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.