The Preciousness of Time—Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758)
Jonathan Edwards was a man of incredible industry and productivity. His written works are voluminous; he preached thousands of hours of sermons, read countless books—yet amidst it all did not neglect his wife or eleven children.
In 1734, the first waves of the Great Awakening began to break over Northampton, and Edwards sought to channel the great energy produced into diligent labor. In this extract from a sermon entitled The Preciousness of Time, Edwards links the idea of time’s value and man’s labor in a most striking manner. Since time is so precious and fleeting, its stewardship is essential.
How little is the preciousness of time considered, and how little of a sense do the greater part of men seem to have of it, and how lavish are they of it. To how little good purpose do many spend their time. There is nothing more precious, and yet nothing that men are more wasteful of. Time is with many as silver was in the days of Solomon. ‘Tis as the stones of the street, and nothing accounted of, but not because ‘tis in great plenty, as silver then was.1 Mankind act as if time was a thing that they had in greatest plenty, and as if they had a great deal more than they needed, and knew not what to do with it.
If men were as lavish of their money as they are of their time, and it was as common a thing for them to throw away their money as ‘tis for men to throw away their time, we think [them] persons beside themselves. And yet time is a thousand times more precious than money, and is what can’t be purchased for money. When it is gone, money won’t redeem it. There are several sorts of persons that are reproved by this doctrine that I shall particularly mention.
First. Those that spend a great deal of their time in idleness or doing nothing: in following no business at all, neither of their general nor particular calling; doing nothing that shall turn to any account, either for the good of their souls or bodies; nothing either for their own benefit, nor of the benefit of their neighbors, nor of the family, nor of public society.
There are some persons that time seems to lie heavy upon their hands. Instead of its being their concern to improve it as it passes, and seeing to it that it shall not pass without their making of it their own, they act as if it was rather their care to contrive ways how to waste and consume it; as though time, instead of being precious, was rather a mere encumbrance to them, that it was their contrivance to get rid of.
Their hands refuse to labor; and rather than to put themselves to it, they will let their families suffer, and will suffer themselves. Prov. 19:15, “The idle soul shall suffer hunger.” Prov. 23:21, “Slothfulness shall clothe a man with rags.”
Some spend much of their time at the tavern over their cups, and in wandering about from house to house, wasting away their hours in idle and unprofitable talk, that will turn to no good account. Prov. 14:23, “In all labor there is profit: but the talk of the lips tends only to poverty.”
The direction of the Apostle is, as in Eph. 4:28, that “we shall labor, working with our hands the thing that is good, that we might have to give to him that needeth.” But instead of giving anything to give to him that needs, they do but waste what they have. Prov. 18:9, “He that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.”2
2 Chronicles 1:15
Jonathan Edwards, “The Preciousness of Time,” Sermons and Discourses 1734-1738, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 19 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 251-252.