John Erskine was Scottish born seven years after the Colonial American Jonathan Edwards but their life spans would end up differing by more than twenty-seven and half years. However, the years of their lives that juxtapose from 1721 to 1758, eventually kindled a true kindred spirit through Edwards’s writings on the American spiritual awakening and Erskine’s generosity to send European books.
Erskine was born into a family that had financial means and many expected him to follow his father in a life’s vocation of jurisprudence. Nevertheless, he sensed the calling of God upon his life to enter the ministry and focus on the eternal realm. According to Jonathan Yeager, Erskine’s preaching differed from Edwards by simplifying “his sermons in the manner that the leading rhetorician George Campbell taught: to use only a few subordinate points to support one main argument…As opposed to many former Calvinist divines, Erskine did not ramble on in his discourses, using intricate and hard-to-follow metaphysical assumptions.”
As the 1740’s passed and the early 1750’s brought many trials into Edwards’s life, Erskine served as a means of encouragement through the letters they exchanged. Edwards shared many of the details of his ejection from his Northampton pulpit and his concerns for the future of his entire family. All throughout these difficult years, Erskine remained a faithful friend, correspondent, and crucial supplier of books that would have otherwise been unavailable to Edwards. Yeager also accurately claimed, “Since the number of bookshops in America paled by comparison to Britain, Edwards benefited from a patron who resided near a publishing epicenter like Edinburgh.”
Although Erskine and Edwards realized many of the intellectual ideas coming out of Europe were contrary to theirs, both men desired to read the conflicting doctrines. Erskine certainly had the intellectual capacity to think and speak against doctrinal error but Edwards could also wield the pen as an apologist and polemicist! Edwards was not only concerned about the doctrinal tremors at Harvard and Yale, he was becoming more aware of the doctrinal shift throughout Europe. After pastoring for almost two and a half decades in Northampton, he had reason for concern regarding the younger generation and the doctrinal movement within the Congregational Churches. On July 5, 1750, Edwards wrote a letter to Erskine and in sadness expressed, “I desire your fervent prayers for me and those who have heretofore been my people. I know not what will become of them. There seems to be the utmost danger that the younger generations will be carried away with Arminianism, as with a flood.” Bit-by-Bit, his prophetic words came true regarding the abandonment of Reformation Theology, and acceleration toward an Arminian majority in the two centuries following his death.
Erskine on the other side of the Atlantic lived into the early nineteenth-century and continued to impact theological discussions. During his ministry as a younger man he had stood against the Arminian principles of Wesley, and warned the Scottish people against his Methodist soteriology. Erskine's influence within Scotland during the Eighteenth-century helped preserve the Calvinistic soteriology among Presbyterians and stifled the growth of Wesley’s Methodist groups inside Scotland. Although Erskine and Edwards lived on separate continents and ministered across the Atlantic Ocean from one another, they both had the foresight to discern the doctrinal changes of the Enlightenment and its far-reaching effects.~TKE~
At the turn of the Eighteenth-century there were changes in the air from Europe to New England. New books from across the Atlantic were already arriving at Harvard with new authors and an assortment of ideas. The eighteenth century would develop as a key time in the “Enlightenment” era, and also be known as a century of “Great Awakening.” Many exchanges regarding man’s ability to reason in relation to the Bible stimulated thought, research, and controversy. Yale College would also emerge in Connecticut among many clergymen who had studied at Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Even though Jonathan Edwards may have anticipated his academic journey following the same course as his father and grandfather at Harvard, his life would take a new turn. After graduating from Yale College with his Baccalaureate degree in 1720, and his Masters degree in 1723, Edwards would go on to serve under his grandfather at Northampton, and became the Senior Pastor when Stoddard died in 1729. As Edwards preached for the next eleven years, he was focused on the local church and a small awakening did occur in the mid-1730s. All through the years however, Edwards stayed informed about people and events at home and across the Atlantic. In 1740 he wrote to the itinerant preacher from England, George Whitefield, pleading with him to make his way west to Northampton, Massachusetts.
Once the “Great Awakening” broke out in New England, Edwards also began a transatlantic exchange of letters with several individuals in Scotland. One of the leaders in Scotland was Rev. James Robe. Robe, Erskine, and other Scottish ministers had read Edwards’ writings documenting his accounts of spiritual awakening in America. What Edwards did not realize at the time, was that God would also move in a great way among the churches in Scotland.
In a letter dated May 12, 1743, Edwards expressed to Robe, “Pleasant and joyful are the accounts which we have lately had from Scotland, concerning the kingdom of our God there, for which we and the world are specially indebted to you, who have honored your dear Lord, and refreshed and served his church, by the accounts you have published…Future generations will own themselves indebted to you for those accounts. I congratulate you, dear Sir, on the advantages God has put you under to favor the church of God with a narrative of his glorious works, by having made you the instrument of so much of them, and giving you such glorious success in your own congregation.” In closing his letter to Robe, he urged his friends in Scotland, “don’t forget New England; and don’t forget your affectionate and obliged brother and servant, and unworthy fellow-laborer, Jonathan Edwards.”~TKE~
On November 23, 1697 nearly six years before Jonathan Edwards was born in Colonial America, John Gill was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, in the country of England. He mastered the Latin classics and studied Greek by the time he was eleven years of age. Later, at the age of twelve he heard pastor William Wallace preaching a sermon from the Old Testament, “And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou” (Genesis 3:9)? The sermon made an impact on the young lad and at the age of eighteen he made a public profession of faith.
Gill went on to serve as an assistant and in 1719 became the pastor of the Strict Baptist Church in Horsleydown, Southwark for over fifty years. In 1757 the congregation needed more space and moved to Carter Lane, St. Olave’s street, Southwark. This church had been pastored by Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), and would later become the New Park Street Chapel followed by the Metropolitan Tabernacle, with a pastor by the name of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Much like Edwards, Gill also produced voluminous writings with his Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, and Expositions on the Old and New Testaments. He wrote against infant baptism as being “A Part and Pillar of Popery,” and has also been accused of being a “Hyper-Calvinist.” However, credible Baptist historians such as Tom Nettles have argued against this accusation. Furthermore, Gill’s written evidence to uphold the Great Commission is documented in his New Testament Commentary series. He would end up living longer than Edwards by more than thirteen years and died on October 14, 1771.
On July 7, 1752 Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter to his Scottish friend, Rev. John Erskine and mentions John Gill by name along with one of Gill’s sermons from 1750, “The Watchman’s Answer to the Question, What of the Night” (Isaiah 21:11-12), (Claghorn, 1998, Letters and Personal Writings, 16:489)? Years later on February 11, 1757 Edwards mentioned Gill again in a letter to the Rev. Thomas Foxcroft. This was not as friendly a notation as the first letter because Edwards exchanged some thoughts with Foxcroft regarding “Gill’s book against infant baptism.” Edwards also mentioned that “Mr. Clark” was “to write an answer; but how small a matter was that (Gill's Book), in comparison of the error now broached, and so boldly maintained, with an open challenge to the ministers of the country to maintain the contrary doctrine if they can” (Claghorn, 1998, 16:695)?
Although Edwards acknowledged Gill’s opposing Baptist views on infant baptism, he does not vociferously appear to use strong polemics against Gill but rather skips to what he perceives as more important matters regarding those who deny “the divinity of our Savior.” Additionally, he expresses that he will “be glad that Mr. Bellamy’s late sermon, which I think is well done, to defend the great doctrine of justification by Christ’s righteousness (which has been especially impugned by Dr. [Jonathan] Mayhew) might be reprinted in Boston” (Claghorn, 1998 16:695).
Could Edwards’s seeming dispassion communicate a loss of interest in the Congregational Church’s mode of baptism? Was he shrugging off Gill’s defense of immersion and moving on to his more passionate topics regarding the Divinity of Christ and Justification? He had certainly “rocked the boat” with New England Congregationalists during the early 1750’s regarding a valid profession of faith for Church membership. Consequently, following his Stockbridge ministry, Edwards would finally end up accepting the position of President at the Presbyterian College of New Jersey.
Although Edwards obviously never became a Baptist, he always revealed deep passion for sound soteriology. He certainly must have wrestled with his views on baptism during the “Communion Controversy” and after his dismissal in Northampton. If Edwards had lived many years beyond 1758, would he have grappled more with the issue of baptism? It is a question that is intriguing but the answer will never be known. However, One certainty can be drawn from these two Transatlantic Contemporaries. John Gill and Jonathan Edwards were both redeemers of time in their service for the Kingdom of God. Their lives and voluminous works speak to that fact and both of them continue to be widely read even into the twenty-first century.~TKE~
"Christ, Above All Persons That Ever Did or Will Appear in the World,
Is the Most Eminent Counselor."
Reflections on his Sermon From 1749: Isaiah 9:6
The prophet Isaiah through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit said, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6 ESV).
What a marvelous description of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Isaiah’s words not only resounded with Jonathan Edwards and the Eighteenth-century world but they still ring true today. Edwards said in his sermon from 1749, “He, (Christ) has the most eminent qualifications, and the greatest wisdom (Luke 11:49). He is infinite in understanding and perfectly knows our circumstances and us. He
knows our nature and the state of our understanding.”
Edwards understood that every generation needed Christ as Savior, Lord, and Counselor. He pointed out two important aspects of Christ’s counsel to us. First, he said as counselor, Christ reveals to us “the way of our duty, how to answer our Great End,” and ultimately how to “avoid moral Evil and obtain moral Good.” Second, He said Christ as counselor came to reveal to us “The way of our happiness.”
Edwards preached that earthly counselors, who reject Christ and His Word, give counsel that is foolish. Men naturally need what he called “Counsel in many important affairs greatly concerning their welfare,” particularly things regarding “their eternal salvation.” Therefore, not only did Christ appear as our “Redeemer” from heaven, He “is now in a state of exceeding Glory and has received the Reward… and Counsels us from Heaven”… and “is the Counselor of Counselors and Prophets.”
He went on to say, “The Counsels He has actually given are the most excellent that ever were delivered to mankind. The precepts of the Christian Religion are far the most Excellent and far exceeding the sayings of Philosophers and the Counsels of the wisest Politicians, most wise, perfect, and free from all error and practices directed to -- most amiable, most profitable_____The Bible that contains these Counsels is a summary of the most excellent wisdom, a Light shining in a dark world.”
Since this is all true about Christ and His Word, Edwards continued, “Hence how greatly Persons are to blame who neglect their Bibles.” Edwards avidly read his own Bible and urged others to do the same. In final application he mentioned TEN aspects from Scripture that should be obeyed from the Words of Christ the great Counselor.
1. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness" (Matt. 6:33).
2. Christ mentioned, "counting the cost" (Luke 14:25-33.
3. "That we should renounce & comparatively hate other things for the sake" of the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:44).
4. We are to "renounce ourselves" (Matthew 6:24).
5. We are to "strive to enter in at the strait and narrow gate" (Luke 13:24).
6. We are to "improve the means of grace which God has appointed and "search the Scriptures" (John 5:39).
7. We are to understand the concept of "The mammon of unrighteousness." For the "Wonderful Counselor" said, "He who is faithful in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much" (Luke 16:9-10.
8. We are to "wait and watch for the coming of our Lord" (Luke 12:35).
9. We are to "pray and seek against all discouragements and opposition" (Luke 18:1-8).
10. We are not only to "receive the kingdom of God as a little child" (Mark 10:15). We are to hear the precepts of God, and then "act upon them" (Matthew 7:24).~TKE~
David Brainerd lived a short life but accomplished much for the glory of God. He was born on April 20th, 1718 and experienced heartache at age nine when his father died and only fourteen at his mother’s death. As he dealt with the brevity of life and the absence of his parents, he admitted that he struggled with emotional ups and downs for the remainder of his life. The trends of his life are well documented in his partial diary that was published posthumously by his friend, mentor, and encourager Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).
Perhaps the most important turning point of his life was when the leaders of Yale College refused to grant him his degree. The allegations involved an incident surrounding his criticism of a College leader and his involvement in unapproved meetings during the “Great Awakening.” Many of his friends including Edwards came to New Haven to lend their support of his graduation but until the day of his death he was a preacher and a missionary without a diploma.
As a missionary to the Indians, Brainerd suffered many hardships and illnesses in the primitive living conditions he endured. However, he knew his calling and had a sense of duty to fulfill his providential ministry. Norman Pettit surmised, “In contrast to Edwards’ joy in summer is Brainerd’s fear of winter.” Even though “fear” might not be the most accurate assessment, perhaps the word “concern” would capture the thoughts of Brainerd as he contemplated braving the elements during a New England winter.
A conceivable positive thought regarding his missionary travels was the committed financial support he received from the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge. Nevertheless, in less than two decades the meteorological conditions and exposure to disease would ultimately take its toll upon David Brainerd.
Before his death, Brainerd ended up at the Edwards home in Northampton and was nursed by Jerusha Edwards. On October 9th, 1747 at the age of 29, he joyfully entered his heavenly home.
Due to pieces of information and because of Brainerd’s desire to dispose of some personal notes, many have offered conjecture regarding the degree of affection between David and Jerusha. Perhaps the inquisitiveness surrounding their relationship has to do not only with the lack of historical information but also because Jerusha died shortly after Brainerd and their Northampton graves remain engraved and nestled for all to see. Their story has a few pieces of the puzzle but the mystery is exacerbated by the lack of details and continues to thrust the curiosity forward. Nevertheless, we do have adequate information from the extant sections of the diary to conclude that David Brainerd lived a brief life and achieved much for the glory of God!~TKE~