What Jonathan Edwards's Daughter Can Teach Us about Friendship

A Neglected Good

Our culture is not one that provides great encouragement for the nurture and development of deep, long-lasting, satisfying friendships. Such friendships take time and sacrifice, and early twenty-first century Western culture is a busy, busy world that, as a rule, is far more interested in receiving and possessing than sacrificing and giving.

What is especially disturbing about this fact is that Western Christianity is little different from its culture. The English Anglican writer C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) wrote an ingenious little book entitled The Screwtape Letters, a remarkable commentary on spiritual warfare from the point of view of our Enemy. In it there is one letter from the senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood in which Screwtape rejoices over the fact that “in modern Christian writings” there is to be found “few of the old warnings about worldly vanities, the choice of friends, and the value of time.” [1] Now, whether or not Lewis is right with regard to a scarcity of Christian literature about “worldly vanities” and “the value of time” in the modern world, he is undoubtedly correct when it comes to the topic of friendship.

How different in this respect is our world from that of the ancients, both pagan and Christian. In the ancient world friendship was deemed to be of such vital importance that the pagan philosopher Plato (c. 428/427–348/347 BC) devoted an entire book, the Lysis, as well as substantial portions of two other books, the Phaedrus and the Symposium, to a treatment of its nature.

While we do not find such extended discussions of the concept of friendship in the Scriptures, we do come across reflections on friendship such as Eccles. 4:7–12 and marvelous illustrations of what friendship should be like, for example, Ruth and Naomi, or David and Jonathan. In that Old Testament compendium of wisdom, Proverbs, there are also nuggets of advice about having friends and keeping them. These texts leave the impression that the world of the Bible regards friendship as a very important part of life.

There are a number of fabulous illustrations of this sort of biblical friendship in the history of the church. In this article, we'll look at the example of Esther Edwards Burr (1732–1758) and Sarah Prince (1728–1771).

Introducing Esther Edwards Burr

Esther Edwards Burr was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, on February 13, 1732, the third child of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Of Esther’s early years, we know very little. Samuel Hopkins, who wrote the first biography of her father, Jonathan Edwards, and who lived in their home for over a year, remembered her as having “a lively, sprightly imagination, a quick and penetrating thought.” [2] Her childhood years coincided with the years of the Great Awakening. She was eight when the Great Awakening began, and she heard George Whitefield preach to her father’s congregation in October of that year; she was ten when it ended in 1742.

All of this would have made a deep impression on her. [3] The revival would no doubt have reinforced in her mind that genuine Christianity was a religion of the heart and that “the only true religion was indeed heartfelt, nothing short of a total and joyous submission to the will of God.” [4] She herself made a profession of faith before the church when she was “about fifteen,” though her conversion is to be dated earlier—possibly when Whitefield preached to the Northampton congregation. [5]

...genuine Christianity was a religion of the heart and that “the only true religion was indeed heartfelt, nothing short of a total and joyous submission to the will of God.”

Friendship as a Means of Grace

One of the most important things that Esther prized in keeping her near to God was spiritual conversation with close friends such as Sarah Prince:

I should highly value (as you my dear do) such charming friends as you have about youfriends that one might unbosom their whole soul too. . . . I esteem religious conversation one of the best helps to keep up religion in the soul, excepting secret devotion, I don’t know but the very best—Then what a lamentable thing that ’tis so neglected by Gods own children. [6]

Note the connection between friendship and what Esther calls “religious conversation.” For the Christian, true friends are those with whom one can share the deepest things of one’s life. They are people with whom one can be transparent and open. In Esther’s words, they are people to whom one can “unbosom [one’s] whole soul.” And in the course of conversation about spiritual things the believer can find strength and encouragement for living the Christian life.

In referring to spiritual conversation with friends as “one of the best helps to keep up religion in the soul,” Esther obviously views it as a means of grace, one of the ways that God the Holy Spirit keeps Christians in fellowship with the Savior. As another New England Christian, Nathanael Emmons (1745–1840), a theologian who was mentored by close followers of Jonathan Edwards, put it in one of his favorite maxims: “A man is made by his friends.” [7]

This is the way Esther put the same thought on another occasion where she stresses the importance of Christian friendship as a means for walking with God:

Nothing is more refreshing to the soul (except communication with God himself) then the company and society of a friend— One that has the spirit off, and relish for, true friendship—this is becoming [to] the rational soul—this is God-like.” [8]

And Sarah was such a friend, as Esther’s entries for October 11, 1754, and June 4, 1755, reveal:

It is a great comfort to me when my friends are absent from me that I have ’em some where in the World, and you my dear for one, not of the least, for I esteem you one of the best, and in some respects nerer than any Sister I have. I have not one Sister I can write so freely to as to you the Sister of my heart. [9]

Consider my friend how rare a thing tis to meet with such a friend as I have in my Fidelia—Who would not vallue and prize such a friend above gold, or honour, or any thing that the World can afford? [10]

Eight Women of Faith

Michael A. G. Haykin

Historian Michael Haykin reminds contemporary Christians of the important contributions eight women have made in the history of the church, including Jane Austen, Lady Jane Grey, and Sarah Edwards.

A Gift from Heaven

Esther was convinced that such friendship was a gift from heaven. As she put it in two journal entries—the first from October 5, 1754, and the second from February 15, 1755:

Mrs Smith and I were talking . . . and determined that whatsoever had been spoken in Confidence whiles there was supposed to be a friendship aught to be kept secret. Altho the friendship was at an end, yet the obligation was as strong as ever, and Mrs Smith thinks stronger. . . . I look on the ties of Friendship as sacred, and I am of your mind, that it aught to be a matter of Solemn Prayer to God (where there is a friendship contracted) that it may be preserved. [11]

You will think I am not so very indifferent to everything in the world nither, but to tell the truth when I speak of the world, and the things that are in the World, I don’t mean friends, for friendship does not belong to the world. True friendship is first inkindled by a spark from Heaven, and heaven will never suffer it to go out, but it will burn to all Eternity. [12]

A year later, on January 23, 1756, she stated again her conviction about the vital need for Christian friends:

Tis my dear a great mercy that we have any friends—What would this World be with out ’em—A person who looks upon himself to be friendless must of all Cretures be missarable in this life—Tis the Life of Life. [13]

Note the way that Esther prizes Christian friends. For her, they are one of this world’s greatest sources of happiness.

Why did Esther put such a value upon friendship? Well, surely because she realized that Christian friends and conversation with them is vital for spiritual growth.

This article is adapted from Eight Women of Faith by Michael A. G. Haykin.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 10, in The Best of C. S. Lewis (Washington, DC: Canon Press, 1969), 43.
[2] Cited in Carol F. Karlsen and Laurie Crumpacker, eds., The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr 1754–1757 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 8. For a very brief biographical sketch of Esther, see Gerald R. McDermott, “Burr, Esther Edwards,” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730–1860, ed. Donald M. Lewis (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995), 1:175. See also the helpful chapter, “Through Esther’s Eyes,” in Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards—A New Biography (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 399–420. Also see the various references in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), passim.
[3] Sereno E. Dwight (“Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, A. M.,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [1834; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987], 1:clxxix) notes that Esther “appeared to be the subject of divine impressions, when seven or eight years old.” Cf., e.g., the impression made upon a six-year-old Bethan Lloyd-Jones, née Phillips, by the Welsh Revival of 1904–1905, in Bethan Lloyd-Jones, “Memories of the 1904– 05 revival in Wales,” Evangelicals Now 20 (January 2005): 15–18.
[4] Karlsen and Crumpacker, eds., Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 9.
[5] Dwight, “Memoirs,” in Works, 1:clxxix; Karlsen and Crumpacker, eds., Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 12.
[6] Entry for April 20, 1755, in ibid., 112.
[7] Cited in The Works of Nathanael Emmons, D.D., ed. Jacob Ide (Boston: Congregational Board of Publication, 1861), 1:115.
[8] Entry for January 23, 1756, in Karlsen and Crumpacker, eds., Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 185.
[9] Ibid., 53.
[10] Ibid., 118.
[11] Ibid., 50.
[12] Ibid., 92.
[13] Ibid., 185.

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