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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Jonathan Edwards: A Model of High Pastoral Productivity

Published Wednesday, November 4, 2020 By Matthew Everhard

There is an incredible line in the second volume of The Lord of the Rings in which Bilbo describes his current emotional state to Gandalf the wise wizard: “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” I am sure many pastors can relate. We are spread too thinly over a number of duties, most of which cannot be ignored or delayed. After all, Sunday comes every single week whether we are ready for it or not. Many of us preach and teach at least twice per week, plan meetings, lead the staff, counsel the distressed, visit the sick, and serve the presbytery. If we don’t learn to get organized professionally and personally, this job can easily overwhelm even the best of us.

Pastors love what we do. All of it. We love teaching and studying Scripture. We love visiting with our people and thinking through the challenges of the congregation. As we develop our skills, we get better at the job. Some men seem to have mastered the art of pastoral productivity. Sometimes we learn “life hacks” from other ministers; and as we study their lives, we can even learn things from productive pastors in church history.

Jonathan Edwards: Productivity Guru

When we look at pastors from the past, we are often shocked at their incredible productivity in their own generation, especially since they lacked many of the electronic tools that we have today. Let’s take my own dead mentor, Jonathan Edwards, for example. Edwards was the preaching pastor at the Church of Northampton for over 23 years. He took over the pulpit from his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, one of the most renowned divines in the Colonies at the time. The Northampton Church grew in the years that Edwards was its pastor, from 1726-1750, waxing strong as the westward expansion of the New World flourished. During his time in Northampton, Edwards experienced two major revivals: the first in 1734-35, a localized revival primarily centered around his own congregation; the second the national Great Awakening of 1740-41.

Being considered a leading minister in either of those historic revivals would be enough success for any one pastor’s lifetime, but Edwards also authored several highly significant written works, including landmark books on revivalism, theology, missions, and philosophy. If you take a quick look at the lifetime collection of his written corpus, it is astonishing to realize that there are 26 full, printed volumes of his official Yale Works; in addition to another 47 digital-only volumes, for a total of 72. Side by side on a shelf, these would be wider than a grown man’s arm-span. Not only that, but since Edwards had to use a feather and inkwell (the computer keyboard would not be invented for many generations to come!) it is a wonder that one solitary man could be so impossibly productive.

We might ask: in the midst of leading a “normal” pastor’s life — how in the world did Edwards have time to do all this!?

Time Management

We do know that Edwards was very particular about time from a young age, and the nineteen-year old prodigy had resolved very early on to, “never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.” In one 1723 Diary entry, he wrote, “Sabbath day, Jan. 6, at night. Much concerned about the improvement of precious time. Intend to live in continual mortification, without ceasing, and even to weary myself thereby, as long as I am in this world, and never to expect or desire any worldly ease or pleasure.” Later that May, he wrote again in his Diary, “Saturday night, May 11. I have been to blame, the month past, in not laying violence enough to my inclination, to force myself to a better improvement of time.”

It seems then, that Edwards was somewhat of a time management fanatic. His days were no longer than anyone else’s, and his years were fewer than many. From the earliest biographers, we read that his colleagues noted how Edwards maintained an incredible work ethic. One contemporary biographer, Samuel Hopkins, suggested that Edwards spent about thirteen hours per day in his study.[1] Pretty impressive if true, especially for a man of one wife, ten children, and a farm to manage too. Less flatteringly perhaps, Hopkins also tells us that “He was less acquainted with most of his temporal affairs than many of his neighbors, and seldom knew when and by whom his forage for winter was gathered in, or how many milk kine he had, whence his table was furnished, etc.”[2] To say it less politely, he was totally clueless about his own household.

All this points to a man that modern terminology might label a “workaholic.” Yet despite all of this, every testimony that we have from personal letters and contemporary observations from the people that knew him best indicate that Edwards had a truly sweet and tender relationship with his wife, and that his children both respected and loved him. In other words, his many duties as a pastor did not cause him to experience a breakdown in his most vital nuclear relationships. He loved his family and they loved him back.

But read on.

Edwards’s System of Information Management

Given that no man has more than 365 days in each year, and no sabbatarian (like Edwards) has more than six days a week to work, there must have been something special about Edwards’s personal organization. I think this is exactly so. In fact, his whole professional and pastoral life could be viewed as the relentless execution of a well-planned system of personal productivity and information management. 

Edwards’s corpus of 72 total written volumes, from one perspective, is really one great “theological project” comprised of various particular items, all of which join together at the center in a spiderweb-like fashion. Here is what I mean by that: Edwards was constantly working on a number of individual projects at the same time, and yet all of the projects were intimately related. Each aspect of the whole connected organically to other areas in a mutually informing and elaborative way. Edwards wrote multiple sermons every week. That is a given. But simultaneously, his sermon research spilled out into various notebooks and “Miscellanies,”[3] which in turn could be picked up and implemented directly into other major projects or treatises.

So, for example, Edwards would be studying the Bible one day, and be struck by an insight on a particular text of Scripture. He would write those insights down in short form in his Blank Bible. Later, he might expand that entry or line of thought into a full “miscellany,” which when placed in its own notebook and freed from space constraints, could spill over into several longer pages. That expanded “miscellany” could be then lifted in part or in whole into the next Lord’s Day sermon, or perhaps saved for several years until he came to that specific text again in a preaching series. A long-form sermon itself, or any of its component parts, could be lifted and re-contextualized into one of his book-length treatises, and prepared for final publication. In this way, a thought, observation, insight, or idea might actually be utilized multiple times in print or pulpit form. Edwards was constantly preparing multiple projects at the same time: private notebooks, sermons, and publishable treatises too.

To do this well, Edwards needed an incredibly adept system of cross-referencing to connect his works to one another, and this system primarily relied upon his “Miscellanies” and his Blank Bible[4] as the central hub for the whole project. Each of these items would be meticulously cross-referenced throughout his various notebooks, sermons, and writing projects, with the “Miscellanies” serving as the topical “harddrive” of ideas both philosophical and theological, while his Blank Bible and Notes on Scripture served as his canonical indexes of exegetical ideas.

To see how these projects were interrelated, cross-referenced, and mutually-informing, Wilson H. Kimnach put together this infographic in WJEO 10:90 to help readers understand how these various notebooks work together:[5]


One of the obvious takeaways from this is that Edwards was not ashamed or afraid to “double dip” a good idea, using it in multiple ministerial contexts. Sermons for instance could be re-preached multiple times, he believed. His most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for instance, was preached first at Northampton (garnering not much more than a yawn) before it was preached again at Enfield to uncanny spiritual effect upon the hearers that night.[6] Edwards kept most of his sermons in hand-sized, duodecimo preaching notebooks for easy reuse, and we can discern from his various handwritten emendations that certain sermons were preached as many as six or seven times in different places and contexts.[7] This is especially true once Edwards was removed to Stockbridge in 1750 to care for the Mahican Indians. There, we know for a fact that Edwards quite regularly re-preached older sermons so that he had more desk time to more fully develop his major treatises, many of which existed in nascent form as his “Miscellanies.”

Edwards’s time in Stockbridge ended up being one of his most productive times as a writer since he could (a) re-preach many of his sermons, simplifying them for an English-as-a second-language congregation, and (b) begin to adapt his “Miscellanies,” and other notes on Scripture into much longer, coherent treatises that would eventually win him the recognition as America’s greatest theologian. The Freedom of the Will, The Nature of True Virtue, and Original Sin were all composed during these times of heavy ministerial “double dipping.” Please do not get me wrong: I am not suggesting that writing these great works was easy! There was much more to do than simply recopying his own notes. Each of these works is a true masterpiece, and an original composition. Each of these works contributed markedly to the legacy of Edwards’s theological work in particular, and American Reformed theology in general. But we see so many instances of pre-writing and copy/pasting from his earlier notebooks, that it is impossible to deny his burden of labor had been made much easier through his ingenious and rigorous system of information storage.[8]

Fair Warning to Productive Pastors

I have written before on Jonathan Edwards’s organizational genius, and suggested some simple ways that we can appropriate his methods. And I certainly do think that there is a massive benefit to replicating Edwards’s organization in terms of his note-taking plan. For my own part, I have begun to adapt several of his most important practices including utilizing a “Blank Bible” similar to his and I have begun my own “Miscellanies” — in both hand-written and digital forms — by launching two of my own growing, notebooks on systematic theology and philosophy. I am already experiencing the benefits of such “searchable” note-taking systems and advanced preparation, as I come to topics and texts for which I have laid previous groundwork.

But I also want to end this piece with a warning about Edwards’s obsession with pastoral productivity. All good men from history can serve as both examples and counterexamples. And in this case study, Edwards is in fact both.

Here’s the warning: every good endeavor requires some real-world cost. Since we are finite men — limited to time and place — it will be impossible for us to truly do everything well. We will have to make choices on what we can have as our major, what we can have as our minor, and what we must simply overlook. For Edwards, his drive towards personal study and publication productivity sadly led him away from his own people. In one of the most unwise decisions Edwards made, he chose to maintain a closer relationship to his notebooks than his congregants. Real human souls. People.

Edwards chose not to visit his people regularly from house to house as most pastors did in those days, and this decision cost him personal rapport with his own congregation.[9] Hopkins says it perhaps too gently, “He did not make it his custom to visit his people in their own houses, unless he was sent for by the sick, or he heard that they were under some special affliction.”[10] It is my assumption [JS1] as an Edwards scholar that this hurt his reputation as a local church pastor. By the time the so-called 1744 “Bad Book Case” occurred within the Northampton congregation, Edwards had already let slip a bit of his people’s trust. He survived that scandal, but fumbled an opportunity to better care for his people in personal ways. When the “Communion Controversy” of 1750 burst into full flame, Edwards appears to have already lost the kindly affection of most of his congregation, and they were prepared to simply let him walk away with his strong convictions about the Lord’s Supper in tow. In a landslide vote, they fired him.            

So Edwards should be both an encouragement and a warning to us: it is possible for one human being to be incredibly productive in his study and writing; super-organized and uber-professional. But it is also possible to be so focused on being productive that we lose some of the interpersonal relationships that should be most precious to us, the very congregations that we are called and ordained to love and serve.

Dr. Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA, just north of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Unknown: The Extraordinary Influence of Ordinary Christians and  A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity. He is currently writing a book on Edwards’s seventy Resolutions for Hendrickson Publications.

[1] That would be the early biography of Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’s own student. See Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth), 137.

[2] Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 183.

[3] The “Miscellanies” can be read in WJEO volumes 13, 18, 20, and 23.

[4] The Blank Bible can be read in WJEO volume 24.

[5] This graphic does not exhaust the various notebooks of Jonathan Edwards; he had several others. But it does give the reader a general idea of how important his Blank Bible, and “Miscellanies” were to the whole endeavor.

[6] WJEO 22:400.

[7] WJE 10:140.

[8] Here is one example from Ava Chamberlain’s introduction to the “Miscellanies” 501-32. She writes, “Reading the miscellanies that Edwards wrote in the 1730s retrospectively from the perspective of his mature writings, we perceive in embryo the ideas that form the core of some of his most famous published treatises. For example, several entries express concepts that Edwards later developed at length in Freedom of the Will. No. 830, which has a line running along the entirety of its left margin indicating its use elsewhere, contains in outline form the substance of Edwards’ argument in Freedom of the Will. Not only does its first sentence echo the title of the treatise by its use of the phrase “present prevailing notion of liberty,” but it addresses the concept of liberty of indifference, which is the principal focus of Edwards’ argument in the treatise.” WJEO 18:10.

[9] See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 134-135.

[10] Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 183.


  • Matthew Everhard

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