Sharon James

Uncommon Wife of Revival: The Rugged Joy of Sarah Edwards (1710–1758)

“The Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in. Revival grew, and souls did as it were come by floods to Christ” (Works, 1:348). That is how Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) described the remarkable progress of the gospel in Northampton in 1734, one local manifestation of what would come to be known as the First Great Awakening.

Many were overjoyed at what they regarded as a glorious work of God. Others were horrified, regarding it all as dangerous fanaticism. When Edwards later set out to analyze the true and the false in revival, the experience of his own wife, Sarah, provided him with a remarkable case study of the genuine work of the Spirit.

Although the first part of Sarah’s life appeared outwardly peaceful, her inner life was sometimes troubled. Later in life, however, she endured a series of crises, through which she remained serene. The most significant turning point came in 1742, when she was given a fresh appreciation of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love (Ephesians 3:18).

Desiring God

From a young age, Sarah enjoyed an awareness of the beauty and glory of God. Famously, when she was just 13, Jonathan (aged 20) wrote a delightful eulogy to her piety and lovely character. By 16, Sarah was powerfully aware of her own sin, and trusted God for mercy. She valued “nearness to Christ as the creature’s greatest happiness,” and she could say, “My soul thirsted for him, so that death meant nothing to me, that I might be with him; for he was altogether lovely” (quoted in Haykin, “Nearness to Christ the Creature’s Greatest Happiness”).

Seventeen-year-old Sarah married Jonathan in 1727 and moved to Northampton. Jonathan was assisting his grandfather Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729), who had ministered at the church there since 1669. When Stoddard died two years later, Jonathan succeeded him as sole minister.

A baby girl was born to Sarah and Jonathan in 1728, the first of eleven children. Visitors to their home testified to the warmth and love of their family life. Meanwhile, Sarah continued to know God’s smile. By 1735, she had gone through labor four times (then immensely risky), but she wrote,

During a time of great affliction, I could often say: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none on earth that I desire beside thee. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.” (“Nearness to Christ”)

Up to the age of 31, Sarah’s life was reasonably smooth. She did experience mood swings and depression, no doubt associated in part with the rigors of childbearing. She depended a lot on the approval of her husband. She was sometimes overprotective of his reputation, and feared the bad opinion of the townspeople. At times she was beset with anxiety. Even still, she continued to know and rejoice in God. With the psalmist, she desired ever closer fellowship with God (Psalm 27:4), and longed for greater holiness (Psalm 139:23–24).

Delighting in God

Jonathan had begun his ministry at a time when most people in Northampton attended church, but many were nominal Christians. Most of the youth were unconverted, with low moral standards.

The sudden death of one young man in 1734, however, shook the community. At the funeral, Jonathan preached on Psalm 90:5–6, challenging all to prepare for death and judgment. Small prayer groups sprang up. By early 1735, many were convicted of sin, repented, and found assurance of forgiveness. Jonathan reported an average of thirty conversions a week over a five- to six-week period (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 117). Six months later, three hundred people were converted.

Throughout the next year, revival continued in Northampton and in many other communities in New England, as well as in Britain and beyond. When George Whitefield (1714–1770) visited New England in 1740, he preached to crowds of thousands. At such times of revival, God draws near in a special and widespread way: unbelievers are convicted and converted, and believers are given a deeper awareness of spiritual reality.

Heaven Below

While Jonathan was preaching away from home early in 1742, there was further revival in Northampton. Between January 19 and February 11, Sarah was so overwhelmed with assurance of the love of God that some wondered whether she would survive until her husband’s return. She did, and was able in due course to give him a precise account of what she had experienced during that time.

In those days, Sarah had felt crushed by awareness of her own indwelling sin, but then overjoyed by the glory of salvation. She rejoiced in the ministry of each person of the Holy Trinity. Truths she had enjoyed for many years brought her almost unbearably intense happiness. Her delight in God was so overpowering it was as if she were already experiencing the joy of heaven.

I never before, for so long a time together, enjoyed so much of the light, and rest and sweetness of heaven in my soul. . . . I continued in a constant, clear, and lively sense of the heavenly sweetness of Christ’s love, of his nearness to me, and of my dearness to him. (Works, 1:lxv)

‘Your Will Be Done’

Along with that personal sense of God’s love, she felt intense love and compassion for others. She no longer feared the ill-will of the town or the disapproval of her husband. Nor did she care whether it was her husband or another preacher who was more effective in ministry.

“The priority was that God should be glorified. If that involved suffering, so be it. His glory was all in all.”

She envisaged the worst scenarios that could possibly befall. What if the townsfolk turned on her and she was thrown out into the wilderness in the midst of winter? What if her husband turned against her? Or if she had to die for Christ? (And what about living her daily routine uncomplainingly, and facing the risks and traumas of repeated childbirth?) God loved her, so Sarah could trust him. Whatever happened, her response would be “Your will be done” and “Amen, Lord Jesus!”

The priority was that God should be glorified. If that involved suffering, so be it. His glory was all in all.

Depending on God

The reality of Sarah’s “resignation of all to God” would soon be tested as she faced a series of crises: war, poverty, rejection, and multiple bereavements.

When England and France declared war in 1744, inhabitants of towns such as Northampton became targets of attack. (French Canadians paid allies among the North American Indians to kill English settlers.) The town was on constant alert. Several were killed. Jonathan and Sarah stayed calm, remaining there to minister. Nevertheless, war resulted in economic hardship. Parishioners struggled to feed themselves, and the Edwardses’ salary often went unpaid. Sarah had to submit detailed household budgets to the church and engage in every conceivable economy.

Inglorious End

Meanwhile, by 1744, Jonathan had become convinced that only believers should take communion — a position that caused uproar. Those baptized as infants expected to be able to take communion, whether or not they had professed faith. At the same time, a controversial case of church discipline also caused friction. Factions in the church, including some of Jonathan’s own relatives, turned against their pastor. The church eventually dismissed Jonathan in June 1750, leaving the family without financial support. Yet Jonathan and Sarah remained free of bitterness, shut up to the opinion of all but God. Later on, a relative admitted that he had spread numerous untrue slanders about them, but they never demanded public vindication.

In 1751, Jonathan accepted a call to minister to a remote mission station at Stockbridge. The family relocated to the frontier, where conditions were harsh compared to Northampton. The settlement was made up of twelve English families, as well as two different groups of North American Indians. Tensions abounded, however, and all lived in fear because of ongoing war between the English and the French, with the Indians caught in between. Each day, news came in of horrible atrocities. Sarah had to provide meals for streams of refugees leaving the interior, as well as for soldiers billeted with them. Friends and family begged the Edwardses to leave, but Jonathan and Sarah felt they were safer in the path of their calling than out of it.

The Edwardses had great vision for the North American Indians, even sending their 9-year-old son off to a remote place with a missionary in order to learn another Indian language. Jonathan commented in a letter, “The Indians seem much pleased with my family, especially my wife” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 391).

Death upon Death

Worst of all, however, were the series of bereavements the Edwards family endured from the late 1740s on. Jerusha Edwards, Jonathan’s and Sarah’s second-oldest daughter, died in 1748 at the age of 17. She had offered to care for a visiting missionary, David Brainerd, as he died of tuberculosis, but she too succumbed to the disease. Exceptionally godly, Jerusha had been regarded as the “flower of the family.” But her parents submitted to God’s sovereignty, knowing their daughter was with her Lord.

In 1752, 20-year-old Esther married Aaron Burr, the 36-year-old president of New Jersey College at Princeton. They soon had two children — the youngest, Aaron Jr., would famously kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, while U.S. Vice President — but Aaron Sr. died at just 41 years old in 1757. Jonathan then was invited to take his place as President of the New Jersey College. He moved down to Princeton ahead of the family.

Soon after taking up the post, in March 1758, Jonathan died after a smallpox vaccination. While dying, he sent word to Sarah, thanking God for the “uncommon union” that they had enjoyed, and looking to the eternity that lay before them in Christ. When Sarah received the terrible news of his untimely death, she responded with towering faith:

The Lord has done it: He has made me adore his goodness that we had him [Jonathan] so long. But my God lives and he has my heart. (Works, 1:clxxix)

She soon received further terrible news. Esther had died a few days after her father. Sarah immediately left her own children and traveled down to Princeton to collect her two orphaned grandchildren. On the way home, she herself fell critically ill and died on October 2, 1758, at age 48.

Throughout this tragic series of events, and in her final hours, Sarah still could testify,

Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)

Desiring God’s Glory in all the Earth

From an early age, Sarah Edwards had delighted in God. That delight was intensified during revival, it endured through suffering, and she died knowing that death would be her entry to unbroken delight in him. Her delight in God gave her a passion that he be glorified. She knew that God is worthy of the praise of every person on earth (Psalm 148), and she could not bear to think of him not receiving his due:

I felt such a disposition to rejoice in God, that I wished to have the world join me in praising him. I was ready to wonder how the world of mankind could lie and sleep when there was such a God to praise! (Works, 1:lxvii)

“Sarah longed for revival, not only in her own life, in her own family, or in Northampton, but throughout the earth.”

Sarah longed for revival, not only in her own life, in her own family, or in Northampton, but throughout the earth. The Edwardses’ ambitions and prayers went far beyond personal, family, or parochial concerns — they were certain of the ultimate and cosmic triumph of Christ. And so, Jonathan urged all believers to unite in prayer for global evangelization and revival.

As we love God more, and enjoy his love, we too long for him to be honored by all, and for his glory to fill the earth. We too are to pray and work for revival — in our own experience, our family, our church, our nation, and the world:

Blessed be his glorious name forever;     may the whole earth be filled with his glory!Amen and Amen! (Psalm 72:19)

Young Love in a Cruel Land: The Wife Who Sailed with Adoniram Judson

On February 18, 1812, Ann and Adoniram Judson (ages 21 and 22) boarded the Caravan in the New England port of Salem. They had been married for less than two weeks, and set sail for Asia, expecting not to see America again.

They arrived in Burma (now Myanmar) to commence pioneer gospel work in July of 1813 — having already endured a four-month sea journey, a painful separation from their sending body and colleagues (due to their conscientious decision to be baptized as believers), the death of Ann’s friend Harriet, and the stillbirth of Ann’s first child.

The next thirteen years would be punctuated by serious illness, lengthy separations, and continual harassment. Ann’s second child, Roger Williams, died at eight months. She was pregnant with her third child when Adoniram was taken into the notorious Death Prison in Ava in June 1824. They would not know freedom together until February 1826. During that time, both suffered immensely; Ann daily risked her own life to care for Adoniram. These privations resulted in her death, at age 36, in October 1826. Little Maria Eliza would die six months later.

So much suffering. So many tears.

Yet Ann’s determination to serve Christ shone, undimmed, to the end. What fueled her resolve? To answer that question, we have to go back to her profound conversion, which resulted in a passionate concern for God’s glory and a powerful certainty in God’s promises.

Profound Conversion

Ann Hasseltine was born in 1789, in Bradford, New England. Popular and sociable, she would confide in her diary that she was “one of the happiest creatures on earth” (Ann Judson, 20). Ann attended church each Sunday, but her life revolved around friends and parties.

When she was 15, a teacher arrived at Bradford Academy who urged his pupils that repentance was urgent. Many were convicted of sin, including Ann. But she lurched, for months, between fear of judgment and terror of what friends would say if she became “serious.” Ultimately, God drew her to himself. At age 16, she wrote,

A view of [God’s] purity and holiness filled my soul with wonder and admiration. I felt a disposition to commit myself unreservedly into his hands, and leave it with him to save me or cast me off, for I felt I could not be unhappy, while allowed the privilege of contemplating and loving so glorious a Being. . . .

I felt myself to be a poor lost sinner, destitute of everything to recommend myself to the divine favour. [I knew] that it had been the mere sovereign, restraining mercy of God, not my own goodness, which had kept me from committing the most flagrant crimes. This view of myself humbled me in the dust, melted me into sorrow and contrition for my sins, induced me to lay my soul at the feet of Christ, and plead his merits alone, as the ground of my acceptance. (24–25)

Ann joined the Congregational Church in Bradford in September 1806. Her parents and siblings were also converted and joined the church. This is a vignette of what was taking place throughout America — a movement we now refer to as the Second Great Awakening.

“Christ did not issue the Great Commission on the condition that health, comfort, and safety could be assured.”

One outworking of revival was increased concern for those unreached with the gospel. Previously, American Protestants had sent missionaries to the North American Indians, but not overseas. Now, some young Christians were convinced that Christ’s command to go to all nations applied to them too.

Following her conversion, Ann began teaching in a small school. She wanted the children in her charge to follow Christ, but in her prayers she ranged across the globe, praying for the conversion of all nations:

My chief happiness now consisted in contemplating the moral perfections of the glorious God. I longed to have all intelligent creatures love him. (27)

Passionate Concern

Ann now knew that she was here on this earth to serve God. At 18, after reading the journal of David Brainerd, she wrote in her own journal of her passion to pray for all nations, and of her willingness to go wherever Christ would choose.

A year after that, in June 1810, four young students met with the General Association of Congregational ministers in Bradford. They were volunteering to take the gospel to the unreached people of Asia. One of them was Adoniram Judson. The brilliant son of a Congregational minister, he had been converted after a period of rebellion. Like Ann, his conversion resulted in a passionate concern that all nations should praise God.

That day, the would-be missionaries were given lunch at the home of the Hasseltines. Unsurprisingly, Adoniram set his heart upon Ann. One month later, he wrote to her father,

I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life . . . to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? (37)

Mr. Hasseltine left the choice to Ann, who resolved to marry Adoniram and to leave all she knew for the unknown:

I rejoice, that I am in [God’s] hands — that he is everywhere present, and can protect me in one place as well as in another. He has my heart in his hands, and when I am called to face danger, to pass through scenes of terror and distress, he can inspire me with fortitude, and enable me to trust in him. Jesus is faithful; his promises are precious. (40)

At this time, sea journeys were hazardous. Letters took months, and some never arrived. There was no established mission network to which these pioneers could go. Nothing was guaranteed: safety, health, toleration — least of all success. Many thought the idea insane.

But Christ did not issue the Great Commission on the condition that health, comfort, and safety could be assured.

Shortly after arrival in Burma, Ann’s journal records her desire that all should honor God, her concern for the plight of people deprived of gospel light, and her conviction that it was a privilege to have been called to sacrifice comfort for the kingdom:

If it may please the dear Redeemer to make me instrumental of leading some of the females of Burma to a saving acquaintance with him, my great object would be accomplished, my highest desires gratified: I shall rejoice to have relinquished my comforts, my country, and my home. . . . When shall cruel, idolatrous, avaricious Burma know, that thou art the God of the whole earth, and alone deservest the homage and adoration of all creatures? Hasten it, Lord, in thine own time. (83–84)

Cruel and avaricious were not malicious terms. Burma’s penal system was indeed brutal, including public torture for minor offenses. And the country’s exorbitant taxation trapped the majority of the population in dire poverty. Ann’s passionate concern was warranted.

Powerful Certainty

The day-to-day routine of surviving in harsh and hostile circumstances, acquisition of a new language, hundreds of hours in discussion with inquirers — all was motivated by the conviction that God is sovereign, and his promises are sure. “We have nothing to expect from man, and everything from God . . . we are in the service of Him who governs the world” (55, 172).

Such confidence liberated Ann to see the long-term perspective. They were laying a foundation for future work:

We cannot expect to do much, in such a rough, uncultivated field; yet if we may be instrumental in removing some of the rubbish, and preparing the way for others, it will be a sufficient reward . . . when we recollect that Jesus has commanded his disciples to carry the gospel to the nations, and promised to be with them to the end of the world; that God has promised to give the nations to his Son for an inheritance, we are encouraged to make a beginning, though in the midst of discouragement, and leave it to him to grant success, in his own time and way. (73, 83)

She longed for Christ to be magnified and souls to be won in Burma — whether she saw the harvest or not.

Permanent Contribution

Ann’s life, albeit short, was hugely influential in the expansion of the missions movement in the nineteenth century. Ann and Adoniram established the first church in Burma. Ann was fully engaged in evangelism. She engaged in translation in both Burmese and Siamese (Thai), including a catechism. She started schools and stirred up support for female education among American women.

Ann died prematurely. Her valiant efforts to secure her husband’s survival in prison had shattered her own strength. He would minister in Burma for another 23 years, during which time a firm foundation for church life was laid (including his magnificent translation of the Bible).

In time, the epic drama of the Judson story inspired generations of Baptist missionaries. Ann’s writings were among the first at a popular level to stir up missionary interest among the Protestant population in America, and beyond. Her Memoir was printed soon after her death, and ran through many editions. She was the childhood heroine of Adoniram’s second and third wives.

In 1815, a 10-year-old American girl, Sarah Hall, wept when she heard of the death of Ann’s baby Roger, and she wrote a poem to mark the sad event. Little did she know that eighteen years later she would become the second Mrs. Judson!

“The epic drama of the Judson story inspired generations of Baptist missionaries.”

In 1828, a 12-year-old factory girl, Emily Chubbuck, was moved to tears by reading of the death of baby Maria. Eighteen years later, she would become the third Mrs. Judson! Emily said to a friend before meeting Adoniram, “I have felt, ever since I read the Memoir of Mrs Ann H. Judson when I was a small child, that I must become a missionary” (253).

Pray for Burma

Ann’s God-centered testimony inspired, and continues to inspire, many. It challenges the self-absorption of our comfort-obsessed culture. It spurs us on to plead with God for many to come to a living faith and a joyous determination to serve God whatever the cost.

It also reminds us of Burma (now Myanmar), where the military regime is brutalizing the population, including many Christians. We can pray that their testimony of eternal hope would win many to Christ, and that God would be honored in the nation Ann Judson so willingly served and departed from into glory.

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