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Ok, Valentine’s Day. A couple topics naturally come to mind. We could meditate on the saint himself and how his somewhat obscure record came to be joined to the list of Hallmark holy days. Or, this year, we could talk about today’s debut of the film version of Fifty Shades of Gray, bewailing the tempera and mores and pondering how it is that the Marquis de Sade has become the patron of post-modern love. But others have done the first, and many more will treat the second. So herewith a Calvinist Valentine sentiment instead. More precisely, the tribute Jonathan Edwards penned to the thirteen-year-old girl he wanted to be his girlfriend.
Sarah Pierpont was the young lady’s name, and glorious was her pedigree. She was daughter of the minister of the New Haven church and great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker, founder of Hartford colony. She also seems to have been blessed with social skills, at least as compared to the bookish and awkward Jonathan. Not that love was not on his mind. Jonathan, all of twenty—but then too, all of twenty—was serving as tutor to ‘lascivious’ Yalies (a redundancy, perhaps, then as now), and had a reputation as a prude, snappish and judgmental. When he and the fair Sarah eventually entered into connubial bliss, his disposition improved wonderfully. She was seventeen by then, he twenty three, and associate pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts, one the preeminent churches in New England. Children started coming; there would be eleven in all.
Good times followed professionally as well. Soon Jonathan was famous for having catalyzed (ok, having served as the Spirit’s instrument in catalyzing) a major revival in his parish, a forerunner of the much broader harvest of souls that historians denominate the First Great Awakening. To be sure, at its peak Sarah earned Jonathan’s rebuke over her jealousy of another young preacher’s rivaling her husband’s skill and repute; this precipitated a pointed repentance and re-dedication of her own. She would need that, for soon pastor-church relations soured until Jonathan was out on his ear, exiled to the frontier of Stockbridge. There he ministered to a Mahican congregation—and penned the most sophisticated philosophical theology in American history.
Books butter no bread, however, so Sarah had plenty of occasion to prove her exceptional talents as educator, household director, and business manager. The toughest test probably came when their home was turned into a military garrison during the French and Indian War. Or, opposite of that crowding, perhaps it came in the great loneliness when she heard that Jonathan, having gone ahead of her to Princeton where he was to served as college president, had died of complications of a smallpox inoculation. For Sarah it was the third jarring death in a row, hard upon those of her daughter Esther and son-in-law, Aaron Burr. Sarah was left to get to New Jersey on her own where she hoped to gather her orphaned grandchildren together with her own youngest offspring in a typical eighteenth-century blended family. That was not to be either. Esther died six months after Jonathan. One can well imagine the impact on the youngest of the survivors, Aaron Burr, Jr.
But that grief was in the future in 1723, when young swain Jonathan, back home in East Windsor on summer break, penned this meditation upon the girl of his dreams. Try reciting it tonight for your beloved, and see what effect it might bring. Or at least register the changes three centuries have wrought in conventions rhetorical and spiritual.
“They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that almighty Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on him — that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven; being assured that he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love and delight forever. Therefore, if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her actions; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind; especially after those seasons in which this great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, and to wander in the fields and on the mountains, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.”
Happy Valentine’s Day!