Jennifer Walker

18th Century Theology

February 13, 2006

Biography: Sarah Pierrepont Edwards

 

 

Sarah Pierrepont Edwards:

God’s Faithful Servant

 

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the church governed the New England colonies both socially and spiritually. Into this environment stepped Jonathan Edwards who became one of the most influential men in early America. Edwards, however, did not achieve his accomplishments alone. He was aided by his gracious, godly wife, Sarah Pierrepont Edwards. Godliness, commitment, loyalty, and hospitality characterized Sarah’s life. Her devotion to God was the foundation for her influence in the Eighteenth-Century and following. The significance of her life appears in the influence she had on her husband, her children, and the numerous guests that flowed through the Edwards’ home. Her life of service to God, demonstrated consistently on these three levels of wife, mother, and hostess, tremendously influenced early America.

The prominent Pierrepont family welcomed Sarah, their sixth child, on July 9, 1709 in New Haven, Connecticut. Sarah’s father, James Pierrepont, served as minister in New Haven for thirty years and, consequently, held much influence in the town. James, a Harvard graduate, first to propose the founding of Yale College and also established the first library in New Haven. Mary Hooker, Sarah’s mother, also came from a renowned lineage. One of Mary’s grandfathers became the first mayor of New York City and the other, Thomas Hooker, founded Hartford, Connecticut.

Raised within this prominent family, Sarah was “exquisitely trained in courtesy” and manners.[1] Not only did she appear outwardly attractive, but she also possessed that inward “peculiar loveliness of expression, [which is] the combined result of goodness and intelligence.”[2]  In an era that discouraged education for women, Sarah received the highest academic education available to a girl. This vivacious, thirteen-year-old brunette, “comely and beautiful and of a pleasant agreeable countenance” attracted the twenty-year-old moody, socially bumbling, shy Edwards.[3] With this acquaintance, Sarah’s first great circle of influence began.

Edwards was quite gifted, entering Yale at age 13 and graduating valedictorian four years later. A year later Edwards returned to Yale as a tutor. Becoming captivated with Sarah at this time, Edwards “took to walking past her house at night for a glimpse of a candle flickering behind an upstairs shutter.”[4] Whenever a boat from England came into Long Warf it almost always carried a package for the Pierreponts. Edwards would wait at the dock, hoping that James Pierrepont would bring Sarah with him to receive the package. Unable to concentrate once because of Sarah, the follow inscription was found in the flyleaf of a Greek grammar book:

They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who is beloved 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 another invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything except to meditate on him….

Therefore, 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 o f any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her conduct; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful if you would give her all the world….

She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind…She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her. [5]

 

While Edwards was head over heels for Sarah, she was terrified of him. Edwards came from a family of ten sisters, no brothers, and a forceful mother. His mother and sisters had accustomed him to coddling and the admiring attention of women. Consequently, Sarah’s initial coldness was something new and difficult for him to comprehend. Although a godly man, Edwards was overly serious and given to dark periods of introspection - not at all the sort of man most would couple with the blithe, gracious Sarah Pierrepont. After three years of pursuit, Sarah and Jonathan began courting in 1725. Though differing personalities made the relationship awkward at first, they soon learned to work together and a firm friendship began. Both enjoyed long walks on the beaches and through the woods and they spent many hours in this manner. In the course of these long hikes together Sarah began to realize that her “pallidly bookish”[6] friend was an observant naturalist and fascinating guide. Both Sarah and Edwards shared a sensitivity and love for the beauty in the surrounding world.

            A year later, when Sarah was seventeen, Edwards proposed. Edwards desired an early marriage and wrote to Sarah upon their engagement: “Patience is commonly esteemed a virtue, but in this case I may almost regard it as a vice.”[7] Thus, on July 20, 1726 they were married. A year later they settled in Northampton where Edwards served as minister under his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. The family of a minister rarely had a large salary, but thankfully for Edwards, Sarah possessed the gift of living frugally and simply in their small home while still making the atmosphere lovely – a fresh bouquet of flowers, a parsley garnish on the side of a simple meal, butter with engraved designs, or a neat ribbon in her hair. While other busy Puritan wives and mothers dropped many of these small details, Sarah’s eye for beauty and desire to create a lovely, hospitable home prevented her from neglecting these small yet important details.

Sarah’s housekeeping skills extended to other areas as well. While Edwards was the head of the household and Sarah always gave deference and respect to him, she held most of the responsibility for the property and servants, a task she was more than competent to manage. Samuel Hopkins, a close friend of the Edwards commented on Sarah’s ability to run a godly household:

It was a happy circumstance that [Edwards] could trust everything to the care of Mrs. Edwards with entire safety and with undoubting confidence. She was a most judicious and faithful mistress of a family, habitually industrious, a sound economist, managing her household affairs with diligence and discretion…

She spared no pains in conforming to [Edwards’] inclination and rendering everything in the family agreeable and pleasant; accounting it her greatest glory and there wherein she could best serve God and her generation, to be the means in this way of promoting [her husband’s] usefulness and happiness.[8]

 

Such a wife provided Edwards with the support he needed throughout the pressures of serving as minister to a demanding congregation.

            While difficulties did occasionally arise, Sarah and Jonathan continued to grow closer together in their marriage. They still went on frequent walks or rides together, and shared their deepest joys, sorrows, and concerns with each other. Just as Edwards gained his earthly strength and stability from Sarah, she also leaned heavily on him. Sarah alone could interrupt him in his study at any time during the day: “when she foresaw or met with any special difficulty… she was wont to apply to her husband for advice and assistance and on such occasions they would both attend to it as a matter of utmost importance.”[9] Samuel Hopkins observed this close union, stating: “No person of discernment could be conversant in the family without observing and admiring the perfect harmony and mutual love and esteem that subsisted between them.”[10] George Whitefield, while passing through Edwards’s parish, spent some time with the Edwards family whom he held in high regard and afterward mentioned: “A sweeter couple I have not yet seen… She (Sarah) talked feelingly and solidly of the things of God, and seemed to be such a helpmeet for her husband that she caused me to pray God, that he would be pleased to send me a daughter of Abraham to be my wife.”[11] Such love and dedication continued to grow deeper throughout all thirty years of marriage.

            Sarah’s second great area of influence was as a mother. Baby Sarah Edwards, the first of eleven children, was born on Sunday, August 25, 1728. Following Sarah, another child was born about every other year for the next 20 years. All of Sarah’s children survived childhood, an occurrence almost unheard of at this time. Sarah was an excellent mother, devoted to training her children academically, socially, and most importantly, spiritually. One observer noticed the godly way in which she trained her children, always striving through action and deed to bring their wills under their Savior’s:

[Sarah] had an excellent way of governing her children; she knew how to make them regard and obey her cheerfully without loud angry words… in speaking to them she used gentle and pleasant words. If any correction was necessary, she did not administer it in a passion; and when she had occasion to reprove and rebuke she would do it in a few words, without warmth and noise…she had need to speak but once; she was cheerfully obeyed; murmuring and answering again were not known among them.

Quarrelling and contention, which too frequently take place among children, were in her family unknown. [Discipline] was important… realizing that until a child will obey his parents he can never be brought to obey God.[12]

 

Such a large household could easily turn into chaos, but through leadership, energy, and efficiency Sarah created a peaceful, loving home. Cooking and caring for a family of thirteen on a tight minister’s budget required hard work and division of labor among the children. This system worked smoothly and “all visitors seem to have been impressed that eleven children managed to be lively and individual as personalities, yet could act courteously with one another and function as a coordinated unite.”[13] While there were struggles, Sarah labored joyfully for her children, recognizing the importance of motherhood.

            In addition to running a bustling household, Sarah was a fine hostess and always had a steady stream of guests. This third area of influence affected all who entered the Edwards’ home. Sarah would spare no pains to make guests feel welcome and to provide for their convenience and comfort. She was especially kind to strangers and soon made them feel at home with her sweet and winning manners and conversation. This came partially from her personal rule to speak well of others without compromising truth and justice to herself and others. Careful with everyone’s reputation, Sarah even respected those who injured or spoke ill of her.

In 1726, Edward’s grandfather, Solomon Stoddard passed away, leaving Edwards to fill his place as minister in Northampton. It was difficult for a young minister like Edwards to fill the gap left by the powerful leader. Any criticism of Edwards was very hard for Sarah, a loyal, loving wife, to hear.

Through an intensely spiritual experience Sarah was able to overcome this anxiety over others’ opinions of herself and of her husband and to “sufficient[ly] rest in God.”[14] In the beginning of 1742 Edwards was traveling, and the young minister Samuel Buell came to fill his place. Struggling with jealousy over Buell’s success and a fear that she had disappointed her husband through a careless comment, Sarah felt God grip her heart and reveal His amazing grace and goodness to her. Overcome by the beauty of Christ, Sarah felt “swallowed up with light and love…swimming in the rays of Christ’s love… a constant stream of light.”[15]  For a period of a few weeks she had fits of tremendous joy in God that would take all her strength and resulted in physical weakness and frequent fainting spells.  The revelation of God’s abundant goodness convicted Sarah of her jealousies. While a strong woman before, Sarah had always been sensitive to the social opinions of others. Following this struggle, however, “she stopped straining to please God and began to live in the assurance of salvation she didn’t have to try to deserve. She stopped pushing herself to be worthy of Edwards’ love and from then on had his unreserved admiration.”[16] Sarah emerged from this period changed, enabled to withstand the looming external criticisms and pressures. She continued to carry a heavy load as mother and minister’s wife, but she did so with a deeper, purer joy. Prior to this experience, others had considered Sarah a saint, while only her husband knew her true struggles. Following this period, however, even Edwards viewed her as a saint, commenting on her “constant sweet peace, calm, and serenity of soul.”[17]

This time of reawakening prepared Sarah for the approaching difficulties in the Northampton congregation. This renewed grace enabled her to pass through the trials with a sweet joy and trust in her Savior. In the 1740’s controversies began to arise in Edwards’ congregation involving the Half-Way Covenant, Edwards’ apparent extravagance, and his treatment of several situations that arose in the community. While Edwards’ reputation increased throughout the colonies and England, his parishioners felt he assumed a certain “loftiness” that made him difficult to deal with in everyday life. No new members joined the church between 1744 and 1748, many families stopped speaking to the Edwards Family, and other preachers began to show open hostility toward Edwards because he would not compromise on what he believed to be Scriptural truth. Sarah tried to be a support and help, even writing a long letter in defense of her husband, his work, and his views, but no one was willing to listen. As Edwards’s wife, Sarah also came under personal attack. Because Sarah was known for never gossiping, the town gossips struggled to find scraps of slander to spread about her, and her reputation protected her from the worst. Her “religious virtues served her husband in public as well as in private ways,” acting as a continual source of comfort to Edwards even through these challenging times.[18]

In 1750 Jonathan Edwards was asked to step down from his position as minister, preaching his last sermon on 2 June. The hurt and pain at this time for the whole family was unimaginable. It was especially difficult for Sarah, who had to keep the family and household running smoothly despite downcast spirits and an even tighter budget resulting from no salary. Six months later the family moved from Northampton to Stockdale to serve as missionaries to the Indians. This move turned out to be exactly what the Edwards Family needed. Sarah and her family finally lived in peace, surrounded by the love, respect, and the appreciation of the Indians. Even in these drastically changed circumstances, Sarah maintained her hospitable character and continued to bless those around her. As Edwards wrote, “The Indians seem much pleased with my family, especially my wife.”[19] Throughout this move and adjustment, Sarah handled everything with “an unshaken peace and joy in God,” her eternal rock and foundation.[20]

In 1757, Aaron Burr, the president of The College of New Jersey, a loyal family friend, and son-in-law, unexpectedly died of a severe fever. A new president for the college was needed quickly and Edwards was by far the best choice. Edwards accepted the offer, and Sarah prepared to move again. Since the college needed their new president soon, Edwards went ahead while Sarah finished packing. Tragically, small pox hit Princeton shortly after Edwards arrived. As a precaution, he and his daughter, Esther, decided to take an inoculation. On March 22, 1758, however, before Sarah could arrive, Edwards died from smallpox he received from the inoculation. Amidst the pain and grief, Sarah never lost her faith and trust in God. Hopkins noted:

Sarah’s conduct, upon this occasion, was such as to excite the admiration of her friends;… she was sensible of the great loss… and at the same time showed that she was quiet and resigned, and had those invisible supports which enabled her trust in God.[21]

 

Mentally Sarah was able to handle these two great losses through God’s grace. Physically,  however, they greatly affected her: “No amount of valor could prevent the body from reacting in proportion to the actual feelings.”[22] On her way back from New Haven where she had traveled to be with family following her husband’s death, Sarah collapsed in Philadelphia, passing away on October 2, 1758, 7 months after her husband.

            During her life, Sarah’s hospitality ministered to all those around her, demonstrating a character that was joyfully willing to sacrifice personal comforts for the comforts of others. Her godly example encouraged many to greater heights, including George Whitefield, David Brainard, Aaron Burr, and the native Indians. Likewise, her relationship with her husband provided the necessary support for a minister, particularly one under such great attack. She leaned on him for strength and she compensated for his social faults. One biographer has noted: “Sarah Edwards was lovely to look at. She was even lovelier to live with. There was nothing ‘stiff and starch’ about her. Whatever deficiencies her husband may have had in humor and gayety, she amply compensated for.”[23] Chaos is not conducive to thinking or writing and may have hindered Edwards’ ministry. Sarah, however, was able to provide a calm, orderly, loving home, as a refuge for her husband to work.

            Sarah’s impact on her children and her legacy left through them influenced America spiritually, politically, and academically. By 1900, one hundred and fifty years after Sarah’s death, A.E. Winship traced 1400 of Jonathan and Sarah Edward’s descendents. His study revealed that among Sarah’s descendents there were: thirteen college presidents, sixty-five professors, one-hundred lawyers and a dean of an outstanding law school, thirty judges, sixty-six physicians and a dean of a medical school, eighty holders of public office including three US senators, mayors of three large cities, governors of three states, a Vice-President and Secretary of Treasury. Nearly all the men received college degrees and many had graduate degrees as well. The women were continually described as beautiful, godly, “highly intelligent,” and “great readers.” Members of the Edwards’ family wrote one-hundred-thirty-five books, and edited eighteen journals and periodicals. The trend of men entering the ministry continued, including over one-hundred overseas missionaries. Winship continues:

There is scarcely any great American industry that has not had one of this family among its chief promoters…the family has cost the country nothing in pauperism, in crime, in hospital, or asylum service; on the contrary, it represents the highest usefulness…the family has never lost tone through marriage, for its members have chosen men and women of like character and capacity.[24]

 

Such a legacy began with the simple faithful self-sacrifice of Sarah Edwards in her role as wife, mother, and hostess. Sarah’s life and influence glorified God and richly blessed her country.

 

Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies…

She looks well to the ways of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness…

She stretches out her hand to the poor; yes, she reaches forth her hands to the needy…

She opens her mouth with wisdom; and on her tongue is the law of kindness…

Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also and he praises her.

Proverbs 31

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Dodds, Elizabeth D. Marriage to a Difficult Man. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press,1976.

 

Ellison, Julie. “The Sociology of ‘Holy Indifference’: Sarah Edwards’ Narrative” American

Literature, Vol. 56, No.4 (Dec., 1984), 479-495

 

Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003

 

McGiffert, Arthur C. Jonathan Edwards. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1892.

 

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973.

 

Porterfield, Amanda. Feminine Spirituality in America: From Sarah Edwards to Martha Graham.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

 

Sweet, Leonard. The Minister’s Wife: Her Role in Nineteenth-century American Evangelicalism.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983

 

Tracy, Patricia J. Jonathan Edwards, Pastor. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979.

 

Winslow, Ola E. Jonathan Edwards. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1940.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Dodds, 13

[2] Samuel Hopkins quoted by Dodds, 13

[3] McGiffert, 37

[4] Dodds, 17

[5] Jonathan Edwards, quoted by Marsden, 93-94

[6] Dodds, 20

[7] Dodds, 24

[8] Samuel Hopkins, quoted by Dodds, 34-35

[9] Samuel Hopkins, quoted by Dodds, 48

[10] Ibid.

[11] George Whitefield, quoted by Marsden, 208

[12] Samuel Hopkins, quoted by Dodds, 38-39

[13] Dodds 39.

[14] Marsden, 243

[15]  Porterfield, 21

[16] Dodds, 125

[17] Jonathan Edwards, quoted by Dodds 125.

[18]  Porterfield 43.

[19] Jonathan Edwards, quoted by Dodds 159.

[20] Dodds 157.

[21] Samuel Hopkins quoted by Dodds 196.

[22] Dodds 196.

[23] McGiffert 91.

[24] E.W. Winship quoted by Dodd, p38