Two Men on the Western Frontier: Jonathan Edwards and William Johnson

When Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was ministering at Stockbridge, he encouraged his son, the future theologian-pastor Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801), to spend time learning the culture and language of the Oneida. The boy went with a missionary, Gideon Hawley, to an Oneida village at the head of the Susquehanna, about two hundred miles away from his family. The young boy was here from April 1755 to mid-January 1756. What amazing confidence the senior Edwards and his wife Sarah must have had in a sovereign God to send their son into such a potentially dangerous place! In the winter of 1756, the situation did indeed become too dangerous for the young Jonathan and Gideon to stay with the Oneida. War was engulfing the western frontier and  the younger Edwards and Hawley trekked back to Fort Johnson, the fortified mansion of Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), now in present-day Amsterdam, New York. The young Edwards spent most of the winter there. The elder Edwards considered Johnson as “a man of not much religion” [James Thomas Flexner, Mohawk Baronet: A Biography of Sir William Johnson (1959 ed.; repr. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989), 290]. What a contrast Johnson’s home would have been then to the godly home in which the younger Edwards had been raised.

Johnson was a remarkable Irishman, born and raised not far from Dublin, who had come to America at the age of twenty-two. An extremely tall man, gargantuan in his day, Johnson was a resourceful businessman and went on to create a mini-empire in the Mohawk Valley. Key to this empire were his own brains and his third wife, a Mohawk by the name of Molly Brant (c.1736-1796), or Koñwatsi’ tsiaiéñni as she liked to be known. Her younger brother was Joseph Brant (1742/43-1807), well-known in Ontarian history. But Molly was actually much more powerful than her brother in her day, because Mohawk society was matriarchal and she was the wife of the one of the most powerful British land barons in that area of the new world.

I visited Fort Johnson this past weekend, as well as the larger fortress-mansion that Johnson built nearby and which today is called Johnson Hall. I was reminded again of the turbulence of Jonathan Edwards’ world. Johnson himself was active in the French and Indian War (1755-1760), in which he saw action. He commanded forces at the important Battle of Lake George (1755), in which Edwards’ cousin Ephraim Williams was killed. A display case at Fort Johnson held a book that was open to an account of Ephraim’s death.

Johnson’s empire, though, was not to last. He died in 1774. Two years later, his family, loyal to the British crown like Johnson, took the British side in the civil war which we know as the American Revolution. In the turbulence that followed the entirety of the Johnson estates were confiscated by the American government and all of his labours were brought to naught. Flexner, in his biography of Johnson, indulges in counter-factual history and wonders what would have happened if Johnson had lived. Johnson might have secured the Mohawk Valley for the British and the course of the war might have been quite different (Mohawk Baronet, 352-356).

But Johnson did not have a role to play in the American Revolution, for he died in 1774. What a parable is his life of the folly of building kingdoms in this world. How different the empire-building, if it can be called that, of the two Jonathan Edwards, both father and son. In their books and preaching they sought to spread the rule of the King of kings, the Lord Jesus, and as such they built for eternity.

One wonders if Molly Brant later acquired the faith that was absent in her husband’s life. After the American Revolution she went to live in Kingston. There in the 1790s, possibly not long before her death, an anonymous traveller saw her in the Anglican Church and wrote this account: “in the Church at Kingston we saw an Indian woman, who sat in an honourable place among the English. She appeared very devout during Divine Service and very attentive to the Sermon.”