In one sense, the modern philosophy which was voiced in a famous movie in the last ten years is partially true: “Life is like a box of chocolates–you never know what you’re gonna get.”
It was certainly true in the family of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Theirs was and is a testimony to the uncertainty of life and the frailty of all men.
It is peoples’ lives that become their legacy–not as much what they said or produced, as much as what they were and what they had to go through in life and death, which God’s grace turns into a legacy long after they are gone. The Edwards would never know in this life what legacy they would leave to millions of future believers. But what they did come to know by experience during the last year of their life was primarily one thing–life is uncertain, man is frail, and the grace of God is sufficient.
It was on March 22, 1758 that Jonathan Edwards died of complications from a smallpox vaccination at the age of 56. Just two months prior, on February 16, he had been officially installed as the president of the College of New Jersey in Princeton, which would later become Princeton University. He was entering what would have become the third major division in his life of ministry–teaching and training men for the gospel ministry. This was after his 23 year pastorate in Northamption, Mass., and his period of serving as the missionary pastor to the Indians at Stockbridge.
Surely it seemed like a bright future was before them, with promising days, especially with the hardships, isolation, and discouragements of Northampton and Stockbridge behind them. With Edwards being only 56 years old, providence seemed to be directing him into what would be the most fruitful period of his influence for the kingdom of God. At Princeton, he would have much more time for writing, as well as teaching ministers. Indeed, the future seemed bright and hopefully, a long life lay before them.
Instead, dark clouds began to gather over the Edwards’ family, clouds which continued for a full year. In January of the year, Jonathan’s father, Timothy, had died at the age of 89. It was the next month, a week after becoming Princeton’s president, that Edwards took the vaccination for smallpox. At first all seemed fine, but within days, he had the disease and soon it was killing him. The disease settled in his mouth and throat, and before long, he could not swallow. After several weeks of fever and starvation, he died in Christ on the afternoon of March 22, just five weeks after coming to Princeton.
It was twelve days later that Sarah wrote to their daughter, Esther: “O, what a legacy my husband and your father has left us!” Sarah wrote this letter, not from Princeton, but from Stockbridge, as she had remained behind to move the family to join him, since Edwards was already at the college.
But Esther never got to read what her mother had written, as Esther died from a fever in April before ever receiving the letter, leaving two young children as orphans because their father, Edwards’ son-in-law, Aaron Burr, had died the previous September at the age of 41.
Suddenly, with the freshest and deepest sorrow, having lost both her husband and her daughter in the space of three weeks, Sarah suddenly faced the responsibility of going to Philadelphia to take responsibility of the 2 grandchildren. One of those grandchildren, Aaron Burr, Jr., would become the Vice-President of the United States.
But she never made it to Philadelphia. Sarah contracted dysentery and died on October 2 while on the trip. She was 48 years old. She was buried next to her husband in the small cemetery at Princeton.
So the Edwards’ family lost 5 family members within thirteen months’ time. One short year earlier, they were all healthy, happy, going about life, business, school, and ministry, yet knowing that such things could happen anytime. They knew it because Edwards had preached faithfully over a 35 year period that life is very uncertain and that all men are very frail. Now that message rang loud and true throughout their experience to their own generation and to future generations as well. And it still rings true today.
It is an absolute that life is very uncertain. It is an absolute that man, at his best state, is altogether vanity, and is fragile and frail. So a large part of the Edwards’ lasting legacy and testimony is just that–life is uncertain and man is frail. And that is what Edwards had been preaching for so long.
If it was true for the Edwards, is it not true for us? The Edwards left a legacy because they lived in such a way that when their lives were cut off in the midst of their years, they had a legacy to leave behind. Do we? I wonder; I hope so; I desire to.
I do feel at times, very deeply, the reality of life’s uncertainties and my own frailty. And when I do, it casts me upon the sheer grace and mercy of a loving and sovereign Saviour, who takes His children in death when we would not do it that way, when we would judge it premature or somehow wrong.
I don’t know why a Jim Elliot dies so young when he’s so promising, a David Brainerd dies at 28, a Heny Martyn at 28, a Keith Green at 28, an Edwards, a Spurgeon, a Whitefield all at 56–I don’t know why, except that it please a good and wise God to purpose it; but I don’t have to know why; God hasn’t told me, nor has he asked my permission, nor has he ever explained himself about such uncertainties, which are not uncertainties to him.
But one thing I do know with certainty is this–I don’t want to waste any of my remaining years, or months, or days; Our times are in His hands. And I am very glad for that fact.
“Lord, teach me to number my days, that I may apply my heart to wisdom.”
– Mack T.