Hannah Akin and Shannon Odell

The 1720’s

            The decade of 1720 was a time of development and growth for Jonathan Edwards.  Although nothing major necessarily occurred in his life or in his surroundings, the 1720’s were a very forming time.  Edwards’ mind was shaped by his studies, the thoughts and inclinations of the time were molded as the Enlightenment began to arrive in America and Edwards’ future began to take shape with pastoral jobs and the beginning of a family.  This was also a time of Edwards seeking to establish his foundational beliefs while being exposed to many different beliefs that he had never before encountered.


Economic growth: expansion and loss

            The population in the United States doubled in the 1720’s from the 1700’s, bringing economic growth and opportunities.  Boston, Philadelphia and New York City were the three largest cities in the American colonies.  Businesses were succeeding and growing, and prosperity was on the rise.  The black slave population was also expanding and by 1725 there were about 75,000 in the colonies. 

            Along with the tremendous economic growth, however, came the uncertainty of speculation.  Kenneth Minkema notes that early eighteenth century Massachusetts had an “unstable economic situation, engendered in part by unchecked speculation, [and] exacerbated by irresponsible fiscal policies.”[1]  In England, a frenzy for investing in stocks caused many companies to go public; one such company famously advertised itself as “a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.[2]  When the “bubbles” of these investments burst, many lost fortunes.  One of the most memorable of examples is the 1721 burst of the South Sea “Bubble.”  The South Sea Company had been granted a trade monopoly with Spain’s South American Colonies by King George I.  In return, the company was to pay off the national debt England had accrued during the War of Spanish Succession.  Wooed by exaggerated rumors of the stock’s value, speculators jumped on board in waves.  The managers of the company made special deals with politicians, gaining them political clout and ensuring an interest in the well-being of their company.   When the proverbial juggler’s balls came crashing down, many investors lost their fortunes.  Among those joining in the public outrage were Alexander Pennecuik (“An Ancient Prophesy Concerning Stock-Jobbing, and the Conduct of the Directors of the South Sea Company”) and the satirist, Jonathan Swift.  Swift’s critique came in form of a poem, entitled “The Bubble,” which ends: “The nation too late will find, / Computing all their cost and trouble, / Director’s promises but wind, / South-Sea at best a mighty bubble.”[3]  Edwards, always concerned with the issues of the day, addressed these economic issues in The Day of Judgment, in which he chastised those who engaged in fraudulent business practices.[4]


Science: Inquiry, discoveries and the question of faith

            The 1720’s were a time of much scientific inquiry and discussion.  As the practice of science was explored, so too were philosophy and theology.  This decade saw many books and essays published on the topic of nature and faith.  In 1722, British moral philosopher William Wollaston published “The Religion of Nature Delineated,” a piece that defines the intellectual explorations in the decade.  Other notable writings that discussed the relationship between science, reason and faith include Anthony Collins’ “A Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion,” and “Six Discourses on the Miracles of our Savior;” in addition, Newton’s “Principia” was translated into English.  The thoughts of the time became increasingly focused on reason and knowledge, questioning the role of faith and the sovereignty of God.

            Although increasingly rationalistic thought sought to divorce science from religion, the colonists still saw natural events as an indication of God’s relationship to His people.  An event that disrupted New England’s sense of comfort was the colonial earthquake of 1727.  In October, the biggest earthquake to hit the colonies since their establishment jolted many people into examining their lives and caused them to fear the judgment of the Lord.  Ministers took the opportunity to preach sermons about hellfire and wrath, sermons that prompted a mini revival in New England.  Thomas Prince, Edwards’ friend from Yale, wrote the “Agency of God in Causing Droughts and Rains,” and “Earthquakes, the Works of God and Tokens of His Just Displeasure.”  This just continued the discussion about God’s work through nature and science.

            In this decade, advancements were also being made in experiments and inventions.  In 1721, smallpox inoculations began being used in England and in 1722, Frenchman C. Hopffer patented the fire extinguisher.  1724 also saw Gabriel Farenheit invent the first mercury thermometer. 


Education: Yale and Its Effects

            Edwards’ graduate studies were very formative years.  He wrote his “Notes on Natural Science” and “Miscellanies” during these years.  These writings were brought about and highly influenced by his education.  Edwards read a lot of John Locke’s writings and his early writings had more of a scientific focus in his studies.  He was very interested in the way God worked through science and saw His power and love and perfection through the intricacies of the work of His hands.   In October of 1723, Edwards wrote his “Spider Letter,” a detailed and scientific record of spiders and how they worked.  It illustrates Edwards’ love for God’s creation and his study of it.

            Thomas Prince was one of Edwards’ best friends at Yale and one that encouraged Edwards’ interest in the natural world and how faith and science should interact.  Considered one of the American pioneers in scientific writing, Prince was convinced of God’s providence and sovereignty over nature, especially the extraordinary.  His essays on natural disasters make it clear that Prince believed the hand of God could be fully discerned in extraordinary events by pious people.


Religious Atmosphere: New Schools of Thought Emerge

            For the first time in his life, Edwards had to seriously confront and examine other religions.   Indeed, in 1728 Judaism had grown sufficiently to erect a Synagogue in New York City.  Until that time, Calvinism and Presbyterianism or Congregationalism was assumed and foundational.  As more schools of thought were explored and horizons expanded, Edwards was pushed to study and think carefully about his convictions and what he believed.

            One of the greatest religious upheavals of this decade was caused by the conversion of Edwards’ tutor and Yale College Rector Timothy Cutler, along with some of his colleagues, to the Church of England.  The public revelation of their conversion caused great tension in New England, as “people still living remembered Puritans in England who had suffered grievously for their faith when Charles II and Anglicanism were reestablished in 1660.[5]  This was seen as a very political move, as New England was established on the Congregational and Presbyterian church.  The introduction of Anglicanism to the colonies also meant the growth of Arminianism in the colonies, a belief that was until then very unpopular.

            Another controversy that played on colonists’ fears of Anglicanism was the issue of music in worship.  Reacting against the pop and circumstance of high-church services, Puritanism had turned to strict psalmody, which allowed only literal psalms to be sung in worship.  These were unaccompanied by instruments or musical scores.  Precentors lead congregants in using familiar tunes to the words they had before them.  By the early 18th century, however, congregational singing “had become chaotic and dissonant.[6]  An early reformer lamented in 1721 that “the tunes are now miserably tortured and twisted and quavered…it sounds in the ear of a good judge like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time with perpetual interfering with one another.[7]  The great hymn-writer Isaac Watts in England lead the movement for reform, joined on the American side by Colman, the Mathers, Prince, Cooper and Joseph Sewall.  These reformers argued that orderly harmonies reflected God’s beauty and sought for the harmonies of 18th century music to be taught to congregants and used in worship.  They also advocated hymns that adhered to Scripture, but were not literal passages.  Those opposing the reforms argued that it smacked of high-church Anglicanism and cited Puritan tradition.  By 1722 Cotton Mather had introduced the new singing into Sunday worship, and by 1726 when Edwards began his work in Northampton most of Stoddard’s congregation knew how to sing in parts.   

Hellfire and the Halfway Covenant: Stoddard and Edwards

            The great Puritan preacher, well known for his hellfire and brimstone sermons, Solomon Stoddard was at the end of his life in this decade.  Stoddard’s preaching of wrath and judgment greatly influenced Edward’s own teachings.  Learning from Stoddard, Edwards wrote in his Miscellanies, “The best philosophy that I have met with, of original sin and all sinful inclinations, habits and principles, is undoubtedly that of Mr. Stoddard’s, of this town of Northampton.[8]

            In February 1727, Edwards went to preach alongside Stoddard in his ministry at Northampton.  Although Edwards began to question Stoddard’s views on the Lord’s Supper and the covenant, he did not come to any definite conclusions at this time.

            In February of 1929, Stoddard died, leaving a huge legacy in the Puritan community.  His church, however, was in Edwards capable hands and he easily and skillfully stepped into his new position.


Miscellaneous: The World at Large

            In this decade, some other notable things occurred that perhaps didn’t reach Edwards’ ears, but a few are important to know.

            In 1728, the Bering Strait was discovered by Vitrus Bering.  This shows the extent of exploration and discovery occurring in the decade.

            In 1728 as well, Jewish colonists in New York City built the first American synagogue, further illustrating the growth and emergence of new religions in America.

            From 1722 to 1725, Dummer’s War, or the Three Years War, occurred in the northern British colonies of Massachusetts, Nova Scotia and New Hampshire.  It was a clash over the ownership of these regions.


Edwards: Changes and Growth

            These ten years also included a lot of personal development in Edwards’ life.  After completing his graduate studies in 1722, Edwards began to preach to a Presbyterian congregation in New York City, a pastorate which ended just a year later.  In 1724, Edwards became a tutor at Yale, a position that was abruptly stopped by illness that came on in 1725.  After being ordained as an assistant pastor at Stoddard’s church in Northampton, Edwards married Sarah Pierpont, Stoddard’s granddaughter in July of 1727.  In 1728, Jonathan and Sarah’s first child, baby Sarah, was born.  Edwards became the senior pastor of the church in Northampton, only to become ill again in 1729.  In June of that year he suffered from a physical collapse but was able to resume his work the month after.  The 1720’s ended with the death of Edwards’ sister in December of 1729.  One of Edwards’ later daughters was named after her.

Andrews, William D.  “The Literature of the 1727 New England Earthquake.” Early American Literature. 1973

Hornberger, Theodore. “The Science of Thomas Prince.” The New England Quarterly. 1936

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

Minkema, Kenneth P., ed.  Sermons and Discourses 1723-1729. Yale University Press, 1997

Morris, William Sparkes. The Young Jonathan Edwards: A Reconstruction. Carlson Publishing Inc., 1991

[1] Kenneth P. Minkema, ed.  The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 14 (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1997) 36.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Sea_Company

[3] www.buyandhold.com/bh/en/education/history/2004/swift.html

[4] Minkema, ibid. 

[5] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003) 84.

[6] Ibid, 143.

[7] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003) 143.

[8] Ibid, 84.