Sarah Edwards (1710–1758), wife of the great theologian and revival preacher Jonathan Edwards, is most often remembered for her lifelong devotion to God. She had experienced God’s grace even as a little girl. At age 16, she confided in her journal that she had been “led to prize nearness to Christ as the creature’s greatest happiness” (Sarah Edwards: Delighting in God, 27).
In addition to being a devoted Christian, Sarah was the mother of eleven children. Having married at the age of 17, she gave birth to her first baby the next year, and had ten more children at more or less two-year intervals until she was 40.
In the eighteenth century, childbirth was still painful and risky. Rates of maternal (and infant) mortality were high. Sarah’s life was in danger at least once during childbirth. We should not romanticize the physical and emotional burden of bearing and raising eleven children.
So how did she respond to the challenges of motherhood? What might her example teach us today?
Parsonages in Sarah’s time would have visitors constantly arriving and expecting accommodation. The Edwardses often had guests staying for extended periods. Such visitors consistently testified that theirs was a joyful home. Delight in God characterized daily family worship and everyday life as well.
“Delight in God characterized daily family worship and everyday life as well.”
The Edwards children were trained from the earliest age to obey their parents, but the training was not harsh. Jonathan and Sarah’s descendent Sereno Edwards Dwight included this glowing tribute to Sarah in his Memoir, written in 1830:
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. She seldom punished them, and in speaking to them used gentle and pleasant words. If any correction was needed, 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 and noise, and with all calmness and gentleness of mind. (40–41)
The great English revival preacher George Whitefield visited the colonies in 1740 and was invited to preach at Jonathan’s Northampton church. As a guest in the Edwards home, he was impressed by this happy and godly family, and he confided in his journal the prayer that God would supply him with a life partner just like Sarah.
At the same time, neither Jonathan nor Sarah trusted that their parenting would automatically produce Christian children. During Whitefield’s visit, Jonathan asked him to speak about Christ with the older Edwards children (then aged 12, 10, 8, 6, and 4). After this visit, it became apparent that God was working in the lives of Sarah Jr., Jerusha, Esther, and Mary. Jonathan and Sarah were overjoyed. They did not assume the salvation of their children; each needed to experience God’s grace individually.
Ultimately, Sarah’s parenting rested on the truth that God gives the gift of children. So, despite the unremitting demands of nursing, broken sleep, caring for little ones through sickness, and the daily work of training them, Sarah regarded each child as a gift from God. She longed for God to be glorified in each of their lives. And she trusted that, by God’s grace, each would in turn tell of God’s glory to the next generation:
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts. (Psalm 145:4)
Her Eternal Perspective
Sarah loved her children dearly. But she loved God more. She was confident that whatever happened to them, she could trust in God’s goodness, wisdom, and love. He was working, and would always work, all things for his own glory and for the good of his people (Romans 8:28).
“Sarah loved her children dearly. But she loved God more.”
That assurance deepened in the spring of 1742 during a time of revival in Northampton. Over an intense three-week period, Sarah enjoyed a sustained and intense experience of God’s love. “My safety, and happiness, and eternal enjoyment of God’s immutable love, seemed as durable and unchangeable as God himself,” she testified (66).
Five years later, Sarah’s confidence in God’s goodness would be severely tested. Her second daughter, Jerusha, had helped to care for a visiting missionary, David Brainerd, who was suffering from tuberculosis (a major cause of death at that time). In October 1747, Brainerd died, aged 29. By then, Jerusha had contracted the disease. She died in February 1748, aged just 17. Unusually godly, Jerusha had been regarded as the “flower of the family” (106). Sarah grieved deeply, but she did not question God’s love. Her enduring delight in God was based on her conviction that God is sovereign in all things. She could trust him with the choice of life or death, comfort or pain, for herself and her loved ones.
Through this, and a series of further trials, Sarah was sustained by her eternal perspective. God’s supreme goal is the glory of his Son, and Christ seeks the glory of his Father (1 Corinthians 15:24). The ultimate success of that goal has been secured at the cross. The last enemy, death, has already been defeated (1 Corinthians 15:25–26).
And so, when Sarah’s beloved husband unexpectedly died in 1758, she was able to respond with towering faith:
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 [Jonathan] so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. (115)
Shortly afterward, aged just 48, Sarah faced death herself. She died peacefully, assured that nothing, not even death, can separate the believer from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38–39).
Every Child a Gift
Sarah Edwards’s assurance that children are a blessing from God stands in stark contrast to today’s society. Many view children as a threat to female fulfillment (and a barrier to the achievement of equal outcomes in the paid workforce). The availability of contraception (often a misnomer for abortifacient medication) often leads to the assumption that we, not God, are in control of when to have children. If a baby is “unplanned,” many claim the “right” to kill their unborn child.
Such is the depravity of a society that has rejected belief in the Creator God. But the consistent biblical teaching is that God is the giver of life. In a fallen sinful world, childbirth and childrearing involves pain and toil, yet even still, children are a blessing.
Conversely, in a society that elevates personal fulfillment over all else, some claim the “right” to have children (with or without a partner). And in churches where, rightly, motherhood is honored, some women see bearing children as the ultimate blessing. They wrongly assume that they cannot be truly fulfilled unless they bear biological children.
But Sarah reminds us that children are a gift, not a right. If God’s glory is our great desire, we will submit to his higher wisdom. He has planned from all eternity the good works he wants us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Christian women may be spiritual mothers, and a blessing to many, whether or not they bear physical children.
Whatever our circumstances, our deepest joy can be found in praising God and seeking his glory. And the testimony of Sarah Edwards can become our own:
The glory of God seemed to be all, and in all, and to swallow up every wish and desire of my heart. (78)