No American theologian has had a greater impact on evangelicalism than Jonathan Edwards (1703–58). Born in East Windsor, Connecticut, on October 5, 1703, Edwards was the only boy of eleven children born to the Reverend Timothy Edwards and Esther Stoddard. After receiving instruction from his father in theology as well as biblical and ancient languages, Edwards entered Connecticut’s collegiate school (renamed Yale College in 1718) close to his thirteenth birthday, graduating as the class valedictorian in 1720. He stayed at Yale to study for an MA and then briefly ministered at a Presbyterian church in New York City, from August 1722 to April 1723. After a stint as a pastor in Bolton, Connecticut, he returned to Yale as a tutor and, in 1726, accepted his grandfather’s invitation to serve as his clerical assistant at the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards’s maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, was something of a legend back then. He was one of the most powerful clergymen in New England at that time, reigning over the town for some sixty years until his death in 1729. Given Stoddard’s long tenure and the respect he garnered, Edwards had his work cut out for him when he ascended to his grandfather’s pulpit.
At the end of 1734, Northampton became the site of a significant revival that lasted into the late spring of 1735. Edwards published an account of the town’s spiritual transformation in 1737 as A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which brought him international recognition. Despite Edwards’s fame, he was deposed from his office in 1750. While unparalleled intellectually, he lacked certain social skills. Rather than making house calls to his parishioners, he preferred studying twelve to fourteen hours a day in solitary confinement. In the time before his dismissal, Edwards attempted to rescind the precedent set by his grandfather, who allowed the baptism and communion of those who had not experienced conversion. More conservative than Stoddard in his ecclesiology, Edwards wanted to institute a policy whereby only full members, and upon a declaration of faith, would be able to participate in the Lord’s Supper and baptize their children. Out of touch with many of the most important parishioners in his congregation, and without a substantial patron to back his rigid policies, Edwards and his family were forced out of Northampton. After a year of searching, he took a position in 1751 as a minister to a small community of mixed settlers and Native Americans in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. There he stayed until 1758, when he accepted a call by the trustees of the College of New Jersey to fill a vacancy as president of the school, replacing his recently deceased son-in-law, Aaron Burr Sr. Tragically, Edwards died on March 22, 1758 from complications after a smallpox inoculation, barely a month after assuming office.
One of the benefits of living on the frontier in western Massachusetts was that it allowed Edwards more time for research and writing. While at Stockbridge he wrote Freedom of the Will, which had an enormous impact on subsequent generations of his admirers. Published in 1754, Freedom of the Will was Edwards’s attempt to refute contemporary theorists positing that a self-determining will could make choices irrespective of outside circumstances or motives. Edwards argued that the will, which he did not define as a separate faculty from the mind, chooses that which appeals to its strongest desires. Accordingly, no one can make decisions that are completely neutral or unbiased. Edwards called this type of limitation, “moral necessity.” When faced with several choices, the will is morally obligated to choose the most appealing option. As this process unfolds, God does not force anyone to act in a certain way. Rather, people choose the deepest desires of their heart. The problem, according to Edwards, is that humanity has an unquenchable thirst for sin, which adversely influences their choices. In addition to the notion of moral necessity, he also introduced “natural necessity,” which he tied to the natural laws that govern the universe. Here, a person is physically limited so that, for instance, even if one wanted to jump out of a four-story building and land safety, he or she would be unable to do so because of the laws of gravity. The combination of moral and natural necessity means that although a person is physically able to make a number of choices (he or she is not “naturally” inhibited), the outcome of those decisions is certain since one’s moral proclivity dictates the result. Even though the unregenerate have a natural freedom to love and obey God, they nevertheless lack the moral freedom to do so. While Freedom of the Will may come across as too abstract, Edwards had a practical application in mind, for he wanted to prove that humans are hopelessly enslaved to sin unless divine grace is given to counteract their inherent evil cravings.