The "Five Generations Rule": Lessons from a Christian Family

The "Five Generations Rule:"
Lessons from a Christian Family

Every once in a while, a whole family will come to the notice of the general public for its distinguished and extraordinary service. The Edwards are such a tribe in the Christian story. We present this group of parents and siblings as fine examples of child-rearing through troublesome circumstances. Timothy and Esther, who were Congregationalists, produced devout followers of Christ through the five generations who followed them.

The Edwards Family

Rev. Timothy Edwards (1669-1758) had a sixty-five-year long ministry as the pastor of the Congregationalist church at East Windsor, Connecticut. Esther, his wife, was a daughter of Solomon Stoddard, long-time pastor of the church at Northampton, Massachusetts. These two married in 1694, just three years after Timothy graduated from the new college called Yale. Timothy and Esther had four daughters and then Jonathan (1703-1758), their fifth child and only son, was born to these devout saints. Six more girls followed. All eleven children grew up valuing learning and the love of God and His service.

After a rigorous home schooling, Jonathan entered Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, at the age of thirteen and graduated four years later in 1720, although he stayed two more years to study divinity. The manuscripts that survive from his student days record his remarkable powers of observation and analysis, the fascination he had with science and scientists like Isaac Newton, and his desire to publish scientific and philosophical works in opposition to the materialism and atheism of his day. Throughout his life, Jonathan studied with pen in hand, recording his thoughts in numerous hand-sewn notebooks. Most of these still survive.

After a brief pastorate in New York, Jonathan earned an MA degree, and from 1724-1726 was a tutor/professor at Yale. He was shy, awkward, studious, and thin. In the preface to his Greek grammar book, he writes of young Sarah, only fifteen at the time, who was his exact opposite in many ways, yet shared a deep love of God. Sarah Pierrepont was the daughter of an old and respected New England family. She was beautiful, poised, outgoing, winsome, and funny. She was also devoted to God above all else, a character trait which Jonathan much admired.

In 1727, when she turned seventeen, and he was twenty-four, they married in Northampton, where he had just become the colleague of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Sarah knew that Jonathan's call to ministry was her call too. Beginning in August of 1728, Sarah and Jonathan had a child about every two years until there were eleven in all: Sarah, Jerusha, Esther, Mary, Lucy, Timothy, Susannah, Eunice, Jonathan, Elizabeth, and Pierpont. At age eighteen, Sarah’s great role of motherhood began. Here is George Whitefield's assessment of her parenting. He wrote that he wanted a wife like Sarah.
"She seldom punished them, and in speaking to them used gentle and pleasant words. When she had occasion to reprove, she would do it in a few words, without warmth and noise, and with all calmness and gentleness of mind . . . she would address herself to the reason of her children, that they might not only know her inclination, but at the same time be convinced of the reasonableness of it. In their manners they were uncommonly respectful to their parents."

There was an intentional pattern to their child-rearing. Every night Jonathan was home, he would spend an hour talking with his family and then praying a blessing over each child before bed. Sarah provided the warm, safe environment, and early schooling, for all of their children.

Upon Rev. Stoddard’s death in 1729, Edwards became pastor of the most important church in Massachusetts, outside of Boston. When he looked over the congregation that first Sunday, he realized that most of his parishioners were Christian in name only. He began to meet with a handful of faithful church members every week for prayer and Bible Study. After five years and consistent doctrinal preaching, a great revival broke out in Northampton during 1734-35. This grew in intensity until Rev. George Whitfield came from England to preach in 1740 and the First Great Awakening exploded in the Colonies. More than 300 of Jonathan's church members made professions of faith in Christ.

The Awakening produced not only conversions and changed lives, but also excesses and denominational and civil strife. Jonathan wrote and preached against these disorders, although he thought the Awakening was a work of God. In 1749 Jonathan edited with his own "Reflections," the memoirs of David Brainerd, the young pro-Awakening Presbyterian revivalist missionary to the Mohicans. Jonathan's second daughter Jerusha and David were engaged to be married, but David fell ill with tuberculosis. He was brought home to Jonathan and Sarah's house, where Jerusha nursed him and also contracted the disease. When David died in October of 1747, he was buried in the Bridge Street cemetery. Jerusha died the next February and was buried next to him.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this sorrow, Edwards’s relationship with his own congregation became strained. One reason for it was his changed view on the requirements for admission to the Lord's Supper. Rejecting the more lax standards of his grandfather, Edwards insisted on a public profession of saving faith, based on the candidate's religious experiences, as requisite not only for the Lord's Supper, but also for church membership. The public announcement of his position in 1749 ignited a controversy that resulted in his dismissal. On July 1, 1750, Edwards preached his dignified and restrained “Farewell-Sermon.”

With few financial resources, forty-year old Sarah, the mother of eleven children, the youngest less than a year old, began to take in work to support the family. Jonathan and Sarah then decided to move to the Mohican Mission at Stockbridge, where 150 Indian and twelve white families lived. There Jonathan and Sarah served as pastor and headmaster of the boarding school for all of the children.

In this missionary chapter, the Edwards children continued their schooling and learned the language of their playmates. During these eight years, Jonathan wrote books on free will, original sin, and true virtue. In 1750, the eldest daughter Sarah married Elihu Parsons, and the fifth daughter Mary married Timothy Dwight. In 1752, the third daughter Esther married Dr. Aaron Burr, Sr., president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton).

When Esther's husband died unexpectedly of a fever in the fall of 1757, Jonathan accepted the invitation to become president of the College and arrived there in January of 1758. Sadly, less than five weeks after his inauguration, on 22 March, he died at age fifty-five from complications arising from a smallpox inoculation and was buried in the Princeton Cemetery, next to Aaron Burr Sr. Esther, who had nursed both her husband andfather, also contracted smallpox and died on 7 April, leaving two small children, Aaron Jr. and Sarah Burr, whom her mother Sarah took into their home. Then, Sarah also contracted smallpox and, at age forty-eight, died in October of the same year, followed by the youngest sister, eleven-year-old Elizabeth two weeks after that.

The Rest of the Story

While the Edwards left no financial legacy, the events that followed after their parents' deaths shows how the rest of their sons and daughters developed and improved their valuable inheritance of intellectual, moral, and religious training. Added to the six unmarried orphans, all still under age twenty-one, were their niece Sarah and nephew Aaron, aged four and two respectively. Here was a large family from which father and mother, older and youngest sister, and brother-in-law had been taken almost at a single blow, with almost no financial inheritance. The older unmarried siblings, Lucy, Timothy, and Susannah, went to work, and the married sisters Sarah and Mary helped. Esther's children went to live with Mary and Timothy Dwight.

Of the three sons and eight daughters of Jonathan Edwards there was not one, nor a husband or wife of one, whose character, ability, purpose and achievement, were not a credit to their parents. Of the seventy-five grandchildren, with their husbands and wives, there was but one for whom an apology may be offered (third vice-president of the US, Aaron Burr Jr., who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel), and nearly all were exceptionally strong in scholarship and moral influence.

The sons were ages eight, thirteen and twenty at the time of their parents' deaths. All three sons graduated from Princeton, and five of the eight daughters married college graduates, three of them from Yale and one each from Harvard and Princeton. They were all eminent leaders. One held the position of president of Princeton and one of Union College, four were judges, two were members of the Continental Congress, and one was a member of the governor's council in Massachusetts. One was a member of the Massachusetts War Commission in the Revolutionary war, one was a state senator, one was president of the Connecticut house of representatives, three were officers in the Revolutionary war, one was a member of the famous Constitutional Convention which birthed the United States, and one was pastor of the historic North Church of New Haven. This by no means exhausts the useful and honored positions occupied by three sons and five sons-in-law of the Edwards.

Reflections on the Edwards Family

In 1899, American educator A.E. Winship decided to trace the 1,400 descendants of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards' family who lived in the 140 year period since their deaths. When his report was published in 1900, his findings were remarkable. The Edwards' legacy includes: one U.S. vice-president, one dean of a law school, one dean of a medical school, three U.S. senators, three governors, three mayors, thirteen college presidents, thirty judges, sixty doctors, sixty-five professors, seventy-five military officers, eighty public office holders, 100 lawyers, 100 clergymen, and 285 college graduates.

Their legacy provides a Christian example of what some sociologists have called the Five-Generation Rule: "How a parent rears their child — the love they give, the values they teach, the emotional environment they offer, the education they provide — influences not only their children, but the four generations to follow, either for good or evil.” What a challenging thought! If someone studied our descendants four generations later, what would they discover? The lives we live today produce the legacy we leave tomorrow. We honor Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, who conducted their family responsibilities well.

-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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