18th Century Theology
December 4, 2015
An Intellectual as Pastor: Jonathan Edwards and the Role of the Minister
Jonathan Edwards was an extraordinary intellectual. His monumental writings and sermons have earned him the title in many history books as America’s first philosopher, and possibly its greatest theologian. Often lost in these accomplishments and epithets however, is Edwards’ own self-identification and the relationship he had with his contemporaries. To the eighteenth-century village of Northampton, Massachusetts, Edwards was not foremost a philosopher, thinker, or writer—but their pastor. A true picture of Edwards must not detach him as a mind outside of his own time, but instead see him through the vision he had of his profession and how he applied that vision to his present circumstances. For Edwards, the highest calling of the minister was the care for human souls, which he believed—based on his personal giftedness—he could best fulfill within the confines of his study. This intellectual emphasis of the role of the pastorate came with both great costs and benefits for Edwards and his ministry, from which today’s pastor may learn valuable examples to be warry of and others to emulate.
Before examining the practice of Edwards the pastor, it is appropriate to begin first by clarifying his vision of the pastorate. In this way, we can evaluate his example based on his own standards instead of viewing him through twenty-first century perspectives.
Edwards believed the principle calling of a minister is the redemption of souls that God had providentially placed under his care. His most thorough expressions of the work of the pastorate have survived via his sermons presented during pastoral ordination ceremonies. In the ordination of Jonathan Jeff, the new pastor of Southampton, Massachusetts in 1753, Edwards declared that ministers are “instruments of Christ’s success in the work of redemption.” Through their work, he continued, souls may be rescued and brought into “eternal happiness” and “may answer their end in glorifying [God].” Edwards believed that God had selectively bestowed members of his elect to ministers in the same manner as a prince might place “some great treasure, consisting of most precious jewels” in the care of one of his subjects to carry through enemy territory and bring back safely to his palace.
In order to carry out this mission, Edwards believed pastors must be earnestly devoted to prayer and the study of scriptures in their private lives. In his 1744 ordination sermon entitled “The True Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel,” Edwards declared that the Christian minister must be “much in secret converse with [God].”  Following the pattern of Christ who often slipped away from company to pray, this steady discipline of communication was not an end in itself, but meant to keep aflame the minister’s zeal. The Holy Spirit, Edwards believed, moves the pastor’s heart in prayer animating his duties of preaching, exercising church disciple, and counseling. This “holy ardor” however must not be accompanied by mere “speculative knowledge or opinions” but rather a devotion to the Scriptures of “utmost diligence and strictness.” Only by a fervent dedication to reading God’s Word would a pastor remain “pure, clear and full in his doctrine” and “not lead his people into errors.” By prioritizing Scripture, Edwards believed the Christian minister could remain intellectually humble—denying confidence in his own wisdom and instead “entirely relying on God’s instructions.” Building upon this vision, we can now examine how his convictions played out in his practical life.
Edwards spent the majority of his time and resources in an intellectual setting, because he believed that God had gifted in him in that way to best way to fulfill his vision of the pastorate. A typical day for Jonathan Edwards began at four or five in the morning. We know this from his diary entries, including one from January 1728 when he wrote “I think Christ has recommended rising early in the morning, by his rising from the grave very early.” After starting each day with private prayers followed by family prayers, his original biographer, Samuel Hopkins, noted, “[Edwards] commonly spent thirteen hours, every day, in his study.” His meals were accompanied by household devotions, and at the end of the day, his wife Sarah joined him in his study for prayers. Nevertheless, if he was deeply engaged in contemplation or study he wrote that he would ordinarily “not be interrupted by going to dinner, but will forego my dinner, rather than be broke off.”
During these extensive blocks of time in his study, Edwards mostly added to his numerous writing projects and counseled members of his congregation who came to visit him. In addition to the two lengthy sermons he prepared each week, Edwards was constantly transcribing his thoughts into his major works. Among these included his extensive biblical commentary in the Notes on the Scriptures, his interpretations of prophecies and their fulfillment in current events in the Notes on the Apocalypse, his massive collection of notes in the Miscellanies, and his nine hundred paged “Blank Bible” of scriptural reflections. Moreover, beyond these various compilations of notes, Edwards was authoring several treatises such as A Faithful Narrative and Religious Affections during his pastorate at Northampton.
In order to complete these projects, Edwards remained in his study during the day and did not take visits to members of his congregation unless called upon in an emergency. This was a major contrast to the practice of the other reformed ministers of his day. Hopkins wrote that this unique practice was firmly intertwined with Edwards’ conception of his gifts and calling.
[Edwards] did not neglect visiting his people from house to house, because he did not look upon it, in ordinary cases, to be on part of the work of the gospel-minister; but he supposed that ministers should, with respect to this, consult their own talents and circumstances, and visit more or less according to the degrees in which they could hope hereby to promote the great ends of the gospel-ministry. He observed that some ministers had a talent at entertaining and profiting by occasional visits among their people. They have words at will, and a knack at introducing profitable, religious discourse, in a free, natural, and as it were, undesigned way. He supposed such had a call to spend a great deal of their time in visiting their people; but he looked at his talents to be quite otherwise… And as he was settled in a great town, it would take up a great part of his time to visit from house to house, which he thought he could spend in his study to much more valuable purposes, and so as much better promote the great ends of his ministry. For it appeared to him, that he could do the greatest good to souls, and most promote the interest of Christ by preaching and writing, and conversing with persons under religious impressions in his study.
Instead of paying house visits, Hopkins later continued, Edwards would often call his congregants over to his own study for prayer and counseling. He did this especially with the youth of Northampton, which was a major departure from customary pastoral ministry. Typically, New England pastors would leave the education of youth to the parents, instead of sending them to private lessons that were outside of their supervision and oversight. His efforts to prioritize his intellectual gifts helped guide many of his contemporaries to Christian faith, but they also led to relational problems with members of his family and congregation.
To his family, Edwards’ study habits often pulled him away from the everyday affairs of his wife and eleven children. In order to keep up with his sermons and writing projects, Hopkins wrote that Edwards “kept himself quite free from worldly cares” and “left the particular oversight and direction of the temporal concerns of his family, almost entirely to Mrs. Edwards.” Although still the head of his household, he was often detached from its practical realities. In contrast to his neighbors, he “seldom knew when and by whom his forage for winter was gathered in, or how many milk sine he had; whence his table was furnished.” Moreover, Edwards’ practice greatly contrasted with the example set by his father, whom Hopkins wrote, was dedicated to his studies but also closely attended the daily chores within the home. 
To his church, Edwards’ theology of ministry, biographer Iain Murray wrote, led him to “appear more remote and more absorbed in study than is usual among parish ministers.” In the eyes of many, “he dwelt apart as though he had no time for the common, everyday interests of his people.” Some of his contemporaries saw him as “stiff,” “unsociable,” and “never given to excessive tact.” Furthermore, the youth of his congregation greatly enjoyed meeting at his home because the rest of the church did not often treat them as religious equals; however, the separation he created between children and their parents led to a decline in the stability of traditional family government and tension between Edwards and parents for the youths’ affections. His methods were certainly well intentioned, and even common among other New England churches, but they went strongly against the current of Northampton customs. Since 1731, the Hampshire Associations of Ministers had set the precedent that although “personal [pastoral] visitation may in some cases be very expedient or beneficial,” it was better to have families catechize their own young. The strains between Edwards and his townspeople continued to build until they climaxed in his discharge from the ministry in 1750.
Edwards’ intellectual emphasis of the role of the minister ultimately abetted to his dismissal from the Northampton pastorate. The debate that led to his firing centered on Edwards’ policy change for partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but for many congregants, his “intellectual aloofness” only added coals to the fire. Whatever detached appearances Edwards exhibited however, Hopkins asserted that his studious rigor “was not due to any disinterest towards his people.” Rather, it was “for their good he was always writing, contriving, laboring; for them he poured out ten thousand fervent prayers; and they were dear to him above any other people under heaven.” His dismissal, coincidentally, did not have an entirely negative outcome, for it opened greater opportunities for Edwards to pursue his intellectual interests.
After leaving Northampton in 1750, his family moved to Stockbridge. To the small white congregation and Indian settlement there, he had a few pastoral duties, but the little evidence available shows that they did not show much care much for his preaching or counsel. Lacking other vocational options, he became a professional thinker by default. For the next eight years, Edwards labored in writing the systematic theological treatises for which he is now most famous including Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, and The Nature of True Virtue. Outside of the Northampton pastorate, Tracy writes, “it was no longer specific human souls that concerned him.” Instead, “his commitment was to the ideas he refined.”
Ultimately, whether Edwards rightfully fulfilled his calling or not rests on God’s judgment. There is no need for the historian to witch-hunt for Edwards’ shortcomings, or whitewash his example beyond fallibility. Like all fallen humans, we can only judge him by his fruits and use them to evaluate the role to which he professed.
Therefore, despite the negative effects of his methods, the evidence of his work strongly points to the argument that Edwards was a man who practiced what he preached. He declared from the pulpit that the highest calling of a minister is the redemption of souls, and he oversaw one of the greatest awakenings in American history. Furthermore, he preached extensively on the essential pastoral duty of devotion to prayer and scripture—a practice for which he was possibly unmatched in his time. For this reason and many more, Edwards sets very positive examples for today’s minister.
First, Edwards reminds us of the importance of daily solitude. He wrote about this topic often in his diary.
A true Christian doubtless delights in religious fellowship and Christian conversation, and finds much to affect his heart in it, but he also delights at times to retire from all mankind to converse with God… True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places for holy meditation and prayer. So it wrought in Isaac, Gen. 24:63. And which is more, so it wrought in Jesus Christ… The most eminent divine favours that the saints obtained that we read of in Scripture were in their retirement… True grace delights in secret converse with God.
Second, he implores us not to seek knowledge as an end in itself, but for the worship of God and the advancement of the gospel. To his fellow pastors he said, “Seek not to grow in knowledge chiefly for the sake of applause, and to enable you to dispute with others; but seek it for the benefit of your souls.”
Third, and undoubtedly, Edwards sets a high standard for the pastor as a student of God’s Word. In contrast to mainstream pastoral studies, Edwards made detailed plans for how he could move steadily and constantly forward in his understanding of the Bible until the end of his life. He strove unceasingly to enlarge his picture of God. In contrast, the modern pastor spends most of his day outside of his study; and therefore, outside of the very book meant to inspire, direct, and fulfill every aspect of his position. As Hopkins wisely wrote, “If [Edwards’ pastorate] was excessive in one direction there can be no doubt that the routing of our contemporary Christian ministry is excessive in another, and that the basic reason why so much church busyness accomplishes so little at the present time is that private spiritual priorities have been neglected.”
Fourth, and finally, Edwards exemplifies the mindful servant who understands and uses his giftedness for the purposes of his master. He was an intellectual who grew as an intellectual and fulfilled his duties as an intellectual. Nevertheless, Edwards’ testimony acknowledges the fact that the role of the pastor is not simply an academic pursuit. The minister cannot solely follow his gifts, without fulfilling every duty—no matter how far out of his skill set—to which he is called. Furthermore, he does not condemn other ministers who serve differently, because he knew that not every man was gifted like him. For this reason, the modern pastor cannot “copy and paste” Edwards’ methods into his ministry. Like Edwards, he must seek to know how God has uniquely fashioned him and called him. Moreover, he must understand and learn from—as Edwards sometimes failed to do—the problems that can ensue from the shortcomings of his inabilities. Following the admonition of the Apostle Paul, the pastor should seek the perfect example of Christ in order that they might “live a life worthy of the calling [they] have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)
Edwards, Jonathan. "The Great Concern of a Watchman for Souls." Sermon. In Sermons and Discourses 1743-1758, edited by Wilson Kimnach, 62-81. Vol. 25 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
———. "The True Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel." Sermon. In Sermons and Discourses 1743-1758, edited by Wilson Kimnach, 84-102. Vol. 25 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Holifield, E. Brooks. God's Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America. Nashville: Abingdon, 1983.
Hopkins, Samuel. The Life and Character of the Late Reverend, Learned, and Pious Mr. Jonathan Edwards: President of the College of New Jersey. Northampton: Andrew Wright, 1804.
Kimnach, Wilson H. Edwards as Preacher to The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards, edited by Stephen Stein, 103-24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Kimnach, Wilson H., and Kenneth P. Minkema. "The Material and Social Practices of Intellectual Work: Jonathan Edward's Study." The William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 4 (October 2012): 683-730.
Lee, Sang, and Allen Guelzo, eds. Edwards in Our Time: Jonathan Edwards and the Shaping of American Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999.
Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
McClymond, Michael, and Gerald McDermott. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Murray, Iain. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. London: Banner of Truth, 1987.
Piper, John. "The Pastor as Theologian: Life and Ministry of Jonathan Edwards." Speech presented at Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, 1988. DesiringGod.org. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-pastor-as-theologian.
Tracy, Patricia. Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century Northampton. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979.
———. "The Pastorate of Jonathan Edwards." The Massachusetts Review, Inc. 20, no. 3 (Fall 1979): 437-51.
7. Jonathan Edwards, quoted in Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 135.
16. Jonathan Edwards quoted in Piper, John. "The Pastor as Theologian: Life and Ministry of Jonathan Edwards." Speech presented at Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, 1988. DesiringGod.org. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-pastor-as-theologian.