On Marriage to a Difficult Man, by Elizabeth D. Dodds

Borrowed from housemate, H.

I came across this book for the first time several years ago. I don’t remember when for certain, but I think it was during a conversation I had with a gal I knew from church, with whom I was talking about my semester’s English classes. That semester, one of my classes covered 18th Century literature, and had included in the syllabus one of Jonathan Edwards’ more well-known sermons. I remember bringing Edwards up during that conversation, because I was surprised that such an overtly religious text had made it onto the class syllabus. We got to talking about Edwards, and she recommended Marriage to a Difficult Man to me for further reading. “It’s really good,” she said.

Several years and one interrupted start later, I finally sat down with the book. And I agree — it is a good book.

Marriage to a Difficult Man is a biographical overview of the relationship between Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, against the backdrop of Colonial New England. It’s a short book — a little over 200 pages — but it’s well-stocked with information gleaned from many primary resources, as well as texts written by Edwardsian scholars. The book is by no means exhaustive, but it’s well-rounded in its scope, and I think a good primer for anyone, like me, who knows Edwards only as a historical figure and wants to know more about the formidable Puritan preacher in a more domestic and personal light: as a father, a husband, and his congregation’s spiritual leader.

Jonathan Edwards and Sarah Pierrepont were very different people, yet not altogether dissimilar. I think they were excellent complements. Edwards was, according to Dodds, a moody, socially bumbling, and very shy young man of twenty when he first met the teenage Sarah. Sarah, on the other had, was a vibrant girl of thirteen with […] burnished manners, and skilled at small talk. Like I said, very different. But they were both avid readers, and both took interest of the natural world. They enjoyed tramping on beaches and through woods. And Sarah found Edwards to be an observant naturalist and a stimulating guide to nature. Dodds’ selection of stories from their courtship drew out from me plenty of Awwwwws. Edwards was clearly and endearingly head over heels for Sarah, and I couldn’t help but chuckle and smile when I read descriptions like:

[Edwards] took to walking past her her house at night for a glimpse of a candle flickering behind an upstairs shutter. When a boat came into Long Wharf with a cargo from England, he would manage to be around as it was unloaded. Almost every ship from England brought a box for the Pierreponts, and there was a chance that James [Pierrepont] would bring a daughter down with him as he checked his orders […]. Edwards even tried to improve his social dexterity, and admonished himself, “Have lately erred, in not allowing time enough for conversation.”

I mean, gosh. Could he be any more obvious? It’s adorable.

The book continues more or less in chronological order, covering the couple’s early years and the arrival of their first children, moving through their middle years — including a few chapters on The Awakening — and the arrival of more children, arriving in their last years — when Edwards takes up the post of president at Princeton University, and ending with their deaths and the eventual family reunion that would happy almost a hundred years afterward, which between 400 – 500 of Edwards and Sarah’s direct descendents attended. But the book doesn’t focus exclusively on Edwards and Sarah. Some time is spent fleshing out the lives of their children, notably those of the older children and their adult lives. And naturally, some mention is given of Edwards and Sarah’s respective parents, and the Edwards’ family friends who knew them well.

A few things that stuck out to me during my read:

Hospitality — Hospitality certainly has changed a lot since the Edwards’ days. Back then, according to Dodds, it wasn’t uncommon for travelers to seek shelter at the house of the local minister when journeying, given the dubious taverns available. Nor was it uncommon for aspiring ministers to study directly under men who had been ordained and settled. Dodds goes on to say that the homes in this period had no locks, only latches. The practice was this: If visitors were welcome, the string was left dangling outside. When the family did not choose to be disturbed, it was easy to pull the string in. Amazing. Granted, the culture and the social climate then is very different to what it is now. But I can’t imagine anyone in my neighborhood, or the neighborhood that I grew up in, being that openly hospitable to absolute strangers. The idea of having no locks on house doors just seems so anti-common sensical … and foolhardy, even. It makes me sad, how fearful and distrustful people have become. Me included. Is that naïve of me to feel that way?

A well-used house — If I ever marry and raise a family, I would love my house to be like the Edwards’:

In [Sarah’s] approach to housekeeping, efficiency was tempered by composure. She knew how to keep a house clean at its vitals, without stuffy cupboards left unaired or parlors sealed off. The house was open, used, full of clues that the family living in it had vivid interests. Books were left on tables, actually being read, not used as parlor props. There would be needlepoint on a rack by a sunny window and a lute in a corner. Esther, singing, might be putting up a hem for Sukey while a boy did his Latin lesson. It was the opposite of the kind of house where things were preserved in mothballs in locked boxes. Its ambience was of windows flung open, of easy access.

I don’t want a sterile house. I want a house with windows flung open, and belongings scattered about — although not too chaotically — and the feeling that it was really a home, a nest, not some cold, spiritless display case. An orderly home, don’t get me wrong. But a home, nevertheless.

Misleading title? —The title, Marriage to a Difficult Man, seems to imply that Edwards was a difficult husband, and a source of trouble for Sarah. Certainly, Edwards was different in certain respects. For example:

Edwards was less than helpful as a host, for he was still a light eater and would often finish his meal before the others did. He would then slip out to his study, returning to the table only when he was alerted that the others had finished and he was needed to preside over the grace which was always said at the end of meals as well as at the beginning.

But he wasn’t a sore spot to Sarah, and he certainly wasn’t a horrible husband and father.  Toward his children, Edwards was greatly interested in their education, and loved all seven of them:

Sarah could also count on one hour a day when Edwards gave the family complete attention. He made sure to save an hour at the close of each day to spend with the children. Hopkins describes his “entering freely into the feelings and concerns of his children and relaxing into cheerful and animate conversation accompanied frequently with sprightly remarks and sallies of wit and humor […].”

This was his hour to unbend completely. […] The children knew they could save their questions and have their father’s full attention at that precious hour when, without his wig and smoking his pipe, he was a different man from the one the parish usually saw.

As for Sarah, I think it obvious from their history that their relationship was strong and solid. Edwards’ last words were about Sarah: Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long subsisted between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever.

I’m glad to have finally read and finished this book. Like I said, it’s by no means an exhaustive treatment of the couple and their family, or a hardcore resource for research. (Per the footnotes left by the editors, Dodds made a few cringing mistakes in the text.) But it’s a good primer for people who know very little about the famous preacher and theologian, and wish to be more acquainted without being overwhelmed by an avalanche of information. I certainly felt adequately introduced to this amazing couple and their family. And I appreciated how Dodds portrayed them in a realistic, honest light. Oftentimes, when I first hear about a giant of the faith, I conjure in my mind this idea that they’re somehow superhuman. But that’s rarely the case in real life. At the end of the day, they’re human just like me. And that realization makes their history, while oftentimes seems surreal or distant, so much more personal and real.

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5 thoughts on “On Marriage to a Difficult Man, by Elizabeth D. Dodds”

  1. Just wanted to mention that the book “Marriage to a Difficult Man” about the lives of Jonathan & Sarah Edwards is a novel. Far better to read the official bio by Iain Murray, or better yet, read the writings of Jonathan Edwards!

    M. Leiter

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