Jonathan Edwards: Ministry and the Life of the Family
When William Carey, the father of modem missions, decided to go to India as a missionary, his wife did not want to go. She had three children and was pregnant with a fourth. He resolved to go even if he had to leave her and the children behind. Shortly after the birth of her fourth child she gave in and accompanied him to India. While there, they lived in the interior surrounded by malaria-infested swamps. At one point, Dorothy and two of her children became deathly ill. Her physical health continued to decline and her mental health began to deteriorate as well. After her five-year-old son died, her mental health deteriorated to such an extent that others said she was “wholly deranged.” William Carey believed “the cause of Christ” took precedence over his family. 1
When John Wesley married Molly Vazeille he determined he would not “preach one sermon or travel one day less in a married than in a single state.” 2 Initially his wife traveled with him, but the hardships were difficult and she stopped. After that she rarely saw him. Although he wanted to accommodate her desires, he stopped short of anything that would interfere with the cause of Christ (viz., the Methodist cause). He believed that if he slackened at all, even for her, he would be disobedient to the work God had called him to do. To this cause John Wesley desired to “spend and be spent.” Their relationship deteriorated and she often left him. In 1771, he wrote, “I have not left her; I have not sent her away; I will not recall her.” 3 John Wesley believed “the cause of Christ” took precedence over family.
A survey of church history reveals that many other great leaders of the Christian church believed “the cause of Christ” took precedence over their family. Their influence was extensive, but their families suffered great hardship. The prevalence of this can make one wonder if commitment to ministry will necessarily cause one’s family to suffer. Fortunately, there are examples of those who had both-a zeal to minister to the world and an equal fervor to serve their family.
One man who stands out as a “success” in both areas is Jonathan Edwards. The legacy he has left to the Christian community as well as the legacy he has left to his family is extraordinary. Jonathan Edwards and his wife Sarah were married thirty years and had eleven children: three sons and eight daughters. 4 One can see a clear trajectory of his influence on his descendants. A study of 1400 descendants shows one hundred lawyers, sixty-six doctors, thirteen college presidents, thirty judges, sixty-five professors, eighty public office holders, three senators, three governors, and one vice president. 5 Jonathan Edwards was able to keep in perspective the tension between commitment to the “the cause of Christ” and commitment to family. In light of his “success,” the goal of this article will be to analyze his biblical and theological convictions which shaped his understanding of the role of a minister of the Gospel as well as his role as a husband and father.
Edwards’ Marriage and Family
Jonathan Edwards was captivated by a young woman named Sarah Pierrepont. In 1723 he wrote:
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