The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards
He was a young man unsure of his future. He had many gifts and not a few options before him. His father and grandfather were ministers, as were uncles and others in the family tree. He had a first-rate education, one of the finest of the day, so he was well-prepared for a future in the halls of the academy, should he so choose. He even had a penchant for science and perhaps could have headed off in that direction. But for the time being he was a pastor, a young pastor at that. Eighteen going on nineteen, he found himself far from his native soil of the Connecticut River Valley in the throes of a church split in a Presbyterian church in New York City. He had been invited to pastor the minority faction somewhere along the docks of the city’s harbor. New York City wasn’t nearly as busy in 1722, the year in question, as it is now. The population hovered around just under ten thousand. For a young man from the idyllic setting of small town New England, however, it was a place unlike any he had ever seen.
Amidst all of this uncertainty and flux, this young man, Jonathan Edwards, needed both a place to stand and a compass for some direction. So he took to writing. He kept a diary and he penned some guidelines, which he came to call his “Resolutions.” These resolutions would supply both that place for him to stand and a compass to guide him as he made his way.
There was a time, church historian Sean Lucas once pointed out, when Jonathan Edwards wasn’t Jonathan Edwards. That is to say, there was a time before Edwards was the great theologian and pastor that he is now known to be. In 1722 and 1723, during his nineteenth year, he was just Jonathan Edwards. The Great Awakening and his involvement in it, the publication of Religious Affections, Life of Brainerd, and Freedom of the Will — not to mention many other books, sermons, and writings enough to fill many shelves — the missionary work at Stockbridge, and the presidency of Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey), were all off in the distance. That Jonathan Edwards, the subject of many books, dissertations, conferences, and even websites, was not yet. At age nineteen, Jonathan Edwards was the potential Jonathan Edwards.
Aristotle spoke of the difference between actuality and potentiality, the difference between what is and what can be. Aristotle further spoke of actual being as real being, while potential being as something less. At this point the self-help gurus step in, offering you seven secrets to becoming the best you can be, if you attend the seminar and buy the workbook and sign up seven others. But Edwards is about as far from being a self-help guru as he could possibly be. His resolutions are equally distant from the workbooks taken home after the seminar. Edwards’s resolutions do what all the self-help and how-to books can’t. They accomplish what these others can’t accomplish because, from start to finish, they are entirely different from the books crowding out the self-help and how-to shelves of bookstores.
First, consider the starting point of the “Resolutions.” Edwards started writing his resolutions as fall gave way to winter in 1722. Edwards dated resolution number thirty-five as December 18, 1722, dating the last one, number seventy, on August 17, 1723. It’s likely he began his resolutions shortly before the date on number thirty-five, having just arrived in New York City in August of 1722 as an eighteen-year-old. These resolutions helped him face this tense moment in his life, this moment of uncertainty and change brought about by a new environment. Before Edwards got to number one, however, he offered a prefatory word:
“Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will for Christ’s sake.”
This preface undergirds the seventy resolutions to follow, which is crucial to keep in mind. Cutting the resolutions off from the foundation of the preface leads to seeing them as the stuff of personal grit and determination to better oneself. That’s not only a mistaken reading, it’s a tragic one. The self-made person is a modern ideal, not a biblical one. With the preface in mind, though, one does see that Edwards calls himself to a life of high standards and great expectations. He’s resolved to a life that counts, not just a life of putting in time. In resolution number six, Edwards exclaims, “Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.”
Certain categories and themes begin to emerge from this list of seventy resolutions of Edwards’ intention to live to the fullest. Some concern interpersonal relationships and interaction. Some concern the ubiquitous topic on lists of resolutions: eating and drinking. Some concern his spiritual and devotional life. Some concern his desire to use his time on earth wisely. These types of resolutions make it onto just about any list of resolutions. Indeed, despite all the differences between the twenty-first century and the eighteenth, human beings are much the same. Edwards’ list contains, however, some unique themes.
One of these unique themes concerns suffering and affliction. Towards the end of the list, Edwards writes, “Resolved, after afflictions to inquire what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.” Edwards’ rather large vision of God saw both the good and the bad in his life as stemming from the hand of God, something difficult for even the most mature of Christians let alone for a nineteen-year-old. Convinced that even the frowning side of providence, as the puritans sometimes referred to suffering and affliction, was meant for his good, Edwards resolved himself to the will and ways of God.
Another unique theme concerns his deep sense of mortality and human frailty. Some see the puritans as death-obsessed. The “Y” in the New England Primer has the accompanying line: “While Youth do cheer, death may be near.” One needs to look a little beneath the surface, though, to interpret the puritans and Edwards properly. Life was frail and fragile in the eighteenth century. The reality is that life continues to be frail and fragile today; we just camouflage it with our medical and technological advancements. We can be too easily numbed to our frailty. Edwards knew it all too well. Consequently, in a number of these resolutions Edwards looks beyond this life to the life to come. He takes seriously the issue of estimating his life when it comes to an end, because he is not naïve enough to think that it never will. The various resolutions that speak of his death and the afterlife remind us in the twenty-first century of the brevity of life, something we would just as soon forget or ignore.
This sense of mortality gave Edwards a unique perspective on life. He took the long view, not the short view. Resolution number fifty-two records sage advice to himself: “I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live if they were to live their lives over again. Resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.”
The urgency, or, as some have said, the tyranny of the present tends to keep us from taking such a long view. Consequently, we find our lives somewhat akin to that of Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day. We’re stuck in a rut of a seemingly pointless cycle. If we can only get through this day, we tell ourselves, tomorrow will be different. Then tomorrow comes and nothing has changed. There is a way out of this pointless cycle, a way of freedom. The long view, actually the very long view, of the eternal perspective of our lives provides such a way. “Resolved,” Edwards writes in number fifty-five, “to endeavor to my utmost to act as I can think I should do if I had already seen the happiness of heaven and the torments of hell.”
Edwards not only starts his resolutions differently from the self-help gurus, he ends them differently as well. His goal in making and keeping resolutions isn’t self-fulfillment but the glory of God. The irony is that in seeking self-fulfillment, one actually, in the words of Christ, loses his life (Matt. 10:39). Yet by seeking the glory of God, one finds life in abundance. Edwards expresses this in his very first resolution, on the heels of the preface: “Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory and to my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism had it right all along. There is a necessary corollary between glorifying God and enjoying Him. Edwards just extends it. There is a necessary corollary between glorifying God and enjoying life. The life lived for God’s glory is the life of pleasure, the good life. George Marsden, in his magisterial biography of Edwards, observes, “Jonathan directed his ‘Resolutions’ toward plugging every gap that would allow distraction from what he saw as his only worthy activity, to glorify God” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 50, 2003). Everything in Edwards’ life, all his activities and endeavors, would have to make their way back to this chief goal.
This point alone makes Edwards’ resolutions stand out. Fellow colonial Benjamin Franklin also took to writing resolutions. On his long voyage home to Philadelphia after his first visit to France in 1726, he decided to “make some resolutions, and form some scheme of action.” Franklin kept making and remaking them throughout his life. In that first set, his third resolution concerns his goal: “To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of growing suddenly rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.” His single-mindedness and patience are commendable, but at the end of the day Franklin’s goal was to arrive at “plenty,” to be prosperous. Edwards set his sights far higher.
The way Edwards starts and ends his resolutions marks them off from the flood of self-help and how-to advice. Edwards has a distinct and different foundation and goal. In the points in between he also has something unique to say. One of these concerns reading Scripture, which many in the modern and now postmodern world have jettisoned as an ancient book no longer credible or meaningful. Against such a notion, Edwards committed himself to Scripture, as seen in resolution number twenty-eight: “Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of them.”
Edwards also has something to say about prayer in resolution number twenty-nine: “Resolved, never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer or as a petition of prayer, which is so made that I cannot hope that God will answer it; nor that as a confession, which I cannot hope God will accept.” Perhaps because Edwards used words so well, he had a high and healthy respect for them. Not interested in merely rattling off words, Edwards wanted his words during his time of prayer to count, words not spoken glibly, but words uttered in earnest faith. Further, we shouldn’t miss Edwards’ reference to prayers of confession.
The “Resolutions” express Edwards’ earnest desire to be faithful in the spiritual disciplines of reading Scripture and prayer. Many years after he left New York, while writing Religious Affections, Edwards recalled his Jewish neighbor. Edwards vividly remembers this man, “who appeared to me the devoutest person that I ever saw in my life; a great part of his time being spent in acts of devotion.” Edwards used this man’s act of devotion to challenge Christians to a deeper devotion in Religious Affections (1746). Back in 1722, while writing the “Resolutions,” this man had challenged Edwards’ own devotion.
In addition to reading Scripture and prayer, Edwards also has quite a bit to say to himself about community, though he doesn’t use the word. Many, if not the lion’s share, of the resolutions concern interpersonal relationships. And most of these have something to do with his speech. “Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity,” he so commits himself in resolution number thirty-four. He wasn’t just after speaking the truth, he also wanted to speak kindly. In resolution number thirty-one, he writes, “Resolved, never to say anything at all against anybody, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor and of love to mankind”; then he adds, “agreeable to the lowest humility and a sense of my own faults and failings.” Edwards realized how much he could be critical of others for the same glaring faults he had in his own life. This awareness goes a long way in interacting with our spouses, children, and other family members, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, with our fellow employees and employers, and with our neighbors.
Edwards also avoided a naïve view of interpersonal relationships. Resolution number thirty-three makes this clear. Here he writes, “Resolved, always to do what I can towards making, maintaining, and preserving peace, when it can be without overbalancing detriment in other respects.” Remember, Edwards was pastoring a splinter group of a church split when he wrote this. He recognized the difficulties in navigating interpersonal interaction.
The last of these numbered resolutions, number seventy, states, “Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak.” That resolution alone would be enough for any person to work on during his or her lifetime. Edwards had sixty-nine more just as challenging.
Reading some of these resolutions gives the impression of Edwards as a superman, but resolution number thirty-six allows for his humanity to come through. In the first part of this one Edwards notes, “Resolved never to speak evil of any,” before adding, “except I have some particular good call for it.” It’s refreshing to see Edwards being so human. We also see this in resolution number fifty-six, in which he deals honestly with his sin, his “corruptions.” Here he writes, “Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”
It’s encouraging to see our heroes as human. In fact, that is how we must see them. A strong dose of humility and an abiding sense of our own humanity, frailty, and shortcomings, help us put the reading of Edwards’ Resolutions, as well as the making and keeping of our own resolutions, in a healthy perspective. We must remember that there was a time when Jonathan Edwards wasn’t Jonathan Edwards. More importantly, we must remember that Jonathan Edwards didn’t make Jonathan Edwards — no matter how good he was at making and keeping resolutions. God made Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards through the work of the God-man Jesus Christ. Christ made the ultimate resolution, and He kept it perfectly and completely. Christ resolved to redeem His fallen and sinful people so that this new community could be reconciled to the Father and pursue a life of holiness.
Many years later, during the flurry of the Great Awakening, a young teenager named Deborah Hatheway wrote Edwards for advice on how to live the Christian life. She lived in Suffield, Connecticut, at the time a town without a pastor. Since Suffield was just a short distance away from Northampton, Edwards preached there from time to time. Edwards replied with a nineteen-point letter, and this at perhaps the busiest time in his life. This letter was in effect a set of resolutions for her and for her friends, with whom Edwards encouraged her to share the letter. He speaks of spiritual disciplines, of having a sense of sin, and of having an even greater sense of grace. But perhaps his best advice comes near the end, when he writes, “In all your course, walk with God and follow Christ as a little, poor, helpless child, taking hold of Christ’s hand, keeping your eye on the mark of the wounds on his hand and side.”
Resolved, thanks to this reminder from Jonathan Edwards, to keep our eyes on Christ.