When Christians consider the legacy of Jonathan Edwards it is usually his tenure at Northampton that comes to mind, where he distinguished himself as a leader of and defender of the Revival. If we consider only Edwards’ impact on the history of American Christianity, then clearly his significance is largely tied to Northampton and his defense of the Great Awakening. Yet, I would rather remember the more mature Edwards who served as a missionary to the Stockbridge Indians.
As I noted in Second Thoughts, Edwards looked back on his youthful missteps at Northampton and regretted his emphasis on emotional experiences rather than practical Godliness. His ministry among the Stockbridge was remarkably different than at Northampton, although his concern for souls remained the same.
When Edwards moved to Stockbridge in 1751 he invested himself in the lives of the people and was soon horrified by English injustices toward the Indians. The English traders routinely defrauded them and Edwards devoted himself to opposing such abuses.
Not surprisingly, Edwards believed that a good education was a key to effective missions. He set about reforming the ineffective schools, and established a curriculum that taught the children to “understand things, as well as words” and the children were encouraged “to speak freely and in his turn also to ask questions.” He not only insisted that girls be educated along with the boys, but he also integrated the class with English children. Edwards instituted learning incentives where students would be publicly recognized and awarded prizes for reciting their lessons. He also integrated singing into the curriculum.
Edwards’ preaching in Stockbridge was markedly different than at Northampton. He focused primarily on New Testament narratives and used plain vivid metaphors in his teaching. His Stockbridge sermons did not display his great learning or his fondness for philosophy. Rather he was practical, clear and concise. Once a week he also taught the children the essentials of Christianity – always through Bible stories. Edwards did not alter his theology, nor did he back away from teaching on God’s wrath and judgment. But he tempered these points by emphasizing God’s grace and mercy – much more so than at Northampton.
After his first year at Stockbridge he shied away from his practice of listing catalogs of sins prevalent in the congregation. He became more patient and compassionate when seeking to correct the moral failings of his people.
There was no “revival” at Stockbridge and no reports of remarkable conversions. Yet many adult Indians were already communicant members and many more came to profess their faith in Christ.
In a marked contrast to his time at Northampton, Edwards maintained the respect of his congregation. His family was in daily contact with the Stockbridge families. By the time Jonathan Jr. was six he knew the Stockbridge language better than his native tongue. Historian George Marsden notes that “If all we had were Edwards’ letters from Stockbridge (more than four hundred large pages…), we would know him as a missionary deeply involved in the practical affairs of his day.”
If we evaluate Edwards’ significance only as a figure of American Religious history then it is natural that his time at Northampton would be the period of greatest interest. If we evaluate him as a theologian or a philosopher we should judge him to be both insightful and original (but never at the same time!). If, however, we evaluate Edwards as a pastor, we should judge that his labors at Stockbridge were more fruitful and more faithful than at Northampton.