself unnecessarily with the obligations of others and half enjoyed the self-imposed burden of details innumerable. In all these counsels, which by long habit he usually delivered in the negative, there is not the slightest hint of a peevish or unpleasant spirit. He merely could not help thinking for everyone else and compiling ubiquitous lists of tasks to be done, with all conceivable hazards present to his mind at every turn.
Instead of quieting childish fears he raised them, as though parental guidance consisted in advance notice of potential disaster. A letter written to his daughter Mary when she was attending school in Hatfield, begins with cautions against wet feet and going “too thin to meeting,” proceeds through warnings against losing her good name (especially since she is a woman), and ends with an injunction to remember she has an immortal soul lodged in a frail mortal body. This letter might well stand as a father’s legacy to his daughter in the days when one was permitted to live in order to get ready to die.
Such counsels were by no means unique. Children of Jonathan Edwards’ generation, who were not sons and daughters of ministers, were made to live in the ever present consciousness of death. Every Sunday might be the last. Every parting was for eternity. Newspaper accounts of accident were invariably framed to suggest that no one dare boast himself of tomorrow. It was as though life were indeed lived in the formula of the Middle Ages: “What is this our life but a march toward death?” Children might as well learn it early as late. The chance legend
REMEMBER YOU WAS BORN TO DIE
surviving as a child’s copy on the flyleaf of an old almanac, and painstakingly scrawled nine times down the page, was no morbid reflection. It was merely the inevitable truth brought home afresh with each new onslaught of pestilence or other disaster, born of isolation and man’s impotence.
Jonathan Edwards like other children of his day grew up with this as a settled conviction, although his own childhood was singularly protected from loss of those near him. Almost phenomenally the Edwards family circle remained unbroken for thirty-five years, and when Sister Jerusha died in 1729, aged twenty, Jonathan Edwards was a man grown and had been away from East Windsor for thirteen years. This unusual record, be it said in all fairness, may have owed something to Timothy Edwards’ tiresome vigilance, and that vigilance in turn may have owed something to the supposed mythology of his own boyhood, reputed to have been a succession of remarkable deliverances from drownings, freezings, scaldings, killing of playmates, and swallowing of peach stones. If these tales be not the sheerest invention memory doubtless aided imagination whenever he saw his own children set foot in a rocking boat or ride away on horseback.
The potential naughtiness of Jonathan, mentioned in the Albany letter, may have been only another parental chimera, although allusion to the late conference on the subject suggests that, thanks to Tim the chore boy, Jonathan, aged seven, may have manifested symptoms of taint. One hopes so, since his story includes all too few hints of a childlike childhood. East Windsor would have had its corrupting influences of course, like all towns small and large; but by comparison with less remote communities these would certainly have been less numerous. Samuel Hopkins, born in 1721, made the astonishing statement that up to his fifteenth year he had never heard a profane word from any of the children with whom he grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut. The answer is of course that he had not been listening for profanity. His ears were stopped against all sinful matter because his head was full of something else. Jonathan Edwards at no time in his life was given to such impressive personal statements, but he too had been protected in childhood by the strength of his impulses in the opposite direction. From his birth he had lived in an atmosphere of respect for all things holy and had deep concern for the exercises of piety after the earlier American pattern. Until he rationalized and justified these attitudes by his own thought he accepted them as unquestioningly as he accepted the sunrise and the seasons.
It is in the light of such boyhood training that his later guidance of the Northampton boys and girls must be judged. Playing leapfrog in the parsonage yard while they waited their turn to be reproved by the minister was a gigantic impropriety in comparison with his own boyhood standard. Had he or any one of the Stoughton boys felt inclinations toward such blasphemous behavior they would not have dared indulge them in the very shadow of the meetinghouse turret. Satan would have been too much pleased.
Of Jonathan Edwards’ earliest religious experiences there is no contemporary record; only his own later allusion to his first “awakening” which, as he wrote, took place “some years before I went to college,” and the well-known detail of the booth in the swamp, belonging to the same period. This may have been at any time from his eighth to his tenth year, for Timothy Edwards was having annual revivals during that period. Looked back upon, this first awakening did not seem to him a profound experience. It was rather a greatly quickened delight in the outward duties of religion which he had been performing all his life, but in which he now took intense new pleasure. The building of the booth in the swamp was a group response to the same quickening of religious interest and is not so strange as it has sometimes seemed to later generations. In part a boy enterprise, interesting in the doing, and in part imitation of adult action during a revival season, it probably surprised none of the parents whose sons were associated in the scheme. In a sense the boys who went to the booth to pray and to talk about their own salvation were playing at religion, as children of a later generation played at vast Tory and Continental hatreds, and re-enacted the drama of adult action. The significant detail in this episode for the understanding of Jonathan Edwards is that praying with his companions did not satisfy him. Even as a child he felt religion as too personal an experience to be shared so intimately; hence, unknown to his companions, he had his own place of secret prayer deeper in the woods. This was years before his mind acknowledged that religion must be an individual experience, else it was nothing; but even as a child he felt it so, and in this solitary quest was responding to the deepest instinct of his nature. Going back and forth to the meetinghouse, keeping the Sabbath as the son of Timothy Edwards was expected to it — these things were not enough. Religion was more than the mere observances of it. What it was, he could not have said, except that his mind was “deeply engaged in it” and no other delights were comparable.
There is not the slightest suggestion that either at this time or at any time later in his life he courted austerity for its own sake, or that in his solitary devotions he sought deliberately to mortify the flesh in order to develop the spirit. Always his mind was on the end, not the means, and the discipline itself was of so little importance that he was usually oblivious of it. Moreover, at this time, going to the woods to pray was something of a practical necessity in a household so numerous that privacy was all but impossible at any hour in the twenty-four. In addition to the Edwards flock guests were frequent, sometimes staying for weeks and paying board as was the custom. Some of Timothy Edwards’ pupils from other towns also lived at the parsonage. One wonders how or where. Certainly there must have been times when, between parental supervision, sisterly criticism, and the presence of perhaps twenty persons under one sloping roof, those “little nervous strings” which, according to Jonathan Edwards’ boyhood reasoning, proceed from the “soul in the brain” must at least have been “jarred” by these external things. For one to whom solitude was an unquestioned necessity, to be obliged — not only in his boyhood but throughout his life — to live in houses which were more like hostelries than private dwellings seems unkindness indeed.
Particularly in connection with these earliest religious experiences one would like to know more than the records tell of his relation to his mother Esther Edwards. No letters to her or from her are extant for any time in his life. She takes on individuality only in his father’s numerous epistles filled with everyday details testifying to her resourcefulness in the minor crises of frontier life, and to her unsparing vigilance as she nursed one after another of them through serious illnesses. “We find your absence, (especially So Long) makes a great empty place in the house,” he wrote on one occasion. One might think it would. She was the shadow of a great rock to them all. Did she, in addition to her practical gifts, her intellectual vigor and zeal in good works, have also an understanding of her son’s deeply spiritual nature, his sensitive approach to religious experience? There is no recorded answer to these questions. An unauthenticated tradition that during one of her husband’s revivals she made public profession of conversion would certainly suggest, if true, that she had not only the courage of her convictions in a difficult test but also a capacity for religious emotion which might have given her a sympathetic understanding of his young ecstasies; but, if so, the evidence does not appear. He spoke freely of his experiences to his father, but there is no record that he confided them also to his mother. She lives only in the filial idiom “Remember my Duty to my honored Mother” unfailingly included in his letters to his father.
The fact that Sister Jerusha, six years younger than Jonathan, was also given to solitary walks and prolonged devotions, with corresponding abhorrence of “froth and levity in conversation” and delight in weighty discourses, particularly books of divinity, may mean that she was consciously or unconsciously imitating him, or more probably that something in their joint heritage prompted these similar yearnings and in a sense unfitted them both to live in the world as they found it. In Jerusha there is no hint of mystical raptures. She was merely engaging in devotions, with more than a hint of childish asceticism in the manner of them. It was her custom on Saturday nights to stay up later than the rest of the family, in preparation for the Sabbath, and in the morning to walk alone to the house of God in solemn meditation. When she returned from the afternoon service, if the weather were not too severely cold, she diligently improved the remainder of the holy day in an unheated upper room, as the saying was, “filling in all the chinks of the Lord’s day with useful thoughts.” When she attended any merry meeting of young people she took no part in the merriment, but instead sat on “one side of ye Company with some person who would entertain her upon some sollid and profitable subject.” Not that she was an “enemy to something of innocent Jesting,” her sisters protested; she merely chose to use her wit as sauce, thinking it “very improper food, for ye soul.”
Even after allowance is made for sisterly overstatement, this picture of Jerusha Edwards with her beautiful countenance, her blameless life, and “Quiet Virtue” has its ludicrous side, even for a sister’s daughter in a godly age. Her extravagant pieties, however modestly she attempted to hide them, must have made her something of a village oddity and none too welcome at the merry meetings she rebuked by her soberness. She judged by a standard too high for weekday living, yet thought it her duty, for the good of others, to speak her criticism frankly. When on one occasion she so far overshot the mark as to attempt to improve the virtue of her sweetheart and “preserve him against ye infection of vice” by telling him what was wrong with his behavior, the sally cost her a budding romance. But she had done her duty as she saw it and in the sequel bore herself like a true Edwards, her calm unruffled by the ferment of gossip which ensued. So great was her personal triumph (so said her sisters) that she took no pains to contradict the story that he had jilted her but went serenely to meeting, all eyes upon her. Such was the Edwards code.
With all his flat-footed good sense Timothy Edwards applauded these unyouthful rigidities. He was, in fact, responsible for most of them. Jerusha was the eloquent embodiment of the Christian virtues he preached; only, being her father’s child, she had taken them somewhat too literally. Had she lived, her wit might have helped her to attain a better balance, but she was denied the chance. Even before her death she seems to have been all but canonized in the Edwards household where she lived with her sisters “in love not unlike to yt which is in ye heavenly regions.”
Had Jerusha been nearer to him in age Jonathan Edwards might have found much in common with her; but when he left home for college she was a child of six, whom he was to know later only in brief vacations. It was to his practical sister Mary, two years older than himself, that he turned for companionship through all his young life. When she went away to school in Hatfield he sent her the family news; and when later he went away to Yale College she did the same for him. These letters tell a story of affectionate comradeship and mutual dependence pleasant to read. It was to Mary that his first extant letter, written when he was twelve years old, was sent. In the news of the revival with which he begins, he talks more like a deacon than a twelve-year-old boy; but with his own awakening behind him he was already on the side of the pulpit and yearning toward the unconverted. By his twelfth year, also, he had learned the formalities of polite correspondence, and out of respect for a missive which must be carried by hand (sometimes by several hands) he did not fill his pages with light matter but appropriately subordinated the trivialities of chickenpox and toothache to lists of the newly converted and the newly dead. He wrote in a neat hand and made the customary epistolary flourishes. The letter reveals much as to his childhood background of thought and his standards of value. See Letter
It is plain to see that already the meetinghouse had first place in all his boyhood plan of life. It was his one extramural interest, his larger world. He saw the whole drama of village life from the angle of the parsonage and the pulpit. East Windsor was a parish, a little corner of the Lord’s vineyard, not a center of secular interests. What he knew of the world outside the town limits came chiefly from visiting clergymen who brought news of the Lord’s work in other corners of the same vineyard. The ministerial language of the hour was as natural an idiom to him as the language he spoke in the schoolroom. Likewise the pulpit controversies of the hour: the Halfway Covenant and Grandfather Stoddard’s bitterly opposed amendment thereto, the old and the new way of singing in the churches — all this was familiar territory in his thought.
When East Windsor had its own village quarrel over where to set the new meetinghouse, it is safe to imagine that he listened to the long and bitter arguments detailed in nightly sessions at the parsonage, had his own opinion on the subject, discussed it with his father and was respectfully heard, and that when the church finally voted to rebuild on the old site (the usual decision after the peace of a village had been sadly frayed) he was one of those present at the demolition of the old structure and thereafter watched week by week the new meetinghouse take shape under parish labor. It would have been an absorbing drama more intensely personal to him than to the other village boys, a major event from which to date his own smaller concerns. Before the still greater village excitement of “dignifying the seats” came to pass he was a student at Wethersfield and for the first time in his life met with new scenes, new thoughts, and new ways of thinking them.
Childhood ended for Jonathan Edwards just before his thirteenth birthday. He had recited his last lesson in the “parlor” and was now ready for college. These first thirteen years had determined many things: his sober view of life, his reflective bent, his refinement of self-discipline, his pursuit of religion as the unquestioned goal of life. To some extent his mind was already his servant; he could think for himself. He had learned the benediction of solitude amid the quiet beauty of woods and fields. His calling was a straight path before him. The foundations of a deep understanding sympathy had been laid with the man who was to mean more to him throughout his life than any other human being he was ever to know — Timothy Edwards, his own father. Poles apart in temperament, in natural endowment, and in ways of thought, father and son were to enjoy for life a rare fellowship.
Outwardly, there would not be much change in the look of life. College would mean no quadrangles, no spires and deep-toned bells. Matriculation day to Jonathan Edwards meant merely exchanging a schoolroom in one Connecticut farmhouse for a similar room in another, slightly more pretentious. He was not even to be taught by strangers. His own cousin Elisha Williams, nine years his senior, was to be his tutor. In such terms the distance between life as it had been and life as it was to be does not seem very great; but to Jonathan Edwards, as to any child standing on the threshold of independence, it was a chasm. In the fall of 1716, just before his thirteenth birthday, he took horse and rode away to Yale College, leaving his childhood behind him.
Consider the following two works by Edwards that have been updated and republished for easy reading:
Ripe for Damnation: Sermons on the Book of Revelation – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Are you hungry for more of Edwards’ sermons? On the book of Revelation? These new works are not found anywhere on A Puritan’s Mind, and there are new ones not found in his large 2 volume works. 4 deal with the plight of the wicked, and 2 deal with the bliss of saints in heaven. These sermons are powerful, practical, and biblical, glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, and contain 2 never before published sermons.
Justification by Faith Alone – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). In this classic work, Edwards covers the intricacies of how believers are made righteous only through Christ’s merits, and that this justifying righteousness is equally imputed to all elect believers. This is accomplished by the condition of faith as an instrument.