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"Cheerful Resignation to the Divine Will": Learning from the Death of Jonathan Edwards

I'm not fond of March 22nd. I suppose for most of you it's just a day, no better or worse than any other, unless it happens to be your birthday. But for those of us who have been nurtured and encouraged and challenged by the incomparable mind and heart of Jonathan Edwards, it is a dark day indeed. Edwards, born on October 5, 1703, died much too soon (at least from our human perspective) on March 22, 1758.

"Edwards," wrote George Marsden, "spent his whole life preparing to die" (490). That isn't to say Edwards was an escapist, shirking earthly responsibilities for the sake of a heavenly ecstasy. It simply means he labored to redeem every minute of every day for the glory of his Lord and Savior and to ready his own soul for standing in his presence.

In the fall of 1757 Edwards was asked to assume the presidency of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. He responded to the Trustees in a letter dated October 19, 1757, citing several reasons why he felt unfit for the task:

“I have a constitution in many respects peculiar unhappy, attended with flaccid solids, vapid, sizy and scarce fluids, and a low tide of spirits; often occasioning a kind of childish weakness and contemptibleness of speech, presence, and demeanor; with a disagreeable dullness and stiffness, much unfitting me for conversation, but more especially for the government of a college” (Yale, 16:726).

He also cited what he believed was his deficiency “in some parts of learning, particularly in algebra, and the higher parts of mathematics.”

Notwithstanding his disinclination to go, he was installed as President on February 16, 1758.

Smallpox was widespread in New England at the time. "Always the scientist," notes Marsden, "Edwards was a champion of inoculation, one of the few eighteenth-century medical practices proven beneficial" (493). Therefore, it was no surprise that on February 23rd Edwards was inoculated for smallpox. He contracted the disease on the roof of his mouth and throat. He eventually struggled to swallow even the liquids that were essential for recovery. After a couple of weeks of extreme weakness and near starvation he came down with a fever and died on March 22. His final words were written to his daughter, Lucy:

"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 tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever: 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 to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father who will never fail you."

His wife, Sarah, was herself quite ill when she received the news by letter. On April 3, she wrote to her daughter Esther:

"What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be. Your ever affectionate mother, Sarah Edwards."

Esther never read the letter. Less than two weeks following her father's death she contracted a fever (not from smallpox) and died on April 7, leaving two infants, Sally and Aaron (the latter was to become Vice-President of the U.S., but sadly did not become a Christian).

Sarah Edwards did not long survive her husband and daughter. On October 2, 1758, Sarah died from dysentery in Philadelphia (she was 48). I can't help but wonder if she simply couldn't bear the thought of celebrating Jonathan's birthday on October 5 without him present. Who knows?

Much has been written and said about the way Edwards lived. But I want to close with one comment about how he died. It comes from Dr. William Shippen, the physician who administered the inoculation. Immediately upon Jonathan's death, he wrote the following to Sarah:

"And never did any mortal man more fully and clearly evidence the sincerity of all his professions, by one continued, universal, calm, cheerful resignation, and patient submission to the divine will, through every stage of his disease, than he; not so much as one discontented expression, nor the least appearance of murmuring through the whole. And never did any person expire with more perfect freedom from pain; - not so much as one distorted hair - but in the most proper sense of the words, he really fell asleep. Death had certainly lost its sting, as to him"

Still learning from the life (and death) of Jonathan Edwards,

Sam