Jonathan Edwards and Disease, Risk, Loss, and Hope

In light of the current coronavirus pandemic and the use of vaccines to ward off its serious ill effects, I would like to share two incidents – deaths – from the life of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).

Edwards is regarded as one of America’s greatest philosophers. He was also an eager Christian, serving as a pastor, missionary, and a theologian; he was a key leader of the initial evangelical revivals in New England as well as a penetrating critic of them. He was also an enthusiast for scientific development. In 1758 Edwards became the president of Princeton University, where he served for a matter of weeks before his early death.

The first incident is the death of missionary David Brainerd in his home in 1747. Brainerd (1718-1747) had been working among the native American tribes in New Jersey but found himself in poor health and recuperating in the Edwards’ home. He was suffering from the lung disease tuberculosis, which after many weeks took his life. Following Brainerd’s death, Edwards’ daughter Jerusha – who had nursed the sick missionary in their home – also contracted the disease and died.

Despite losing his daughter to the tuberculosis that she probably contracted from Brainerd, Edwards was grateful for the time the dying man had spent with them. He regarded the godly man’s influence upon himself and his family a gift of God’s providence.

The second event is Edward’s own death. Jonathan Edwards died of a smallpox inoculation – a recently developed technique (variolation) that was a forerunner to modern vaccinations. Smallpox was eradicated in the mid-20th century but had been a dangerous disease that killed many of its hosts. Survivors were left with scars on the body from the pustules that formed on the skin and were sometimes left blind. In the eighteenth century it was a periodic threat. Since Edwards was a supporter of scientific research, and since it was known to be present in the area of Princeton University, he volunteered to be inoculated by an experimental and prototype vaccine. Unfortunately, the vaccine backfired, and Edwards instead contracted and then died of smallpox.

Edwards died in the prime of his life. As he lay dying, believed unconscious, people worried what a loss he would be for his family, for the university, and the church. He had commended his children to seek the Heavenly Father who would never fail them, and surprised those gathered around with what were his final words: “trust in God, and you need not fear.” Indeed, Edwards was prepared for this. His was a serious, realistic faith. As a young man he had resolved “to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death” (Resolutions, #9).

Were Edwards’ decisions wise or foolish? His actions could be assessed from all sides. Was he foolish to have an infected man stay in his home? Or brave and generous? And what about his taking of the new and experimental inoculation? Perhaps he had a naïve optimism in scientific development. Or perhaps he was wise to try it out given the high mortality rate of the disease itself.

The answer depends – I suggest – on what we love and fear most as we assess his actions. What did Edwards fear most? Not disease or loss or new medical treatments. Jonathan Edwards was a Christian who lived resolutely and wholeheartedly for a purpose. His purpose was found in loving and fearing and glorifying the God who was revealed in Christ Jesus. This is a reason (albeit not the only reason) he could accept risk and loss as he did in these incidents. Life was valued, but viewed in light of much higher things and geared towards what lay beyond it.

Even when it covers similar events, history does not prescribe what actions people should choose in the present. It does, however, offer a perspective that might be quite different from our own, which might give us other standpoints to consider our own choices. Edwards’ faith was in the same God and gospel that we have today. The same confident hope is offered and there are the same expectations for selfless, humble, purposed living.

Whatever your choices regarding the vaccine, and about associating with (potentially) infected persons, do so with a demeanour that demonstrates that the thing you love and fear most is the Lord himself. He alone is worthy of the highest love and deepest fear. When that is given Him, our living looks different and He is honoured, regardless of where our choices fall.

There are two online articles on Edwards and his death by the smallpox inoculation that you might like: one by Megan K. Taylor and the other by Bob Schoone-Jongen. This post was originally my wife’s idea – she read the Jonathan Edwards biography by Iain Murray some years ago and was impressed with how Edwards responded to his daughter’s death, and suggested I bring it up in a post.