From a human perspective the death of Jonathan Edwards, Colonial America’s preeminent pastor-theologian, was untimely. But Edwards did not adopt such an outlook as his earthly life came to a previously-unforeseen and rather abrupt end. Instead, he manifested remarkable trust in God’s watchcare over himself and his family, as well as submission to the Lord’s will.
Edwards’ responses in those ways flowed out of decades of intimate fellowship with, and intense devotion to, God and Christ. Edwards’ example has much to teach us about living with and for the Lord in such a way that we come to trust Him in what He ordains in our life and death.
Edwards pastored for twenty-three years (1727-1750) in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, then for seven years (1751-1758) in the frontier village of Stockbridge, also in the Massachusetts Colony. During those years he gained great prominence as a highly-respected minister, leader in America’s Great Awakening, and writer of numerous devotional and theological treatises.
Edwards’ son-in-law Aaron Burr served as the second president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) from 1748 to 1757. After Burr unexpectedly died of illness at age forty-one in September 1757, Edwards was promptly asked to become the college’s third president. At first, Edwards declined but, at the urging of a council of fellow ministers, later accepted the call.
Edwards moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in January 1758, to begin his presidential duties at the college. He left his wife Sarah with some of their children in Stockbridge, planning to move them to Princeton after the winter passed. Edwards was then fifty-four years old. His ongoing outstanding ministry career appeared to stretch out brightly before him.
In his first sermon at Princeton Edwards preached from Hebrews 13:8 on “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” When he concluded the message it is said his hearers were surprised to discover that two hours had passed so quickly!
Around that time there was an outbreak of smallpox in Princeton. Since Edwards had never had the disease, he was advised to be inoculated. He received the vaccine the last week of February. The inoculation at first appeared to be successful and all danger was thought to have passed. But then pustules developed in Edwards’ mouth and throat, preventing him from swallowing. He was unable to drink sufficiently and developed a secondary fever. His condition quickly deteriorated and recovery became increasingly unlikely.
Shortly before Edwards’ death on March 22 he spoke briefly with his younger daughter Lucy who was then living with his daughter Esther (Burr’s widow) in Princeton: “Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you. Therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife … And I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now like to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all, to seek a Father who will never fail you.”
A little while later Edwards looked around the room and asked, “Now where is Jesus of Nazareth, my true and never-failing Friend?” Still later those at his bedside thought he was unconscious and expressed grief at what his absence would mean both to the college and to the church at large. Presently they were surprised when he suddenly uttered his last earthly words: “Trust in God, and you need not fear.”
As we exercise faith in the Lord and come to know Him as our ever-reliable, never-failing God, Helper and Companion, we learn to trust Him even in the hardest trials of life. And we’ll be able to fully trust Him when we face our own death and prepare to step into eternity, even if our earthly end and heavenly beginning come sooner than expected.
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Much of the historical information for this Perspective was drawn from Iain Murray’s Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography (Banner of Truth), an outstanding full-length account of Edwards’ life and ministry.
Copyright 2020 by Vance E. Christie