Sarah Pierpont Edwards Criticism - Essay

Elisabeth D. Dodds (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Dodds, Elisabeth D. “To the Breaking Point and Back” and “Rumblings.” In Marriage to a Difficult Man: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, pp. 95-106; 107-113. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.

[In the following essays, Dodds discusses the episode of spiritual and emotional crisis in 1742 that changed Edwards's life, and she comments on Edwards's relationship with her husband.]

To see in the “eternal feminine's” ideal of passivity and self-containment the seeds of self-paralysis and self-alienation is the great task of the modern era, resembling that task already recognized to establish, through love, the authentic self of the infant.

Dan Sullivan

We wish we could erase the whole month of January, 1742. But because this episode in the life of Sarah Edwards was so peculiar, so unlike the character she showed in all the rest of her years, it is inescapable.

Here we don't like her at all. The serene mother becomes limply needful. The patient wife comes to the end of her patience. The attractive hostess becomes grotesque—jabbering, hallucinating, idiotically fainting. We are embarrassed for her. But isn't this what each of us does in our bad dreams? what sometimes we refrain from doing by the thinnest edge of self-control? what we finally do when we have a nervous breakdown?

Here Sarah stands exposed as a fully human woman. One with a breaking point as any woman has. Before, she had been too good to be true.

But, and here is mystery, this blackness was over soon and she never went through such an episode again. We would prefer to dodge this awkward spot, but it is the heart of her story. Such a period of anguish seems to be often the necessary step before a person fully feels the transforming power of God. This was Jacob's night of wrestling with the angel, Benedict's roll in the rosebush, the mythic struggle.

Neither is there any explanation for the peace that comes on the far side of such confusion. Jacob was blessed by the angel as dawn broke. Benedict went on to preserve the life of the intellect through the Dark Ages. Sarah went back to her routine, more efficient than before. But for one month in 1742, as snow sparkled on the Hampshire hills, Sarah Edwards went to pieces.

For the first fourteen years of the marriage of Sarah and Jonathan Edwards, she seemed to the outside world to be the sunny and stable member of the team. While Edwards pampered his headaches and his finicky colon, she would scarcely pause when she shucked off a baby. Hopkins reports of her:

She was unmindful of any pain or affliction. … As he was of a weakly, infirm constitution … she was a tender nurse to him, cheerfully attending upon him at all times, and in all things ministering to his comfort.

The wife expected to be Spartan in those days. One woman wrote in her diary: “Took Physic and consulted the physician, all to no purpose. Suspected the disorder to be nervous, faced about, put on great resolution and made mince pies and found myself no worse than before.”

The casual observer saw the difficult husband, the endlessly giving wife. Actually, more than anyone on the outside guessed, she leaned on him. Though she carried all the practical details of managing the house, Sarah depended on Edwards for her own spiritual replenishment. She would dart into his study during the day, confident that no matter how intent he was on his writing, he would put down his pen and turn to her with lighted face. She fed on his leadership of family prayers and on the quiet time she and Edwards spent together on devotions after the children were in bed, the time that put a benediction on all the bustle of the daylight hours. When Edwards was away, she had to carry all the complex administration of a large household without nourishment for her own inner self, without someone she could allow to share her fears and failings. She could take anything but his absences.

Edwards knew this and he worried about the mounting calls upon him to travel. He confided to Bellamy on January 21, 1742: “I desire your Prayers that God would quicken and Revive us again and particularly that he would greatly humble and pardon and quicken me.” He went on to turn down an invitation to speak in Connecticut, with this explanation: “I have lately been so much gone from my People and don't know but I must be obliged to leave 'em again next week for a fortnight, being called to Leicester, a town about halfway to Boston … and probably soon after that to another place, and having at this Time some Extraordinary affairs to attend to at Home.”

These were the “Extraordinary affairs” he mentioned: On January 19, as Sarah described herself,

I felt very uneasy and unhappy. … I thought I very much needed help from God. … I had for some time been earnestly wrestling with God. … I felt within myself great quietness of spirit, unusual … willingness to wait upon him, with respect to the time and manner in which he should help me, and wished that he should take his own time and his own way to do it.

In spite of this protestation about her patience with God, her nerves were actually stretched like an overtuned viola, so that she was crushed when, the next morning, Edwards mildly pointed out to her that she might have been tactless in a conversation she had had the previous day with “Mr. Williams of Hadley.” (This was probably the same relative who had been huffy since the first days of the Awakening, and had since snubbed every irenic gesture from the Edwardses. This deteriorated relationship had increasingly bothered Sarah.) When Edwards suggested that she might have handled Williams more adroitly, she crumbled.

I found that it seemed to bereave me of the quietness and calm of my mind, in any respect not to have the good opinion of my husband. This I much disliked in myself.

She goes on to explain:

The peace and calm of my mind … seemed sensibly above the reach of disturbance from anything but these two: 1st my own good name and fair reputation among men, and especially the esteem and just treatment of the people of this town; 2dly And, more especially, the esteem and love and kind treatment of my husband.

So Edwards, in his casual remark about her handling of the difficult Mr. Williams, punctured Sarah's two most vulnerable points—her anxiety about offending people and her need to be approved by her husband. Edwards had not been able to extricate himself from the date in Leicester, so he took off the next day, and her first anxiety swept over Sarah.

It is curious that a minister's wife feels she has to be popular in a parish. If a man does his work as well as he is able, his own conscience should provide a measure of his success. Yet almost all ministers' wives appear to need assurance that they, too, are accepted warmly by the people. This illogical human need was now nibbling at Sarah Edwards.

A young man named Buell had come to fill the pulpit while Edwards was absent. Sarah says of him:

I heard that Mr. Buell was coming to this town, and from what I had heard of him and of his success, I had strong hopes that there would be great effects from his labors here. At the same time … it greatly concerned me to watch my heart and see to it that I was perfectly resigned to God, with respect to the instruments he should make use of to revive religion in this town, and be entirely willing, if it was God's pleasure, that he should make use of Mr. Buell.

This, being translated, may have meant that she was afraid the people might like Mr. Buell better than they liked her husband, and that she disliked herself for feeling that way.

Often an older minister has plugged along and then had an attractive assistant whiz in, full of youthful energy and ambition. The older man may rejoice that his young associate can reach certain people who had not been touched before, but only a rare minister is not threatened. After the muted Edwards, the people of the congregation enjoyed the masculine vitality of young Buell. Edwards, on his part, had no competitiveness in his makeup. He was simply delighted by anyone of ability who could add to the work of the Kingdom. However, Edwards had always been impervious to social nuances. Sarah, whose genius was her ability to tune in on the feelings of other people, was on the other hand exceptionally vulnerable to hostility. The threat of Buell almost undid her before she was freed of jealousy forever.

President Clap at Yale had disapproved of Buell because he had appointed himself evangelist and gone riding around Connecticut in a revival team with Eleazar Wheelock, afterward founder of Dartmouth College. Buell later admitted that he had been guilty of “some imprudence and indecent heats.” He said this before the Fairfield Association of Clergy, when he was asking them to ordain him. The older clergy thought Buell needed some tempering before he could qualify for ordination, so they sent him to study under Edwards. He promptly captivated the congregation, and Sarah was confronted by the need to take into her household a guest who was more popular than her husband was.

A wife who is sensitive to social opinions feels them most sharply during a minister's absence from the parish. As a single tree on a hillside is likely to draw lightning, so the minister in a Puritan community was a lone oak, a large target for speculation, gossip, and misinterpretation. When Edwards was around, he absorbed these pressures, partly because of his God-centered serenity, and partly because he was so absentminded that he did not pick up the vibrations in the community. When he was away, Sarah picked them up alone. She saw a stout old lady, whom Edwards never coddled, purring as she told Mr. Buell about herself. And why had that knot of people lowered their voices as Sarah walked toward the church porch? Old Mrs. Hawley, teacup and knitting in her bag, was turning up a neighbor's path, for an afternoon chat. What would they talk about? With Edwards away, Sarah had no one to absorb her fears. When she could take them to her husband, he helped her see the smallness of the world of Northampton in perspective against the vast sweep of the starry skies; against the infinite mysteries of the atom; and against the other cities and countries where the Edwards name was becoming known with increasing respect. He cared about the little world of their parish, but he saw it in relation to the rest of God's world. Without Edwards near to steady her, Sarah cracked.

The beady eye of the modern psychiatrist might spot the phase she entered as a manic one. She thought she was passing through a period of religious ecstasy.

On Wednesday morning … I sat still in entire resignedness to God and willingness that God should bless his [Buell's] labors here as much as he pleased. … I rejoiced when I saw the honor which God put upon him, and the respect paid him by the people, and the greater success attending his preaching than had followed the preaching of Mr. Edwards.

She tried to persuade herself that she really believed this when she went in the afternoon at three o'clock to a lecture preached by Buell.

We remained in the meeting house about three hours, after the public exercises were over. During most of the time, my bodily strength was overcome, and the joy and thankfulness which were excited in my mind … led me to converse with those who were near me in a very earnest manner.

After this jag of compulsive talking, Sarah came home to find Buell there, talking with five guests, including her next-door neighbor Eleanor Dwight.1 She relates that the “intenseness of my feelings again took away my bodily strength. … I could with difficulty refrain from rising from my seat and leaping for joy.”

The next day she went on managing the household—burped babies, planned food for the extra house guests, supervised snow-shoveling, but she “engaged in the duties of my family with a sweet consciousness that God was present with me.” About eleven o'clock that morning, she accidentally went into one room where Buell was talking with somebody, and she quietly fainted. Buell applied a peculiar first-aid procedure. He read aloud a hymn of Isaac Watts which “made so strong an impression on my mind and my soul was drawn so powerfully towards Christ and heaven that I leaped unconsciously from my chair.”

With that, Sarah fainted again and the concerned guests put her in bed, where she “lay for a considerable time, faint with joy.” By this time, the whole town was buzzing. Mrs. Samuel Phelps openly worried that Sarah would die before Edwards returned “and he should think the people had killed his wife.” What young Mr. Buell thought would be interesting to know. The neighbors took turns holding the household together, while Sarah

lay on the bed from 12 o'clock till four, being too exhausted by joy to rise and sit up; and during most of the time, my feelings prompted me to converse very earnestly with one and another of those who were present.

“Enthusiasm” is an eighteenth-century word, which was used in the sense that a person was ridiculous to the verge of insanity in his religious zeal. (Dr. Johnson defined it as “vain confidence of divine favor or communication.”) The mildest description of the day Sarah spent then would be “enthusiastic.” The subject of sainthood is still mysterious. Some modern observers think that all religious extremes are pathological. Back in 1902 the Harvard psychologist William James, asked to deliver the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, examined The Varieties of Religious Experience. James's method of separating true religious experience from insanity he called “pragmatism,” the objective scrutiny of (1) a phenomena and (2) its result. James analyzed the reports about many people who were considered saints and isolated three factors that were present in all the stories. First, the subject went through a term of restlessness, of anguished wrestling. Then came a crisis, a vision. The aftermath was joy, peace, freedom, “a transition from tenseness, self-responsibility and worry, to equanimity, receptivity and peace.” James's words precisely describe the steps through which Sarah was to pass, and her case is a large portion of James's chapter entitled “Saintliness.”

What happened to Sarah Edwards during that snowy week of January, 1742, her husband believed to be a theological crisis, part of...

(The entire section is 6236 words.)

Amanda Porterfield (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Porterfield, Amanda. “Bridal Passion and New England Puritanism.” In Feminine Spirituality in America: From Sarah Edwards to Martha Graham, pp. 19–50. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Porterfield examines the connection between femininity and Puritan spirituality by looking at Edwards's life in relation to her husband's theology.]

For New England Puritans, religious life was more than a conceptual enterprise; it was the personal experience of spiritual events that composed the glory of God. In this kind of religious life, moments of ecstasy were actually and acutely sensational, as were moments of despair. God could...

(The entire section is 4728 words.)

William M. Shea (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Shea, William M. “Jonathan Edwards and Sarah Pierpont: An Uncommon Union.” In Foundations of Religious Literacy, edited by John V. Apczynski, pp. 107-26. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Shea argues that Jonathan Edwards's theological defense of the first Great Awakening was dependent upon his wife's descriptions of her religious experience.]


Ritual printing in college anthologies of Jonathan Edwards' gripping sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” exhausted religious interest in him for the past century.1 In an unusual compliment to the literary power of this Calvinist, even...

(The entire section is 10155 words.)

Julie Ellison (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ellison, Julie. “The Sociology of ‘Holy Indifference’: Sarah Edwards' Narrative.” American Literature 56, no. 4 (December 1984): 479-95.

[In the following essay, Ellison examines Edwards's narrative and her husband's revision of it, which, she states, provides insight into the complex connections between social conflict and religious experience.]

Dr. Hopkins, the Edwardsean theologian of Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Minister's Wooing (1859), describes his youthful beloved through an extended reference to Sarah Edwards. “It was my privilege,” he recalls,

to be in the family of President Edwards at a time...

(The entire section is 6542 words.)

Laura Henigman (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Henigman, Laura. “Flowing and Reflowing: Dialogic Emanations.” In Coming into Communion: Pastoral Dialogues in Colonial New England, pp. 151-76. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Henigman analyzes the manner in which Jonathan Edwards appropriated and revised his wife's account of her experiences and used it in his own writing.]

In the winter of 1742, western Massachusetts was in the midst of a religious revival. People throughout the commonwealth—and in other colonies as well—were reporting extraordinary experiences of the Holy Spirit. Seven years previously, the towns of the Connecticut Valley had provided a...

(The entire section is 12727 words.)