Nov. 24, 2003
Jonathan Edwards and the Covenantal View of Marriage
The eighteenth century saw a period of high spiritual interest in the American colonies. Because of the teaching of Great Awakening preachers, including Jonathan Edwards, Americans considered the relationship of their reawakened faith to all areas of their lives, from politics to marriage. This period, then, provides a rich study of the theology of the last great generation of Puritans and of the implications of this theology in all areas of life, including marriage. Puritans believed that “the marriage relationship is the heart of a household,” and like all Puritans, Jonathan Edwards held a covenantal, not sacramental, view of marriage. A comprehension of this covenantal understanding enables to later readers to understand what Edwards means when he compares the relationship of Christ and the church to a marriage covenant. Fundamentally, a covenantal relationship involves headship and submission, mutual responsibility, and intimate companionship. In Edwards’s view, these traits are applicable to both earthly and heavenly unions. We see these beliefs played out in Edwards’s own very happy marriage to Sarah Edwards. This paper will seek to demonstrate and to clarify the background, substance, and practice of Edwards’s views on marriage.
As an orthodox Puritan, Jonathan Edwards’s theology revolved around a completely sovereign God who interacted with His creation through covenants. This fundamental belief in covenantal relationships underlay Edwards’s thoughts on marriage, and as will be seen, all of his writings on the topic agreed with the general Puritan opinion. Edwards was an orthodox Puritan, and his immense intellect and knowledge of current intellectual trends, such as the philosophy of John Locke, enabled him to explain and defend traditional Puritan positions to a new era. Indeed, biographer George Marsden explains that Edwards, “after an early intellectual and spiritual crisis, emerged intensely committed to demonstrating how his [Puritan] heritage was not only viable but the answer to all the questions posed by the new world of his day.” An important aspect of this Puritan heritage involved the traditional Puritan view of the family and marriage. Puritan Dudley Fenner wrote that marriage is “that joining of one man and one woman together by the covenant of God that they may be one flesh until they end their life.” Before assessing Edwards’s own assertions on marriage, it is necessary to understand what exactly Fenner and other Puritans understood to be the nature of such a covenant.
In Puritan thought, covenantal marriage consisted of clearly defined roles for men and women, mutual responsibility, and intimate companionship. Basing their views on Paul’s charges to the Ephesians and other Biblical teachings, the Puritans asserted that the marriage covenant required both male headship and female submission. “Modeled on Christ’s headship of the church,” Leland Ryken explains, “the husband’s headship… is not a ticket to privilege but a charge to responsibility… It was leadership based on love.” Men were appointed to be responsible for the spiritual and physical needs of their families. Consequently, the wife’s submission was, as John Winthrop said, “her honor and freedom.” Because God had provided their husbands to lead their families, wives were free to act upon their own calling. God’s established role for women was to support their husbands, raise their families, and create a harmonious home. Both members of the covenant relationship, then, could pursue their calling without infringing on their spouse’s duties.
Along with this allocation of roles within the marriage, the Puritans emphasized a mutual responsibility to keep the marriage covenant. While the husband was officially the head of the relationship, both the husband and the wife were to uphold the covenant by their actions. Even in the Catholic tradition, marriages were valid only if both parties freely consented to the union. The Puritans also emphasized the importance of mutual consent, for not only did each member have certain responsibilities associate with his role, but both were also to keep the solemn promise made before God to stay faithful to each other and to hold their faith in God. James Turner Johnson explains that
The man-wife relationship requires mutual help, not only in the everyday concerns of earthly life, but also as a preparation for the life of bliss awaiting the elect of God. The character of this mutual help is carefully defined in Puritan sermons and treatises on marriage, with duties for each spouse listed in terms derived from scripture. The duties of mutual meet help in marriage are the terms of the covenant entered into by the spouses upon their marital union.
Because this mutual vow was taken before God, it could not be broken except in cases of unfaithfulness or adultery.
The importance of remaining faithful not only reflected God’s command, but it also related to an assumption that marriage was truly a form of intimate companionship. Many Puritans, including Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, left behind touching testimonies of their intense love for their spouses. To reject one’s spouse was to reject the closest human relationship with which one could be blessed. Husband and wife were to be best friends, partners, and lovers. As Graham Harrison explains, “Mutual conjugal love is therefore at the heart of the Puritan conception of marriage, and that love is to be expressed in and through every aspect of the marriage relationship.” The relationship of a married couple, then, was a good in itself.
This last aspect of the covenantal view of marriage fundamentally differed from the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament and primarily a means of procreation. For Catholics, marriage is a special means of grace. As Puritans pointed out, however, this view is inconsistent when coupled with the Catholic Church’s assertion that virginity is superior to marriage. Harrison explains that marriage for Catholics “was something second best, designed for those who were constitutionally incapable of the higher Christian life which, it went without saying, was that of celibacy.” The Puritans had several responses to such a view. First of all, they explained that just because marriage is a mystery does not make it a sacrament, because these two terms are not synonymous. Secondly, they asked why a state that is only second-best should be considered a means of grace. The Catholic answer was that marriage is necessary for the procreation of children. The Puritans disagreed, asserting that while children are blessings, marriage is a good in and of itself because it was established by God.
With this background understanding of the nature of covenantal marriage and how it differs from the Catholic sacramental view, Edwards’s beliefs can be examined more clearly. To begin with, the submission of the wife and the headship of the husband in the marriage covenant are reflected in the church’s submission to Christ. This relationship is also typified in a local church’s relationship to their pastor. Edwards writes of the pastor as a representative of Christ to his congregation, saying that
as the bridegroom and bride give themselves to each other in covenant; so it is in that union we are speaking of between a faithful pastor and a christian people. The minister, by solemn vows, devotes himself to the people, to improve his time and strength, and spend and be spent for them, so long as God in his providence shall continue the union; and they, on the other hand, in a holy covenant commit the care of their souls, and subject themselves to him.
In this situation, the pastor administers the headship as he “devotes himself to the people” through his service to the local church. As Christ’s representative, the local pastor has a special responsibility for the care of his people’s souls. If he does his job well, it is a comfort and a joy for the church, like the bride, to submit and subject herself to the teaching and leadership of her head. This covenantal pattern of headship and submission is most fully realized in the direct relationship of Christ with the church. Christ is fully worthy to lead His bride because He has paid the price for her disobedience and has obtained mercy for her so that she will be able to join Him in an eternal union. Edwards says,
The condition of Christ’s covenant with his people or of the marriage covenant between him and men is that they should close with him and adhere to him… and the sum of what is promised in Christ’s marriage covenant with his people, is the enjoyment of himself and communion with him in the benefits he himself has obtain’d of the Father by what he has done and suffered.
Through this covenant, there are specific expectations: Christ, like a husband, loves and gives himself for his bride, and the church is to “adhere to him” like a submissive bride.
The requirements of headship and submission are not the only roles called for in the covenantal relationship between Christ and His church, however. Both members of the covenant are called to be faithful. Edwards says, “For the church properly has but one husband; she is not an adulteress, but a virgin, who is devoted wholly to the Lamb and who follows him whithersoever he goes.” As a good bride, she devotedly follows her bridegroom and does not seek for fulfillment in any other person. Such faithfulness is made easier because both partners of the marriage truly desire the good of the other. In “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons, and to Her God,” Edwards explains that the marriage covenant enables the newly-married couple to help each other. Likewise, Christ glorifies Himself in helping his church, and the church glorifies Christ in accepting His gracious intervention on her behalf. As the sermon says, “Another concomitant of this union, wherein it resembles that which becomes a young man and virgin united in marriage, is mutual helpfulness, and a constant care and endeavour to promote each other’s good and comfort.” This mutual desire for the good of the spouse will make the actions of a covenantal marriage harmonious, as the couple is reaching for a common goal. Any happiness of one will necessarily reflect on the other. Edwards writes,
Christ and his church rejoice in communion with each other, as in being united in their happiness, and having fellowship and a joint participation in each other’s good: as the bridegroom and bride rejoice together at the wedding-feast, and as thenceforward they are joint partakers of each other’s comforts and joy.
By accepting their duties and engaging in them faithfully, Christ and His church, like the bridal couple, have established a joyful union.
It is this joy that marks the last chief trait of the covenant between Christ and the church. That a covenantal marriage is a cause for rejoicing is seen in various comments made by Edwards. He states that “Christ and his church, like the bridegroom and bride, rejoice in each other, as those that are the objects of each other’s most tender and ardent love.” This “most tender and ardent love” is only possible in the most intimate of imagined relationships. Edwards supports this joyful intimacy when he writes, “The mutual joy of Christ and his church is like that of bridegroom and bride, in that they rejoice in each other, as those whom they have chosen above others, for their nearest, most intimate, and everlasting friends and companions.” The intimacy and companionship, so often overlooked by those that would criticize the Puritans, is wonderfully exclusive. It is a good, not subservient, as the Catholic position indicates, but fully good because it is of God. Edwards says, “As the bridegroom chooses the bride for his peculiar friend, above all others in the world; so Christ has chosen his church for a peculiar nearness to him, as his flesh and his bone, and the high honour and dignity of espousals above all others…” Clearly, Edwards and the Puritans saw that such a relationship, founded on headship and submission, and necessitating specifically appointed roles, was dignifying to both members. Just as a bride is honored for her position in regards to her husband, so also the church is dignified by being espoused by Christ. The ultimate experience of this will happen in Heaven, for “When the church is received to glory, that is her marriage with Christ; and therefore doubtless the conversation and enjoyment will be more intimate.” Of course Heaven will be the site of the church being made fully like Christ, and therefore, being fully honored. Edwards explains this process of continual sanctification when he says that, “the bride is never with the bridegroom in that full acquaintance & intimate communion before as she is after marriage. & marriage is not only for this full acquaintance & communion on the wedding day but in order to it ever after.” The full communion of Christ’s covenantal marriage to the church will come in Heaven, where God will perfect all things according to His will.
With this understanding of Edwards’s views on marriage, this paper will now turn to a look at the personal life of the theologian. Edwards demonstrated his belief in covenantal marriage not only in his theological writings, but also in his own marriage with Sarah. By asserting his headship in a Godly way, Jonathan encouraged Sarah to submit joyfully. In the Edwards marriage, husband and wife had clearly defined duties which they followed in a harmonious fashion. Despite his studious and rather anti-social nature, Jonathan followed Paul’s injunction to love his wife, often bringing her small gifts from his travels or simply talking and listening to her. Conversely, Sarah was praised by family friend Samuel Hopkins as well as the evangelist George Whitefield for her conscientious attention to her wifely duties. Hopkins admired Sarah for paying “proper deference to Mr. Edwards” as well as her “excellent way of governing her children.” Whitefield showed just as much enthusiasm for the couple after watching their marriage, saying, “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” for a similarly virtuous wife.
Perhaps most importantly, even after raising ten children, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards remained in love until the end of their lives. Upon meeting Sarah for the first time, Jonathan had written, “She has a strange sweetness in her mind,” admiring her purity and faith. This admiration blossomed into a deep love that endured for the rest of his life. Jonathan always referred to his wife in loving terms, and the harmony of their household was well-known to all who visited as well as the Edwards children. Through words and deeds, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards continually attested their love for one another. Edwards’s dying words were on Sarah: “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.” The foundation of their lasting love, then, was the faith that they shared.
Jonathan Edwards’s own marriage endured because of its covenantal foundations. In understanding marriage to reflect the very good picture of Christ’s relationship with His church, Edwards and his fellow Puritans combated the very notions that later generations would attribute to them. Marriage was not an opportunity for male domination, a power struggle in which the woman always lost. On the contrary, by assigning specific roles to each, the Puritan view honored both the man and the woman. By linking marriage to the covenant of grace, Puritans saw specific expectations and consequences in their marriages, giving them more weight and ensuring their longevity. Edwards believed that if his congregation understood what proper marriage looked like, they would better understand their relationship to Christ as His bride. Every aspect of life typified an eternal verity. Through his preaching and through his life, Jonathan Edwards provided his contemporaries—as well as future generations—with a Biblically grounded view of marriage.
Dodds, Elisabeth D. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.
Doriani, Daniel M. The Godly Household in Puritan Theology, 1560-1640. (Ph.D. diss) Westminster Theological Seminary, 1986.
Edwards, Jonathan. “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons, and to Her God.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2. 1834. Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers, 2003. 17-26.
---. “Sarah Pierrepont.” in Dodds, Elisabeth D. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.
Harrison, Graham. “Marriage and Divorce in Puritan Thinking.” In The Fire Divine: Papers Read at the 1996 Westminster Conference. London: The Westminster Conference, 1996.
Johnson, James Turner. A Society Ordained by God: English Puritan Marriage Doctrine in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.
Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Moore, Doreen. An historical analysis of the Biblical and theological convictions of three eighteenth-century Christian leaders (John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards) regarding the relationship between ministerial and familial responsibilities. (MA diss.) Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1993.
Ryken, Leland. Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.
 Doriani, Daniel M. The Godly Household in Puritan Theology, 1560-1640. (Ph.D. diss) Westminster Theological Seminary, 1986. 122.
 Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 7-8.
 qtd. in Doriani 146.
 Ryken, Leland. Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986. 75-76.
 qtd. in Ryken 77.
 Harrison, Graham. “Marriage and Divorce in Puritan Thinking.” In The Fire Divine: Papers Read at the 1996 Westminster Conference. London: The Westminster Conference, 1996. 43.
 Johnson, James Turner. A Society Ordained by God: English Puritan Marriage Doctrine in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970. 21.
 Harrison 35.
 Ibid. 32.
 Doriani, Daniel M. The Godly Household in Puritan Theology, 1560-1640. (Ph.D. diss) Westminster Theological Seminary, 1986. 125.
 Edwards, Jonathan. “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons, and to Her God.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2. 1834. Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers, 2003. 20.
 Misc. #617.
 Edwards, “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons, and to Her God.” 18.
 Ibid. 20.
 Ibid. 22.
 Ibid. 21.
 Misc. #571.
 Misc. #710.
 qtd in Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 251.
 qtd. in Marsden 208.
 “Sarah Pierrepont.”
 qtd. in Dodds, Elisabeth D. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971. 201.