Five Lessons on Friendship from Esther Edwards Burr
To students of American history, she is known as the mother of Aaron Burr Jr., Thomas Jefferson’s vice president who mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel in 1804. When Aaron was all of 19 months old, she recorded in a letter that he was “a little dirty Noisy Boy . . . very sly and mischievous . . . not so good tempered. He is very resolute and requires a good Governor to bring him to terms.” Aaron would tragically go on to abandon the faith of his family. But we can certainly feel empathy for his difficult start in life, given that at the age of two years old he lost both his mother and his father, as well his grandfather and grandmother.
Esther Edwards Burr died at the age of 26. She began a journal when she was 9 years old, which you can read online. In 1986 Yale University Press published a critical edition of three years worth of letters she wrote as an adult to her friend Sarah Prince (1728-1771), offering a rare look at female colonial American piety and a young life devoted to “sincere religion” and committed to “faithful friendship” (to use the description of Roger Lundin and Mark Noll).
In the letters Esther’s sharp wit and formidable intellect shine through. For example, she recounts one occasion when a tutor at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University)—where her husband served as president—confidently asserted that women did not know “what Friendship was,” as “they were hardly capable of anything so cool and rational as friendship” (Letter No. 3, April 12, 1757).
Esther tells Sarah, “I retorted several severe things upon him before he had time to speak again. He blushed and seemed confused. . . . We carried on the dispute for an hour—I talked him quite silent.”
The tutor was out of his league, mocking a subject near and dear to Esther’s heart. She wrote about it both passionately and frequently to Sarah Prince. In reading through her extant letters, several themes emerge for her working theology and practice of friendship.
1. Christian friendship is a gift from God that is preserved by God.
After Esther’s death, Sarah wrote that Esther “was dear to me as the Apple of my Eye—she knew and felt all my Griefs. She laid out herself for my good and was every assiduously studying it. The God of Nature had furnished her with all that I desir’d in a Friend.” Sarah here focuses upon Esther’s exemplary acts of true friendship, involving empathy, sacrifice, and knowledge—all seen as a kindness from God in fulfilling the desire of Sarah’s heart.
As for Esther, she recognized the same, writing: “Once more I am allowed to call you friend, which I hope I am thankfull for. Tis God that gives us friends, and he that preserves the friendship he has graciously begun.” To be sure, Christian friendship is not something that she took for granted: “‘Tis . . . a great mercy that we have any friends—What would this world be without ‘em—A person who looks upon himself to be friendless must of all Cretures be missarable in this Life—Tis the Life of Life” (January 23, 1756).
2. Christian friendship is rare and fragile but ultimately eternal.
After one of her best friends in town nearly dies, Esther writes to Sarah that “It realy seems as if the time was come when friendship is going out of the World by one means or other, those that are formed for it taken away by death or threatned” (October 12, 1754; November 12, 1754). Esther recognizes that circumstances often conspire to threaten the preciousness of friendship. This was especially true on the early American frontier, where average life expectancy did not go beyond the thirties.
But the ultimate origin of Christian friendship, Esther reasons, indicates its true duration: “True friendship is inkindled by a spark from Heaven, and heaven will never suffer it to go out, but it will burn to all Eternity” (February 15, 1755).
3. Christian friendship expresses the language of affection.
Over and over again in her letters, Esther addresses Sarah with tender terms of endearment and appreciation. She frequently signs off, “I am, my dear friend, your most affectionate Friend and Sister” (March 6, 1756; November 21, 1754; June 14, 1755; April 17, 1756). She nicknames Sarah her “dear affectionate Fidelia” (October 17, 1756), that is, faithful or loyal one. Sarah, she says, is “my best self” (May 8, 1756), “the Sister of my heart” (October 11, 1754), “my ever dear friend” (December 25, 1754), “my beloved friend” (April 19, 1755). Signing one letter, “your unfeighned and very Affectionate Friend” (February 9, 1755), it is clear there were no restraints on their affection.
4. Christian friendship is a form of love.
This point is related to the previous one, but somewhat distinct. Modern readers are sometimes taken aback by the way in which same-sex friendships were described with passionate expression usually reserved for lovers. Our fear of homoerotic overtones has almost entirely muted this sort of language today. But it was common in Puritan New England and continued at least into the late nineteenth century, applying not only to friendships between women but also friendships between men.
For example, Esther describes how excited she would become at the arrival of a new letter from her friend: “I could not help weeping for joy to hear once more from my dear, very dear Fidelia. . . . I broke it open with [as] much eagerness as ever a fond lover imbraced the dearest joy and dlight of his soul” (March 7, 1755).
She felt similarly after having read the letter itself: “Every Letter I have from you raises my esteem of you and increases my love to you—their is the very soul of a friend in all you write—You cant think how those private papers make me long to see you” (Letter No. 21, April 16, 1756).
Esther even wonders at times if her love for Sarah is bordering on idolatry, becoming too attached to things of this earth: “As you say, I believe tis true that I love you too much, that is I am too fond of you, but I cant esteem and value too greatly, that is sertain—Consider my friend how rare a thing tis to meet with such a friend as I have in my Fidelia—Who would not value and prize such a friendship above gold, or honour, or any thing that the World can afford? . . . I am trying to be weaned from you my dear, and all other dear friends, but for the present it seems vain—I seem more attached to ‘em than ever— . . .” (June 4, 1755). She sees friendship as one of life’s greatest earthly goods, though less than God.
5. Christian friendship can strengthen our relationship with God.
One of the things Esther most valued in her friendship was the sense of honesty and free transparency before a fellow pilgrim: “I think it is one of the great essentials of friendship [that] the parties tell one another their faults, and when they will [say] it and take it kindly it is one of the best evidences of true friendship, [I] think” (November 1, 1754).
A true friend is a confidant, a sounding board, one who can hear our true hearts and still love us: “I should highly value (as you my dear do) such charming friends as you have about you—friends that one might unbosom their whole soul too” (April 20, 1755).
Earlier we noted her fear of idolatry with friendship. But she also sees Christian friendship as a genuine godly pleasure: “Nothing is more refreshing to the soul (except communication with God himself), than the company and society of a friend.” In fact, she writes, “I esteem relegious Conversation one of the best helps to keep up relegion in the soul, excepting secret devotion, I dont know but the very best—Then what a lamentable thing that tis so neglected by Gods own children” (April 20, 1755).
Esther Edwards Burr lived a short life, but she left with us a remarkable example of godly Christian friendship and thoughtful theological reflection on this gift of grace.