Known as the first major philosopher in the American colonies Jonathan
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Known as the first major philosopher in the American colonies, Jonathan Edwards is remembered today principally as the author of many great sermons. Born in 1703, eighty years after the Puritans landed in New England, Edwards stood between Puritan America and modern America. He was said to be a brilliant, thoughtful, and complicated man.
Edwards succeeded his grandfather Solomon Stoddard. He was the pastor of the congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. Stoddard was so powerful a figure in religious affairs that he was known as the "Pope of the Connecticut Valley." Jonathan's abilities as a speaker were recognized in his early teens. He entered Yale when he was thirteen. A few years later he was made senior tutor of the college. In 1726, At the age of twenty-three, he became his grandfather's co-pastor. When Stoddard died three years later, his grandson took his position. At the age of twenty-four, he married Sarah Pierrepont who was seventeen. He found her when she was thirteen and decided that he liked her calmness and strong religious beliefs. They had a daughter, Esther, who died in 1755 when she was only twenty-three. Her son, Aaron Burr, became the Vice President of the United States.
Edward was a strong willed pastor. His presence and brilliant sermons helped to bring about the religious revival known as the "Great Awakening". He drew such graphic pictures of the hell awaiting them that the people began to frantically prepare for the conversion experience by which they would be "born again". Edwards first published revival narrative, Faithful Narrative of the Surprizing Work of God, described his town awakening. Although it was written in 1736 it is still referred to today. In 1739 these "brushfires of evangelicalism" began to spread. Separate local revivals and new leaders began to form. It took about fifteen years to spread throughout the Eastern Seaboard. This Great Awakening spread from "congregation to congregation". It was so intensely discussed that some conversations would end in mass hysteria.
During this period there was a drastic decline in the enthusiasm for the old Puritan religion. Churches began accepting "unsaved" Christians. These were people that accepted the church doctrine and lived appropriately but had not confessed to being "born again" in God's grace. In Edwards's sermons, his goal was to make these "sinners" understand the dangerousness of their situation. He did this by helping them feel the horror of their sinful state.
In 1741, Edwards delivered his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". It was given at Enfield, Massachusetts. His methods in this sermon are said to have been influenced by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke believed that everything we know comes from experience. He emphasized that understanding and feeling were two distinct kinds of knowledge. Although Edwards read his sermon in a calm and straightforward manner, it had such a powerful effect on the congregation that he had to ask for quiet several times. In this sermon Edwards uses many metaphors. He refers to God as he is holding the sinners over a pit (of hell) as one would hold a spider. He says that God's wrath toward the sinner burns like a hungry fire. "The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood," Edwards uses this line as a threat. He would tell them that whatever they did wasn't enough to be saved. He would say that the "door of mercy is wide open." He wanted people to feel the truth of his statements as a direst experience. Jonathan also wanted everyone to experience eternity. Although Edwards warnings sounded harsh, the Puritans had a vivid sense of "divine wrath and unwavering belief" in the sinfulness of the human race.
Edwards was split between two ages: the modern world, and the religious world. He could draw on the ideas of philosophers but he used these ideas to make a vision for the older Puritans. "Reason and observation" proved Edwards's vision of a world/universe filled with the presence of God. His sense of God was
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