The Life of Sarah Edwards
There are few couples in the history of America who have had as beautiful and influential a marriage as that of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. He is still renowned as one of the foremost theologians and preachers of his day, and widely respected as a leader in the Great Awakening that lasted for around thirty years during the seventeen hundreds. His works are still read and referenced by leading ministers today, with hundreds of sermons and essays being still intact. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," "Religious Affections," and "An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity" are all considered masterful treatises in their own rite.
But such a great man is not complete without a woman behind him, and Sarah Pierpont was the perfect woman to complete Jonathan Edwards as a man and minister. Though not as well remembered as her husband, his writings as well as those of her children and friends tell us a great deal about this extraordinary woman.
Sarah as a Young Girl
Little is know about Sarah Edwards' early life except that she was born in 1710 to James Pierpont, one of the foremost founders of Yale. Even as a young girl she was noted for her piety, and years before her marriage to Jonathan Edwards, when she was only thirteen, he said this of her:
“They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is loved of that Great Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight; and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on Him…You could not persuade her to do any thing wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this Great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and universal benevolence of mind; especially after this Great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure…She loves to be alone... and seems to have some one invisible always conversing with her.”
At the age of seventeen she was married to Jonathan, the same year that he was ordained as a minister. They were of very different personalities; he was scholarly and introverted, and she outgoing and loved being with other people. But they both had the same love for God, and together made a remarkable household.
An Uncommon Union: Sarah Edwards As A Wife
Upon marrying Jonathan, Sarah moved to his home in Northamption, Massachusetts where he worked as his grandfather's assistant in the parish. Solomon Stoddard was renowned as a preacher, and upon his death in February of 1729 left his grandson the largest, wealthiest, and most reputable congregation in Massachusetts colony.
It was here that they were part of the Great Awakening, a revival that began in Jonathan's parish and spread to the surrounding region. Sarah herself professed that during this time she was "under an uncommon discovery of God’s excellency, and in a high exercise of love to God, and of rest and joy in him, to make a new and most solemn dedication of herself to his service and glory... After this, she had often such views of the glory of the Divine perfections, and of Christ’s excellencies, and at times... that she was overwhelmed, and as it were swallowed up, in the light and joy of the love of God.”
But at the same time, with a husband that spent up to thirteen hours a day in study and was known for being absent-minded in practical affairs, it was necessary for Sarah to manage her household. This was no small feat for a woman who raised three sons and eight daughters as well as constantly entertaining guests, both great and humble. George Whitfield, another great preacher who was often in the Edwards home, remarked that he had never seen a sweeter couple than the Edwards, and stated that knowing Sarah caused 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." He also noted that she was "adorned with a meek and quiet spirit," yet as an intelligent, capable woman was able to talk "solidly of the things of God, and seemed to be such a helpmeet for her husband."
A rare trait that was found in the marriage of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards was how he valued her as an intelligent woman. She had been well educated and their daughters were also well taught, and as such she was able to not only manage his practical affairs but help him in his duties as a minister.
There was another bond beyond the strength of a loving marriage. Sarah and Jonathan were brothers and sisters in Christ, heirs to the same heavenly kingdom, and this was more to them than any earthly affections.
In 1758 Jonathan Edwards was offered the position of president of Princeton University. which he accepted. He traveled to New Jersey and was instated on February 16th while Sarah stayed behind with their recently widowed daughter, Esther Edwards Burr (mother of Aaron Burr). In March, Jonathan contracted smallpox from an inoculation, leading to his death on the 22nd, with Sarah still in Massachusetts. On his deathbed, he gave his daughter Lucy the following words for his wife:
"[G]ive 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."
Upon hearing of Jonathan's death, Sarah wrote this to her daughter: "O my very Dear Child, What shall I say. A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may all 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." Even in the worst trial of her life, Sarah Edwards was submissive to the will of God and blessed Him in it all.
The heart was swallowed up in a kind of glow of Christ's love coming down as a constant stream of sweet light, at the same time the soul all flowing out in love to him; so that there seemed to be a constant flowing and reflowing from heart to heart. The soul dwelt on high, was lost in God and seemed almost to leave the body-- Jonathan Edwards on his wife Sarah
The Soul Lost in God: Sarah Edwards' Christianity
I've mentioned that Jonathan Edwards saw the depth of Sarah's love for God even when she was very young, and this love was not a passing fancy. Throughout her life that love grew stronger and became her sustaining power. Her husband wrote of a time at which her strengthin Christ grew stronger, saying that "[Her] heart was swallowed up in a kind of glow of Christ's love coming down as a constant stream of sweet light, at the same time the soul all flowing out in love to him; so that there seemed to be a constant flowing and reflowing from heart to heart. The sould dwelt on high, was lost in God and seemed almost to leave the body."
However, even such a godly woman had her struggles; not even the strongest of Christians are ever free from the effects of sin here on earth. When Sarah professed a kind of spiritual rebirth during the second Great Awakening in 1742, she was still compelled to admit that she struggled with her sin, most specifically a desire to have "[m]y own good name and fair reputation among men, and especially the esteem and just treatment of the people of this town; 2dly. And more especially, the esteem and love, and kind treatment of my husband." While these may seem like natural and even laudable tendencies, Sarah was well aware that they drew her away from the glory of God and led her to place too great a value on earthly desires and affections. Jonathan, though loving and highly respecting his wife, was not blind to her faults, and said that she had "been subject to unsteadiness, and many ups and downs, in the frame of mind, being under great disadvantages, through a vaporous habit of body, and often subject to melancholy, and at times almost over-borne with it." This lack of emotional strength led to many fears, including the dread of success for other ministers besides her husband. When a Reverend Buell came to fill Jonathan's pulpit when he was travelling, Sarah was worried that he would be more favored and accepted by the congregation than Jonathan's work was.
But in a human's greatest weakness, God is proven sufficient. Sarah Edwards gives an example of this when she said of Reverend Buell's visit "I had to bless God, for the use he had made of Mr. Edwards hitherto; but thought, if He never blessed his labors any more, and should greatly bless the labours of other ministers, I could entirely acquiesce to His will" and when Mr. Buell was blessed in his ministry, she was able to profess that "The sweet language of my soul continually was 'Amen, Lord Jesus! Amen Lord Jesus!'"
The Legacy of Sarah Edwards
It is a well known fact that a mother is very influential in the lives of her children, and therefore in the generations that follow. Sarah Edwards was noted for her effective and godly methods both by her children and those who visited her home. Samuel Hopkins wrote that her discipleship and training was such that would "promote a filial respect and affection, and to lead them to a mild tender treatment of each other. Quarreling and contention, which too frequently take place among children, were in her family unknown." It was said that "She seldom punished them, and in... gentle and pleasant words. When she had occasion to reprove... she would do it in a few words, without warmth and noise, and with all calmness and gentleness of mind... she would address herself to the reason of her children, that the might not only know her inclination and will, but at the same time be convinced of the reasonableness of it." With such a mother is it any wonder that all of her children grew to love God and want to serve him? All ten out of her eleven sons and daughters who grew to adulthood, and Jerusha, who died at the age of sixteen, were all noted for being extremely intelligent and strong in character.
The descendants of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards have an impressive number of notables among them. In 1900 A.E. Winship studied their descendants, and among the 1,400 of them, he found that they numbered at least seventy-eight college professors and college presidents, over a hundred lawyers and law school deans, three Senators, three mayors and governors, a Vice-President and head of the Treasury.
It's remarkable to see what a godly life, lived to the fullest can do to influence not only one's immediate acquaintance but generations to come. In fact, towards the end of their lives, Jonathan and Sarah were rejected by their congregation for taking a stand on principle and truth. They were impoverished, and when Sarah died six weeks after Jonathan they left behind six children who were still dependent on them, the youngest being eight year old. They could never have imagined that they would affect the lives of millions, both their physical and spiritual descendants.