Finding God in Solitude

The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry

by Donald S. Whitney (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 178 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 340


Finding God in Solitude explores the devotional piety of one of America’s most important religious figures, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) of Massachusetts. From his childhood to his death shortly after becoming president of Princeton, and especially from his Christian conversion through his Northampton pastorate and the Great Awakening to his missionary work among Indians on the frontier, Edwards’ personal spirituality is evaluated, particularly in terms of its impact upon his pastoral ministry. Specifically, the influence of his private piety on his public labors is considered in terms of his pastoral relationships, his pastoral preaching, and his pastoral publications. Edwards’ piety and his pastoral ministry are also assessed in light of their relative consistency with both the English Puritan and Colonial New England Puritan heritage from which Edwards was descended. This book would be useful in courses on Jonathan Edwards, American religious history, Colonial New England, Puritanism, Christian spirituality, or pastoral ministry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Finding God in Solitude
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Definition of Terms
  • Biblical and Historical Influences on Edwards’ Piety and Pastoral Ministry
  • Devotional Piety in the Bible
  • Devotional Piety in Puritan England and New England
  • Pastoral Ministry in the English Puritan and Puritan New England Contexts
  • Current Interest in Edwards
  • Demarcation of Chapters
  • One: The Life and work of Jonathan Edwards, with Emphasis on his Piety and Pastoral Ministry
  • Early Life
  • Yale
  • Conversion
  • First Pastorate and Beginning of “Resolutions”
  • Move to Northampton and Marriage to Sarah
  • The Great Awakening
  • George Whitefield
  • “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
  • Opposition to and Conclusion of the Great Awakening
  • Pastoral Difficulties and Dismissal
  • Final Years
  • Missionary in Stockbridge
  • Stockbridge Writing
  • Final Days
  • President of the College of New Jersey
  • Death
  • Summary
  • Two: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards
  • God: Edwards’ Highest Priority and Supreme Joy
  • The Bible
  • Prayer
  • Journaling
  • Diary
  • Resolutions
  • Miscellanies and Other Notebooks
  • “Remembrancers”
  • Fasting
  • Solitude
  • Family Worship
  • Edwards’ Piety and Mysticism
  • Three: The Pastoral Ministry of Jonathan Edwards
  • “Thirteen Hours Every Day in His Study”
  • Private Fasts and Congregational Fasts
  • Edwards’ Personal and Pastoral Practice
  • Edwards’ Defense of Christian Solitude
  • Preaching a Sweet and Sublime God
  • The Popular Image of Edwards
  • Both the Practice and Spirit of Edwards’ Piety Revealed in His Preaching
  • Expressing the Inexpressible
  • Personal Narrative and Letters
  • “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections”
  • “Life of David Brainerd”
  • Pastoral Ministry as Edwards’ Means for the Promotion of Piety
  • Conclusion
  • Review of Findings Regarding Edwards’ Piety and Pastoral Ministry
  • Findings of Edwards’ Piety in Comparison with Piety in Scripture
  • Findings of Edwards’ Piety Compared with the Findings of Other Edwards Scholars
  • Findings of Edwards’ Pastoral Ministry Compared with the Findings of Other Edwards Scholars
  • Continuity and Discontinuity of Edwards’ Piety and Pastoral Ministry Compared with that of Puritan England and New England Puritan
  • Findings of Edwards’ Piety in This Regard in Comparison with that of Other Edwards Scholars
  • Findings of Edwards’ Pastoral Ministry in This Regard in Comparison with that of Other Edwards Scholars
  • Summary
  • Bibliography
  • Works by Jonathan Edwards
  • Works about Jonathan Edwards
  • Index
  • Index of Scripture References

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The goal of this study is to evaluate the personal piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), and the extent to which it influenced his pastoral ministry. The question repeatedly asked in this study is, “What were the private devotional practices of this internationally known religious figure from the American colonial period, and to what degree did these private practices impact the public aspects of his pastoral ministry?”

Other inquiries anticipate this, questions pertaining to the antecedents of Edwards’ personal piety—both ancestrally and theologically— how Edwards’ devotional practices reflected these antecedents, how Edwards’ spirituality and ministerial responsibilities were shaped by his rather introverted personality and his cerebral disposition, whether Edwards considered his piety exceptional among Christians and/or ministers, and whether Edwards advocated his own spiritual habits to other ministers.

Edwards is such a colossal and complex figure that any consideration of his life or work must necessarily be narrowed to a very tight focus. So this research will give little consideration to Edwards the theologian, Edwards the philosopher, Edwards the ethicist, Edwards the polemicist, Edwards the missionary, and to many other aspects of this multi-faceted Christian figure. But why study Edwards at all? Four reasons quickly emerge. For one thing, in many ecclesial circles today he is frequently acknowledged as a model and mentor for piety, ministry, and theology. However, the emphasis of both academic and popular publications regarding Edwards often does not give sufficient stress to his personal piety. Thus the area of research to which this book is devoted is primarily Edwards’ individual spirituality.

Second, he represents the best of his religious tradition in that era. Edwards is clearly the best-known religious figure of colonial New England. One indication of this is that the sermon he delivered at the outset of the First Great Awakening, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,”1 remains ubiquitous in survey anthologies of either famous American sermons or historic American literature.

Third, Edwards is worthy of study because of his unique gifts and talents. How important was piety to a man of such exceptional intelligence ← 1 | 2 → and pulpit skill? Did he allow his piety to diminish as his fame, opportunities, and responsibilities increased? As the minister of a large church, did he find himself becoming too busy for the pause of devotion? Did his large ministerial accomplishments lead him to start relying more on his own genius and unique abilities to the neglect of intimacy with God through personal piety? Did his piety erode over time into mere formality, or did it burn with a constancy that often flamed through his pastoral ministry as a fiery force that affected others? The pursuit of answers to questions like these can provide insights for ministers in every generation. If an extraordinarily gifted and eminently successful minister like Edwards found the maintenance of a personal devotional life worth his time, what does this say for ministers today? If a minister as effective and useful as Edwards believed that personal piety was essential for the health of his soul and ministry, what insights can be gleaned from his experience?

A final reason for studying the personal piety and pastoral ministry of Edwards in particular is by now self-evident: he is one of the most important ministerial figures in the annals of western Christianity. A single, standard reference work—the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology—provides evidence regarding the general level of esteem in which Edwards is held. In addition to his preaching and his crucial role in the First Great Awakening, it says of Jonathan Edwards that he “produced one of the most thorough and compelling bodies of theological writing in the history of America.”2 Such a life is worthy of the kind of close inspection that has been attempted by this book.

Definition of Terms

Before proceeding, certain terms used frequently in this book should be defined. The term that appears most frequently with the greatest need of definition is “piety,” a word recurrently found herein immediately following the qualifier “personal.” This indicates that the matter under consideration involves the habits of devotion in which Edwards’ engaged privately or with his family in the seclusion of their home, and not to his participation in public or congregational expressions of religion. The Latin word pietas is the root of the English term, and refers to thoughts or actions “towards the gods, piety” or “compassion ← 2 | 3 → from the gods,” and on the horizontal plane to “respect for human qualities . . . dutifulness towards one’s native country, patriotism . . . towards relatives, devotion.”3 Thus the word “piety” has come to be used with connotations which circumscribe the entirety of Christian living, as when one might refer to another’s Christian piety as genuine, meaning that the person modeled a life of consistent Christian character both toward God and people.

If we allow that piety can be a synonym for spirituality, then Glen Scorgie, editor of the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, agrees that it is important to recognize a comprehensive view of piety/spirituality, but he also acknowledges the existence of a more narrow definition which must necessarily coexist within the broader, more predominant one:

Two concepts of Christian spirituality—one narrow, the other holistic— now circulate. The narrow version is concerned with experiencing the presence, voice, and consolations of God in a direct, right-here-right-now way. . . . Authentic Christianity has always celebrated the possibility of experiencing God in this direct and interactive manner. At the same time, it has insisted that there is more to being a Christian than this. Holistic spirituality is about living all of life before God. It retains an important place for experiences, but involves more. It also includes things like repentance, moral renewal, soul crafting, community building, witness, service, and faithfulness to one’s calling.4

In this book, the use of the term “piety” corresponds more closely with what Scorgie calls “the narrow version.” In these pages, piety represents devotional piety, that is, the acts and habits of Christian devotion practiced in the pursuit of a deeper knowledge of and experience with God, as well as greater conformity to the internal and external example of Christ. Thus piety is not used here as a comprehensive term referring to the aggregate of a person’s beliefs and actions that are distinctly Christian, but more narrowly of those non-public practices ← 3 | 4 → intended to draw the heart and mind of the individual believer nearer to God and to develop authentic Christian beliefs and actions. This is closer to the definition of piety by Sarah Sumner: “Piety denotes godliness, reverence, dutifulness, and devotion. . . . Piety literally means taking hold of the things of God, that is, taking personal responsibility for one’s inherent duty to a holy God. In common parlance, piety is often used loosely as a synonym for spirituality.”5

So if piety may be categorized as holistic or “general piety” (that is, an overall, unfeigned Christian lifestyle) and also as “devotional piety,” this book is focused primarily on the latter, but with the understanding that the latter is a subset of and promotes the former. John Calvin put it this way in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”6

Throughout this book, the terms “personal piety,” “personal devotion,” “personal devotional life,” “private spirituality,” and the like are used interchangeably. They are used to refer to an individual’s practice of the personal spiritual disciplines. By “personal spiritual disciplines” is meant the ways whereby Christians individually flesh out the exhortation of biblical passages such as 1 Timothy 4:7, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”7 According to this text, the “purpose” or goal in the life of the practitioner of spiritual disciplines is “godliness.” Godliness is understood here as generally the equivalent of other theological terms such as holiness, sanctification, and Christlikeness.

Another term used frequently in this book—“personal spiritual disciplines”—also requires clarification. First, “disciplines” are regarded as practices. Put simply, disciplines are something one does, ← 4 | 5 → not something one is. Thus, disciplines should be distinguished from Christian graces, character qualities, or “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22–23). Prayer, for example, is here considered a spiritual discipline because it is something one does, while joy, strictly speaking, is not, for it relates more to one’s inward state of being, not an activity. Therefore, as practices, the spiritual disciplines are first about “doing,” then about “being.” In this sense, the spiritual disciplines are right “doing” that leads to right “being.” Seen from this perspective, the correct purpose of “doing” the practices known as spiritual disciplines is the state of “being” described in 1 Timothy 4:7 as “godliness.” This means that the discipline of prayer, rightly practiced, should result in godly joy (among other things). So while they should not be separated from each other, it is important to distinguish the practices known as the spiritual disciplines from the fruit that should result from them.

In addition to denoting them as practices, the term “spiritual disciplines” is also limited in these pages to biblical practices. Without this limitation, it could be claimed that virtually any activity one undertakes could properly be termed a spiritual discipline. By contrast, this book is written from the viewpoint that, regardless of the benefit we may derive from a given activity, it is best to reserve the biblical term “discipline” for practices taught by command, example, or principle in the Bible. Otherwise, almost anything and everything one does may eventually be called a spiritual discipline. Someone, for example, could claim that washing dishes—which, admittedly, ought to be done consciously in the presence of God and to the glory of God (see 1 Corinthians 10:31)—is as spiritually beneficial as prayer. On such a basis, may we engage in such “disciplines” as dishwashing as a substitute for prayer? If this is permissible, then what basis for disagreement over what is and what is not a spiritual discipline will exist, except personal experience and preference? A distinction should be made between sanctifying—or “improving” as some Puritan divines put it—a situation (such as dishwashing) and designating it a spiritual discipline. In this work, the designation is reserved for practices taught or modeled in Scripture.

A third understanding of the spiritual disciplines implied in this project is that these biblical practices are means to godliness, not ends. A person does not make progress in the godliness spoken of in 1 Timothy 4:7 merely by virtue of engaging in the spiritual disciplines. This was the fatal error of the Pharisees, for although they prayed, memorized Scripture, fasted, and practiced other disciplines, Jesus pointed to ← 5 | 6 → them as the epitome of ungodliness.8 Part of the rationale behind this research is an understanding that the Bible teaches that godliness is the result of God’s Spirit changing Christians into Christlikeness through the means of the spiritual disciplines found in Scripture. This view contends that apart from faith and the right motives when practicing the spiritual disciplines such efforts, regardless of the level of zeal in performing them, can be nothing more than “dead works.”9 In practical terms, the purpose for engaging in the spiritual disciplines is not to see how many chapters of the Bible one can read at a sitting or how long one can pray on a daily basis, nor is it to be found in any other activity that can be counted or measured. In short, no one is necessarily more Christlike simply because they diligently engage in the outward forms of the spiritual disciplines found in the Bible, no matter how often or how long or how passionately they perform those disciplines. The mere performance of the spiritual disciplines is not the essence of godliness. Instead, these biblical practices should be perceived and utilized as the means which result in true godliness, that is, intimacy with and conformity to Christ.

A fourth clarification presented here regarding these biblical practices which are the means to godliness is that there is a distinction between personal spiritual disciplines and interpersonal spiritual disciplines. Some spiritual disciplines are practiced alone; some are practiced with others. The former are the personal spiritual disciplines; the latter are the interpersonal ones. For example, private prayer is a personal spiritual discipline; prayer with others is an interpersonal spiritual discipline. Some disciplines, such as the practice of solitude, are almost exclusively practiced in isolation. Yet others, such as fellowship and the taking of communion, cannot be experienced alone. Certainly the natural temperaments of some people seem to incline them toward the disciplines of privacy, while others appear to be temperamentally more attracted to the disciplines of society. However, if Christlikeness is the goal of both the personal and interpersonal disciplines, then the individual Christian—however inclined more toward one type of disciplines than another—must consider the implications of the fact that Jesus practiced both disciplines of withdrawal and disciplines of engagement. ← 6 | 7 →

This book is concerned only with the practice of the personal spiritual disciplines in the life of Jonathan Edwards. Obviously, he would have invested a great deal of time engaging in the interpersonal spiritual disciplines, for as a local church pastor he had regular public responsibilities both to lead others in the performance of these disciplines and to model the ways in which they should be practiced. But this book does not address the role of the corporate spiritual disciplines in the life of Edwards except to the degree that they reflected some manifestation of the influence of his personal spiritual disciplines. Some attention is paid to Edwards’ practice of family worship. Disciplines practiced within the family circle are seen as sort of a middle ground between personal spiritual disciplines and congregational ones in that, like the personal spiritual disciplines, the practice of reading the Bible, praying, and singing with one’s family would not have fallen under the eye of public scrutiny, and thus would have been reflective of the same motivations behind Edwards’ personal piety.


VIII, 178
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
pastoral preaching religious history spirituality
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 178 pp.

Biographical notes

Donald S. Whitney (Author)

Donald S. Whitney received a DMin from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and a PhD in theology from the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Since 2005 he has been Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Prior to this he taught for ten years at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. With twenty-four years of pastoral experience, Whitney is the author of seven books, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.


Title: Finding God in Solitude
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