Kate Janke and Karen Johnson (the KJ's)

Prof. Westblade

18th Century Theology

6 October 2003


The Affections of Sarah Edwards


            During the mid-18th century, New Englanders, especially the clergy, passionately debated the topic of religious emotions- what Jonathan Edwards termed "affections."  With the First Great Awakening in 1736, religious revivals stirred the people's affections towards a deeper communion with the invisible God, but with the Second Great Awakening in 1741, emotions raged to a feverish pitch, causing turbulent repercussions for many years. In the midst of this religious crisis, Sarah Edwards experienced her own emotional turmoil. Sarah is usually thought of as a bastion of strong godly womanhood, yet she faced both the internal and external struggles of the Christian life, to a degree far surpassing that of modern-day evangelicals. Though few biographers of Sarah would dispute the reality of struggle in the Christian walk, some question the spirituality of her fluctuating emotions, especially during her singular instance of depression followed by rapture in 1742.

It is not surprising that one naturally views Sarah as stable and pious; she received high praise from her prodigious husband, as well as that of other prominent Puritans such as George Whitefield and Samuel Hopkins. Almost from their first meeting, Jonathan thought her an exceedingly virtuous woman. He daydreamed about her frequently; a margin of his Greek grammar textbook reads:

&if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind and sweetness of temper, uncommon purity in her affections; is most just and praiseworthy in all her actions; and you could not persuade her to do anything thought wrong or sinful if you would give her all the world &. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and universal benevolence of mind &.[1]


Already at age thirteen Jonathan saw in Sarah an ideal of Christian femininity. Indeed Edwards presents her as almost angelic, untouched by the mire of human depravity. Some years later his praise of her continued in his Thoughts on the Revival. In an implicit description of her renewed passion for Christ, he writes:

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.[2]


            Jonathan was not alone in his reflections. Sarah's character also impressed George Whitefield, who wrote:

Mrs. Edwards is adorned with a meek and quiet spirit; she talked solidly of the things of God, and seemed to be such a helpmeet for her husband, that she caused me 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.[3]


Samuel Hopkins greatly admired her as well. In addition to confiding in her as a spiritual comforter, he devoted a section of his biographical memoir to his high esteem of her. He praised nearly every aspect of her character as a wife, mother, and homemaker. In her book Marriage to a Difficult Man, Elizabeth Dodds writes extensively on Sarah's ability to conform to her husband's every wish, patiently bearing his oddities and internal upheavals. Her manner of child-rearing was exceedingly balanced; she was both rigidly stern and lovingly tender.[4] Her method tended to "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,  writes Hopkins."[5] She also consistently prayed over each of her children.

Moreover, Sarah's hospitality proved to be most gracious. As a minister's wife, she was expected to receive any travelers into her home. Due to Jonathan's stringent devotion to his ministerial work, Sarah found herself concerned with the bustle of eleven children, friends and strangers, and the daily routine of household management. Also as a pastor's wife, she felt much pressure from the community to excel in virtue and piety. Her seat at church faced the congregation, where she was exposed to the scrutiny of everyone. As finances tightened in 1744 due to a dispute over the minister's salary, Sarah asked for the payment of over-due money but received the townspeople's criticism instead. Though the Edwardses did indulge their aristocratic tastes in a few trifles such as china teacups and a golden locket and chain, Sarah displayed a propensity towards modest embellishments of simple chores. She creatively performed "ordinary tasks with flair  by adorning dinner plates with decorative garnishes or adding a designer's stamp to enhance a block of butter."[6]

            Despite this beautiful portrait of Sarah drawn by those who knew her best, more seethed beneath her calm exterior than is evident at a superficial glance. Sarah herself admitted to a terrible temptation towards the fear of man. In an account of her 1742 rapture, she writes of two fleshly desires that distracted her devotion to God: "1st. My 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." [7] Although he extolled Sarah's merits, Jonathan was not ignorant of her faults. After several years of marriage, Jonathan wrote 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, it having been so even from early youth." [8]

            During her 1742 experience, when the inconstancy of her affections tossed her to and fro, her vaporous habit of body  seems to have gotten the best of her. Her strength frequently failed her completely, and at other times she leapt and shouted for joy. She even expressed surprise that her soul did not spring from her body, ascending to the heavens. At times Sarah sensed the piercing eye of God upon her, causing her to feel a deep oppression of spirit. Jonathan observed in her "[a]n extraordinary sense of the awful majesty, greatness, and holiness of God, so as sometimes to overwhelm soul and body." [9] In her chapter "To the Breaking Point and Back,"  Dodds describes this as a meltdown. "Here we don't like her at all. The serene mother becomes limply needful. The patient wife comes to the end of her patience. The attractive hostess becomes grotesque – jabbering, hallucinating, idiotically fainting. We are embarrassed for her." [10]

            Her husband felt no embarrassment at all; on the contrary, he wrote a glowing defense of her experience and of Christian affections in general in Thoughts Concerning the Revival and his Treatise on Religious Affections. As a New Light in favor of the 1742 revivals, he maintained that "[t]rue religion, in great part, consists in holy affections."  Affections, as he defined them, are deeper than mere feelings; they imply "vigorous lively actions of the will or inclinations." [11] Both Sarah and Jonathan write of her profound attraction and longing for Christ. Jonathan founded his arguments on Scripture, which commands that Christians seek and cultivate such affections as desire, joy, love, and fear. Psalm 37:4 reads, Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart,  and Philippians 4:4, Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Jesus also condemned unfeeling hearts in Matthew 15:8-9: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.  Moreover, Edwards warns against rash judgment of strange manifestations of emotion. He quotes John 3:8, The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thoh hearest the sound thereof; but canst not tell whence it cometh, and wither it goeth." [12] Further on he sites many verses regarding the workings of the Holy Spirit and concludes, "[s]o the Spirit is represented by a mighty wind, and by fire, things most powerful in their operations." [13] He goes so far as to rebuke those in opposition to radical displays of affection. "God at such a time appears in peculiar manifestations of his glory; and therefore, not to be affected and animated, and to lie still, and refuse to follow God, will be resented as a high contempt of him."[14] Thus Sarah's outbursts of rapture gain a great deal of legitimacy.

            Nevertheless, these emotions might yet be construed as the wild passions of an unstable mind, were it not for a lasting transformation of her thoughts and deeds. She acquired a renewed resolve to carry on the daily household duties in increased love and humility. She also "felt a far greater love to the children of God, than ever before. I seemed to love them as my own soul; and when I saw them, my heart went out towards them, with an inexpressible endearedness and sweetness." [15] Jonathan adds that she had a "peculiar aversion to judging other professing Christians of good standing in the visible church." [16] The significance of these convictions becomes clear when contrasted with the disruptive behavior of those experiencing such spiritual upheavals at that time. Because there were such sharp disagreements regarding the role of religious affection in the Christian life, schisms between Old lights and New Lights ran rampant. In his biography of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden writes, "Now the clergy were so much at each other's throats that laymen on both sides felt free to condemn their ministerial 'superiors.'" [17] While Jonathan encouraged the affections themselves, he abhorred their divisive tendencies.

            Perhaps most importantly, Sarah's ecstasy led her to a more earnest striving against her own sin, as well as to the conquering of it. She writes, "I never felt such an entire emptiness of self-love, or any regard to any private, selfish interest of my own. It seemed to me, that I had entirely done with myself."  Through the workings of the Holy Spirit, her greatest victory lay in the defeat of her fear of man. She continues, "I felt that the opinions of the world concerning me were nothing, and that I had no more to do with any outward initerest of my own, than with that of a person whom I never saw. The glory of God seemed to be all, and in all, and to swallow up every wish and desire of my heart." [18] Concerning her need for Jonathan's approval, Marsden quotes a passage originally edited out, in which she triumphs over this sin as well:

… & as I had thought before of Mr. Edwards's kicking me out of the house and finally casting me off, now I put it to myself how I could bear from him the worst treatment of me at home and thought that if he should turn to be the most cruel to me and should horsewhip me every day I would still rest [in] God that it would not touch [my heart] or diminish my happiness. [19]


In understanding Sarah Edwards, one must grasp something of the paradoxical nature of Christianity. She was indeed cast from the depths of spiritual anguish to the heights of heavenly joy, but such is the reality we must face in a wickedly depraved body inhabited by the Holy Spirit. Jonathan writes:

& this may be laid down as an infallible thing, That the person who is apt to think that he, as compared with others, is a very eminent saint, mush distinguished in Christian experience, in whom this is a first thought, that rises of itself, and naturally offers itself; he is certainly mistaken; he is no eminent saint; but under the great prevailings of a proud and self-righteous spirit.[20]


Sarah certainly comprehended the weight of her sin, but her deep joy in God arose from her equally deep confidence in Christ. Her favorite verse, Romans 8:35, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  provided a sure foundation for her to stand upon in the midst of emotional turmoil. This assurance was the seed of her raptures; however turbulent they may seem, they were certainly given of the Spirit.

            Though Jonathan referred to Sarah's former unsteadiness,  he saw a genuine renewal of heart and mind after her epiphany. "[T]his steadfastness and constancy,  he writes, "has remained through great outward changes and trials; such as times of most extreme pain &c." [21] Little did he know at the time what trials awaited them. In 1750 Jonathan's parish dismissed him from the pastorate and exiled him and his family from Northampton due to sharp doctrinal disagreements. The following year they moved to Stockbridge to work with an Indian mission, a vast separation from the familiar comforts of Northampton life. Beginning in the fall of 1754, Indian attacks and several battles kept the Edwards family in constant fear and distress. Moreover, Jonathan and Sarah faced the grief of losing four children, including their beloved Jerusha in 1747, who had shared her parents' devotion to God. In 1758 Sarah suffered the hardest blow just when the skies appeared to be clearing. Jonathan was invited to the presidency of Yale College, a return to the welcoming arms of physical and financial security. While Sarah remained in Stockbridge with her daughter Esther and her children, Jonathan went ahead to assume his duties at Yale. She was never to see him again. In March Sarah received news that he had died of a small pox inoculation some weeks earlier. Though she was ill at the time, she wrote an amazing letter of trust in Christ to Esther; the latter died not two weeks after her father and never read the letter. It read:

            O My Very Dear Child,

What shall we say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may 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.

                        Sarah Edwards.[22]


It is doubtful whether Sarah would have been able to write these words in the face of such intense suffering, without the blessing of an intimate knowledge of Christ's love and beauty. Rather than censuring her behavior, we might see her ecstasy and resulting steadfastness as a call to a more fervent pursuit of Christ; we should be reluctant to suppress passionate displays of affection toward Christ when grounded in God's truth. Sarah proclaimed, "we ought greatly to revere the presence of God, and to behave ourselves with the utmost solemnity and humility, when so great and holy a God was so remarkably present, and to rejoice before him with trembling." [23]


[1] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2003) 94.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, Thoughts on the Revival,  The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 3rd Printing, 2003) vol. 1, 376.

[3] Marsden, 208.

[4] Elizabeth D. Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971) 34-35.

[5] Dodds, qtd. Samuel Hopkins, 43.

[6] Dodd, 31.

[7] The Works, Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,  vol. 1, civ.

[8] The Works, 376.

[9] Ibid, 377.

[10] Dodds, 95.

[11] The Works, 237.

[12] Ibid, Treatise Concerning Religions Affections,  366.

[13] Ibid, Thoughts on the Revival,  368.

[14] The Works, 380.

[15] Ibid., qtd. Sarah Edwards in Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,  cvii.

[16] Ibid., Thoughts on the Revival,  377.

[17] Marsden, 280.

[18] The Works, qtd. Sarah Edwards in Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,  cvii.

[19] Marsden, 246.

[20] The Works, Treatise Concerning Religious Affections,  299.

[21] The Works, Thoughts on the Revival,  376.

[22] Marsden, 495.

[23] The Works, qtd. Sarah Edwards in Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,  cix.