Mystery Monday: A Relationship to Jonathan Edwards, Theologian?

Jonathan Edwards, Theologian (1703-1758), via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Jonathan Edwards, Theologian (1703-1758), via Wikimedia Commons, public domain. (Click to enlarge.)

McMurray Family (Click for Family Tree)

Deep into records and books of the mid- to late-1600s and the “Great Migration” of the English to America, the name ‘Jonathan Edwards’ kept surfacing. The name was already somewhat familiar from readings about later family members, as Jonathan was a British colonial theologian who influenced so many ministers and missionaries who came after him- and we have quite a few of those in the McMurray-Payne-Burnell lines. Additionally, many of our family members lived in the same area at the same time as Jonathan Edwards, and most listened to his sermons every Sunday during the 23 years of his church service in Northampton, Massachusetts. Since October 5 is the anniversary of Rev. Edwards’ birth (312 years ago!), it seemed a good time to learn more about this man.

I also found some Edwards surnames in our family around the same time and place- related? Possibly. People back then came in groups to America, and were often closely related, or else ‘cousins’ in a much looser meaning of the word than we now use. Research has not yet shown a definite connection, but there may still be one- possibly.  As an example of the families to sort out, family members and other researchers have listed Mehitebel EDWARDS (?-1716) as the spouse of John BURNELL (1696-1744). The Lynn, Essex, Massachusetts marriage records list them as “John BURNULL” and  “Mehitabel EDMONS” married 15 Jan 1716/7 with intention (to marry) filed previously. (Seeing Mehitebel’s possible birthdate, she would likely be a cousin of some degree to Jonathan if actually related.) No other records could be found for a Mehitebel Edwards, but there are records for the Edmons family, although she is not included.  We also have a Rachel EDWARDS in the family who married William POMEROY; she was born in 1785 in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, and died in the same county, Hampshire, in Williamsburg, in 1860, so geographically it is possible. We do not yet know her parents, who may be descendants of the great theologian. So more research is definitely needed on the ‘are we related to Jonathan Edwards?’ question.

There is, of course, also a possibility that there is no family relation at all.

Jonathan Edwards was still important to our family, whether or not genetically related, as he was preaching in places they lived. (Genealogy is not just about being related to ‘famous’ people but it is important to learn about them as they often influenced the non-famous folks and impacted their lives even on a daily basis.) Since religion was a part of the government pre- Revolution/Constitution, what Rev. Edwards said and wrote mattered. He is still considered to be one of the greatest thinkers of all time, definitely one of the greatest theologians, and his books and sermons continue to be published and read.

Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, to Timothy Edwards (1668-1759) and Esther Stoddard , daughter of Rev. Solomon Stoddard; she was said to have ‘unusual mental gifts and independence of character.’ Jonathan was their only son, a middle child of 11 children, and education was important in the family- even the daughters were educated. Jonathan enrolled in Yale College just before he attained 13, graduated at 17, and in addition to spiritual matters, he was very interested in the natural world. Throughout his life he prayed and worshiped in the beauty of nature, rather than only inside a church. He also wrote papers on science topics, and felt that the wonders of science and nature were evidence of what was then called the ‘masterful design’ of God, (today called ‘intelligent design’); he felt science and nature therefore proved God’s wisdom and care for humans. Jonathan’s thinking was shaped by the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ (AKA ‘Age of Reason’) and he emphasized the aesthetic beauty of God, scripture, and the world in his writings and sermons.

Although Jonathan Edwards grew up in a Puritan household with strong Calvinist roots, he came to believe that personal religious experience was more important than doctrine and ritual. He served at a Presbyterian Church in New York City for eight months in 1722-3, became a tutor at Yale, and then was ordained as a minister on 15 February 1727 in Northampton, Massachusetts. His maternal grandfather, Rev. Solomon Stoddard, was pastor, and Jonathan became his assistant. Jonathan worked part-time as a pastor, but also studied 13 hours a day. He became a working pastor after the death of his grandfather about 2 years later, and served the Northampton Church for 23 years. Our Parsons, Strong, Edwards, Warner, Phelps, Pomeroy/Pomroy, Kingsley, Allis, Lyman, and other families who lived in Northampton during his tenure would have attended the church and listened to the sermons of Pastor Edwards.

The second and third generation of Puritans whose parents had migrated to the American British colonies as part of “The Great Migration” were not as pious as their elders. Secular influences such as politics and economics, plus the logic and reason espoused by Enlightenment writers, distracted some younger Puritans from religious obligations and a deep commitment to the church. There was also a decline in morals as a belief took hold that it was easier to get into Heaven than originally thought.

To counter this decline, in July of 1732 Edwards preached a sermon in Boston that declared how absolute was the sovereignty of God in deciding who would be saved by grace, and who would not; his sermon was published as, “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man’s Dependence upon Him, in the Whole of It.” Shortly thereafter, a revival of religion began in Northampton, a town with only about 200 families about this time. By the winter of 1734 and spring of 1735, the intensity and popularity of the revival actually hampered business in the town- in just 6 months over 300 persons had become new church members. (Some scholars estimate the rate of church attendance as 75-80% between 1700 and 1740.)

The revival spread throughout the Connecticut River Vally and as far as New Jersey. The camp meetings were emotional since Edwards spoke to the heart, and emphasized a personal experience with God and religion. Instead of the usual stern Congregational church decorum, at times listeners would moan, groan, and move about in the rapture of the moment in these great outdoor meetings. Some began to wonder, however, if followers were becoming fanatics. To add fuel to this turn of attitude, some members became convinced of their unavoidable damnation, and, it was believed, urged by Satan, they committed suicide, including Rev. Edward’s uncle, Joseph Hawley II. This dark side of the revivals effectively cooled the religious fervor, although, at the same time, the movement’s premises began to be known and appreciated in England and Scotland.

George Whitefield, a Calvinist British evangelist, came to the American colonies in 1740 and preached ideas similar to Edwards’; this time period and religious movement became known as “The Great Awakening.” Whitefield worked with Edwards and preached in Northampton, with Edwards weeping at the emotion of Whitfield’s discourse.  Whitefield also travelled around the colonies, including the Middle Colonies and Southern Colonies. He drew great crowds- 30,000 persons came to hear him in Boston alone, significantly increasing the number of persons influenced by “The Great Awakening.”

Jonathan Edwards preached his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” first to his own Northampton congregation. (Our ancestors probably heard it on a Sabbath in June, 1741.) He was then invited by a pastor to repeat the sermon on 08 July 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut. The Connecticut congregation had not been much affected by “The Great Awakening”- at least, not until this sermon.

08 July 1741 sermon of Jonathan Edwards: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." via Wikipedia, public domain.
08 July 1741 sermon of Jonathan Edwards: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” via Wikipedia, public domain.

This most famous of Edwards’ sermons is still studied today. In it, he described in vivid detail the horrors of a very real Hell, and explained that humanity has a chance to rectify their sins and return to Christ, in order to avoid the torment of Satan through eternity. People in the audience interrupted his sermon many times, crying out, “What shall I do to be saved?”

Although seemingly a ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon, Jonathan Edwards did not need to sermonize in such a way- his parishioners were already quite familiar with that aspect of the Bible. Instead, he talked quietly to his audience, but with much emotion although he did not shout. He calmly laid out a series of logical points from which they could easily draw the conclusion he desired- in this case, that humanity was lost without the grace of God.

As might be obvious, the different thinking of Edwards caused a division in the Congregational Church. The actions of followers at revivals that included fainting, crying out, moaning, even convulsive fits led him to defend his evangelical preaching, and he even had to write a second apology. Edwards developed a test for membership in his church, and members old and new balked at taking it. His sermons became unpopular- attended by visitors, but not local church members. (Wonder which of our ancestors followed him?) He then published a list of young people who, he suspected, had been reading ‘improper books,’ (definitely need to check this list for our ancestors) and this incident further distanced him from his congregation. The church council and town meeting voted Jonathan Edwards out of the pulpit, and he preached his last sermon at Northampton Church in October, 1751.

Edwards was still popular in other places, however, and became pastor in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and a Indian missionary and advocate. Although in ill health, he next accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) and was installed on 16 Feb 1758.

With his interest in science, Jonathan Edwards was a supporter of the new smallpox vaccine. It was still experimental, but Edwards became inoculated so that others would be encouraged to get the vaccine and help eliminate one of the great killers of the era. (Mortality rate for smallpox was up to 35%.) Sadly, the health of Jonathan Edwards was not robust enough to recover from the mild fever that most got after the vaccine, or the vaccine may have been contaminated, and he died on 22 March 1758.

In addition to the great changes brought to many versions of Protestantism, Jonathan Edwards influenced society in many other ways, and our family, as well. Our McMurray ancestor Rev. Edward B. Payne (1847-1923) most likely read the works of Edwards, and although schooled in the modified Congregational church inspired by Edwards, he too parted ways with the old tradition. He also embraced Edwards’ conception of the beauty and aesthetic aspects of religious thought. E.B. Payne preached outdoors as well, and many of his sermons also focused on inward discipline to control one’s morals in order to gain Heaven, rather than predestination. A collateral ancestor, Thomas Scott Burnell (1823-1899) was a missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which was heavily influenced by Jonathan Edwards. His brother and our ancestor, Kingsley Abner Burnell (1824-1905), became a lay preacher- a condition made more acceptable by the emphasis Jonathan Edwards gave to personal experience over formal education for preachers. K.A. Burnell also travelled as a foreign missionary. Deacon Moses Kingsley (1743-1829) became the 21st Deacon at Northampton Church, most likely growing up in the church while Edwards was still pastor; Moses Kingsley served there for 9 years.

There is much more to come on these family members, and many more ancestors. Their lives will be put in context by knowing more about Jonathan Edwards- theologian, philosopher, educator, evangelist.



Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. Note in 1741 sermon that an ‘f’ often stands for an ‘s’ in early Colonial writing. Thus “Impreffions” is actually ‘Impressions.’ Also note use of phrase, “…a Time of great Awakenings…”
  2. “Antiquities, Historiais and Graduates of Northampton” by Rev. Solomon Clark, 1882. via
  3. Jonathan Edwards-
  4. Edwards on RevivalsContaining a Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God … in Northampton, Massachusetts, A.D. 1735. Also, Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, 1742, and the Way in which it Ought to be Acknowledged and Promoted” by Jonathan Edwards, Dunning & Spalding 1832, via

  5. The author is far from a scholar of theology, but there is quite a lot of information online about Jonathan Edwards. Here are some links that were useful:




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