Stockbridge is located in southwestern Massachusetts near the New York state border. It is now the home of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the place where Rockwell lived in the later years of his life and did much of his work there. My wife and I have visited Stockbridge two times in recent years. The times we have gone there, we have always been reminded that this was the place that the greatest theologian that America has ever produced was missionary to the American Indians. We do not normally think of Jonathan Edwards as a missionary. We think of his famous sermon that helped to spark the First Great Awakening – Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. We do not realize that Edwards had a great compassion to reach the lost for Christ especially those who haven’t had the opportunity to hear the gospel. He had a passion to reach the Indians of America for the Lord and to see them become responsible Christians.
Edwards’ ministry in Stockbridge began officially on August 8, 1751 when he was installed as pastor of the Stockbridge church. He actually had two congregations to pastor which met at different times. One group was the white settlers there who numbered a few more than a dozen worshippers in the beginning and were never more than eighteen families during Edwards’ ministry there. His other congregation consisted of the Indians of Stockbridge and surrounding areas. They met at a different time so that the message could be heard in their own languages through an interpreter. He preached to both the Housatonics and Mohawks. Iain Murray writes about how the gospel was bearing fruit under his ministry, “Edwards notes in one letter to (John) Erskine, ‘Some of the Stockbridge Indians have of late been under considerable awakenings – two or three elderly men that used to be vicious persons’. Until the Mohawks were scattered, Edwards appears to have taken four services every Sunday, one service for them, another for the Housatonics, and two for the white congregation. His surviving sermon notes reveal that he worked hard to adapt and simplify sermons for the Indians, dropping illustrations which he had used at Northhampton and substituting others which were more familiar to their culture.” (p. 392 – Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography)
The week after he was installed as pastor at Stockbridge, Edwards met with representatives of the Mohawk Indians. He said to them, “Your coming here will rejoice the hearts of all good men as they will hope it will be a means of your coming into greater light and knowledge in the Christian religion and so be a means of your eternal salvation and happiness…We don’t desire to keep you from the knowledge of the Bible the Word of God as the French priests do their Indians. We are willing that you could read the Word of God as well as we and know as much as we…While I continue here I shall be willing to come from time to time and to do my utmost to instruct you in the true Christian religion.” (p. 369 – Jonathan Edwards……) Edwards was encouraged by this meeting and had good hope of seeing many of the Mohawks come to Christ.
Edwards loved the Indians and sought their good in his ministry with them. He and David Brainerd had the same outlook and concern for them as indicated by Iain Murray when he wrote, “Both knew that true Christian love is practical and both cared for the Indians as people. They also knew that, despite the spiritual degradation of the Indians, there were qualities in their characters and cultures worthy of commendation. Edwards’ grandfather Stoddard, and his uncle John Stoddard, both spoke of much that was to be admired among the Indians, especially their skilful adaptation to their environment. They were good hunters, farmers, artists, and boatmen, ‘but the chief ornament of them was their hospitality’.” (p. 393 – Jonathan Edwards…) To say that Edwards cared only for their souls and not for them as people would be an untrue statement.
Edwards’ ministry among the Indians did bear fruit and there were Christian Indians in the area for years to come. Murray writes, “We know enough of the record of the Stockbridge Indians in later years to have evidence that Edwards’ work among them was not in vain. At the end of the century Timothy Dwight could write, ‘Their reverence for him was very great and his family are still regarded by their descendants with peculiar respect.’” (p. 396 – Jonathan Edwards…) The gospel had taken root among them and their descendants carried on the faith. Murray continues, “Some years after Edwards’ day, it is recorded that Joseph Bellamy revisited Stockbridge ‘during a revival of religion which extended, in some degree, to the Indians who resided in that neighborhood, a considerable number of whom became hopefully pious’. After preaching at a Sunday afternoon service, Bellamy had just commenced a meal at the home where he was a guest when the sound of Indians singing psalms arrested him. Instantly he rose to leave the table and when, after some length of time he returned, he explained happily to his host, ‘Do you think I can deny myself the pleasure of being in heaven for the sake of eating.?’”
(p. 397 – Jonathan Edwards…)
Edwards left Stockbridge in January of 1758 to become President of Princeton College (now Princeton University). He received an inoculation for smallpox on February 23, 1758 and because of that inoculation, he died on March 22nd at fifty four years of age.
Jonathan Edwards had a great vision for the American Indians and America as a whole. In his time, so few of the Indians were Christians and the whole continent was yet to be settled. There were many Indians throughout the continent who knew not Christ. Edwards had all these Indians in mind as well as the whole inhabited land when he wrote, “And however small the propagation of the gospel among the heathen here in America has been hitherto, yet I think we may well look upon the discovery of so great a part of the world as America, and bringing the gospel into it, as one thing by which divine Providence is preparing the way for the future glorious times of the church; when Satan’s kingdom shall be overthrown, not only throughout the Roman empire, but throughout the whole habitable globe, on every side, and on all its continents. When those times come, then doubtless the gospel, which is already brought over into America, shall have glorious success, and all the inhabitants of this new discovered world shall become subjects of the kingdom of Christ, as well as all the other ends of the earth: and in all probability Providence has so ordered it, that the mariner’s compass, which is an invention of later times, whereby men are enabled to sail over the widest ocean, when before they durst not venture far from land, should prove a preparation for what God intends to bring to pass in the glorious times of the church, viz. the sending forth the gospel wherever any of the children of men dwell, how far soever off, and however separated by wide oceans from those parts of the world which are already Christianized.” (p. 284 – The History of Redemption) He also wrote especially concerning the Indian population of America as he saw them at that time and what they could be in the future. He said, “Then shall the vast continent of America, which now in so great a part of it is covered with barbarous ignorance and cruelty, be every where covered with glorious gospel light and Christian love; and instead of worshipping the devil, as now they do, they shall serve God, and praises shall be sung every where to the Lord Jesus Christ, the blessed Savior of the world.” (p. 314 – The History of Redemption) He saw this great population of native Americans at that time of being ignorant of the gospel and true righteousness. He longed for the day when they and all of America would embrace Christ and the whole land would be a land where Jesus would be honored and served.
Edwards’ vision for America has largely been lost today. The prophets of doom and the escapist theologians tell us of the hopelessness of the nation and the futility of hoping for a better future. In other words, the Devil has won and we just as well give it up. That’s the impression that comes across from many modern day prophets. However, I prefer to hold on to Edwards’ vision for America and to believe that God has something better in mind for the future.
Edwards, Jonathan. The History of Redemption.The National Foundation for Christian Education, Marshallton, Delaware, first published in 1773.
Murray , Iain H. Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography. The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1987.