18th Century Theology
A Marriage of Three Strands
In his life, Jonathan Edwards experience three kinds, or types, of marriage. The most obvious, of course, was his literal marriage to Sarah Pierpont Edwards, but he also had a definite understanding of his being married to his parish congregation, a marriage ordained by God, as was his marriage to Sarah. Finally, and most importantly, Edwards also compared his relationship with God as a marriage, in which Edwards was the bride and Christ the bridegroom. These three marriages in the life of Edwards were shaped and formed by the others into a fuller understand of how each marriage was meant to look like and be expressed in their differing contexts. The former two marriages were possible because of the marriage of his soul to God via justification and sanctification, and thus he was capable of fulfilling his role as spouse to both Sarah and to his church at large. The three were almost in a symbiotic relationship, as well, because God graciously grants human beings types of earthly relationships that help humans better understand their own with God. Thus Edwards’ marriage to Sarah and to his church also helped him to better understand God and God’s role in Edwards’ own life. The primary marriage in Edwards’ life was his marriage to God, but his understanding of that relationship was shaped by his experiences in marriage to Sarah and also in his pastoring of his church. The individual (and elect) members of the church, too, had their own marriage to God as well as to Edwards as their minister of God’s love. These other marriages within the church and within the life of Edwards himself act as foils to and complements of each other, so that Edwards’ three kinds of marriages would all build and interact in such a way as to create a more full understanding of both God and the human person, and the relationships therein.
On his deathbed, Jonathan Edwards described his marriage to Sarah Pierpont Edwards as “an uncommon union.” He wasn’t wrong: Jonathan and Sarah were in some ways polar opposites. He kept to his study, more awkward and less at ease in company. She was more extroverted, easily able to make conversation with others and help them to feel at home. Surrounded as she was by the bustle of a busy household, with many children to direct, guests to welcome, and chores to oversee, Sarah ensured that Jonathan had the time and quiet he needed to write sermons, to study the Word, and to prepare himself to care for his flock. She minded the house and farm affairs so that he could devote the greater part of his attention to God and his own studies in theology. He, in turn, was her closet confidant, and she took her cares to him so that he might point her to Christ and remind her that there were greater things than to be approved of by the parish. In this way, their human marriage pointed them toward the heavenly marriage they each shared with Christ, and this marriage with Christ offered a supreme model for husband and wife to follow as they slowly built up their earthly relationship. Earthly relationships pointed to the divine, especially marriage: many Puritans argued that marriage was ordained before the Fall of man, and so it was not only a sort of lesson or cure for sinfulness, but part of the higher state Adam and Eve had experienced pre-Fall. Post-Fall, marriage became a way to heal or in some way remedy our desire to sin because it points human beings to God and shows them a new way of understanding Him, and a way to love Him in a newer, more intimate way.
Edwards also had a very strong view of his relationship to his congregation as a marriage, as evidenced by the sermon he preached at Samuel Buell’s installation as minister of a church in East Hampton. In it, he exhorted Reverend Buell to have “ardent and tender affection” for his flock, and the congregation to submit and honor their minister:
A faithful minister, that is in a Christian manner united to a Christian people as their pastor, has his heart united to them in the most ardent and tender affection. And they, on the other hand, have their hearts united to him, esteeming him very highly in love for his work’s sake, and receiving him with honor and reverence, and willingly subjecting themselves to him, and committing themselves to his care, as being, under Christ, their head and guide.
Each believer is, of course, wed to Christ in his or her own soul, but together as a church body, they also create a family of believers, which is the bride of Christ. Thus the church as well has a dual understanding and a dual marriage, both to their minister, who “gives himself to the church, to be hers, in that love, tender care, constant endeavor, and earnest labor for her provision, comfort, and welfare, that is proper to his office, as a minister of Providence, as long as he lives…” and to their God, who “is in her eyes the chief among ten thousands, fairer than the sons of men: …he is her pearl of great price, for which she parts with all; and rejoices in him, as the choice and rest of her soul.” God is the fulfillment of everything the church needs and could never desire. Thus the good minister’s goal, like the husband’s, is to point their spouse to God.
That was Edwards’ goal in marriage, and his ideal structure for a minister and congregation. Having been married to Sarah for about nine years at this point, Edwards would have had a greater understanding of marriage to draw from as he wrote this sermon than he would have had before he married her, because he had years of martial experience to draw from and to further develop his thoughts. Thus Edwards could offer advice to the church as a man who understood how difficult marriage could be to another human being—because although Edwards did not know what it was like to be married to himself as his congregation would have experienced it, he did know what it was like to be married to an inherently sinful human being. Edwards understood how difficult marriage was, but he also understood that marriage is meant to be a reciprocal relationship in which both parties do their best to honor God and each other. In the sermon, he went on to say, “[The] congregation… make it their constant care to promote his comfort, to make the burden of his difficult work easy, to avoid those things that might add to the difficulty of it, and that might justly be grievous to his heart.” The good minister, because he wishes the best for his congregation, would rightly be grieved by a congregation’s failure to seek God.
While the church at Northampton may not always have succeeded in their endeavor to seek God and do their best by their pastor, Sarah did succeed, day in and day out. Yet theirs was not an unequal marriage, in which Sarah was the primary force behind their martial happiness and functionality:
…What makes [Edwards’] construction of types on marriage so intriguing is the absence of hierarchical arrangements in the relationship. While there is no question as God as the absolute center of the relationship, Edwards develops marriage as a type in terms of reciprocity rather than asymmetrical obedience… Edwards… stresses in his interpretation of Genesis the equality of male and female.
The Edwards’ marriage may have been an “uncommon union” not only because of the clearly differing personalities of the two partners, but also because of their understanding of submission and partnership within marriage. Sarah clearly valued very highly the esteem of her husband, but she also carried to him her worries and concerns, and he comforted her. In his turn, Edwards greatly valued his wife and admired her spiritual strength. Sarah submitted to her husband, as Scripture commands, but he thought of her as he helpmeet and equal, as God created Eve to be for Adam. Their marriage was highly functional and healthy because they followed the Biblical design, one made complete in Christ with His church. In marriage, men and women were meant to be the best of friends, and to spiritually, mentally, and emotionally nourish each other in order that they might carry out God’s calling in their lives to the fullest possible extent.
Marriage also acted to stabilize the community: children were meant to discipline themselves into submission to God from a young age, and this was best done, the Puritans thought, within the context of a family. Parents would gently but firmly resist any outburst of stubbornness or temper, because if a child could not submit lovingly to their parents, who they could empirically know, there was no way a child would submit to a God they could not sense. In the family, children also learned the hierarchical structure of Puritan society, so that they might be able to integrate seamlessly into their world as adults. In order for children to be properly trained, their parents had to keep themselves under good regulation, and this was done through a healthy marriage, one in which both partners understood their roles. The Edwardses had a remarkably functional and healthy marriage, which was perhaps possible because they both so completely understood their roles within the marriage, in relation to God and in relation to each other. The concept of submission, though it raises eyebrows in a modern world, was “valued” by both Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, “far more than it is usually valued today.” Each knew it to be of the utmost importance to submit themselves fully to God. All that Edwards wrote in his installation sermon for Reverend Buell on how the church body ought to relate to the minister also applied to Edward’s own relationship with God. As the church “in a holy covenant commit the care of their souls, and subject themselves, to [the minister],” so too did Edwards commit the care of his own soul, and subject himself, to Christ. Especially, Edwards sought to avoid anything that “might justly be grievous to [Christ’s] heart,” even as his wife and his parish were meant to avoid things that might grieve Edwards, as their type of Christ on earth. Edwards himself could only be so humble because he understood his own role to be a submissive one as well: he was totally under and subject to the will of God.
Sarah, too was subject to the will of God, and she was also subject to her husband. In January of 1742, Sarah had some kind of spiritual ecstasy or possibly a kind of spiritual crisis related to her ability and desire to submit to God fully. Whatever it was, however, Sarah emerged from it with a remarkable sweetness of temper and submission to God that had been unseen in her makeup so completely before this episode. Her husband marveled at it, and Sarah lived the rest of her forty-eight years in cheerful submission to and willingness to live out God’s plan for her life. This combination of two people, fully realizing their own need to submit to God in their own personal life, made for a remarkable match. They could therefore “…both subordinate and enhance their relationship by constant prayerful reminders that it was a type of Christ’s love for his church.” Edwards himself wrote in the installation sermon, “All that tender care which a faithful minister takes of his people as a kind of spiritual husband—to provide for them, to lead, and feed, and comfort them—is not as to his own bride, but his master’s….” This was Edwards’ role for both his congregation, and for his wife. Edwards played a strange role, as all husbands and pastors did, as both bride and bridegroom. As bridegroom to Sarah and to the church, he pointed to the ultimate Bridegroom that was Christ. As bride of Christ in his own soul, he offered “love, and honor, and submission… to Christ.” Sarah offered this same love, honor, and submission to both her husband, as the head of her earthly household and as her spiritual leader, and to Christ, as head of the church, of which she was a member, and she offered it to him as the Bridegroom of her soul.
Jonathan Edwards could only love his wife because he loved God. In his Treatise on Grace, he writes, “If duties towards men are [to be] accepted of God as a part of Religion and the service of the Divine Being, they must be performed not only with a hearty love to men, but that love must flow from regard to Him.” Jonathan loved Sarah because Christ first loved Jonathan and made him capable of loving and being loved. Christ also first loved Sarah and made her loving and lovable. Because their souls were so deeply intertwined in the love and loving of Christ, they could and did understand their marriage as a metaphor or a type of the love that they each had for Christ and Christ for them. The human person as a bride to Christ, and so the human person must chase after God, love God, and spend time with God as they do with their human spouse. Edwards understood the Christian life as a marriage to God, in which every day the human person was meant to draw nearer to God because God is so supremely lovable that the human cannot help but draw close to Him. “Christ’s marriage with believers now provided a model for husband and wife as they sought to build and sustain their relationship…. Heavenly and terrestrial marriage thus became symbiotic….” Although humans cannot fully understand the love of the Trinity, they can understand what marriage looks like and the commitment and sacrifice it entails. This commitment and sacrifice of Christ, which was brought to full expression and completeness on the Cross, acts as a sustainer for each spouse as well as an example. The love of Christ allows them to love even in the difficult times, and also shows them what their love ought to look like. Additionally, the marriage between the human and Christ makes a human-human marriage possible. It is only through the love of Christ and His gift for our ability to understand that marriage is meant to be an example of His love for us that we have the motivation to carry out the acts of service and acts of love every day. “The delight one takes on another’s love find expression in and is further cultivated by closer relations with the deity and with other humans.” The greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor, and the more one loves, the more one has the capacity to love.
In his life, Jonathan Edwards had a tri-fold marriage: his soul’s marriage to God, his earthly marriage to Sarah, and his ordained marriage to the people of his parish. All three of these types of marriage shaped and formed each other into a fuller understanding of the other two. The earthly marriages were possible because Edwards’ soul was married to God. Through his marriage to God, Edwards was capable of fulfilling his role as spouse to his wife, Sarah, and to his congregation as their earthly head. The earthly marriages also taught Edwards of his relationship to God, because God works through human means in order to bring the human to an understanding of God. The most important marriage in Edwards’ life was of course his marriage to God, but his understanding of that relationship was affected by his experiences in marriage to Sarah and his church. The purpose of the earthly marriages of which Edwards was a member were all means by which God allowed Edwards, Sarah, and their congregation to more fully know Him in this life and on this earth. After all, the goal of a Puritan marriage—and especially, one imagines, the goal of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards’ marriage—was to more fully know, love, and submit to God.
Bloch, Ruth H. “Changing Concepts of Sexuality and Romance in Eighteenth-Century America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 60, no. 1 (2003): 13-42. Accessed: October 24, 2015. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.hillsdale.edu/stable/3491494
Cooey, Paula M. “Eros and Intimacy in Edwards.” The Journal of Religion 69, no. 4 (1989): 484-501. Accessed: October 24, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1204032
Dodds, Elisabeth D. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, n.d.
Edwards, Jonathan. The church’s marriage to her sons, and to her God: a sermon
preached at the installment of the Rev. Mr. Samuel Buel as Pastor of the church
and congregation at East-Hampton on Long-Island, September 19, 1746. Boston: Kneeland and Green in Queen-Street: 1746. Accessed: November 27, 2015. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.iii.ii.html.
--. The Nature of True Virtue. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1960
--. Treatise on Grace. Accessed: November 27, 2015
Godbeer, Richard. “’Love Raptures’: Marital, Romantic, and Erotic Images of Jesus
Christ in Puritan New England, 1670-1730. The New England Quarterly 68, no. 3
(1995): 355-384. Accessed: October 24, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/366160
Mardsen, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Cambridge: Yale University Press, 2003.
 Elisabeth D. Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 201
 Ibid, 97-100
 Paula M. Cooey, “Eros and Intimacy in Edwards.” The Journal of Religion 69, no. 4 (1989): 359
 Edmund Leites, “The Duty to Desire: Love, Friendship, and Sexuality in Some Puritan Theories of Marriage.” Journal of Social History 15, no 3 (1982): 387
 Jonathan Edwards, The church’s marriage to her sons, and to her God: a sermon preached at the installment of the Rev. Mr. Samuel Buel as Pastor of the church and congregation at East-Hampton on Long-Island, September 19, 1746. Boston: Kneeland and Green in Queen-Street: 1746.
 Edwards, The Church’s Marriage
 Cooey, 497-8
 Leites, 391
 Richard Godbeer. ‘Love Raptures’: Marital, Romantic, and Erotic Images of Jesus Christ in Puritan New England, 1670-1730. The New England Quarterly 68, no. 3 (1995): 358
 George Mardsen, Jonathan Edward: A Life, 247
 Edwards, The Church’s Marriage
 Dodds 105
 Mardsen 209
 Edwards, The Church’s Marriage
 Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace, ch 2 section 3 subsection 1 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/treatiseongrace.pdf, 18
 Godbeer, 359
 Cooey, 490