May 1, 2006
“A World of Women”:
Jonathan Edwards’ View of the Worth of Women in the Church and Society
Jonathan Edwards grew up in a home that was, in the words of his biographer, George Marsden, “practically speaking, a world of women.” Edwards was the only son in a family of eleven children. His ten sisters were well-educated, well-read, and even given, like Edwards, to the study of theology. Marsden says that we can only speculate on the effect this “world of women” had on Edwards, but one might speculate that it gave him a unique appreciation for the capabilities and dignity of the female sex. Throughout his life, and sometimes to his public detriment, Edwards persisted in this deep appreciation. Edwards was by no means a flaming twentieth century feminist, but in his writings, in his public acts and in his personal life, he continually affirmed the spiritual depth, intellectual worth, and dignity of women.
Edwards maintained this appreciation while still upholding the Puritan view of a natural hierarchy and authority that extended to marriage and the home. To Edwards, marriage was a picture of Christ and the church, a mirror image of the gentle authority and the willing submission that typified Christ and the church. Edwards frequently uses marriage metaphors to expound on the relationship of Christ and his people. God is the Husband of the church. God receives the church just as when “a man marries a woman, he enters into covenant with her and receives her to be his wife, to live with him as such.” Christ makes the church his own, giving her a new name and a share in his glory: “Christ writing this his new name upon them implies that he will in some respect give them also this honour and glory and make them partakers with him in it, as a woman when married to an husband takes his name upon her.” God loves and gives himself up for the church, just as a husband loves and gives himself up for his wife. The church submits to her God, just as a a wife submits to her husband. The metaphor is constantly repeated, as Marsden shows:
Puritans viewed the submission of wives in marriage as a type of the spiritual submission to Christ to which we all should aspire. The church was the bride of Christ … Some of the most effective sermons, including some of Jonathan’s, urged men as well as women to think of themselves as “virgins” preparing for Christ, “the bridegroom.”
Edwards’ use of marriage metaphors say just as much about his view of marriage as they say about his view of God. Husbands were to copy Christ’s self-sacrifice and self-denying love, just as wives were to joyfully and willingly submit to their husbands: “The obedience of [the wife] is the proper expression of trust in and acceptance of love, benevolence & trust in the superiour wisdom & strength, & the goodness & faithfulness of a protectour and head of beneficent communication.” Edwards’ view of marriage affirmed spiritual equality, but also different roles in marriage.
Most people today think that this willing submission is stultifying and oppressive, that it demeans women and blinds the world to women’s intellectual and spiritual worth. Yet Edwards always affirmed the worth and dignity of women, in his writings, in his public acts and in his personal life. Jonathan Edwards saw in many women a model for personal piety and an example of the deep, intense spiritual affections that formed so central a part of his theology. Edwards saw in the women he knew and studied a deeply passionate spirituality that others might emulate. As Marsden notes, “Jonathan’s models of exemplary piety were almost all women.” From his mother and sister to his wife and his daughter, he consistently found examples of “the submissive piety he so loved.”
This is first apparent from his writings. Edwards frequently uses women as examples of “true religious affections and remarkable piety,” Marsden writes. Gerald R. McDermott says the fact is not insignificant, noting, “When illustrating true religion by means of personal examples in his two major accounts of the revival … Edwards restricted himself to women. This is particularly significant.” It is significant because it affirms the fact that Edwards believed that women are capable of knowing God so deeply that they should be held up as examples for others to follow. In A Faithful Narrative, Edwards tells the stories of Phebe Bartlett and Abigail Hutchinson. Abigail Hutchinson experienced the horrors of confronting her own sin until her conversion, when “her mind was led into such contemplations and views of Christ, as filled her exceeding full of joy.” Edwards said that Abigail “had many extraordinary discoveries of the glory of God and Christ,” and that “she was looked upon amongst us, as a very eminent instance of Christian experience.” Edwards held Abigail up as an eminent example of Christian piety, and even did the same with four-year-old Phebe Bartlett, his second example of true conversion in A Faithful Narrative. Phebe, he said, “seems to have very much of the fear of God before her eyes. … She has often manifested a great concern for the good of other’s souls. … She has discovered an uncommon degree of a spirit of charity.” Edwards himself longed to attain the deep spiritual enthusiasm of another Christian woman, his wife Sarah. Edwards describes his wife’s spiritual ecstasies, concluding in a burst of fervor:
Now if such things are enthusiasm, and the fruits of a distempered brain, let my brain be evermore possessed of that happy distemper! If this be distraction, I pray God that the world of mankind may be all seized with this benign, meek, beneficent, beatifical, glorious distraction!
He holds his beloved wife up as a model for not just himself, but for all the world of mankind.
Edwards includes few men in his narratives, tempting McDermott to suggest that “Edwards thought of women as more religious by nature.” Perhaps he did. Although he affirmed the Biblical idea of male spiritual headship within the church, his writings include some bold statements about women’s natural leadership capabilities:
Many women in Christian churches … are much more capable than some of the men … It will be found difficult to say what there is in nature that shows that a wise woman ought not to have as much power in the church as a male servant that hasn’t a tenth part of the understanding.
In one of his sermons, he excoriated men for being prideful, contentious, and too ready to condemn “what is affecting and awakening.” At the same time, he praised women, exalting converted women above the virgin Mary herself:
This sex has peculiar honour in the affair of the redemption of the second [Adam] … and all of you, if you are converted, will become mothers of Christ in a more honourable and blessed sense than the virgin Mary was, for it is more honourable and blessed to have Christ conceived in the heart than in the womb.
Perhaps Edward’s exaltation of female spirituality was shaped by the fact that New England women often outstripped New England men in religion devotion. Marsden writes, “Although Puritans did not think that women should be any more submissive to God than men, women seem more often to have attained the requisite submission. For generations women had outnumbered men as full members of churches, sometimes by large numbers.” At any rate, Edwards certainly believed that a woman’s soul is capable of a deep and burning passion for her Creator and her Savior.
Edwards did not limit his appreciation of feminine piety and worth to his writings alone. He also affirmed the dignity of women in his public acts as pastor to Northampton. Edwards defended the rights of women against people like Charles Chauncy, who said that women could not testify in church meetings and that women were subject to religious fancies because of the “Weakness of their Nerves.” Edwards does not deny the admonitions of Paul concerning women’s silence in church, but he says that their silence is not a sign of their inferiority or their weak nerves, but an exercise of the general Christian virtue of humility: “They are enjoin’d silence only as that savours of humility.” Edwards always acknowledged the fact that women had a valuable spiritual perspective to contribute.
But not all New Englanders valued women’s spiritual dignity and worth as Edwards did. Ava Chamberlain writes that “Gender-related conflict was … a defining feature of Edward’s ministry in the 1740s,” and that it was one of the issues that “helped to undermine his tenure in Northampton.” Chamberlain notes that gender roles were changing during Edward’s lifetime, that Edward’s Puritan idea of an equal spiritual alliance between the man and woman was giving way to “a more rigid, gendered definition of rights and responsibilities; and the general understanding that the sexes were spiritually equal was being replaced by a conviction of their difference.” Piety was turning into a private affair, and a sexual double standard was solidifying. Society was beginning to hold women to a higher sexual standard than men. The young men in Edwards’ parish were conscious of the emerging double standard and they took advantage of it, both in the “bad books” incident and in the fornication cases Edwards dealt with during his time as pastor. Edwards insisted that the young men’s behavior was not private, and his public condemnation of it provoked a bitter battle with those who thought that the youth’s offense was a private matter. Edwards tried to make his young male parishioners accountable for their actions, as in the case of Elisha Hawley, who fathered an illegitimate child with Martha Root. Edwards attempted to excommunicate Hawley and have the church declare that he had a moral duty to marry Root, but he was again thwarted by what Chamberlain calls “the new, emergent ethic of privacy.” Edwards held to a traditional, single, standard for sexual conduct, while “his critics … were committed to a more modern conception of gender, which privatized and generally condoned – with a sly wink and a nod – male sexual license.” Edwards continually affirmed a single spiritual standard for both men and women, a standard that might have protected women like Martha Root and made men like Elisha Hawley fewer and farther between. It is no coincidence that women were among his most devoted supporters when the rest of his parishioners decided he must go. Chamberlain suggests, “Perhaps they sensed that the newly emerging configuration of public and private space would offer men vastly greater liberties than it would women,” and perhaps they thanked Edwards for supporting the traditional view.
Edwards himself brooked no split between public and private space. His public support of the dignity of women extended to his private life. According to Marsden, Edwards’ father, Timothy, “preached that a husband’s love for his wife should be a ‘singular peculiar thing,’ that displayed the ‘honor and respect’ she deserved. ‘He should not act magisterial or lordly, but in a loving manner with due respect to his wife.’” Timothy apparently taught his son well. Edwards married a beautiful, intelligent, and devout woman who raised daughters who mirrored her beauty, wit and spiritual fervor. Edwards did not see his wife as a household drudge who could not be expected to share in his lofty musings. He saw her as an intellectual and spiritual helpmeet as well as a homemaker. In her biography of Sarah Edwards, Elizabeth Dodds writes, “Her husband treated her as a fully mature being --- as a person whose conversation entertained him, whose spirit nourished his own religious life, whose presence gave him repose. For the first few years of this highly charged marriage, Sarah bloomed.” Edwards and his wife took daily horseback rides together, and “Edwards would test the day’s harvest of ideas against Sarah’s practical intelligence, or he would talk over a parish problem with her.” Edwards treated his wife with the respect her intellect and spiritual devotion commanded. He also took care that his daughters became the same sort of women – intelligent and devoted to God. Edwards’ own sisters were bright, well-read and well-educated for their time, and Edwards made sure his daughters were the same. Edwards advocated education for girls as well as boys, and even encouraged especially bright girls to develop their potential and continue their education. He educated his daughter Mary “far beyond the level most girls of the time aspired to reach.” In doing so, he decidedly disagreed with other New Englanders, whose view of female education was generally unfavorable. He continually affirmed the worth of the women in his home.
So did Jonathan Edwards go against the social norms of Puritan New England in his affirmation of the spiritual worth and dignity of women? It is true that other Puritans did not recognize the intellectual potential of women in the way that Edwards did, and that they did not educate their daughter like he did. It is also true that other Puritans did not have the same respect for the authenticity and the value of women’s spiritual experiences. Edwards, however, recognized the need to develop the intellectual potential of women and the need to learn from the female spiritual experience. In these respects, Edwards broke with some of his contemporaries, giving women a higher station in society and in the church than his fellow Puritans did. In other respects, however, his views were squarely in the center of Puritan theology. He supported the Puritan view of the Biblical hierarchy and authority structure of marriage. Within that hierarchy, he clung to the Puritan idea of men and women as spiritual equals, subject to the same eternal standard of true virtue, purity, and deep religious affections. Edwards lived in a world of women, and he valued and appreciated the intellect, the piety, and the spirituality of the women who lived in it.
Chamberlain, Ava. “Bad Books and Bad Boys: The Transformation of Gender in Eighteenth-Century Northampton, Massachusetts.” New England Quarterly, 75 (2002).
Dodds, Elisabeth. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.
Edwards, Jonathan. Miscellanies. http://www.hillsdale.edu/personal/Westblade/JE/Misc/index.htm
---. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 1. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pub., 1998.
Ellison, Julie. “The Sociology of ‘Holy Indifference”: Sarah Edwards’ Narrative.” American Literature, 56: 1984.
Gustafson, Sandra. “Jonathan Edwards and the Reconstruction of ‘Feminine’ Speech.” American Literary History, 6: 1994.
Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
McDermott, Gerald R. One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
Tracy, Patricia J. Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth Century Northampton. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980.
 George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 18.
 Miscellanies, 1062.
 Miscellanies 689.
 Miscellanies, 848.
 Marsden, A Life, 248.
 Miscellanies, 1274.
 Marsden, A Life, 249.
 Marsden, A Life, 19.
 Gerald R. McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992), 161.
 Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprizing Work of God, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pub., 1998), 360.
 Ibid., 361.
 Ibid., 363.
 Edwards, quoted in Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth Century Northampton, by Patricia J. Tracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 140.
 McDermott, 162.
 Edwards, quoted in Marsden, A Life, 346.
 Edwards, quoted in McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society, 162.
 Marsden, A Life, 248-249.
 McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society, 161.
 Miscellanies, 989.
 Ava Chamberlain, “Bad Books and Bad Boys: The Transformation of Gender in Eighteenth-Century Northampton, Massachusetts” New England Quarterly, 75 (2002): 181.
 Chamberlain, “Bad Books and Bad Boys,” 201.
 Ibid., 198.
 McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society, 169.
 Chamberlain, “Bad Books and Bad Boys,” 202.
 Marsden, A Life, 21.
 Elisabeth Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 35.
 Marsden, A Life, 18.
 Ibid., 390.
 Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man, 147.
 McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society, 161.