Most ordinary Christians, and many non-Christians, at least in the United States, know of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) only as the hellfire preacher of the Great Awakening. But Christians with missiological interests should know that Edwards had a number of connections with missions, especially missions to the North American Indians. He edited David Brainerd's journal for publication after the latter's death, and the resulting volume became one of the most influential missionary biographies ever written. He also spent the last seven years of his life as a missionary to the Indians in the remote frontier village of Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, leaving there only in response to an insistent invitation to become the president of Princeton College.
Mission historians are aware that Edwards's writings were extremely influential in the beginnings of the modern missionary movement in Britain, including the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 and the London Missionary Society three years later. On the American side of the Atlantic, Edwards's concept of "love for being in general," which he set forth in one of his last works, The Nature of True Virtue, provided the incentive for Samuel Hopkins to develop his idea of "disinterested benevolence," which was a powerful incentive in missionary motivation after the War of Independence, when North American Protestants developed their own missionary work both on their own continent and beyond. On both sides of the Atlantic and in the new mission areas, Edwards's God-centered postmillennial optimism was a powerful incentive to persevere under the most discouraging and depressing circumstances.
Edwards's Influence Often Minimized
These achievements, however, are often minimized or even ignored altogether. Scholars involved in the modern Edwards Renaissance play down this side of his work as an almost embarrassing irrelevance. It is suggested that in editing Brainerd's journal he distorted the real Brainerd and in fact was not so much interested in missions to the Indians as in using Brainerd's diary to underline some of his own ideas that he had emphasized in earlier publications. Regarding the years in Stockbridge, it has often been suggested that Edwards had no interest in evangelizing the Indians but went there only because he had nowhere else to go when he left Northampton; and that he only wanted a quiet situation to get on with his writing. The statement is often made that he did not prepare new sermons in the Stockbridge years but merely repreached earlier sermons. An examination of the facts shows that each of these points is inaccurate, as we shall see below.
It is past time to recognize Edwards's influence on the development of the modern Protestant missionary movement. William Carey is often spoken of as the father of modern missions, and a similar epithet is sometimes used of Samuel Hopkins in the American scene. In that case, Jonathan Edwards deserves the title "grandfather of modern Protestant missions," on both sides of the Atlantic!
When did Edwards's interest in missions begin? Was it in 1747, when the dying missionary David Brainerd rode into Edwards's yard at Northampton and, before his death, asked Edwards to prepare his diaries for publication? It is certainly very probable that the work of editing Brainerd's writings strengthened Edwards's interest in the Indian work, and it has been suggested that when he had to leave Northampton following dismissal from the pastorate, Brainerd's example reinforced his own call to the Stockbridge mission.
But in fact, Edwards's own missionary interest long antedated his contacts with Brainerd. Such interest began at least twenty-five years earlier. Writing about 1739 in "Personal Narrative," Edwards recalls that during his pastorate in New York (August 1722 to April 1723), "I had great longings for the advancement of Christ's kingdom in the world; and my secret prayer used to be, in large part, taken up in praying for it. …