by Camille Van Buren
There are many great men within American history. Their stories are of dedication to various aspects of American life from the founding of our nation to heroism in battlefields defending her. History easily remembers the men who spent their lives fortifying America, but it often forgets the men who impacted our nation through their faith in God. Many of these stories of faith are found in Puritan America; a time when faith was the foundation of family, church and community. These men, such as John Winthrop, David Brainerd, Cotton Mather, and George Whitefield laid the foundation of faith on which a nation was built. And the backbone of these men lay in the women who supported them. One particularly strong woman was Sarah Pierrepont Edwards, the wife of Jonathan Edwards. Sarah was not just another woman on the pages of history; rather, her amazing faith became her legacy. Sarah’s virtue was intertwined in the three major relationships in her life: her husband, her children and her God. It was through these relationships that she found and lived her faith to such an extent that the ripples of her faith are still being felt today.
Sarah and Jonathan saw their marriage, as did most of their Puritan counterparts, as an analogy of a Christian’s relationship to God. Thus their marriage was rooted not only in love for each other but also in a deep commitment to God. On his death bed Jonathan’s last thoughts were not of theology, but of his wife as he bid her farewell: “I hope she shall be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God.”1 Sarah first attracted Edwards at the early age of 13 because of her unusually deep faith in God. The attraction was mutual and was intensified by their shared devotion to that “Great Being who created all things.” Just as God was the center of the Puritan town, it was all the center of the Edwards’ marriage.
Their love and dependence was a shared affection: Sarah needed Jonathan and Jonathan needed Sarah. Despite the busy and intense schedules that both kept, he in studying and she in running a household, neither one deprived the other of any attention. Sarah knew that if she ever needed her husband all she had to do was walk into his study and she would have his undivided attention. Likewise, all Jonathan had to do was ask and she would leave an older child in charge of the house so she could take a walk or a ride with her husband. It was during these private times that Jonathan and Sarah would talk about their anxieties and problems; Jonathan would tell Sarah about his newest ideas from his studies and she would share about her growth in faith. It was because of these quiet moments together that they grew to know the heights and depths of each other’s souls and this provided for a very loving environment in which to grow.
Sarah’s relationship with her husband directly influenced her relationships with her children. Sarah’s faith, as she lived it out, was deeply rooted in her belief that she was the supporting structure of her household. Her relationships with her children were modeled after Christ’s relationships with others. She rarely raised her voice and never used any physical discipline. She demanded obedience in a patient, loving and reasonable manner. It was Sarah who was in charge of the everyday aspects of colonial living; thus, leaving Jonathan time to study, think and write. She learned to be an administrator in assigning the children daily chores which she did in a unique way by giving the children tasks according to what they enjoyed doing.
Sarah was extremely supportive of her children’s development into self-autonomy, even when the result of a decision may have been harmful. When her daughter Jerusha was taken with David Brainerd Sarah allowed her unmarried daughter to be his traveling companion and to act as his nurse. She supported her son Timothy when he chose to move out of his sister’s home at Princeton in an attempt to try and distance himself from being related to the President of the university. With the same quiet authority she had exercised when her children were young, she allowed them to grow and make decisions on their own.
Her children grew up to raise their children in the same manner she had used and this method was passed on for generations. The impact that she had is evident when looking at the family that followed her. By 1900 her descendants included:
13 college presidents
Almost all of her male descendants had college degrees and many earned graduate degrees at times when such and advanced education was uncommon. Even the women were described by their contemporaries as remarkably intelligent at a time when women were not highly educated. Members of the family had written 135 books and edited 18 journals and periodicals, and many followed their patriarch’s example by becoming ministers and missionaries.2 Sarah and Jonathan, through no plan or will of their own, had started a family that would continue to be blessed long after their presence on earth had ended. Again, it was Sarah’s deep faith that enabled her to raise such a strong and lasting family.
It was Sarah’s faith that gave her the ability to persevere and lead such an amazing life. Her relationships with her husband and children was rooted in the most important relationship of her life—her love of God. Most of what we know about Sarah’s walk with Christ is through the writings of her husband. Jonathan had always looked to Sarah as a model of Christian piety and humility. When he had just barely met her he wrote:
Edwards was astounded by the depth of her relationship with Christ went. Edwards believed that color was simply the movement of light, and those who experienced the movement of light saw God himself working colorfully in nature; he believed Sarah embodied a divine light that instilled within her the principle of grace that had caused her salvation. It was her beauty, both physical and spiritual, that was the color displayed by this divine light.3
It was during the Great Awakening that Sarah intensely experienced the grace of God. Edwards wrote about his wife’s experience in Some Thoughts on the Present Revival. The night before he was to leave for two weeks he gently reprimanded Sarah about the way she had dealt with a visitor in their home; this remark seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The dauntless mother grew impatient and the peaceful spirit grew irritated; Sarah fell to pieces. Sarah became extremely jealous of the young man who had traveled to Northampton to fill her husband’s pulpit. She worried that the people would like him better and oust Edwards. She wrote:
For a month in1742 Sarah Edwards experienced an intense encounter with God and Jonathan believed it to be a part of her conversion. She experienced numerous fainting spells and had to be put to bed many times; she told Edwards that during these episodes she swam in the light of Christ’s love and that a “constant stream of sweet light” swam between herself and her Savior.5 Then as quickly as the episodes had begun, they ceased.
After this experience Sarah was even more gracious, patient and loving than before. She carried absolutely no resentment towards anyone or anything. Sarah had become even more of a saint than before. She stopped straining to please God and learned to live in his grace. At one time after this she fretted over whether or not her husband still loved her and concluded that if he did not it was no matter; she would carry on as usual because it glorified Christ. Sarah had gained absolute denial of the self for the cause of Christ.
It was these three primary relationships in Sarah Edward’s life that left a mark on American history. Her story is found only through the writings of those who knew her intimately: her children, her husband, and her boarders. It was her calm and control that has amazed generations of people who read and study about her. And it was her deep faith and trust in God that gave her these attributes. The strong woman of God that Sarah Edwards was continues to live on in her family and her spirit will always be captured in the writings of the man who cherished her most, her husband. Her impact in the 18th century was, at the time, inconsequential; but, the blessing of her life will always make her the uncommon Sarah Edwards.
Camille Van Buren. Papers from Hillsdale College, REL 319 Eighteenth Century Theology: Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism.
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