President Edwards:

A Look at What Princeton Might Have Become

From the Lecture Series: "The Life of Jonathan Edwards: An Antidote to Fast-Food Religion",

Delivered by David C. Brand at the Center for Christian Study, Charlottesville, Virginia, September 28-November 16, 1995

            Jonathan Edwards's ties with the College of New Jersey were strong. Upon the death of Jonathan Dickinson ten years previous, he had been asked to consider its presidency. The Great Awakening had forged a bond between men throughout the colonies who preached the same Calvinistic doctrines but who also shared the conviction that religion was primarily an issue involving the heart. The Congregationalists of the Connecticut Valley mingled freely with the Presbyterians of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Not only did they share a theological commitment, but their form of church government was strikingly similar. It would only be a matter of time before these "presbygationalists" under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards, Jr., would form a Plan of Union for their westward missionary advance.

            Chartered in 1746, the College of New Jersey (later named “Princeton”) first met in the Presbyterian parsonage in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, under the presidency of Jonathan Dickinson. Dickinson was a transplant from New England. His successor, Aaron Burr, a Yale graduate, was Edwards's son-in-law and a friend of George Whitefield. Burr died shortly after taking office, as would be the case with his three successors, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies and Samuel Finley. Princeton was modeled after the "Log College" conducted by William Tennent. Tennent had been concerned that the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who were immigrating in large numbers from Ulster and who were strict subscriptionists to the Westminster Confession, did not seem to have the heart religion so essential for a minister of the Gospel. William Tennent and his three sons who were trained in the "Log College" became the center of a controversy that was to divide the Presbyterians into two camps, the New Side, or the revivalist group, and the "Old Side," consisting of the Scotch-Irish strict subscriptionists.

            The first five presidents of the College of New Jersey were representative of the New Side. From 1747 to 1768, when John Witherspoon arrived, Princeton graduated 21 classes of which 158 (47%) were ministers. Of these, 97 served Presbyterian churches and 41 served Congregational churches.

            Upon assuming the presidency, Jonathan Edwards, gathered the seniors for "preceptorials" in which he assigned each one a theological question to research. When they returned to class they were to defend their carefully thought out positions before Edwards. Edwards died from a smallpox vaccination within two months of taking office.

            John Witherspoon took office as the new president of the college in 1768, the same year the Old Side/New Side controversy was resolved. Under his leadership Princeton would take a decidedly different direction. While serving as a pastor in Scotland, Witherspoon had opposed the Scottish realism, or common sense philosophy expressed in Thomas Reid's Inquiry into the Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. He had championed the evangelical cause over against the Moderate intellectuals who followed the teachings of such men as Leibnitz and Lord Shaftsbury. Immediately upon his arrival at Princeton, however, Witherspoon began publically to oppose the idealistic philosophy of George Berkeley which had tainted the Edwardsean school, treated the New Divinity theologians (including Jonathan Edwards, Jr.) with coolness, and within a year had systematically purged the college of the New England theologians.

            Witherspoon began to travel widely raising funds for the college, making friends with prominent families from the South to the Northeast, from the Lees of Virginia to Charles Chauncy of Boston. Witherspoon followed Francis Hutcheson's System of Moral Philosophy conceiving of ethics as a natural human science. Arguing morality inductively from science, rather than divine revelation, Witherspoon hoped to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith. In the process he removed Princeton from the moral philosophical scheme that could be traced to Edwards. While Witherspoon championed both faith and learning as compatible, science and revelation began to go their separate ways during his administration which extended from 1768-1796. Truly it was Witherspoon who would determine the course that Princeton should take.

            While espousing the Calvinism of the Westminster Standards, Witherspoon had no desire to show the consistency of free will and predestination, but simply said that it was sufficient to hold to both doctrines. Witherspoon created some unresolved tensions in the college that would later erupt when he simultaneously embraced the cause of the new republic, the new science, and Calvinistic doctrine. Princeton would soon become the intellectual center for the patriot cause and Witherspoon the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Nearly everyone on the faculty and board of trustees was in some way connected to the Revolution. One of Witherspoon's students, James Madison, would become the "father of the Constitution." Many others would take their place as senators, Congressmen, and Supreme Court Justices. As early as 1774 Witherspoon was selected to serve on a New Jersey committee to communicate with other colonies regarding the actions of the British, and in July 1776 was chosen as a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress where he would serve until 1783.

            For Edwards, moral philosophy had as its end the supreme love for God. For Witherspoon, moral philosophy provided social and political stability for the new republic. With the British defeat at Yorktown, it seemed that the millennial expectation had arrived in America. The French Revolution, however, was to unleash a horde of demons that would suggest that it was the apocalypse, rather than the millennium, which had been ushered in. The Jacobin spirit seemed to be riding the emerging Jeffersonian era threatening the order of the new republic.

            While Princeton had identified with the patriot cause, she could not stomach the disorder and ungodliness which such a movement represented. Jedediah Morse, the New England Congregationalist who later founded Andover-Newton Seminary when Harvard hired its first Unitarian, sent a copy of his 1799 Thanksgiving sermon to Samuel Stanhope Smith, Witherspoon's protege and hand-picked successor who earlier had founded Hampden-Sydney College. Morse detailed the pernicious activities of the Bavarian Illuminati as the cause of America's woe, and Smith responded by asking whether the Congregationalists and Presbyterians could not discern the times and "awaken to some zealous & combined effort to withstand the torrent of infidelity & immorality that is overspreading the country."

            Following in Witherspoon's steps, Smith essentially set forth a moral philosophy rooted in scientific inquiry though seeking to harmonize this with Scripture. The college would be burned by an arsonist in 1802 and face a student uprising in 1807 resulting in Smith’s resignation in 1812. Smith was succeeded by Ashbel Green, also a Witherspoon product. Green attempted to return the college to Witherspoon's original vision, and that would only compound the problems. What saved the college was the establishment of a seminary on the same location (and during the same year of Smith's resignation) under the auspices of the Presbyterian General Assembly and with Archibald Alexander at the helm. Alexander had served as pastor of Philadelphia's Third Presbyterian Church, pastor and revivalist in Virginia, and president of Hampden-Sydney College before taking up the call of leadership at Princeton Seminary.

            In 1814 the College experienced a revival which Green related to Jedadiah Morse as follows: "More than forty students [out of 120], in regard to whom, so far as the time elapsed will permit us to judge, favourable hopes may be entertained that they have been made the subjects of renewing grace" (Noll 1989, 280). Among the awakened students was Charles Hodge who would later assume a prominent role on the seminary faculty and become a principal exponent of the "Princeton theology." Unfortunately for Green who was president of the College at this time, the revived students graduated, and the situation rapidly deteriorated leading to Green’s resignation in 1822 three years after the death of Samuel Stanhope Smith.

            Historian Mark Noll traced Princeton's problem to the fact that Green, like Smith, was plagued by the philosophical approach of Witherspoon. Even in its hey day the Seminary likewise could not extricate itself from Witherspoon's influence. Witherspoon's naturalistic bent can be detected in the following statement by Archibald Alexander: "To prove that our faculties are not so constituted as to misguide us, some have had recourse to the goodness and truth of God, our Creator, but this argument is unnecessary. We are as certain of these intuitive truths as we can be." Alexander had been educated privately by William Graham from the Princeton class of 1773 who was an ardent disciple of Witherspoon.

            Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology (1872-1883) "breathed the spirit of Smith's lectures on moral philosophy”; thus,"the Princeton theology carried on where Green and Smith had left off." (Noll 1989, 290). Mark Noll has observed the Witherspoon influence as late as 1866 when the College supporters "created a professorship for the harmony of science and revealed religion" and later "in the work of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, the nation's most capable theological conservative at the end of the nineteenth century." Warfield contended that "'faith, in all its forms, is a conviction of truth, founded as such, of course, on evidence. . . Christianity has been placed in the world to reason it way to the dominion of the world'" (Noll 1989, 291).

            Warfield's understanding of the church's modus operandi stood in sharp contrast to that of Jonathan Edwards. To be sure, Edwards would not hesitate, on the one hand, to marshal a tightly-knit concatenation of philosophical arguments to prepare the way for the scriptural doctrine of the glory of God. On the other hand, however, he declared that the glory of God itself was self-authenticating so as to render human arguments non-essential in at least ninety-five per cent of cases (Edwards 1879, 1:97-106, 141, 292).


Thus a soul may have a kind of intuitive knowledge of the divinity of the things exhibited in the gospel; not that he judges the doctrines of the gospel to be from God, without any argument or deduction at all; but it is without any long chain of arguments; the argument is but one, and the evidence direct; the mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory (Edwards 1879, 1:290).

            Edwards knew that a man could be convinced on a mere intellectual level while the heart remained obstinate. Historical faith had to give way to heart faith, and only a sight of God's holiness could bring that about.


Saints and angels behold the beauty of God's holiness: and this sight only, will melt and humble the hearts of men, wean them from the world, draw them to God, and effectually change them. A sight of the awful greatness of God may overpower men's strength, and be more than they can endure; but if the moral beauty of God be hid, the enmity of the heart will remain in its full strength. No love will be kindled, the will, instead of being effectually gained, will remain inflexible; whereas the first glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God shining into the heart, produces all these effects with a power which nothing can withstand (1879, 1:281).

            Without question, Edwards stressed the importance of the intellect’s role in regeneration. Faith involved both understanding and will. Regeneration was not "heat without light." Edwards, however, minimized the role of the speculative aspect of the intellect as being of relatively little importance in the process of conversion.


He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion (1879, 1:238).


As on the one hand, there must be light in the understanding, as well as an affected fervent heart; or where there is heat without light, there can be nothing divine or heavenly in the heart: so, on the other hand, where there is a kind of light without heat, a head stored with notions and speculations with a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light, that knowledge is no true spiritual knowledge of divine things. If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart (1879, 1:243).

            Norman Fiering stated that Edwards, rather than shunning secular philosophy, "was willing to contend on fine points with the naturalistic moral philosophers of his day" (1981a, 49). Edwards did not despise the "new learning" that had been revived in Europe at the time of the Reformation. Indeed, he preferred it to the "barbarous ignorance" that had prevailed in the days of "popery."


Learning has increased more and more, and at this day is undoubtedly raised to a vastly greater height than ever it was before: and though no good use is made of it by the greater part of learned men, yet the increase of learning in itself is a thing to be rejoiced in, because it is a good, and, if duly applied, an excellent handmaid to divinity (Edwards 1879, 1:601).


            Edwards spoke of "the great advancement in learning and philosophic knowledge" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as "affording great advantage for a proper and enlarged exercise of our rational powers, and for seeing the bright manifestation of God's perfection in his works" (1879, 1:166).

            In order for philosophy to be a useful "handmaid to divinity," however, Edwards recognized the necessity to subordinate it to the divine revelation of Holy Scripture. This was the very thing that Witherspoon failed to do at Princeton. The certainty with which Edwards held to that principle was illustrated in the following statement taken from A History of the Work of Redemption:


And when the gospel came to prevail first without the help of man's wisdom, then God was pleased to make use of learning as a handmaid. So now, learning is at a great height in the world, far beyond what it was in the age when Christ appeared; and now the world by their learning and wisdom, do not know God; and they seem to wander in darkness, are miserably deluded, stumble and fall in matters of religion, as in midnight darkness. Trusting to their learning, they grope in the day-time as in the night. Learned men are exceedingly divided in their opinions concerning the matters of religion, running into all manner of corrupt opinions, pernicious and foolish errors. They scorn to submit their reason to divine revelation, to believe any thing that is above their comprehension; and so being wise in their own eyes, they become fools (Edwards 1879, 1:601).

            Edwards looked forward to the day


when God has sufficiently shown men the insufficiency of human wisdom and learning for the purposes of religion, and when the appointed time comes for that glorious outpouring of the Spirit of God, when he will himself by his own immediate influence enlighten men's minds; then may we hope that God will make use of the great increase of learning as a handmaid of religion, as a means of the glorious advancement of the kingdom of his Son. Then shall human learning be subservient to the understanding of the Scriptures, and to a clear explanation and a glorious defence of the doctrines of Christianity (Edwards 1879, 1:601).

            Had Edwards accepted Samuel Davies's invitation to come to Virginia upon the conclusion of his ministry at Northampton, it may be that Patrick Henry would have cried out, "Give me holiness or give me death!" And Jefferson's statute of religious liberty might have taken another form.

            Had Edwards lived to enjoy the longevity of office at Princeton that Witherspoon enjoyed, it is almost certain that Charles Chauncy could never have become his ally, and Princeton would have taken an entirely different direction. Instead of being rooted in the natural order, Edwards's moral philosophy was rooted in the eternal triune God, and in the love that subsists among the persons of the Godhead. There would have been no disillusionment, as though the millennium had been frustrated by the French or Thomas Jefferson, for Edwards's view of the millennium was rooted in the glory of the sovereign God.

            Instead of preoccupying the minds of the students with the doctrines of the new republic, Edwards would have impressed upon them the doctrines of grace reminding them as he reminded his friends at Stockbridge upon his departure that "here we have no lasting city." Instead of training pastors, as a matter of high priority, to be gentlemen of the Enlightenment, Edwards would have introduced them to David Brainerd's Life and Diary and spoken of Brainerd's desire to burn out for God. Edwards would hardly have been caught off guard by the infidelity of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, as Princeton's leadership later would, because he would never have adopted in the first place, as they did, Paine's Common Sense.

            Judging from Edwards's ongoing impact upon New England and beyond, through the school of pastoral followers whom he had trained, and considering the numbers who entered the ministry when the New School leaders were in charge of the college, it is likely that the legacy of an extended Edwardsean presidency at the College of New Jersey, would have been the replenishing of pastoral ministry for ongoing generations. This would have stood in contrast to the plethora of vacant pulpits in Presbyterian churches which itself necessitated the establishment of a separate seminary in 1812. Noll wrote,


Notwithstanding the sincerity of Witherspoon's commitment to clerical training, the beginning of the war witnessed a sharp reduction in the number of graduates presenting themselves for the ministry. Only seventeen of eighty-two Princetonians from the classes of 1776-1783, or 21 percent, became ministers, and in Witherspoon's last ten years, 1784-1794, only 13 per cent of 222 students.

            While we must trust the sovereign God whose hands hold "our times" and who ordered the affairs of Edwards's life and death, it seems apparent that Princeton would have become a different institution under Edwards's leadership, the Presbyterian denomination, a different body, and America itself may well have become a different sort of nation as a result.

            The Edwards's legacy, however, has been preserved through his writings and the writings of Jonathan Edwards are now being published at Yale so that future generations of the church might be introduced to the vision which he had for the church. And only the Lord knows what great use He might make of this work to help bring about that world-wide revival which Edwards associated with the Millennium, and by which God will put Satan under the church's feet, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Reference List

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. 1972. A religious history of the American people. New Haven: Yale             University Press.

Edwards, Jonathan. 1879. The works of Jonathan Edwards, A.M., rev. & ed., Edward Hickman,             2 vols. 12th edition. London: William Tegg & Co. 


Fiering, Norman. 1981. Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Noll, Mark A. 1989. Princeton & the Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.