Esther Edwards Burr (1732–1758) grew up at the center of the First Great Awakening, a revival movement that swept through the colonies in the 1740s and 1750s, in the home and church of her father, the famous American theologian Jonathan Edwards. At twenty, after a very brief courtship, she married the Reverend Aaron Burr, a rising star among supporters of the Awakening, and one of the founders of the recently established College of New Jersey (Princeton).
As a young wife (and before long, mother) far from home in an intensely scrutinized social position, Burr found solace in writing letters to her childhood friend Sarah Prince. In these excerpts, we see Burr in the midst of a busy life still taking the time to cultivate her own spirituality. Her letters—which freely mingle intimate details about her own longings for a more experiential religion, chatty reflections on household events, and commentary on the political and theological troubles of the day—give a sense of the way Protestant evangelicals in the mid-eighteenth century viewed all areas of life through a Christocentric lens. They also hint at the fact that although women in evangelical circles were expected to apply their minds as well as their hearts to their faith, they were still often discouraged from engaging similarly with public policy questions.
Source: The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 1754-1757, Carol F. Karlsen and Laurie Crumpacker, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 57, 61, 64, 68–70, 72, 76–77, 81, 92, 94, 95, 97, 123 ,136, 142, 177, 178, 182. We have modernized spelling and capitalization.
October 21, 1754
This afternoon I rode out to do some business, and to see the widow, the fatherless and the sick. There is somethi[ng to] be learned, go where one will, if we have but a heart [to] reflect and improve. I can’t but be amazed that ever I was disposed to repine at the dispensations of Providence for when the dispensation has been most grievous, how much more merciful has God been to me than others that are far better than I. Sometimes I am afraid I am to have my portion in this life, and what a miserable portion will that be. O my dear, let me beg my bread rather than a fullness on these terms!
November 10, 1754
Sabbath A. M. Went to meeting. Heard a discourse from those words of Christ’s concerning John, “What went ye out for to a reed shaken of the wind?” which put us all upon inquiring what end we had in view when we came to the House of God and his ordinances etc. . . . [in original] I thought I felt some longings to meet Christ at his Table. I hope I felt a little more alive than I do commonly, but Oh my deadness! P. M. Stayed at home with Sally and Sue who is very poorly and has been so some time. There is duty at home as well as at the house of God.
December 1, 1754
Sabbath You desire Mr. Burr’s and my thoughts about what Solomon’s good woman kept a candle a burning all night for, and query whether she did not set up to read, or rather seem to take it for granted that she did.
I have asked Mr. Burr for his thoughts, and he will not be serious about it but said in a jest that she kept a candle burning for the same reason that Mr. Pemberton did, but I intend to ask him again. . . . [in original] My thoughts are these—first her candle goes out not by night (viz) as soon as ’tis night. You know ’tis a common way of speaking, as for instance, such a person did not get up by day. We don’t mean that he lay in bed all day, but he did not get up as soon as the day broke—our people are coming—you shall have more of this subject the first opportunity I can get to write.
December 12, 1754
Thursday: To return to my good woman which I had like to have forgot. By her candle’s not going out by night, or as soon as night, may she show her industry, that her business did not cease as soon as night came. She was not in a hurry to lay all aside and go to bed as lazy people do. . . . [in original] It could not be that she sat up till two, or three, o’ the clock or great part of the night as you seem to suppose, for ’tis said of her verse 15, “she ariseth also while it is yet night,” etc. . . . [in original] Now I query whether ’tis possible for her to arise so early (if she stay up so late as you suppose) and live under it, unless she was made of some other sort of matter than we be, which is not very likely, for Solomon speaks of her as one of US, and that makes him wonder so much, and admire her so greatly as to set her price far above rubies. I appeal to your own experience. You know you can’t get up early in the morn if you set up very late, don’t you, say? But if you have any objections to what I have said, pray let me know it in our next.
January 1, 1755
This day instead of being a play day is turned into a fast which reaches as far as the bounds of our Presbytery. Was at meeting this A. M. Heard a sermon from Hosea 9th and 12th verses, “Though they bring up their children, etc.” The discourse was very proper for the occasion. Oh my dear what reason have we to be humbled under the present threatenings of heaven which are very just and what troubles may we not expect at this day when iniquity abounds, and the love of even God’s own Children waxes cold. Indeed, my dear friend we have reason to expect such times as this land never saw. ’Tis very probably you and I may live to see persecution, and may be called to give up at the stake—Oh Lord, look in infinite mercy on us, and save this wicked land for the Ten Righteous’ sake! . . .
January 2, 1755
I am very glad to see people in any measure awake with a concern about the danger of being swallowed by our popish [Catholic] enemies. How much easier this is, than to awaken sleepy souls (in the greatest danger from their infinitely more terrible foe the Devil) to the least concern about it. What blessed times would it be if all were much engaged in conversation about the grand concerns of their never dying souls, as they are about their bodies and estates, when they imagine them in a little danger of being injured. . . .
January 17, 1755
I don’t know but I write the same thing over and over again, and again, for as soon as I have laid down my pen, I have perfectly forgot that I have been writing about and I dare not read it over, for it appears so silly that I can’t bear to send it out. . . . [in original] Our house is very gloomy, as ’tis always when Mr. Burr is gone. I am ready to imagine the sun does not give so much light as it did when my best self was at home, and I am in the glooms two, half dead, my head gone. Behead a person and they will soon die. . . .
February 16, 1755
Sabbath Eve. At meeting all day. Mr. Burr is still insisting on a reformation in families, and tells the people they must expect that this will be the burden of his sermon until he sees reformation beginning. He has been remarkably stirred up to be fervent in his preaching of late. Oh that the Lord would bless his labors! You my dear will join heartily in this petition.
February 23, 1755
Sabbath Eve. At meeting all day.
- M. A very awakening sermon to young people.
P.M. A discourse to rouse old people to do their duty to their children and servants, in counseling, instructing, and restraining ’em—I can’t but hope some good will be speedily done in this place. Mr. Burr is in a very uncommon degree stirred up to sound the alarm of the Gospel.
March 2, 1755 Sabbath Eve
- M. A discourse exhorting Christians to the great duty of admonishing one another in a kind friendly manner.
P.M. A discourse from those words, “Husbands love your wives, and let the wife see that she reverence her husband.”
You can guess what sort of sermon we had. It was really to the purpose.
March 8, 1755
Saturday P.M. The sermon is come out of the press. I suppose it to be the only one we shall ever get in the press. You my friend shall have one of ’em as soon as an opportunity serves. ’Tis a little odd, there is no text, and not much method compared to your New England sermons, and for that reason may be rejected by those nice people that can’t swallow anything but text and doctrine first, second proposition, then inferences in just such an order. Mr. Burr says you must tell ’em that people this way are prejudiced against the Scriptures, and the discourse would not go down so well. If at the beginning stood a text of Scripture, they would perhaps be so frightened with that and the author’s being a Presbyterian that they would not dare to venture any farther.
June 14, 1755 Saturday Morn
. . . We have a very fine microscope, and telescope. Indeed we have two microscopes—and we make great discoveries tho’ not yet any new ones that I know of. The microscope magnifies a louse to be 8 feet long upon the wall—the telescope is very short, not above 14 inches, but we can see to read small print as small as in our common Bibles across the street, which is about 7 rod, and we can see Jupiter’s Moons—I want you here prodigiously to see and wonder with us.
July 19, 1755 Saturday Eve
. . . Oh the dreadful, awful news! General Braddock is killed and his army defeated—o my dear, what will, what must become of us! Oh our sins, our sins—they are grown up to the very heavens, and call aloud for Vengeance, the Vengeance that the Lord has sent—’tis just, ’tis right—I haven’t a word to say against the ordering of God—for I know I have been guilty enough to procure this judgment of heaven—I really believe that our sins are much greater, and more aggravated than the sins of our enemies, and it would be infinitely just in the ever blessed God to deliver us into their hands and utterly reject us and cast us off forever as he has done many a time his professing people heretofore.
August 8 – 9 1755 Friday and Saturday
Too gloomy to write—the [situation?] of our public affairs are so melancholy that I am sunk at my heart, and go bowed down like a bullrush—I never was so sunk with anything in my life. . . . Oh! if a praying spirit was to be seen amongst Gods people things would look encouraging, and I should hope mercy was yet in store for this wicked land—you can’t conceive my dear friend what a tender mother undergoes for her children at such a day as this, to think of bring[ing] up children to be dashed against the stones by our barbarous enemies—or which is worse, to be enslaved by them, and obliged to turn Papist—it seems to me sometimes if I had no child nor was likely to have any that I should not be much distressed, but I must leave the subject—’tis too dreadful to think of.
December 14, 1755 Sabbath Eve
I have been taking some pains with Sukey Shippen. She is a poor ignorant stupid girl in matters of religion, though not so ignorant as I feared I should have found her—she has an old aunt that lives in the house that has taken some pains with her—she says her aunt is a very good woman, and I believe she is by all I have heard—and I don’t know but they think she is good enough for all the house.
December 20, 1755 Saturday
I wish I could help troubling you with my troubles that can do neither you nor me any good, but I am perplexed about our public affairs. The men say (tho’ not Mr. Burr, he is not one of that sort) that women have no business to concern themselves about ’em but to trust to those that know better and be content to be destroyed because that they did all for the best—indeed, if I was convinced that our great men did act as they really thought was for the glory of God and the good of the country, it would go a great ways to make me easy.
January 13, 1756 Tuesday Eve
This eve Miss Sukey began with me about her soul’s concerns, and I find she has had a great many very serious thoughts since she has been here. She is full of her inquiries, what she must do to be good. She tells me she tries to pray from her heart but finds she can’t, and she seems to have some sense of sin—you can’t think how my heart is rejoiced—Oh that God would give us this one soul! I seem as if I could not be denied my request that God would perfect the good work that seems to be begun in her whiles in this house—oh how great a blessing upon us—I hope God has heard some of my poor prayers for her—and I hope for a heart to pray more earnestly for her than ever—what a comfort to see those under our care inclining to the ways of religion and true virtue.
January 14, 1756 Wednesday
A very stormy day. I find a great deal of pleasure in instructing this miss I have with me, for she seems to have both ears open whenever I say anything by way of instruction—she is a very judicious child for one of twelve years old—she grows quite womanly lately—I shall be very proud if I can make a clever girl of her, for she was really a baby when she came here—she grows very notable.
- What do Burr’s journal entries tell us about the various role expectations placed on evangelical women in the Great Awakening? How might those roles or expectations been liberating or confining?
- How does the evangelicalism of someone like Burr compare to that of someone like Beverly LaHaye (“Exploring the Link Between Womanhood and the Rabibinate”) or Elisabeth Elliott Gren (“The Tyranny of Petty Coercion”)? Where are there areas of continuity and discontinuity among these women?
- Matthew 11:7; Luke 7:24
- As the editors of Burr’s Journal note: “Sue, also called Sukey in the journal, was a young servant or slave in the Burr household. Readers should be aware that Esther also used the nicknames Sue and Sukey for her sister Susanna . . . and Sukey for Susannah Shippen. It is not always clear which of the three young women she was referring to.” Journal, 61.
- Proverbs 31:18
- See Genesis 18: 16-33 where Abraham pleads with the Lord to spare the corrupt city of Sodom; God eventually agrees to spare the city if he can find ten righteous men in it.
- a reference to the French
- This is a paraphrase of Ephesians 5:22-33.
- Burr’s January 1, 1755 sermon