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Faithful in the Mundane
In the 1700s in the New World, thirteen small British colonies hugged the Atlantic coast — separate colonies, not one country. America was a mostly unknown continent, not a nation. Beyond the colonies to the west, no European had yet discovered or measured how far the wilderness stretched into the unknown.
New England and the other colonies were Britain's fragile finger-tip grasp on the edge of the continent. The colonists were British citizens surrounded by territories of other nations. Florida and the Southwest belonged to Spain. The Louisiana Territory belonged to France. The French, in particular, were eager to ally themselves with local Indians against the British.
Therefore, any story set within this tenuous political context should elicit the sight of garrisons on hilltops, the sounds of shots in the distance, the discomfort of soldiers billeting in homes, the shock and terror of news about massacres in nearby settlements. This was the background of daily life, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout the eighteenth century in the English colonies.
Into this setting, Sarah Pierrepont was born on January 9, 1710. Her entire life would be played out against the backdrop of political uncertainty and imminent war. Her family lived in the parsonage in New Haven, Connecticut, where her father, James, was pastor. He also played a part in the founding of Yale College and was a leading voice in the church in New England.
Sarah's mother was Mary Hooker, whose grandfather Thomas Hooker had been one of the founders of Connecticut and played a key role in writing their colony's Fundamental Orders, probably the first written constitution in history.
As a child of one of the most distinguished families in Connecticut, Sarah's education was the best a woman of that era typically received. She was accomplished in the social skills of polite society. People who knew her mentioned her beauty and her way of putting people at ease. Samuel Hopkins, who knew her later, stressed her "peculiar loveliness of expression, the combined result of goodness and intelligence."
By contrast, Jonathan Edwards, her future husband, was introverted, shy, and uneasy with small talk. He had entered college at thirteen and graduated valedictorian. He ate sparingly in an age of groaning dining tables, and he was not a drinker. He was tall and gangly and awkwardly different. He was not full of social graces. He wrote in his journal: "A virtue which I need in a higher degree is gentleness. If I had more of an air of gentleness, I should be much mended." (In that time, gentleness meant "appropriate social grace," as we use the word today in gentleman.)
SARAH AND JONATHAN
In 1723, at age nineteen, Jonathan had already graduated from Yale and had been a pastor in New York for a year. When his time in that church ended, he accepted a job teaching at Yale and returned to New Haven where Sarah Pierrepont lived. It's possible that Jonathan had been aware of her for three or four years, since his student days at Yale. In those student days, when he was about sixteen, he probably would have seen her when he attended New Haven's First Church where her father had been pastor until his death in 1714, and where the family remained as members of the parish.
Now, on his return in 1723, Jonathan was twenty and Sarah was thirteen, in an era when it was not unusual for girls to be married by sixteen.
As his new teaching job started at the beginning of the school term, it seems he may have been somewhat distracted from his usual studiousness. A familiar story finds him daydreaming over his Greek grammar book, which he probably intended to be studying to prepare to teach. Instead, we find now on the front page of that grammar book a record of his real thoughts.
They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who is loved of that Great Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight; and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on Him. ... [Y]ou could not persuade her to do any thing wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this Great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and universal benevolence of mind; especially after this Great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure. ... She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have some one invisible always conversing with her.
All the biographers mention the contrast between the two of them. But one thing they had in common was a love for music. Sarah perhaps knew how to play the lute. (In the year of their marriage, one of the shopping reminders for Jonathan when he traveled was to pick up lute strings. That may have been for a wedding musician, or it may have been for Sarah herself.) Jonathan pictured music as the most nearly perfect way for people to communicate with each other.
The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other, is by music. When I would form in my mind an idea of a society in the highest degree happy, I think of them as expressing their love, their joy, and the inward concord and harmony and spiritual beauty of their souls by sweetly singing to each other.
That imagery was just the first thought-step into a leap from human realities to heavenly realities, where he saw sweet human intimacy as only a simple ditty compared to the symphony of harmonies of intimacy with God.
As Sarah grew older, and Jonathan grew somewhat mellower, they began to spend more time together. They enjoyed walking and talking together, and he apparently found in her a mind that matched her beauty. In fact, she introduced him to a book she owned by Peter van Mastricht, a book that later was influential in his thinking. They became engaged in the spring of 1725.
Jonathan was a man whose nature was to bear uncertainties in thought and theology as if they were physical stress. In addition, the years of waiting until Sarah was old enough to marry must have added even greater pressure. Here are some words he used to describe him-self, from a couple of weeks of his journal in 1725, a year and a half before they would marry:
December 29 Dull and lifeless January 9 Decayed January 10 Recovering
Perhaps it was his emotions for Sarah that sometimes caused him to fear sinning with his mind. In an effort to remain pure, he resolved, "When I am violently beset with temptation or cannot rid myself of evil thoughts, to do some sum in arithmetic or geometry or some other study, which necessarily engages all my thoughts and unavoidably keeps them from wandering."
BEGINNINGS OF MARRIED LIFE
Jonathan Edwards and Sarah Pierrepont were finally married on July 28, 1727. She was seventeen. He was twenty-four. He wore a new powdered wig and a new set of white clerical bands given him by his sister Mary. Sarah wore a boldly patterned green satin brocade.
We get only glimmers and glimpses into the heart of their love and passion. One time, for instance, Jonathan used the love of a man and a woman as an example of our love toward God. "When we have the idea of another's love to a thing, if it be the love of a man to a woman ... we have not generally any further idea at all of his love, we only have an idea of his actions that are the effects of love. ... We have a faint, vanishing notion of their affections."
Jonathan had become the pastor in Northampton, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He began there in February 1757, just five months before his wedding in New Haven.
Sarah could not slip unnoticed into Northampton. Based on the customs of the time, one biographer imagines Sarah's arrival in the Northampton church:
Any beautiful newcomer in a small town was a curio, but when she was also the wife of the new minister, she caused intense interest. The rigid seating charts of churches at that time marked a minister's family as effectively as if a flag flew over the pew. ... So every eye in town was on Sarah as she swished in wearing her wedding dress.
Custom commanded that a bride on her first Sunday in church wear her wedding dress and turn slowly so everyone could have a good look at it. Brides also had the privilege of choosing the text for the first Sunday after their wedding. There is no record of the text Sarah chose, but her favorite verse was "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (Romans 8:35), and it is possible that she chose to hear that one expounded.
She took her place in the seat that was to symbolize her role — a high bench facing the congregation, where everyone could notice the least flicker of expression. Sarah had been prepared for this exposed position every Sunday of her childhood on the leafy common of New Haven, but it was different to be, herself, the Minister's Wife. Other women could yawn or furtively twitch a numbed foot in the cold of a January morning in an unheated building. Never she.
Marsden says, "By fall 1727 [about three months after the wedding] Jonathan had dramatically recovered his spiritual bearings, specifically his ability to find the spiritual intensity he had lost for three years."
What made the difference? Perhaps he was better fitted for a church situation than for the academic setting at Yale where he taught before accepting the pastoral position. It also seems likely that the recovery was closely related to their marriage. For at least three years prior to this, in addition to his rigorous academic pursuits, he had also been restraining himself sexually and yearning for the day when he and Sarah would be one. When their life together began, he was like a new man. He had found his earthly home and haven.
SARAH AS WIFE
And as Sarah stepped into this role of wife, she freed him to pursue the philosophical, scientific, and theological wrestlings that made him the man we honor. Edwards was a man to whom people reacted. He was different. He was intense. His moral force was a threat to people who settled for routine. After he'd thought through the biblical truth and implications of a theological or church issue, he didn't back down from what he'd discovered.
For instance, he came to realize that only believers should take Communion in the church. The Northampton church was not happy when he went against the easier standards of his grandfather, who had allowed Communion even for unbelievers if they weren't participating in obvious sin. This kind of controversy meant that Sarah, in the background, was also twisted and bumped by the opposition that he faced.
He was a thinker who held ideas in his mind, mulling them over, taking them apart and putting them together with other ideas, and testing them against other parts of God's truth. Such a man reaches the heights when those separate ideas come together into a larger truth. But he also is the kind of man who can slide into deep pits on the way to a truth.
A man like that is not easy to live with. But Sarah found the ways to make a happy home for him. She made him sure of her steady love, and then she created an environment and routine in which he was free to think. She learned that when he was caught up in a thought, he didn't want to be interrupted for dinner. She learned that his moods were intense. He wrote in his journal: "I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping ... so that I have often been forced to shut myself up." The town saw a composed man. Sarah knew what storms there were inside him. She knew the at-home Jonathan.
Samuel Hopkins wrote:
While she uniformly paid a becoming deference to her husband and treated him with entire respect, she spared no pains in conforming to his inclination and rendering everything in the family agreeable and pleasant; accounting it her greatest glory and there wherein she could best serve God and her generation [and ours, we might add], to be the means in this way of promoting his usefulness and happiness.
So life in the Edwards house was shaped in large degree by Jonathan's calling. One of his journal entries had said, "I think Christ has recommended rising early in the morning by his rising from the grave very early." So it was Jonathan's habit to wake early. The family's routine through the years was to wake early with him, to hear a chapter from the Bible by candlelight, and to pray for God's blessing on the day ahead.
It was his habit to do physical labor some time each day for exercise — for instance, chopping wood, mending fences, or working in the garden. But Sarah had most of the responsibility for overseeing the care of the property.
Often he was in his study for thirteen hours a day. This included lots of preparation for Sundays and for Bible teaching. But it also included the times when Sarah came in to visit and talk or when parishioners stopped by for prayer or counsel.
In the evening, the two of them might ride into the woods for exercise and fresh air and to talk. And in the evening they prayed together again.
SARAH AS MOTHER
Beginning on August 25, 1728, children came into the family — eleven in all — at about two-year intervals: Sarah, Jerusha, Esther, Mary, Lucy, Timothy, Susannah, Eunice, Jonathan, Elizabeth, and Pierpont. This was the beginning of Sarah's next great role, that of mother.
In 1900, A. E. Winship made a study contrasting two families. One had hundreds of descendants who were a drain on society. The other, descendants of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, were outstanding for their contributions to society. He wrote of the Edwards clan:
Whatever the family has done, it has done ably and nobly. ... And much of the capacity and talent, intelligence and character of the more than 1400 of the Edwards family is due to Mrs. Edwards.
By 1900 when Winship made his study, this marriage had produced:
* 13 college presidents
* 65 professors
* 100 lawyers and a dean of a law school
* 30 judges
* 66 physicians and a dean of a medical school
* 80 holders of public office, including:
* 3 US senators
* mayors of 3 large cities
* governors of 3 states
* a vice president of the US
* a controller of the US Treasury
Members of the family wrote 135 books. ... edited 18 journals and periodicals. They entered the ministry in platoons and sent one hundred missionaries overseas, as well as stocking many mission boards with lay trustees.
Winship goes on to list kinds of institutions, industries, and businesses that have been owned or directed by the Edwardses' descendants. "There is scarcely any great American industry that has not had one of this family among its chief promoters." We might well ask with Elisabeth Dodds, "Has any other mother contributed more vitally to the leadership of a nation?"
Six of the Edwards children were born on Sundays. At that time, some ministers wouldn't baptize babies born on Sundays, because they believed babies were born on the day of the week on which they had been conceived, and that wasn't deemed an appropriate Sabbath activity. But all of the Edwards children were baptized regardless of their birthday.
And all of them lived at least into adolescence. That was rare in an era when death was always very close, and at times this drew resentment from other families in the community.
In our centrally-heated houses, it's difficult to imagine the tasks that were Sarah's to do or delegate: breaking ice to haul water, bringing in firewood and tending the fire, cooking and packing lunches for visiting travelers, making the family's clothing (from sheep-shearing through spinning and weaving to sewing), growing and preserving produce, making brooms, doing laundry, tending babies and nursing illnesses, making candles, feeding poultry, overseeing butchering, teaching the boys whatever they didn't learn at school, and seeing that the girls learned homemaking creativity. And that was only a fraction of Sarah's responsibilities.
Once when Sarah was out of town and Jonathan was in charge, he wrote almost desperately, "We have been without you almost as long as we know how to be."
Much of what we know about the inner workings of the Edwards family comes from Samuel Hopkins, who lived with them for a while.
She had an excellent way of governing her children; she knew how to make them regard and obey her cheerfully, without loud angry words, much less heavy blows. ... If any correction was necessary, she did not administer it in a passion; and when she had occasion to reprove and rebuke she would do it in few words, without warmth [that is, vehemence] and noise....(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God"
Copyright © 2005 Noël Piper.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
SARAH EDWARDS Faithful in the Mundane,
LILIAS TROTTER Faithful in Weakness,
GLADYS AYLWARD Faithful in Humility,
ESTHER AHN KIM Faithful in Suffering,
HELEN ROSEVEARE Faithful in Loss,
What People are Saying About This
"A fine work of drawing the reader into the historical and spiritual life of these early pioneer missionaries. Well worth reading as a family."Lars and Elisabeth Gren (Elliot)
"Noël Piper tells the stories of five women whose lives declare something we have almost forgotten-what it means to be a Christian. May the influence of this book cause that awareness to burn brightly again in our generation!"Ray and Jani Ortlund, President and Executive Vice President, Renewal Ministries
"I highly recommend this book as one of the great sagas of missionaries and Christian biography."David M. Howard Jr., Professor of Old Testament, Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota
"We live in a Christian subculture that can intimidate women from stepping out in faithful risk-taking for God. Noël Piper challenges all of us to move away from intimidation to imitation: 'Remember your leaders . . . imitate their faith' (Hebrews 13:7)."Dr. Rick and Fran LoveDr. Rick Love, Intl. Director, Frontiers, and Fran Love, editor of Longing to Call Them Sisters: Ministry to Muslim Women