The Frontier Divine​​​​​​​ // Principles from Jonathan Edwards at Stockbridge Settlement

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American evangelicals often take refuge, for better or worse, in the Christian legacy of our Founding Generation. Yet few of us are familiar with the event that primarily shaped that legacy—the First Great Awakening—or the man who rose as its morning star to become its greatest contributor. That man was Jonathan Edwards, and he influenced the spiritual trajectory of the United States more than any of our other native sons.

Edwards graduated from Yale divinity school at eighteen years old. He had already pastored in New York and taught at Yale for several years before coming to Northampton, Massachusetts to assist his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, the elder minister of the Congregational church. Stoddard was ailing and died three years later, leaving Edwards as Northampton’s sole minister at the young age of twenty-three. But what he lacked in experience, Edwards made up for in personal zeal, effectual preaching and fervent intercession. Within five years, the Spirit of God had moved through Edwards’ ministry to ignite a series of awakenings around Northampton in the mid 1730’s. He would later recount,

“There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… And the work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and increased more and more; souls did as it were come by flocks to Jesus Christ…and the number of true saints multiplied, soon [making] a glorious alteration in the town…”[1] 

These awakenings spread throughout New England, reaching into the student body at Yale, Edwards’ alma mater, where future pioneers such as David Brainerd were enrolled. Edwards’ own congregation grew dramatically, and he was soon pastoring the largest congregation in New England outside of Boston.[2]

Then in 1740, Edwards hosted English evangelist George Whitefield to preach in both his pulpit and his home. Edwards was so moved by Whitefield’s Spirit-filled oratory that he endorsed the traveling preacher’s subsequent tour across the colonies, which “broke upon the slumbering churches like a thunderbolt rushing across a clear sky.” [3] As the movement built in breadth and intensity across the colonies in 1740-41, the Great Awakening became the first truly American phenomenon. It left an indelible mark on even some of the most Deistic men who would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence thirty-five years later. Even more than his central role in the Great Awakening, it was Edwards’ masterful and revolutionary works of philosophical theology in the 1750’s that made him the standard-bearer in the New Light movement on both sides of the Atlantic for decades after his death. His magnum opus, On the Freedom of the Will, and his final works, the two Dissertations and The Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, became his greatest theological contributions to Western Civilization. To this day, even liberal, critical scholars walking the halls of Yale and Princeton where Edwards walked 250 years before are compelled to admit that he is the greatest theologian — and possibly the greatest philosopher—in American history. When surveying Edwards’ life, we might assume that he penned these works during his doctoral studies at Yale, or from his Northampton parsonage at the height of the awakenings. It is therefore surprising to discover that he wrote all three of them towards the end of his life from the Massachusetts wilderness. Jonathan Edwards, the preeminent, internationally-acclaimed theologian was also Minister Edwards, pastor and missionary to a small congregation of English colonials, Mohawks and Housatonic Indians at the frontier settlement of Stockbridge.

Introduction: A Sorrowful Affair

At the height of Edwards’ ministry in Northampton in the 1730’s, no one could have predicted the trouble that would beset him just a decade later. His opposition to a controversial doctrine regarding church membership and the Lord’s Table drew the ire of both prominent ministers and influential members of his own congregation, including the wealthy Williams family, whose opposition would follow Edwards throughout his ministry. Edwards’ handling of some personal matters among his parishioners—about which he was likely right, but was nonetheless regarded by many as heavy-handed—was also highly controversial. Despite his countless hours of study, writing, corporate prayer and preaching over the previous two decades, he had never done much to forge personal relationships with his parishioners, which gave his detractors opportunity to unfairly malign his character and intentions. By the spring of 1750, Edwards’ most influential opponents had managed to gain sway over the majority of his congregation, and Edwards was dismissed from his pastorate in June. That time in Northampton was later described by Edwards’ first biographers as “a sorrowful, strange, surprising affair.”[4]

Jonathan Edwards was unemployed, publicly disgraced, and responsible for the care of his wife and eight children. He preached on a supply basis around Massachusetts for the next few months, even graciously filling his old pulpit in Northampton on occasion, as the congregation had trouble securing a replacement for him. But even that humble service was too much for some, prompting Edwards to remark about his opponents, “So deep were their prejudices that their heat was maintained; nothing would quiet them till they could see the town clear of root and branch, name and remnant.” [5] Unknown to him at the time, the closing door in Northampton had sent a providential draft sixty miles westward, blowing open the door of the Massachusetts frontier. 

The enterprise of frontier missions was not new to Edwards. He saw the awakenings on both sides of the Atlantic as the first stage of a move of God to advance His Kingdom among the unreached in North America and elsewhere. Even before his pastorate in Northampton, he had written of his “great longings for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world; and my secret prayer used to be, in large part, taken up in praying for it.”[6] He heartily supported the establishment of the Stockbridge mission in 1734, and met with other stakeholders at the outset of the project, including his uncle, Colonel John Stoddard. Edwards was impressed by Stoddard, and later remarked about him, “He had a far greater knowledge than any other person in the land of the several nations of Indians in those northern parts of America.”[7] Stoddard was in turn well-known and respected by the tribes, and his vision to see them evangelized and living peacefully side-by-side with their English colonial neighbors became a guiding principle for Edwards in his later ministry.

Besides his prayerful and organizational support, Edwards took several future missionaries into his Northampton parsonage for pastoral training, including Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins. It was Edwards’ lasting friendship with David Brainerd, however, that would impress him most deeply. After Brainerd was expelled from Yale for making a crass remark about a faculty member, Edwards lobbied for his reinstatement. The effort was unsuccessful at the time, but it would not be the last time that Edwards came to Brainerd’s aid in a time of need. After a year-long stint of missionary training near Stockbridge, Brainerd struck out into the Pennsylvania wilderness to live amongst the native tribes near the Forks of the Delaware. He eventually witnessed a profound move of God in the salvation of over 130 Delaware Indians. However, his chronic tuberculosis forced him to leave his nascent congregation and return to the settled colonies in 1747. At Edwards’ invitation, Brainerd convalesced in the minister’s home, where he died soon after at the age of 29. Edwards preached to a large crowd at his friend’s funeral, and then began compiling Brainerd’s journal and editing it with his own commentary for publication. An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend David Brainerd was the first full-length missionary biography ever published, and it became a manifesto for generations of future missionaries. It was carried by William Carey to India, quoted by Hudson Taylor in letters from China, and mentioned by Jim Elliot as influential to his ministry in Ecuador. It remains the most republished of all Edwards’ works. 

In October 1750, Edwards was invited to preach at Stockbridge. The indefatigable and much beloved John Sergeant, the mission’s previous minister and missionary, had died of a high fever just months before. When Edwards arrived, he found a growing but troubled settlement. Around 200 Housatonic natives had settled on land apportioned to them by the colonial government. Thirteen English colonial families were also there, and some wealthier families had been encroaching on tribal land.  A missionary school was built for the education of Housatonic children, as well as a boarding school for Mohawk students, but the latter was mismanaged. Funding was embezzled and the students were used as laborers on colonial properties, tainting the entire enterprise and provoking mistrust among tribal leaders. The sale of alcohol had been approved in the territory, and alcoholism became rampant among a native population that was not accustomed to it. These troubles were apparent to Edwards even before his dismissal from Northampton. He wrote in 1749 after Sergeant’s death that the mission should be “under the care of a missionary of good character” in order to open “the best door for gradually propagating the gospel among the Indians…”[8] He likely had no thought at the time that in just over a year, he would be considering the position for himself. 

After preaching at Stockbridge, Edwards received a call from both native and colonial residents to return in early 1751. He stayed for about two months, acquainting himself with the mission and its mixed congregation through an interpreter. He later wrote, “I spent much time with the Indians, particularly with the Mohawks under the care of Captain Kellogg.”[9] The Mohawks were in turn drawn to the Northampton minister, their population increasing four-fold in Stockbridge during his stay. 

Principle 1: Count the Cost

When Edwards returned to his family in Northampton, he and his wife Sarah had much to consider and lift in prayer. Edwards had been invited to preach at other congregations in New England since his dismissal, described by one of his Scottish correspondents as “large churches of New England people much pleasanter to worldly accommodations” than Stockbridge. [10] Edwards must have considered the possibility that he might receive a call from one of them, where he would surely receive a handsome salary and live in relative comfort. He had accrued some debt after several months of unemployment, making such a possibility even more alluring. Moreover, Edwards had friends and patrons in Scotland who lobbied for his services there. A council even met in Northampton to consider forming a second church where Edwards would be minster, but was soon disbanded after vehement opposition. Nevertheless, there was clearly no shortage of opportunities in the civilized world for a man like Jonathan Edwards. He could have simply waited for them. 

On the other hand, the congregation in Stockbridge was small and heterogeneous, there was no parsonage, and the region was prone to sudden attacks by native tribes allied with the French. Jonathan and Sarah would have to liquidate their property in Northampton and move with their children to a remote settlement where they would not be able to converse with most of the inhabitants. The cost of accepting the position at Stockbridge was clear, but a deep and abiding desire to see the flame of awakening pass beyond Christendom to the unreached made Edwards willing to count it. He either didn’t wait for the other congregations to call on him, or else he turned down any invitations that he received. The Spirit made it clear to him that his season of ministry in the urbanized colonies was over. It was time for him to shake the dust of Northampton off his shoes, and, like the pioneering apostle Paul before him, to make it his “ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” In August of 1751, Edwards was formally installed as the minister at Stockbridge.

Principle 2: Act Justly

From the outset, Jonathan Edwards displayed unflinching boldness in addressing the political and economic dynamics in Stockbridge. No matter the source of injustice or dysfunction, he was determined to confront it straightforwardly. He surmised, and rightly so, that upright and just conduct was necessary to gain the trust and respect of the native population, and it was also a prerequisite for his gospel message to fall on open ears. It was not long before he had an opportunity to demonstrate this conviction in an impressive manner. 

In July, right before his installation at Stockbridge, Edwards had met with the Mohawk chiefs near Albany on behalf of the Boston Commissioners for talks regarding a treaty. Colonial leaders were eager to ally themselves with the powerful Iroquois tribes of upstate New York in their ongoing conflict with the French Empire. The Stockbridge mission was viewed as a political asset in that endeavor, and the commissioners hoped to use Edwards’ influence to secure the agreement. The initial meeting was a success, and just two weeks after his installation at Stockbridge, Edwards was invited to preach at the signing of the treaty. It was a big affair, attended by members of the Massachusetts assembly, all of the governors, notable clergymen, and the Mohawk chiefs. Such a setting would have been immensely daunting for most preachers. But Jonathan Edwards was not most preachers. As he rose to speak, Edwards began his sermon with an announcement: These honorable gentlemen treat [come] in the name of the King of England, but I in the Name of Jesus Christ.” And then, like Paul standing before the Aereopagus, Edwards began to unfold the history of redemption, from Adam’s creation to the Return of Christ, treating Mohawk ears to good news they had likely never heard. 

After he had finished his survey of the gospel, Edwards said plainly,

“This was the real reason that we came here to these colonies—to bring the light of the gospel to you. But, we haven’t done it. In fact, we’ve kept you in ignorance. They [the colonials] have chosen to keep you in the dark for the sake of making a gain of you, for as long as they keep you in ignorance, it is more easy to cheat you in trading with you.” 

And then turning to look straight at the Mohawk tribesmen, he continued, 

“We are no better than you in any respect. But we do have something that you don’t have, and that is that God has given us the gospel. He’s revealed to us the gospel in the pages of the New Testament, and so our task is to proclaim that gospel to you. We invite you to come and enjoy the light of the Word of God, which is ten thousand times better than the light of the sun…If you receive this light into your hearts, you will be prepared to die and fitted to dwell in heaven, which is a world of light, and there you yourselves will shine forth forever as the sun in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.”[11]

It was a stunning moment, and certainly not what the commissioners had intended. But Edwards was hardly concerned about their intentions. The colonial government had thought to use Edwards as a piece on their geopolitical chessboard. But they had horribly misjudged the man who would seize the opportunity to turn the table and use their platform to proclaim the gospel to unreached souls. “And you will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.”[12] 

Controversy followed Edwards wherever he went, and there was no shortage of controversy in Stockbridge. Even before he was installed at the mission, Edwards encountered stiff opposition to his candidacy from the wealthy and influential Williams family; the same family that had been among his chief adversaries in the Communion controversy several years before. Ephraim Williams, Jr. personally compiled a list of all the reasons that Edwards was unfit for the position, which was eventually sent by Williams’ instruction to Edwards himself. It was not exactly diplomatic in tone.  Williams wrote later, 

“It’s true when they first talked of settling [Edwards] I was against it [and] gave my reasons…1. That he was not sociable, the consequence of which was he was not apt to teach. 2. He was a very great Bigot, for he would not admit any person into heaven, but those that agreed fully to his sentiments, a Doctrine deeply tinged with that of the Romish church. 3. That he was an old man, and that it was not possible for him to learn the Indian tongues, therefore it was not likely he could be serviceable to the Indians…”[13]

Thankfully the list didn’t have its desired effect. Edwards had proven to native and colonial residents alike to be a gracious, sincere and capable minister during his stay in early 1751. But the preemptive salvo made it clear to him that his relocation to the frontier would not allow him to escape disingenuous opposition from his own countrymen. Nonetheless, Edwards stayed resolute in his determination to conduct himself in a manner above reproach, which required him to immediately address an egregious matter at Stockbridge that threatened the integrity of the entire mission.  

John Kellogg, the missionary who ran the boarding school for the Mohawks at Stockbridge, was derelict. Funding for the school had been clearly misappropriated for some time, but Kellogg had managed to remain in his position, in part because of his support from the Williams family. Mohawk students were used to labor on the Williams family land. When Edwards lodged at Stockbridge in the winter of 1751, he observed the matter first-hand. The Mohawks continually complained about the lack of food and blankets at the school, as well as the lack of Bible study. The school was jointly directed by a missionary society in London and the Boston Commissioners, but its remoteness had insulated Kellogg from oversight. Edwards petitioned the commissioners in Boston to send a trustee to the mission to manage the appropriation of funding. The commission obliged him, but the delegate they sent quickly fell in love with the charming and high-spirited Abigail Sergeant, widow of John Sergeant, whose maiden name was Williams. They were soon married, and after joining the Williams clan, Edwards watched his neutral third-party drift into the Williams family orbit. Moreover, a Williams cousin was appointed to the mission board in London, and he began to lobby for the building of a female boarding school, to be directed by his cousin Abigail, who would receive her first year’s salary in advance. 

Edwards appeared beset by corruption and unscrupulous opposition on all sides. His appeals through proper channels in good faith were returned with underhandedness. Once again, despite his efforts to avoid it, Edwards found himself locked into a power struggle with parishioners who held a grudge. Only this time, unreached people groups were watching. When the Boston Commissioners sent the young, well-respected and talented educator Gideon Hawley to replace Kellogg in 1752, Edwards endorsed him. But Kellogg refused to step down, and the Williams family in turn entrenched with Kellogg. Strong pressure was applied to Edwards and his family. He was denied reimbursement for the building of his parsonage, forcing his wife and daughters to sell homemade embroideries and silk-fans to supplement the family income. The Williams family began buying out the properties of colonials who were supportive of Edwards, hoping to diminish his influence. The Williams family stopped attending Sabbath services, refusing to sit under Edwards’ preaching. Finally, charges were drawn up against Edwards to have him dismissed, which were noticeably similar to the list previously circulated by Ephraim Williams, Jr. 

Jonathan Edwards had ridden into Stockbridge with the clear intent to end the foul play that was tainting the mission’s reputation among the very tribes to which it was charged with demonstrating the gospel. But it was soon apparent that those who profited from the status quo wanted to run him out of town. Once again, Edwards found himself under attack for simply acting in the cause of righteousness. Yet despite the severe pressure and hardship, he did not join his enemies in their scheming, but instead he entrusted himself to God, and did everything he could to shed light on the matter. He wrote to the Boston Commissioners in 1752, describing in detail the state of affairs; the encroaching economic interests, the financial waste, the rivalry and inefficiency. He wrote that he was, “filled with astonishment [at the] selfish designs and intrigues for private business,” which he discerned would be the “ruin of our affairs.” [14] And after airing his complaints, Edwards proposed a set of sweeping, comprehensive reforms that would improve oversight, reduce corruption and streamline the mission’s operations, making education of the native tribes its primary mission. It was a groundbreaking plan, and one Edwards biographer later remarked that it was “more like missionary planning a century later than that of pre-Revolution days… [Edwards had] a grasp of the larger aspects of the missionary problem surprising for the Eighteenth Century.” [15] Once again, as he had at the signing of the Mohawk treaty, Edwards displayed not only a peculiar boldness to publicly identify the abuses and injustices he found, but also the vision to articulate a solution. Through all of the discord and strife, he did not lose sight of the purpose that eclipsed all other interests: the glory of God in the advance of the gospel among the unreached. 

As the Stockbridge controversy dragged on into 1753, the ongoing disunity and corruption took a tragic toll on the mission. Over half of the Mohawk families left the settlement. Then the boarding school mysteriously burnt down, ending the primary means of ministry among the Mohawk residents altogether. Yet Edwards refused to relent, appealing all the way to the governor of Massachusetts. At the end of yet another detailed and impassioned letter, he wrote, 

“The ruin of my usefulness and the ruin of my family, which has greatly suffered in years past, for righteousness’ sake, are not indeed things of equal consideration to the public good. Yet, certainly, I should first have an equal, impartial and candid hearing…I must leave the matter, dear Sir, to your just Christian prudence; committing the affair to Him who knows all the injuries I have suffered, and how wrongfully I now suffer, and who is the Great Protector of the innocent and oppressed; beseeching Him to guide you in your determination, and mercifully to order the end.”[16]

In the end, the truth of the matter became apparent to everyone in Stockbridge and throughout Massachusetts, as the affair had been “made very public all over New England.” [17] The Williams family and their allies, with their disingenuous and subversive tactics, had overplayed their hand. By contrast, Edwards’ upright and honorable conduct throughout the whole dispute was equally apparent, and his reputation was upheld all the way across the Atlantic to the mission’s patron in England. As one biographer noted, “His persuasiveness and aggressiveness, reinforced by his reputation for integrity, saved the mission from further exploitation…Ultimately, he was given charge of the mission station, its funds and its staff.”[18] After three years of turmoil and uncertainty, a sense of stability began to return to the Stockbridge mission with Edwards at the helm. Edwards’ conflict with the Williams family reminds us that Christian disunity has a price, especially on the frontier, where it becomes one of the greatest hindrances to the advance of the gospel. On the other hand, it also stands as an encouraging reminder that faithful perseverance in even the most remote places will eventually be rewarded by God. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”[19]

Principle 3: Love Mercy, Walk Humbly

From the beginning of his tenure at Stockbridge in 1751, and throughout the entire Williams affair, Jonathan Edwards never lost sight of his primary calling as the pastor of an ethnically-mixed frontier congregation. He preached in four services every Sabbath; twice to the English colonials, once to the Housatonics through an interpreter, and once more through an interpreter to the Mohawks. Rather than using the same sermon notes for each audience, he thoughtfully adapted them for his native hearers, simplifying content and using different illustrations that the tribes would find more relatable. Gideon Hawley wrote that Edwards was with the natives a “plain and practical preacher…grave and natural” who avoided “metaphysical knowledge” in his sermons that were instead “concise and full of meaning.”[20] He possessed a keen discernment for the differences between preaching to reached and unreached people groups. He preached to his Anglo parishioners much the same way he preached in Northampton, challenging their apprehension of the gospel, admonishing them to test themselves in the faith and to leave off their spiritual complacency in order to make their calling and election sure. On the other hand, when preaching to a native audience that had little or no previous exposure to the gospel, he stressed a simpler message of God’s willingness to save sinners who would repent and believe on Jesus Christ.  His notes from one sermon on 1 John 5:3 demonstrate both his simplicity and his affection for his native hearers, writing, “True love to God makes the duties he requires of us easy and delightful…the pleasure of communion with God” which is not “a hard task,” but “our delight and pleasure.”[21] The Lord did not leave Edwards’ preaching unfruitful. He later wrote of one particular tribe, “that used to be notorious drunkards and blood-thirsty warriors, have of late strangely had their dispositions and manners changed through some wonderful influence on their minds… a disposition to religion and a thirst after instruction.”[22] 

Besides his weekly sermon preparation, Edwards also taught both Anglo and native children at the mission school. He instructed them from the Westminster Shorter Catechism while also training them in spelling and grammar. As always, Edwards showed thoughtful care in the ways he ministered to the young students. He wrote to another missionary protégé, Joseph Bellamy, that school lessons must “be rendered pleasant, entertaining and profitable” instead of a “dull, wearisome task, without any suitable pleasure or benefit.”[23] He wrote that the teacher should encourage a desire to learn, that questions should be asked of students to probe understanding, and that students in turn should be encouraged to speak freely and ask questions. Edwards proved not only to be an effective frontier minister, but an exemplary frontier teacher as well. 

One might think that all of Edwards’ responsibilities as minister and missionary in Stockbridge would deprive him of the time for study and writing, but in fact, the opposite was true. Certainly, frontier life had its trudging hardships, including simple matters of space and logistics. Edwards’ study was small. Paper was difficult to come by, and so he would use every scrap he could find, sometimes sewing them together into leaves from “printer’s proofs, old proclamations of intended marriages from Northampton days, envelopes, letters, and much else, could be utilized, even if there was only room on the margins or the bottoms of sheets.”[24] But the frontier also offered a simplicity that allowed for a creative mind to be more productive. Relieved of the constant distractions of ministering to a large congregation in an urban environment, Edwards found that he could finally write in depth on issues that had been of great concern to him for decades.

In 1753, Edwards completed one of the greatest theological monographs ever written, An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. It’s more commonly known today by its shorter title, The Freedom of the Will. It’s a sweeping and ingenious defense of the sovereignty of God in the doctrines of grace, and is considered the paragon of his works. Then between 1755 and 1757, Edwards completed two additional shorter volumes, A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World and A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, both published together posthumously as the Two Dissertations. They are still in print to this day, and have been immensely influential to modern evangelical theologians such as John Gerstner and evangelical pastors such as John Piper. Finally, in 1757, Edwards completed his final work, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, a direct rebuttal to the growth of theological liberalism and its dism