Often Sarah Edwards is hailed as a wonderful example of a godly wife and mother. She reared eleven children, housed many overnight and long term guests, buried a grown daughter and was the wife of Jonathan Edwards who wrote many books, was an itinerant preacher and a principle figure in the First Great Awakening.
Sarah's diligence in teaching her children has overflowed into generations of faithful followers of Christ and influential figures in American History. It would be easy to look at Sarah's example and not feel overwhelmed, especially considering the era in which she lived, the relative poverty they experienced and the isolation from immediate family she experienced.
But there was a month in her life where Sarah is thought to have either had a nervous breakdown or an indwelling of the Spirit of God that left her incoherent and bedridden.
Admittedly, when I first read of this I was certain she must have had a nervous breakdown; it makes sense considering her circumstances. I would have had a nervous breakdown I'm sure. In much lesser circumstances than Sarah's I have often felt on the brink of falling apart.
In the biography of Sarah "Marriage to A Difficult Man" Elisabeth Dodds wrote of the nervous breakdown,
"Here we don't like her at all. The serene mother becomes limply needful. The patient wife comes to the end of her patience. The attractive hostess becomes grotesque - jabbering, hallucinating, and idiotically fainting. We are embarrassed for her. But isn't this what each of us does in our bad dreams? what sometimes we refrain from doing by the thinnest edge of self-control? what we finally do when we have a nervous breakdown?Now consider what Sarah's own husband writes of her experience that month,
Here Sarah stands exposed as a fully human woman. One with a breaking point as any woman has. Before, she had been too good to be true."
"The soul dwelt on high, was lost on God, and seemed almost to leave the body. The mind dwelt in a pure delight that fed and satisfied it...Extraordinary views of divine things, and the religious affections, were frequently attended with very great affects on the body. Nature often sunk under the weight of divine discoveries, and the strength of the body was taken away. [Sarah] was deprived of all ability to stand or speak. Sometimes the hands were clenched, and the flesh cold, but the senses remaining. Animal nature was often in a great emotion and agitation, and the soul so overcome with admiration, and a kind of omnipotent joy, as to cause [Sarah], unavoidably, to leap with all the might, with joy and mighty exaltation...the flesh and heart seems often to cry out for a lying low before God, and adoring Him with greater love and humility..."Noel Piper writes of this in her introduction to Dodds' book,
"There is no doubt that both Jonathan and Sarah recognized her experiences as being from God and for her spiritual delight and benefit...Yes, stresses over finances, distress at having upset her husband, jealousy about another's ministry - all those things were looming in Sarah's life. But God used those things to reveal weakness, to show her that she needed Him. And then, when the almost-physical sensations of the divine presence came upon her, God was all the more precious and sweet to her, because of what he had forgiven and overcome for her...And Jonathan's conclusions of his wife's experience,
Her life was different after those weeks - different in ways that you would expect God had especially visited someone."
"Not only a great increase of religious affections, but with a wonderful alteration of outward behaviour, in many things, visible to those who are most intimately acquainted, so as lately to have become a new person...Piper concludes that, "Sarah's changed life bore the fruits of God's Spirit who seems to have visited her in an extraordinary way." And Dodds writes,
Oh how good said [Sarah] once, is it to work for God in the day-time, and at night to lie down under his smiles!...Worldly business has been attended with great alacrity, as part of the service of God: Sarah declaring that, it being found thus, was found to be as good as prayer."
"...Sarah seems to have discharged the pressures of fourteen taut years. From then on, she sailed through strains that would have sent another woman into bitter seclusion or into whining invalidism with migraines or sinus.Unfortunately in reference to Sarah as an example of a godly wife and mother, this episode in her life is often left out. I have no less than four books on my shelf that esteem Sarah's example without mention of this life transforming event. Considering Sarah's example in isolation from her experience of beholding the glory of God we miss all that her example is for us. Sarah did not merely follow the example of the Proverbs 31 woman.
So she went back to making jams and hemming linens, but after this time her work appears to have been done without resentment. The martyred protestant wife is a familiar figure in the social history of the West. These ladies thought they were being self-effacing when actually they were boiling beneath the surface...
Sarah Edwards stopped straining to please God and began to live in assurance of a salvation she didn't have to try to deserve. She stopped pushing herself to be worthy of Edward's love and from then on had his unreserved admiration. Before, onlookers had considered her a saint but her husband knew she wasn't. Afterward, Edwards marveled at her "constant sweet peace, calm and serenity of soul." For the rest of their life together, Edwards was to marvel at his wife's good disposition."
We can read of Sarah and then pray, "Lord, surely if she could do all that, so can I. Please help me to be like her," just as we read of Mary and Martha and say to ourselves, "Well, the work still needs to be done - Jesus would you meet me in the kitchen," and then carry on in a way that wreaks of stoicism and self-sufficiency. Sarah can be presented as a kind of Martha persona when in fact, she served her family as she did and bore the fruit of the Spirit as she did because of her Mary experience at the very feet of Jesus.
Sarah came to the end of her abilities, all stoicism was abdicated, she admitted weakness and inability, realized her powerlessness over her flesh. It was here that God met her and she became the woman we admire from afar today. God forced her out of the kitchen, rendered her useless for service in any capacity and sat her at His feet for a whole month! Sarah Edwards is not an example for us to imitate, so much as she is an example of the effect the transforming power of God can have in our lives. She is a woman who came to the end of herself, giving up all stoic effort and self-reliance.
I no longer think Sarah Edwards had a nervous breakdown, I think the Lord took hold of her for that month thoroughly possessed her.