The Edwardses: A ministerial family in eighteenth century New England

Date of Completion

January 1988


History, United States




Jonathan Edwards, today hailed as the foremost colonial American thinker, has emerged as an important figure in the rewriting of New England history. Edwardsean scholars are revising the image of him as an isolated genius by looking at him within a cultural context, attempting to discover what he had in common with his times. This dissertation seeks to extend this approach by exploring for the first time the inter-connectedness of the three generations of the Edwards family of pastors, one of the most prominent families in eighteenth-century New England, showing how each generation influenced the next.^ The collective careers of Timothy Edwards (1669-1758), Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), and Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801) reflect a period in which New England, not to mention the thirteen British American colonies, underwent tremendous change. Yet, the transformation of New England thought and society was accommodated and guided by vital strains of Puritan thought, piety, and temperament. Much of that experience is illuminated through the Edwards family.^ Recent historians have emphasized the persistence of Puritanism in opposition to the traditional "declension" model, which posits that seventeenth-century piety and doctrine had all but disappeared by the early eighteenth century. The Edwardses typified their fellow provincials in retaining Puritanism while addressing contemporary issues. In particular, this study explores the Edwards' reliance on the comprehensive Puritan construct of the covenant theology, which addressed the terms of national prosperity, church maintenance, and individual conversion; the role of family culture in inculcating religious persuasion; the personalities of each of the Edwardses and how their temperaments, generally not as exalted as their intellects, affected their careers; and their often ambivalent relationships with their congregations within the broader context of lay-clerical relationships in New England.^ But the Edwardses were not passive receptors of teachings handed down from the past. Their determination was to make Calvinism relevant and engaging. Their reassertion, reinterpretation, and refinement of Puritan tenets not only reflected but also instigated changes in evangelical techniques, pulpit rhetoric, and religious psychology, and provided fuel for late eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century debates in philosophy, social ethics, and ecclesiology. ^