Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan & Sarah Edwards by Elisabeth D. Dodds

For a book that truly strengthens relationships and helps spouses renew their perspective, Marriage to a Difficult Man is a joy to read and ponder. In this understandable, interpretative, historically-accurate story of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards’s “uncommon” thirty-one year union, Elisabeth D. Dodds effectively recounts the ups and downs of this couple’s relationship and provides examples and lessons that can benefit anyone, married or yet-to-be.

The book is also a good depiction of what life was like for a Puritan family. Sarah Edwards maintained a solid reputation as the wife of famous preacher Jonathan Edwards despite the strain of raising children and extending hospitality to frequent visitors. Edwards allowed younger pastors to study with him at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts when he wasn’t traveling. Sticking to a rigorous schedule of studying and writing, Edwards frequently left the meal table prematurely to return to his beloved work.

But, the book emphasized, Jonathan Edwards actually was a family man. He kept time open each evening for “children’s hour” when he would read aloud to his eleven children or help them with schoolwork. After the house was quiet, his attention turned to Sarah, and it was these precious moments that made their relationship strong in spite of the outside stress caused by work and society.

Dodds’ book is a chronological narrative of Jonathan Edward’s life, but doesn’t begin until his marriage at age twenty-four. Sarah was seventeen at the time, and the author states “it is remarkable that these two survived their courtship” (pg.13). Edwards was moody, shy, and socially bumbling while Sarah was “a vibrant brunette…with burnished manners” (pg. 14). Their relationship did flourish, though, for with Sarah, “the lonely Edwards was rooted and grounded in love” (pg. 13). She provided him with order and continuity, freeing Edwards from domestic distractions so he could study and write his sermons.

Each chapter in Dodds’ thorough documentary accounted for a stage in the Edwards’s life. Subjects such as disciplining young children, being in the public spotlight, and overcoming depression are addressed by the author, who uses the Edwards family to reinforce her points. Indeed, Dodds devoted a chapter to describing Sarah’s midlife crisis and the controversy surrounding her mental meltdown.

The book effectively portrayed Sarah suffering from depression and spells of fatigue—mixed with feelings of spiritual insignificance—before emerging with a new viewpoint. The result, the author is quick to point out, was that Sarah learned to appreciate her family—and especially her husband—more than ever. The episode, which stemmed from a critical comment Edwards made, caused her to renew her outlook and helped her “reflect on God’s mercy” in giving her a reason to live (pg. 109). In response, Edwards marveled at the way his wife thrived on his encouragement and leaned on him for support.

Not surprisingly, Dodds said, Sarah depended on Edwards for constant spiritual replenishment. Visiting him in his office a few times each day, she appreciated his leadership of the family and was a staunch supporter of his role as shepherd of the local church.

Throughout the book, a large amount of time is spent telling about the couple’s children, most of whom became pastors and leaders in other arenas. Marrying into prominent families, they moved away and had successful careers. This left Jonathan and Sarah with their younger children in Northampton, where they lived until Edwards was dismissed from his church due to a disagreement. He died in 1757, just a few months after becoming president of Princeton University, and Sarah quickly followed, longing to be reunited with her beloved husband.

Laced throughout the book are quotations from first-hand observers and friends of the family. These comments add a measure of reliability to the chronicle, as do the footnotes placed by the editor of the second edition to ensure accuracy of dates, events, and details. Following the story, the author compiled several documents written by Edwards, including a personal narrative detailing his acceptance of Christ and a number of sermons and letters to friends. In addition, all 70 of Edward’s resolutions—which he wrote as a teenager to help him live a Christ-like life—are reprinted to give the reader a feel for Edward’s character and beliefs.

All in all, the book was well-written, pleasant to read, and a good real-life story that forced me to consider my relationships and the impact every day can have on the way a family functions.

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10 thoughts on “Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan & Sarah Edwards by Elisabeth D. Dodds

  1. wow, sounds really interesting. Must be pretty long (my favorite kind of book!). This is definately going on my spring break list.

  2. Sarah was depressed. If she was an intelligent woman and I suspect she was, then I can see why she was depressed. It seems as if her selflessness only made her husband more selfish. To me it is a sin to sacrafice and deny who you are to build up another person. Did her husband sacrafice for her? Altruism means to sacrafice yourself for the sake of another. Depression is a red flag that says something is wrong with that alturistic mentality. Did her husband make her sad and sick? Was he being the husband that the Lord commanded him to be? She loved the Lord and her family so I don’t think she was rebelling in anyway.

    I just read the reviews but I will read the book to give them both them benefit of doubt.

  3. I would oppose the statement that her selflessness made her husband more selfish. It might have created the opportunity for him to take advantage of her, but it didn’t cause it. There’s a significant difference there.

    Anyway, even if her increasing selflessness did spark an increase in her husband’s (supposed?) selfishness, it doesn’t change her obligation to be selfless. And that goes for men as well. The Bible teaches that men must sacrifice for their wives in equal measure as Christ sacrifices for the Church (so please don’t interpret this as a male chauvinistic statement).

    What I have found in life is that everyone is selfish. Sometimes, it is in everyone’s best interest to confront a person who demonstrates a pattern of selfishness. BUT, I do not believe that to always be the case. Sometimes, it is better to live an exemplary life of sacrifice and show the character of God. Is that easy? ABSOLUTELY not. But it is possible through the grace of God. It’s not the way God intended marriage, but it can be dealt with.

    Finally, a person who naturally sacrifices to avoid conflict is not sacrificing for the right reason. The flawed reason could lead to emotional problems. The simple unadorned truth is this: if you are living for the Glory of God, then you will overcome in any situation.

    Enjoy the book. We’d even like a second review on it. So please let us hear your opinion.

  4. Well said, Matt. I would add that, for me, being a wife and mother is the fulfillment of who I am in Christ, so to sacrifice for them is not to deny who I am, but rather the reverse.

    I look forward to your reveiw, Georgia. A subject as complex as a person’s life always has multiple facets to it.

  5. I would argue that it is quite a leap to say her selflessness led to depression. Life is very tough, and depression happens sometimes. Jeremiah is a good example. God’s grace is always present, but to believe life does not have down times is not reality. Crisis is often God’s tool for reflection and spiritual growth (Saul/Paul). In addition, did not Christ sacrifice Himself to build us up? Your thoughts do not reflect Christ’s personal character and behavior. They do, unfortunately, reflect feminism. Besides, to make such comments without even reading the book makes your opinion baseless. I am not trying to be mean, but read the book.

  6. In the case of Jonathan Edwards, the marriage was sustained through his at least occasional recognition that he had obligations to the family he took on. In the case of my father, who is in national broadcast ministry, he never did that, verbally abusing his wife, ignoring his children and his fundamental responsibilities before God. Mom’s is a marriage to a difficult man that created hell on earth for the children he decided to father and the wife he pledge to love, honor and cherish. Bravo for the Edwards family and a warning for those pastors and ministry leaders who want to have it all without any accountability. That’s a time when endless submission by wives creates monsters. I know because I lived it.

  7. I am confused, where did the idea come from that Sarah was depressed. I see no indication of that. She appeared to love her husband and children very much and yes she spent much time taking care of them because she wanted to and appeared to enjoyed it. The times required it with no modern conveniences like today. I believe the qualities of the families produced by this union are a testimony that they made good decisions in raising their family. Name me another family that can produce a line of descendants the quality of this family.

  8. Dear Conservativebooktalk Readers,
    My wife and I are currently gathering data to organize a fall study tour in New England that centers on the Great Awakening, Edwards, and its influence on the colonies, and specifically their revolt against England. I am trying to find out more about Elisabeth Dodds…where she lives, how to contact her to see if she would be willing to serve as one of the lecturers on the tour.
    In His grip, Lewis Young

    • Not certain how we can assist you in that endeavor. Occasionally authors to comment on the site, but she has not been one of them.

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