George Mardsen, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, is widely acknowledged as the premier historian of the life of the Puritan pastor Johnathan Edwards. Prior to this briefer history, in 2003, Mardsen published a full-length biography called Jonathan Edwards: A Life. It was the recipient of numerous awards.
Most Americans are vaguely familiar with the fiery preacher whose sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is still widely anthologized. While this is his most famous work, Edwards of course, wrote many others. Unfortunately, as this is the only sermon well-known, modern readers often get an almost-cartoonish picture of the man. Mardsen sets the record straight, in both this abbreviated biography as well as his longer work.
As Mardsen shows, Edwards was the poster-child for Puritanism in the years before the American Revolution. During this time, preachers were often the most educated and therefore, the most influential, citizens of any town. This was quite a change from life in England, where Puritans had been a tormented minority; the reverse was true in New England. Here, Puritans were the largest group to form the first settlements and as such, formed a "cultural monopoly."
Johnathan Edwards (1703-1758) was the only son in a family of ten sisters. At the tender age of thirteen he attended what would become Yale College, where he attended seminary. At age 23, he accepted a position as a pastor at a church in Northampton, Massachusetts, a town of just one thousand people, situated about one hundred miles west of Boston. There he stayed for the next twenty-two years. The time known as the "Great Revival" occurred during Edwards' watch, and he became a leader among the movement. He also carefully documented the events of his time, in effect becoming the historian of the Great Revival as well. During this same time, Edwards family grew and grew; after marrying his wife Sarah, the couple had ten children.
Edwards is responsible for penning some of the most important religious works of the eighteenth century including A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God and Treatise on Religious Affections
In 1748, ten years prior to Edwards' death, the preacher was voted out of the church that he had led for decades. His views had become too restrictive for many in the congregation, especially in regard to church membership and the taking of sacraments.
Without a church home, Edwards spent time in mission work, counseling Native Americans in Stockbridge, New York. Eventually, in 1758, Edwards was offered the presidency of Princeton University. Sadly, he was to die just ten weeks later, at the age of 54, ironically as a result of a small pox inoculation he got to protect him from the dreaded, deadly disease that had killed so many.
Mardsen's deftly told tale of the famous preacher helps readers see not the stereotype, but a man who was "a passionate visionary, a world-class intellectual, and an intense ascetic who lived in a very real world of a large energetic family and a volatile and often contentious village."
As the book concludes, the biographer urges his readers to learn from Edwards, whom he calls a "a man of "God-centered integrity" and "remarkable consistency of his life and thought." Everything he did, Mardsen argues, came from a place of passion and a desire to glorify God.