His father Timothy Edwards (1669-1758), son of a prosperous merchant of Hartford, had graduated at Harvard University, was minister at East Windsor, and eked out his salary by tutoring boys for college. His mother, a daughter of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, of Northampton, Mass., seems to have been a woman of unusual mental gifts and independence of character. Jonathan, the only son, was the fifth of eleven children. The boy was trained for college by his father and by his elder sisters, who all received an excellent education. When ten years old he wrote a semi-humorous tract on the immateriality of the soul; he was interested in natural history, and at the age of twelve wrote a remarkable essay on the habits of the "flying spider."
He entered Yale College in 1716, at just under the age of thirteen. In the following year he became acquainted with John Locke's Essay, which influenced him profoundly. During his college course he kept note books labelled "The Mind," "Natural Science" (containing a discussion of the atomic theory),"The Scriptures" and "Miscellanies," had a grand plan for a work on natural and mental philosophy, and drew up for himself rules for its composition. Even before his graduation in September 1720 as valedictorian and head of his class, he seems to have had a well formulated philosophy. The two years after his graduation he spent in New Haven studying theology.
In 1722-1723 he was for eight months stated supply of a small Presbyterian Church in New York City, which invited him to remain, but he declined the call, spent two months in study at home, and then in 1724-1726 was one of the two tutors at Yale, earning for himself the name of a "pillar tutor"; by his steadfast loyalty to the college and its orthodox teaching at the time when Yale's rector (Cutler) and one of her tutors had gone over to the Episcopal Church.
The years 1720 to 1726 are partially recorded in his diary and in the resolutions for his own conduct which he drew up at this time. He had long been an eager seeker after salvation and was not fully satisfied as to his own "conversion" until an experience in his last year in college, when he lost his feeling that the election of some to salvation and of others to eternal damnation was "a horrible doctrine," and reckoned it "exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet." He now took a great and new joy in the beauties of nature, and delighted in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon. Balancing these mystic joys is the stern tone of his Resolutions, in which he is almost ascetic in his eagerness to live earnestly and soberly, to waste no time, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
On the 5th of February 1727 he was ordained minister at Northampton and assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He was a student minister, not a visiting pastor, his rule being thirteen hours of study a day. In the same year he married Sarah Pierrepont, then aged seventeen, daughter of James Pierrepont (1659-1714), a founder of Yale, and through her mother great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker. Of her piety and almost nun-like love of God and belief in His personal love for her, Edwards had known when she was only thirteen, and had written of it with spiritual enthusiasm; she was of a bright and cheerful disposition, a practical housekeeper, a model wife and the mother of his twelve children. Solomon Stoddard died on the 11th of February 1729, leaving to his grandson the difficult task of the sole ministerial charge of one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the colony, and one proud of its morality, its culture and its reputation.
In 1731 Edwards preached at Boston the "Public Lecture" afterwards published under the title God Glorified -in Man's Dependence. This was his first public attack on Arminianism. The leading thought was God's absolute sovereignty in the work of redemption: that while it behoved God to create man holy, it was of His "good pleasure" and "mere and arbitrary grace" that any man was now made holy, and that God might deny this grace without any disparagement to any of His perfections. In 1733 a revival of religion began in Northampton, and reached such intensity in the winter of 1734 and the following spring as to threaten the business of the town. In six months nearly three hundred were admitted to the church. The revival gave Edwards an opportunity of studying the process of conversion in all its phases and varieties, and he recorded his observations with psychological minuteness and discrimination in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton (1737). A year later he published Discourses on Various Important Subjects, the five sermons which had proved most effective in the revival, and of these none, he tells us, was so immediately effective as that on the Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, from the text, "That every mouth may be stopped." Another sermon, published in 1734, on the Reality of Spiritual Light set forth what he regarded as the inner, moving principle of the revival, the doctrine of a special grace in the immediate ,and supernatural divine illumination of the soul.
In the spring of 1735 the movement began to subside and a reaction set in. But the relapse was brief, and the Northampton revival, which had spread through the Connecticut valley and whose fame had reached England and Scotland, was followed in 1739-1740 by the Great Awakening, distinctively under the leadership of Edwards. It was at this time that Edwards became acquainted with George Whitefield and preached one of his most famous sermons, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Enfield, CT in 1741. The movement met with no sympathy from the orthodox leaders of the church. In 1741 Edwards published in its defence The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, dealing particularly with the phenomena most criticized, the swoonings, outcries and convulsions. These "bodily effects," he insisted, were not distinguishing marks of the work of the Spirit of God; but so bitter was the feeling against the revival in the more strictly Puritan churches that in 1742 he was forced to write a second apology, Thoughts on the Revival in New England, his main argument being the great moral improvement of the country. In the same pamphlet he defends an appeal to the emotions, and advocates preaching terror when necessary, even to children, who in God's sight "are young vipers . . . if not Christ's." He considers "bodily effects" incidentals to the real work of God, but his own mystic devotion and the experiences of his wife during the Awakening (which he gives in detail) make him think that the divine visitation usually overpowers the body, a view in support of which he quotes Scripture. In reply to Edwards, Charles Chauncy anonymously wrote The Late Religious Commotions in New England Considered (1743), urging conduct as the sole test of conversion; and the general convention of Congregational ministers in the Province of Massachusetts Bay protested "against disorders in practice which have of late obtained in various parts of the land."
In spite of Edwards's able pamphlet, the impression had become widespread that "bodily effects" were recognized by the promoters of the Great Awakening as the true tests of conversion. To offset this feeling Edwards preached at Northampton during the years 1742 and 1743 a series of sermons published under the title of Religious Affections (1746), a restatement in a more philosophical and general tone of his ideas as to "distinguishing marks." In 1747 he joined the movement started in Scotland called the "concert in prayer," and in the same year published An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom on Earth. In 1749 he published a memoir of David Brainerd; the latter had lived in his family for several months, had been constantly attended by Edwards's daughter Jerusha, to whom he had been engaged to be married, and had died at Northampton on the 7th of October 1747; and he had been a case in point for the theories of conversion held by Edwards, who had made elaborate notes of Brainerd's conversations and confessions.
In 1748 there had come a crisis in his relations with his congregation. The Half-Way Covenant adopted by the synods of 1657 and 1662 had made baptism alone the condition to the civil privileges of church membership, but not of participation in the sacrament of the Supper. Edwards's grandfather and predecessor, Solomon Stoddard, had been even more liberal, holding that the Supper was a converting ordinance and that baptism was a sufficient title to all the privileges of the church. As early as 1744 Edwards, in his sermons on the Religious Affections, had plainly intimated his dislike of this practice. In the same year he had published in a church meeting the names of certain young people, members of the church, who were suspected of reading improper books, and also the names of those who were to be called as witnesses in the case. But witnesses and accused were not distinguished on this list, and the congregation was in an uproar. A great many, fearing a scandal, now opposed an investigation which all had previously favoured. Edwards's preaching became unpopular; for four years no candidate presented himself for admission to the church; and when one did in 1748, and was met with Edwards's formal but mild and gentle tests, as expressed in the Distinguishing Marks and later in Qualifications for Full Communion (1749) the candidate refused to submit to them; the church backed him and the break was complete. Even permission to discuss his views in the pulpit was refused him. The ecclesiastical council voted that the pastoral relation be dissolved. The church by a vote of more than 200 to 23 ratified the action of the council, and finally a town meeting voted that Edwards should not be allowed to occupy the Northampton pulpit, though he did this on occasion as late as May 1755. He evinced no rancour or spite; his "Farewell Sermon" was dignified and temperate; nor is it to be ascribed to chagrin that in a letter to Scotland after his dismissal he expresses his preference for Presbyterian to Congregational church government. His position at the time was not unpopular throughout New England, and it is needless to say that his doctrine that the Lord's Supper is not a cause of regeneration and that communicants should be professing Christians has since (very largely through the efforts of his pupil Joseph Bellamy) become a standard of New England Congregationalism.
Edwards with his large family was now thrown upon the world, but offers of aid quickly came to him. A parish in Scotland could have been procured, and he was called to a Virginia church. He declined both, to become in 1750 pastor of the church in Stockbridge and a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. To the Indians he preached through an interpreter, and their interests he boldly and successfully defended by attacking the whites who were using their official position among them to increase their private fortunes. In Stockbridge he wrote the Humble Relation, also called Reply to Williams (1752), which was an answer to Solomon Williams (1700-1776), a relative and a bitter opponent of Edwards as to the qualifications for full communion; and he there composed the treatises on which his reputation as a philosophical theologian chiefly rests, the essay on Original Sin, the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, the Dissertation Concerning the End for which God created the World, and the great work on the Will, written in four months and a half, and published in 1754 under the title, An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Motions Respecting that Freedom of the Will which is supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency.
In 1757, on the death of President Burr, who five years before had married Edwards's daughter Esther and was the father of future US vice-president Aaron Burr, he reluctantly accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he was installed on the 16th of February 1758. Almost immediately afterwards he was inoculated for smallpox, which was raging in Princeton and vicinity, and, always feeble, he died of the inoculation on the 28th of March 1758. He was buried in the old cemetery at Princeton. He was slender and fully six feet tall, and with his oval, gentle, almost feminine face looked the scholar and the mystic. Edwards had three sons and eight daughters.