Marriage to a Difficult Man by Elisabeth D. Dodds is a story of what Jonathan Edwards called on his deathbed his “uncommon union” with his wife, Sarah. The author does not mean Edwards was “difficult” in a negative sense, but rather that his lack of social skills combined with what she calls his “genius” made him perhaps a little hard to adapt to.
In fact, when Edwards “first showed an interest in Sarah, he scared her.” “Already it was clear that this glowering young man was touched by the fatal ingredient of greatness.” He had “entered college at the age of thirteen,” had been the “valedictory orator, and was “collecting a reputation as a formidable intellect.” “Often people who turn out to be the most interesting adults are the ones least acceptable to their adolescent peers.” “But it is remarkable that these two survived their courtship. Moody, socially bumbling, barricaded behind the stateliness of the very shy, Edwards was totally unlike the girl who fatefully caught his eye. She was a vibrant brunette, with erect posture and burnished manners. She was skillful at small talk — he had no talent for it at all. She was blithe — he was given to black patches of introspection.” Over four years, as Edwards had opportunity to participate in various ministries, he learned and grew. He and Sarah discovered mutual interests in books and nature (she was educated beyond the norm for the times). They married when she was seventeen and he was twenty-four (it was customary in those days for girls to be married before they were sixteen).
This book is full of details of everyday life in this period of history. This was the age of the Puritans, and modern-day conceptions of them are often wrong. What would have been involved for Sarah in housekeeping and the hospitality she was known for exercising are detailed as are also the customs of church life.
Jonathan and Sarah had eleven children, and their lineage is outlined (for example, a study made in 1900 revealed 13 college presidents, 66 physicians, 100 lawyers, 65 professors, 30 judges, and 80 holders of public office from the Edwards line). With just a handful of exceptions, their descendents were productive citizens.
Some of the most enjoyable passages in the book provide glimpses into Jonathan and Sarah’s relationship. The author writes, “The town saw Edwards’ composed dignity. Only his wife and closest friends knew what storms slammed about in the controlled exterior of him. What was driving him? [His sermons] were models of reason and rhetorical power, but they were more. Though the people in Northampton did not realize it, they were witnessing a great mind pushing out the frontiers of thought almost as drastically as other men in that day were pushing back forests.” A longtime houseguest and family friend, Samuel Hopkins, writes,
It was a happy circumstance that he could trust everything…to the care of Mrs. Edwards with entire safety and with undoubting confidence. She was a most judicious and faithful mistress of a family, habitually industrious, a sound economist, managing her household affairs with diligence and discretion. While she uniformly paid a becoming deference to her husband and treated him with entire respect, she spared no pains in conforming to his inclination and rendering everything in the family agreeable and pleasant; accounting it her greatest glory and there wherein she could best serve God and her generation, to be the means in this way of promoting his usefulness and happiness.
Jonathan “treated her as a fully mature being — as a person whose conversation entertained him, whose spirit nourished his own religious life, whose presence gave him repose.” Many days at about 4:00 in the afternoon, Jonathan would come out of his study and Sarah would “join him for a horseback ride… She often visited him in his study, and at night they had prayers together after everyone else…had gone to bed. As their days began with thanks to God for the return of the miracle of morning, so they ended with the consecration of their sleeping selves to the Lord of both their lives.”
After they began having children, Jonathan saved an hour of each day to focus just on his family, “entering freely into the concerns of his children and relaxing into cheerful and animate conversation accompanied frequently with sprightly remarks and sallies of wit and humor…then he went back to his study for more work before dinner.” Edwards also believed in educating his girls, which was unusual for the times, so he tutored them at home while the boys went to school in town. He took turns taking one child at a time with him on his travels.
Edwards pastored in Northampton, Massachusetts for about 24 years until an increasing difference of many opinions caused him to sadly resign. (Interestingly, his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” did not yield much response in his own church: it was when he preached it elsewhere that it caused such a stir.) He then ministered in Stockbridge for about six years to a small English congregation and a great number of Indian families. This at first may have seemed a strange assignment, but it offered a time of recuperation for the family from the stresses of Northampton and afforded Edwards opportunity to write some of his greatest works.
Edwards had just accepted the presidency of Princeton when he received a smallpox inoculation, which was new and controversial and proved deadly for him. Sarah died a few months later at he age of 49.
I’m not sure of the author’s spiritual state due to some of her comments and conclusions, but still the truth of what Edwards preached and what he and Sarah lived comes though clearly and reveals two hearts dependent on God and cherishing one another.
Unfortunately the book is out of print, but used copies are available from $1.78 and up through Amazon and other booksellers online.
For more about Sarah Edwards as a mother, see this post.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)