Princeton Portrait

Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg

Jonathan Edwards Jr. 1765 was not the warmest man — on that, everyone agreed. He was too serious, reserved, and hopeless at small talk. Add to that a near-permanent frown and piercing eyes one acquaintance believed “could absolutely read” his thoughts, and the scholar and minister cut an intimidating figure. Edwards shared that with his father, just as he shared his name. 

He was the son of Jonathan Edwards, Princeton’s third president, early America’s pre-eminent theologian, and author of the pulpit-shaking sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Also like his father, the younger Edwards would briefly serve as a college president — in his case, at Union College — before falling ill and dying.

Beneath his outward austerity, Edwards Jr. possessed a quality all too rare in his time: a deep, abiding compassion for the most marginalized people in American society. It was a trait that would bring him into conflict with his celebrated father throughout his life.

In 1751, when Edwards Jr. was 6 years old, the elder Edwards moved his family to the town of Stockbridge, Mass. Though the father had been sent to preach to the local Mahican Indians, he refused to learn their language, declaring it too “barbarous” for discussions of God and morality. His son, however, quickly became fluent. Edwards Jr.’s closest friends were Mahican children, and he rarely spoke English outside his father’s house. Later in life he would defend the beauty and complexity of the language, refuting racist assumptions that Native Americans had no abstract terms or thought. “They have love ... hatred ... malice ... religion,” he wrote, the same as any other people. 

The son saw cruelty and hypocrisy across the land, from men who claimed to be Christians and patriots. He’d seen it first in his childhood home.

Though the father had been sent to preach to the local Mahican Indians, he refused to learn their language. His son, however, quickly became fluent.

Edwards Sr. owned at least four slaves. His son, however, was a committed abolitionist decades before large numbers of white Americans would join enslaved people and free blacks in demanding emancipation. In 1773, just months before “Sons of Liberty” would toss British tea into Boston Harbor to protest the tyranny of taxes, Edwards Jr. took up his pen against the tyranny of slavery. He cited the Bible’s golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the Revolution’s mantra, “that all men are created equal.”

Edwards Jr. knew firsthand how difficult it would be for his listeners to criticize beloved parents, teachers, and ministers for owning slaves — a practice that, in the 18th century, existed in every state. Perhaps “they did so ignorantly and in unbelief of the truth,” he conceded in a 1791 sermon. In other words, they were men of their time. But Edwards believed that time had passed. 

“You,” he declared, skewering his audience with keen, piercing eyes, “cannot sin at so cheap a rate as our fathers.”