For my write-up today on George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Marsden says on page 195, as he talks about a long sermon series that Jonathan Edwards gave about the history of redemption, which went through the Old Testament, the New Testament, church history (i.e., Constantine, the Reformation, etc.), the Second Coming of Christ, and the Last Judgment:
“Although Edwards’ series was long and much of it retellings of familiar biblical stories, he was able to sustain a theme and the cumulative impact could be compelling. One Northamptonite, Nehemiah Strong, who was only ten and a half at the time of the sermons, recalled the series as a great event in his life. Strong, who became a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Yale, reportedly told Edwards’ grandson Timothy Dwight how as the sermon series proceeded he became ‘more and more engaged.’ At last when Edwards depicted Christ’s second coming, the boy’s ‘mind was wrought up to such a pitch that he expected without one thought to the contrary the awful scene to be unfolded on that day and in that place…'”
I should say a few words about Edwards’ sermon series before I address the question of why it was so powerful. First of all, Edwards’ series centered on Christ, as it maintained that there were things in the Hebrew Bible that were types of Christ or Christ’s redemption. Second, there was an optimism to Edwards’ series that contrasted with Augustine’s more pessimistic depiction of tension between the City of God and the cities of the world. Edwards believed that history was “marked by increasing revivals and culminat[ed] in the millennium”, and that God worked through “national religious wars and revolutions [to] facilitate the preaching of the Gospel” (page 197). I seriously doubt that Jonathan Edwards was a post-millennialist, one who believed that, over a long period of time, many people throughout the world would become Christian and set up a Christian society before Christ came, for Edwards held that the world was on a timetable (according to numbers in the Book of Daniel) and that there was a Beast, namely, the papacy. My impression is that Edwards was probably a premillennialist, but there was some optimism in his premillennialism when it came to the events preceding the Second Coming of Christ. I think of the times when I listened to some of my relatives discuss biblical eschatology, and they said that the two witnesses of the Book of Revelation would pick up a lot of converts in the United States. Granted, things would get bad before the end, and yet God would have some triumphs before the Second Advent.
Why was Edwards’ series powerful? Was it because of Edwards’ delivery? Marsden talks some about Edwards’ style of delivery on page 206, as he contrasts it with that of George Whitefield (and Marsden talks at length about Edwards’ relationship with Whitefield, as well as Whitefield’s friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who differed significantly from Whitefield when it came to theology). Whitefield did not use notes when he was preaching, his voice was loud and could extend a great distance, he was emotional and wept, and he tried to portray “the feelings of biblical characters or lost sinners” (page 206). Edwards, however, used notes and was not extemporaneous in his delivery (though Marsden says earlier in the book that Edwards over the years came to rely less on his notes), depicted “powerful images…but…seldom sustained them”, rarely “referred to himself or his own experiences”, and held audiences spellbound with his “personal intensity” yet had a “weak voice” (page 206). But Marsden does state that the “power of [Edwards’] preaching came from his relentless systematic delineations of all the implications of his theme” (page 206).
Edwards was powerful in terms of the content of his messages. There are some preachers who can beat a biblical text to the ground as they seek to exhaust its meaning, and they end up boring their audience, perhaps because it feels that the preachers are stating the obvious. But there are other preachers who can plummet the depths of the Scriptures and leave their audience feeling satisfied or fed, or with the impression that they learned something. Edwards was most likely an example of the latter kind of preacher.
I’d like to suggest another reason that Edwards’ series about the history of redemption was powerful, especially to ten-year old Nehemiah Strong: it told a story. A lot of children, and even many adults, love stories. I remember a pastor’s son telling his father that he should preach more about the stories in the Bible—-such as that of Joseph—-since kids enjoy that, as opposed to delivering an abstract discussion about the Second Coming of Christ.
When I read about Nehemiah Strong’s reaction to Edwards’ series, I wondered if there was ever a sermon series that was a great event in my life. I’ll admit that I have heard some good sermon series—-Ron Dart’s series on history and prophecy, Dart’s series on the epistles of Paul (see here for both Dart series, but I can’t vouch for the website, for I don’t know much about it), David Antion’s series on Job, Antion’s series on Galatians, etc. One series that I’ll bet is really good is Malcolm Smith’s series on the blood covenant. I only heard the first and the last of that series—-at church when I was a child—-but someone told me that the middle part goes into the blood covenant throughout the Bible. What I heard was quite powerful. I wouldn’t call listening to these series life-changing, but they were enjoyable—-cozy, if you will, since there was a story-telling quality to them.
By the way, if you ever want to read Edwards’ series on the history of redemption—-and I may do that someday—-click here.