31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Sarah Edwards As a Mother

Yesterday I wrote about the marriage of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards from the book Marriage to a Difficult Man by Elisabeth M. Dodds. As I mentioned then, the writer doesn’t mean that Mr. Edwards was “difficult” in the sense of being hard to get along with: she classifies him as a genius (which she feels made him misunderstood by some) but also lacking somewhat in social skills and willing to strongly preach unvarnished truth, which some would have trouble accepting. It is written from a historical viewpoint, so there are all sorts of neat little tidbits about life in that time. In fact, I am fairly sure that the writer is not saved and is writing from a historical interest rather than a Christian one, yet she still conveys the truth of Edward’s beliefs.

Today I want to just focus on a few passages about Sarah as a mother. She had 11 children, which was not unusual for the 1700’s: but what was unusual for the times was that they all lived past childhood. “Every account of the Edwards house has the same ring. All visitors seem to have been impressed that eleven children managed to be lively and individual as personalities, yet could act courteously with one another and function as a coordinated unit…[Sarah’s] way was not at all permissive. The requirements were completely clear. But she at the same time allowed the children areas of flexibility that were unusual for that day.” “A curious feature about the Edwards children is that this firmness did not squash individuality.”

The following four paragraphs are observations of Samuel Hopkins, one of many houseguests of the Edwards’, who lived with them for several months:

She had an excellent way of governing her children; she knew how to make them regard and obey her cheerfully, without loud angry words, much less heavy blows. She seldom punished them; and in speaking to them, used gentle and pleasant words. If any correction was necessary, she did not administer it in a passion; and when she had occasion to reprove and rebuke she would do it in a few words, without warmth and noise…In her directions in matters of importance, she would address herself to the reason of her children, that they might not only know her…will, but at the same time be convinced of the reasonableness of it. She had need to speak but once; she was cheerfully obeyed; murmuring and answering again was not know among them.

In their manners they were uncommonly respectful to their parents. When their parents came into the room they all rose instinctively from their seats and never resumed them until their parents were seated; and when either parent was speaking…they were all immediately silent and attentive. The kind and gentle treatment they received from their mother, while she strictly and punctiliously maintained her parental authority, seemed naturally to…promote a filial respect and affection, and to lead them to a mild tender treatment of each other. Quarreling and contention…were in her family unknown.

She carefully observed the first appearance of resentment and ill will in her young children, towards any person whatever, and did not connive at it…but was careful to show her displeasure and suppress it to the utmost; yet not by angry, wrathful words, which often provoke children to wrath…Her system of discipline was begun at a very early age and it was her rule to resist the first, as a well as every subsequent exhibition of temper or disobedience in the child…wisely reflecting that until a child will obey his parents he can never be brought to obey God.

For [her children] she constantly and earnestly prayed and bore them on her heart before God…and that even before they were born.

“The management of a large busy household took leadership and efficiency. Mothers then had to be administrators, because the food and clothing depended on the mother’s ability to produce it. Sarah had to learn to assign chores…Children then had the advantage of knowing that their chores were indispensable.”

“The Edwardses saw that the children learned to be orderly about money…[Sarah] herself took care to save anything of trifling value, or directed her children…to do so, or when she saw them waste any thing, she would repeat the words of our Savior — ‘THAT NOTHING BE LOST.'” (emphasis the author’s.) Edwards himself wrote sermons on the backs of shopping lists. Paper was precious in those days.

“The Edwardses made it a point to single out individual children from the humming family hive, to get to know each one in turn by himself.”

“Sarah’s way with their children did more than shield [him] from the hullabaloo while he studied…[He] poured his feelings about this in sermons which eventually appeared as a book, Christian Love as Manifested in the Heart and Life,which I have not yet read.

I am sure the Edwards weren’t perfect and wouldn’t claim to be. Modern biographies tend to show “warts and all” to provide a more real picture of the subject, whereas older biographies did not want to appear unkind or gossipy. In addition, most of the author’s material came through others, as Sarah was not much of a letter-writer and was too busy to keep a journal, and those sources probably did not know or were too kind to spread their faults. Mrs. Dodds does not present them as perfect: she claims they were both very complex individuals. So I think we can assume that all was not idyllic and there was an occasional misunderstanding or cross word, but we can still take inspiration from their walk with God knowing that though they were sinners just like we are, God gave them grace and wisdom in their marriage and the raising of their family.

I mentioned yesterday that the book was out of print, but used copies were available online. I did just find what appears to be a free audio version of the book here. The audio quality is not great – but it’s free. 🙂

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For the 31 Days writing challenge, I am sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in the series here.


31 Days of Inspirational Biography: The “Uncommon Union” of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards

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.


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For the 31 Days writing challenge, I am sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in the series here.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)