: Journaling

Lessons from Jonathan Edwards’s Diary

In August of 1722, less than a year-and-a-half after his conversion, Jonathan Edwards became the interim pastor of a small Presbyterian church in New York City. He remained at this temporary post for eight months. He stayed with Susanna Smith and her son, John “who seemed to him”, says George Marsden, “models of Christian piety.”[1] Significantly, it was here that Edwards began his “Diary” on a winter’s day halfway through his brief tenure.

He continued the volume through the remainder of his time in New York, and on through the period of his Master’s degree. He persisted with the practice during the half-year Bolton pastorate, his tutorship at Yale, and into several months after his return to his parents’ home in East Windsor, in August, 1725, which was a year before his move to Northampton to assist Solomon Stoddard. This period of Christian growth as a young, single adult determined the spiritual trajectory for much of the rest of Edwards’s life and ministry.

Edwards “Diary” commences on December 18, 1722, when he was nineteen. It begins so abruptly that Dwight[2] conjectures that there was an earlier section that may have reached back to Edwards’ days of theological study at Yale (1720-1722). For all practical purposes, it concludes with an entry on November 16, 1725. Inexplicably, there are but six brief entries made over the next ten years, with the final one recorded on June 11, 1735. Altogether Edwards made 148 entries, with 142 unevenly spread over the first 35 months when he was most committed to the project.

The first entry is a record that he had “made the 35th Resolution.” This rather abrupt beginning led Sereno Edwards Dwight to wonder if there had not been an earlier section of the “Diary” that had been lost. When and where the previous, undated resolutions were composed is unknown.[3] In light of their reflection of a radical devotion to Christ, one may surmise that they were written sometime after Edwards’s conversion the previous year.

Although the content of the “Resolutions” was unique to Edwards, the reference in his “Diary” to another document devoted solely to “Resolutions” is not. According to George Claghorn, “Drawing up resolutions was a standard practice for educated people in the eighteenth century,” and many have compared and contrasted Edwards’s “Resolutions” with those written almost simultaneously by Benjamin Franklin. By August 17 of 1723, Edwards would complete a total of seventy of these firm personal commitments to himself and/or to God, noting in his “Diary” when each, up to the 47th, was made.

Edwards’s “Diary” was far more than the kind that merely records the passing of events. Of course, “it consists of facts,” observes Dwight, but it also comprises

solid thought, dictated by deep religious feelings . . . . It is an exhibition of the simple thinking, feeling, and acting of a man, who is unconscious how he appears, except to himself and to God; and not the remarks of one, who is desirous of being thought humble, respecting his own humility. If we suppose a man of Christian simplicity and godly sincerity to bring all the secret movements of his own soul under the clear, strong light of heaven, and there to survey them with a piercing and an honest eye, and a contrite heart, in order to humble himself, and make himself better; it is just the account which such a man would write.[4]

Edwards’s main use of his diary, at least early on, was to measure himself against his “Resolutions.” (Later he would admit in his Personal Narrative that he relied on his own strength too much in his efforts to keep his “Resolutions.”)

Sometimes he would begin an entry with a single word, and then write a paragraph explaining his spiritual condition. For example, “Wednesday, Jan. 2.[5] Dull”[6] was followed by 262 words of self-examination. It is similar with “Wednesday, Jan. 9. At night. Decayed”[7] and “Thursday, Jan. 10. About noon. Reviving.”[8] He rebuked himself: “Saturday night, March 31. This week I have been too careless about eating.”[9] He rejoiced: “Saturday night, April 14. I could pray more heartily this night for the forgiveness of my enemies, than ever before.”[10]

He could be mundane: “Wednesday night, Aug. 28. Remember, as soon as I can get to a piece of slate or something, whereon I can make short memorandums while traveling.”[11] And again, “Sabbath morning, Sept.8. I have been much to blame, for expressing so much impatience for delays in journeys, and the like.”[12] He could be sublime: “Wednesday, March 6. Near sunset. Regarded the doctrines of election, free grace, our inability to do anything without the grace of God, and that holiness is entirely, throughout, the work of the Spirit of God, with greater pleasure than before.”[13]

Thus while Edwards could reflect more profound thought and insight in certain entries than other journal-keepers might, in many ways his style—which included entries from the trivial to the transcendent—was hardly exceptional. But we do learn from this that from ages nineteen to twenty-two, Edwards was scrupulous about observing and analyzing the motions of his soul. He used his diary as a mirror, a place where he could examine himself for evidence of spiritual progress or decline, and then in response, Edwards would remake his mirror into a platform before God where he could rejoice, lament, or make resolutions as he thought necessary.

A similar document today might be referred to as a journal rather than diary. In contemporary usage, the latter term often connotes a mere itemization of daily events, perhaps interwoven with personal reflections. In Christian parlance, a journal usually implies a document wherein the author attempts to integrate the intricacies of life and faith. In Edwards’s day, if the practice of David Brainerd is any indication, a diary was meant for personal use only while a journal—which might include much of the same material found in one’s diary—was intended for publication. Brainerd’s journal served as a published report for the supporters of his missionary labors while his diary revealed additional details, musings, and self-evaluations he was not comfortable sharing with others. So while distinctions can be made, the terms journal and diary—both in the eighteenth century and now—are often interchangeable.

So, does Edwards’s example mean that all Christians must keep a spiritual journal? No, journal-keeping is not necessary for Christlikeness. Many of the greatest Christians in history—such as Edwards—have kept journals, and many equally godly men and women have not. But I urge you to consider whether you might be among those who would find journaling an easy and practical encouragement the Holy Spirit would use in your growth in grace, just as He did in Edwards’s.

 

Original artwork by Caffy Whitney

For more about journaling:

Do I Have to Keep a Journal? (article/bulletin insert)

Probe Your Soul with Questions (article/bulletin insert)

See the chapter on “Journaling . . . for the Purpose of Godliness” in Don’s book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

 

For more about Jonathan Edwards and his spirituality:

god_entranced_vision

A God-Entranced Vision of All Things—The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. Don’s contribution to this book is the chapter on “Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards.”

Edwards_Solitude

Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and It’s Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. This is a popularization of Don’s Ph.D. dissertation. It is so expensive because it was published by an academic press and with a small print run.

 

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[1] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 47.

[2] Sereno E. Dwight, “Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, A.M.,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, ed. Edward Hickman (1834; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), xxiii.

[3] WJE 16:742.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The original diary entries in this paragraph generally do not state the year, but all are from 1723.

[6] WJE 16:760.

[7] Ibid., 761.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 768.

[10] Ibid., 761.

[11] Ibid., 780.

[12] Ibid., 781.

[13] Ibid., 767.

 

Why do you journal?

“Why do you journal?” John Piper replies, “I count journaling one of the most important habits of my life.”

Note how he says it relates to “the essence of leadership.”

Why do you journal?

Photo by JoelMontes