Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Memorial to Jonathan Edwards

by Andy Efting

In September of 1757, the College of New Jersey, recently relocated from Newark to Princeton, suffered a dual blow. First, its founder, New Jersey Governor Jonathan Belcher, and then its young president, Aaron Burr, both died within weeks of each other. Burr actually managed to preach the eulogy at Belcher’s funeral before dying himself just three weeks later from malaria. The trustees at Princeton had a crisis on their hands and turned to Burr’s father-in-law, Jonathan Edwards, to help steady the school. After much cajoling, Edwards finally relented and accepted the presidency of the school.

Edwards formally became president on February 16, 1758. While he was in Princeton assuming his duties, his wife and family were back in Stockbridge, MA, not planning to move until sometime later that spring. In preparation for their move and with the desire to protect them from an outbreak of small pox that had occurred in the Princeton area, Edwards decided to take the still experimental inoculation for that disease. Tragically, his recovery from that vaccination did not go well. He contracted a small pox infection in his throat and mouth that quickly led to his death on March 22, 1758, just weeks after assuming his new position. He was only 54 years old.

George Marsden shares Edwards’ reaction when he knew the end was near:

When he realized that he would not survive, he called his daughter Lucy [the widow of Aaron Burr], who was attending him, and said (in words she almost immediately wrote down):

“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 like to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father, who will never fail you.[1]

Sarah, his wife, responded with a remarkable contentment to the will of God. In a letter written to her daughter Esther, she wrote:

O My Very Dear Child,

What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. Oh that we may kiss the rod [of reproof], 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. Oh 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.

Sarah Edwards[2]

This touching exchange, though not technically between each other, shows in Edward’s words, the “uncommon union” that these two possessed both in their marriage and in their relationship to the Lord. Several years earlier, the then bachelor George Whitefield had observed their marriage and on reflection proclaimed that “a sweeter couple I have not yet seen.” That visit encouraged him “to renew those prayers, which for some months, I have put up to God, that He would be pleased to send me a daughter of Abraham to be my wife.”

So, while their deaths were tragic, and one can only bemoan the incalculable loss that the church suffered with the early death of such a profound thinker and theologian, we can be thankful for their godly example and remarkable legacy, both in the lives that they touched personally and through the enduring works and sermons of Mr. Edwards.


[1] George Marsden. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 494.

[2] Ibid., p. 495.

For further reading:
  • Elisabeth D. Dodds. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Laurel, MS: Audubon Press, 2003. (CBD | Amazon)
  • George M. Marsden. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2003. (WTS | CBD | Amazon)
  • Iain H. Murray. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987. (WTS | CBD | Amazon)
  • John Piper. God's Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998. (WTS | CBD | Amazon)