In case you thought I would be writing an exposé about my difficult marriage to artist Cliff, you’d be wrong. I may write about my own marriage at some point, but it would have a different title.
The marriage under the microscope is that of Sarah Edwards to the famous colonial theologian, Jonathan Edwards, best known for his fire-and-brimstone-sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
You may surmise that the title comes from the mouth of a fed-up wife to her biographer. However, the book is Elisabeth Dodd’s commentary on the unique union of Jonathan & Sarah Edwards often using primary sources like diaries and letters to show the personal, human side of this towering figure of faith. The blurb from Amazon touts this 1971 classic on the domestic life of Sarah and Jonathan Edwards, the most famous theologian of colonial America, as a “tempting blend of family guidance, sociological study, . . . and devotionally-oriented American historical biography.”
According to Dodds, Jonathan was a “moody, socially bumbling, and very shy young man of twenty” already a college graduate and professor at Yale, when he first met the vibrant thirteen-year-old Sarah, who had “burnished manners, and skilled at small talk.” Completely smitten by Sarah, Edwards
. . . took to walking past her her house at night for a glimpse of a candle flickering behind an upstairs shutter. When a boat came into Long Wharf with a cargo from England, he would manage to be around as it was unloaded. Almost every ship from England brought a box for the Pierreponts, and there was a chance that James [Pierrepont] would bring a daughter down with him as he checked his orders […]. Edwards even tried to improve his social dexterity, and admonished himself, “Have lately erred, in not allowing time enough for conversation. (16)
Both avid readers and nature lovers, Jonathan and Sarah married and raised a family of eleven children, in whose education both parents were heavily invested. At the end of the day this firebrand preacher and proponent of the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, took off his jacket and wig and, smoking his pipe, devoted a full hour to his children and took them on trips with him individually.
What about Sarah though? It’s true, when he wasn’t preaching, Edwards was usually holed up with his books, but he often “read aloud to her from his skull-cracking sessions in his study,” recognizing her as his intellectual partner. (164) And Sarah knew he would reserve time for her alone away from the house, often spent horse-back riding.
Why is this Puritan Preacher called difficult then, as the book’s title would suggest? Actually, I get the impression he was more eccentric than harsh, more odd than obstinate at home as this quote suggests:
Edwards was less than helpful as a host, for he was still a light eater and would often finish his meal before the others did. He would then slip out to his study, returning to the table only when he was alerted that the others had finished and he was needed to preside over the grace which was always said at the end of meals as well as at the beginning. (56)
Peculiar in his eating habits, Edwards was also either eccentric or just being practical in recording his sermon notes. “He kept old bills and shopping lists, stitching them together into handmade notebooks in which he copied out his sermons on the unused side of the papers. Because his sermons were saved, we have a record of the everyday details of his family’s life together.” (31)
One reviewer comments that “Suffering was a part of Sarah’s life, too. Her husband’s brilliant mind and heart were never adequately recognized until shortly before his death. An insane man once spread false accusations about him.” Their teenage daughter Mary died of tuberculosis. Money was sometimes scarce.
Sarah herself went through a short period of mental breakdown, “nerves stretches like an over-tuned viola.” (72) Her support and comfort, Edwards persuaded her to take a trip to Boston with him, taking her away from the fish-bowl of the parish and the constant demands as mother and hostess to a steady stream of visiting preachers.
Nevertheless, Sarah herself a woman of heart, intellect and purpose maintained a contented home, a home that produced healthy, well-balanced children all of whom carried on the genius of their parents. As author Dodds implies, a trust in the living God runs as a common thread throughout Sarah’s life story, giving her strength to carry on.
Part II will answer the questions:
1. What kind of house-keeper was Sarah?
2. Why was their union called uncommon?
3. What were Edwards’ parting words to his wife?
Do these details about the Edwards’ marriage surprise you?
Is there an “uncommon union” in your family’s past? Your own history?