Jonathan Edwards and the Progression of the American University System

While learning in this class about the founding of the first American colleges, namely Harvard and Yale, and the Great Awakening I happened to be reading various sermons by Jonathan Edwards for another history class. Upon doing more research, I discovered Edwards attended Yale College, and went on to marry Sarah Pierpont, the daughter of one of its founders. After his career as a revivalist theologian and intellectual, Edwards finished his short life as the president of Princeton College.

At first glance, one would think this presidency contradictory, because it is clear that, as a young man, Edwards had strong ties to Yale. However, when exploring further, this seemingly conflicting situation makes a lot of sense. When Yale was founded in 1717, its purpose was to provide a center for Puritan orthodoxy, which many people, specifically Increase and Cotton Mather, believed was necessary in light of Harvard’s increasing openness to other ways of thinking. In its first few years, Yale became a defender of staunch Presbyterian orthodoxy, and educated some of the most influential ministers of the times, Edwards being among its notable early graduates.

During his time as a minster and theologian, Edwards preached that one should be driven by piety, which can be found within oneself and is wrapped up in how each person sees themselves, versus how the world sees them. In his sermon “The Nature of True Virtue,” Edwards explains that only if one possesses this internal piety can they be virtuous, which he sees as a way of Being with God and the source of the redeemed’s motivation.

The opposing religious thought of Edwards’ time was Arminianism, which taught that morality was of the utmost importance. However, Edwards saw morality as being driven by external factors, and therefore was not to be seen as virtuous in the eyes of God. Edwards makes a distinction between “some things which are truly virtuous, and others which only seem to be virtuous, through a partial and imperfect view of things” (A Jonathan Edwards Reader, 244).

Edwards’ view of religious piety is directly in line with Antinomianism, or the belief that each person holds the essential truth about God and has salvation, and that such individuals are above the law and the church. This viewpoint sets an individual or a group apart from the rest of society, creating schisms. By comparison, Arminianism’s view of morality often featured service to society, but Edwards believed that this was to gain the admiration of those around, not for ones own internal morality, or necessarily for the people being helped.

This schism between Puritan orthodoxy and Arminianism directly mirrors the schism that occurred during Edwards’ lifetime between the increasingly liberal Harvard College and the newly founded Yale College. The attendants of Yale College, including Edwards, were stout Puritan orthodox.

The divisions that had formed within colonial society in the early to mid-18th century continued to worsen with the revivalist movement, which sought to reawaken people who had grown weary of religion and become less pious, as evidenced by the turn Harvard College had taken in this more secular direction. Edwards stood at the forefront of this movement and was especially skilled at instilling fear into the spectators of his sermons. An example is his sermon titled “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he equates God’s relationship with men as a man’s relationship with a spider held over a fire. Edwards sought to inspire a return to Puritan orthodoxy by saying one should fear God because, at any moment, he could drop you into the “Pit of Hell,” just as a man could drop a spider into a fire.

During this period known as the Great Awakening, ministers like as James Davenport made public statements disparaging Arminianism. Davenport threw Arminian texts that had been taught at Harvard and, occasionally, at Yale into a huge fire that was later known as the “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

By the mid-18th century, Yale had joined the ranks of Harvard, and was seen by Puritan purists as allowing too many Arminian and Anglican ideas to be taught. Jonathan Edwards, who was at the forefront of the Great Awakening movement, advocated for a new college to be formed with the same intentions that Yale originally was founded – to establish an environment to foster the education of Puritan orthodox ministers. However, instead of Puritan orthodoxy, revivalism was now at the front of Edwards’ and his followers’ minds. The College of New Jersey (Princeton College) was founded out of these perceived necessities by a group of Harvard and Yale graduates that had joined the ranks of the revivalists.

Jonathan Edwards took the position of president of The College of New Jersey in September of 1757, only a few months before his death. Edward’s transition from being a proud Yale alum at the start of his career as a minister to his position as president of The College of New Jersey is important in that it parallels the progression of his career and sheds light on why America’s first colleges gave way to the creation of even more colleges.

Although at the beginning of their existences, colonial era colleges were founded on extreme religious principals, administrators soon discovered it takes more to run an institution than religious beliefs and virtue. They began allowing in a wider range of students with differing points of view to obtain funding. This broadening of focus and mission occurred at Harvard and induced the religiously orthodox to form Yale. The same phenomenon happened at Yale and allowed Princeton to be formed.

In a broader sense, gathering together young people in an environment that promoted investigation and discussion had a tendency to lead away from orthodoxy of any kind, as again, Edwards’ successors soon found at Princeton.




Edwards, Jonathan. Sinners in the hands of an angry God . Boston: Printed and sold by S.

Kneeland and T. Green, 1741. Print.


Edwards, Jonathan, John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema. A Jonathan

Edwards reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Print.

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