Marriage to a Difficult Man: Part 1

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.”

MarriageDifficultCOVER

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?

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18 thoughts on “Marriage to a Difficult Man: Part 1

  1. I’m not surprised, of course, because I’ve done a lot of work on marriage and marital problems in early America. 🙂 I’ve read that Sarah might also have suffered from postpartum depression.
    Their daughter, Esther Edwards Burr, kept a journal of letters she wrote to her friend, Sarah Prince.

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    1. You are an expert on American history and marital problems of the era. I too got the impression pospartum depression contributed to her breakdown. With 11 kids – no wonder.

      I was surprised at the number of Edwardsian scholars in Dobbs’ bibliography and their breadth of her research including references to the writings of family friend Samuel Hopkins. Chapter XIII “Two Presidencies at Princeton” discusses the contribution of Esther E. Burr. What a gifted family!

      Our pastor has been discussing church history for the past month or so. When he mentioned this book title, I knew I just had to read it. I am sure you can add much more detail to women’s lives in this time period because of your research. Thanks for again being first in line with your comments, Merril.

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  2. I love reading your post because once again you have quickened my mind to read the life of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. I can imagine how difficult it would be for her as a wife and mother of eleven children, then to add to her plate a husband who is a preacher. That is a lot to deal with: being pulled in so many directions, pressure to have to raise children to higher standards, then entertain many people on top of raising children, cleaning cooking and having to be calm under pressure. In those days the husbands didn’t help the wife with cleaning cooking or washing clothes. I know if I didn’t have a husband that helps with all those duties at home I could not do half the ministry that I do. Yes God has blessed me with a great man.
    I will read the life of Jonathan and Sarah today. Thank you.
    Gloria

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    1. You have an inside view of the pressures of ministry on a daily basis. How fortunate that you have a husband that understands how draining it is to listen to other people’s problems and then come home to face household duties. I hope you are keeping a journal of your life. You have an amazing story, Gloria!

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  3. I’m actually surprised that only one child died during that time period. I’ve seen unusual marriages work beautifully because of the balance, but I’ve also seen one that caused a great deal of stress. I think it depends on the people instead of the traits.

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    1. The infant mortality rate was high in those days, deaths more often exceeding live births. Sarah’s children lived to adulthood because of her good health habits, vigilance when family members were exposed to disease, and probably good genes on both sides. Jonathan Edwards himself was over six-feet tall also unusual in that era. Genes and genius – no wonder women were jealous!

      I agree, willingness to work as a team is probably a better predictor of marital success than the balance between or the compatibility of the unique partners. Anyway, a good topic for another discussion. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Traci.

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  4. I love hearing about Jonathan Edwards along with hearing about his partner. Sarah’s voice deserves to be heard too, and, to me, Jonathan’s story becomes stronger when Sarah’s version comes out too.

    I also love that this post is inspired by your minister; sounds like soul food to me.

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    1. Thank you for chiming in Dolores. Like many, I thought of Jonathan Edwards as a formidable Puritan making dire predictions about people’s souls until I read this well-documented historical narrative. Redemption and grace were as much a part of his sermon repertoire as God’s justice.

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  5. I’d heard of Jonathan Edwards and used Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in my English classes before, but you’ve made me realize that I knew virtually nothing about his family. Thanks for the insight!

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    1. I knew nothing either until I read this tome. The cliche is true: Things are not as they seem; often they are very different from what they seem. Thanks for your comment from an English teacher’s perspective, Rebecca.

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  6. Having eleven children can be stressful. If the bulk of child rearing was left up to Sarah, then it’s no wonder she had a breakdown. Still it seems she also found the balance needed to run a happy, contented home. Interesting story, Marian.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this, Judy. It makes me wonder now how many other towering figures in history, American or otherwise, I may have misconceptions about. Historical accounts are often skewed either intentionally or because of lack of knowledge. I enjoyed having my preconceptions about Jonathan Edwards debunked while reading this book.

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  7. Marian — Like Merril, I too have read that Sarah might have suffered from postpartum depression. And with eleven children (oh my stars and garters!) it seems highly probable.

    During my sister’s visit this past week, we didn’t talk about any “uncommon unions,” but we did drag out a few interesting family skeletons and dissect them to our best ability with the aid of Google and Bing — both excellent research aids.

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    1. “There’s no friend like a sister in fair or stormy weather” and I agree. It appears we both had our “sister fix” this month. Inevitably, we rehearse old stories and have a few laughs. I use Google Search every day, but not Bing (only for translate). Thanks for the tip; I’ll have to use it more and in a different way too.

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  8. What a creative post this is, Marian. I never know what I’ll read when I visit your site. Thanks so much for informing and fascinating me. And now off to read Part II.

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  9. I guess we inspire each other, Elaine. Because of your blog post and commentary, I have had the privilege of meeting one of your followers, Debby Gies. I just love meeting kindred spirits and this is the place to find them. Thanks for your kind words.

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