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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards’ Sermons on the Parables of Matthew

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume II, Divine Husbandmen (on the Parable of the Sower and the Seed), ed. Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume III, Fish Out of Their Element (on the Parable of the Net), ed. Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

The second and third volumes of Edwards’ sermons on the parables in Matthew are a treasure. Formatted in keeping with the conventions of this series (see my earlier comments on volume one), they begin with a preface and a note on Edwards’ text, contain a helpful introduction to the series by Wilson Kimnach (entitled “Edwards the Preacher,” reprinted in every volume), offer historical introductions to the sermons in each book (new material every time, usually by Minkema and Neele), and then provide the sermons themselves (edited in accordance with the rest of the Yale Edition).

In volume two, on the parable of the sower and the seed, we have one of the most important series of sermons Edwards preached. George Whitefield visited Edwards’ church in October 1740, preaching five sermons in town over the course of three days (October 17-19), stirring the hearts of Edwards’ people and fanning the sparks of the Great Awakening. Edwards reported to a friend that the “congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time.” He was thrilled but also concerned that people not be star-struck by Whitefield’s preternatural speaking gifts, but live as the kind of soil in which the Word can bear fruit. So he preached right away on the parable of the sower, telling his congregation to examine themselves “whether your religious affections are only superficial, or whether they reach the bottom of the heart (62), to “count the cost, or fully . . . consider the difficulties of being thoroughly and steadfastly religious” (87). Significantly, Whitefield preached on similar themes himself (a little-known fact), as is evident in his own sermon on Luke 8:18, “Directions How to Hear Sermons” (1739), which is printed as an appendix to this volume. (For more historical context on this sermon series and Edwards’ important friendship with Whitefield, see Ava Chamberlain, “The Grand Sower of the Seed: Jonathan Edwards’s Critique of George Whitefield,” New England Quarterly 70 (September 1997): 368-85.)

In volume three, on Jesus’ parable of the net, we get a fascinating glimpse of Edwards’ preaching as he completed Religious Affections (1746). Concerned more than ever with how to distinguish true Christians from his culture’s Christian hypocrites—who fooled themselves and others about the real state of their souls but would be found out at the judgment, when the good fish will be kept and the bad thrown away—Edwards used this sermon series to encourage his congregation to examine themselves honestly and openly. “That there are so many {resemblances between hypocrites and true converts}, thence the great danger there is of men’s being deceived. And what has been observed of the great and manifold resemblances {between them}, shows the straitness of the gate; and does yet more fully show how liable men are to be deceived, and what great need there is of care, and the utmost strictness and diligence, of watchfulness and inquiry, lest we be deceived” (40). These sermons are much more sketchy than the ones in volume two, but even their sketchiness is important, as it reminds us that Whitefield showed Edwards the raw power of extemporaneous preaching—and that, after 1740 (when Whitefield first visited Edwards), Edwards rarely wrote his sermons out in full before he preached them.

These volumes are essential for all serious Edwards scholars, and are highly recommended for fans and general readers as well.