Broadly defined, “piety” refers to the aggregate of a person’s distinctly Christian beliefs and actions. Here Jonathan Edwards’s piety is considered in the more narrow sense of devotional piety, that is, those private practices intended to focus the heart and mind of the individual believer upon God and to develop authentic Christian beliefs, motives, and actions.
Although Edwards’s general Christian piety was exemplary, his personal devotional piety was exceptional, both in breadth and depth. It was grounded in Scripture, influenced by the patterns of his father Timothy and grandfather Solomon Stoddard—both of whom were pastors—and consistent with that of the ministers in Puritan England and New England through whom Edwards traced his theological lineage.
Even as a child Edwards sometimes manifested unusual inclinations toward devotional habits. Although he’d not yet experienced the converting influence of the “Divine and Supernatural Light” he would famously preach about in 1733, as a boy there was a period of months when he would “pray five times a day in secret,” often in a booth built for the purpose in a swamp.
After his conversion (1721) at age 17 his devotional duties became delights. He reported that now he “went to prayer, to pray to God that I might enjoy Him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do; with a new sort of affection.” He also began to experience “the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever.” In the Bible he “seemed often to see so much light, exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing ravishing food communicated.”
Within months Edwards “solemnly vowed to take God for my whole portion and felicity; looking on nothing else as any part of my happiness, nor acting as if it were.” He built his life around disciplines that helped him pursue the enjoyment of God and cultivate happiness in him.
At 18, for example, he began the lifelong practice where he “very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, . . . for contemplation on divine things, and secret converse with God; and had many sweet hours there.” About the same time (no later than 1722) Edwards began his “Diary,” the volume containing his “Resolutions.”
In terms of daily routine, Edwards’s piety began each morning between four or five when by candlelight he would read the Bible and pray. Marsden says that afterward Edwards would lead his family in prayer and that “each meal was accompanied by household devotions.” At the close of each day, Sarah and Jonathan would pray together in his study.
Most every day of Edwards’s life was spent at home, and most of that time he worked in his study. A legendary line from Samuel Hopkins, who as a first-hand observer wrote of Edwards, “He commonly spent thirteen hours every day in his study.”
While the specific details and processes of Edwards’s devotional methods remain hidden behind his study door, we can draw the general contours of his personal spirituality from resources produced there such as his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” and “Notes on Scripture.” We can also conjecture about Edwards’s own devotional habits from the commendation he gives to the missionary’s piety in The Life of David Brainerd, the counsel provided in his letter to Deborah Hatheway, the content of various sermons, the notes in his “Blank Bible,” and especially from the testimony in his Personal Narrative—the single best autobiographical resource on Edwards’s piety.
To read Edwards’s own account of his private spirituality, read his Personal Narrative. Believed to be a response to an inquiry about his testimony of his walk with God by his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr. (president of Princeton University and father of Aaron Burr, Jr., who is best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel) it is by far my personal favorite among Edwards’s writings. It’s less than thirteen pages of volume 16 in the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, a collection of seventy-three volumes found in their entirety and fully searchable at edwards.yale.edu.
Part two is found in the next post.
Original artwork by Caffy Whitney
For more about Jonathan Edwards and his spirituality:
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things—The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. My contribution to this book is the chapter on “Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards.”
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 my Ph.D. dissertation. It is so expensive because it was published by an academic press and with a small print run.