Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening
In July 1741, Jonathan Edwards accepted an invitation to preach at the neighboring town of Enfield, Connecticut. It was the height of the Great Awakening (1740–42), one of the most intense outpourings of God’s Spirit in American history. The fire of God was falling everywhere. Despite the fact he had delivered "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to his own congregation with little effect, he felt led to use it again at Enfield.
His techniques were unimpressive. He always read his sermons in an even voice, but with great conviction. He shunned shouting and theatrical antics. Impressing the listener with the power of truth and his desperate need for God was Edwards’ goal.
Nothing in his style or presentation could account for what happened that day at Enfield. An eyewitness, Stephen Williams, wrote in his diary, "We went over to Enfield where we met dear Mr. Edwards of Northampton who preached a most awakening sermon from these words, Deuteronomy 32:35, and before the sermon was done there was a great moaning and crying went out through ye whole House…. ‘What shall I do to be saved,’ ‘Oh, I am going to Hell,’ ‘Oh, what shall I do for Christ,’ and so forth. So yet ye minister was obliged to desist, ye shrieks and cry were piercing and amazing."
Williams continued, "After some time of waiting the Congregation were still, so yet a prayer was made by Mr. W. and after that we descended from the pulpit and discoursed with the people, some in one place and some in another, and amazing and astonishing ye power of God was seen, and several souls were hopefully wrought upon that night, and oh ye cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances."1
REACTIONS TO EDWARDS
Jonathan Edwards. Few names provoke sharper reactions. Some consider him America’s greatest philosopher, but he would laugh at this description. For Edwards, biblical exposition was the soul, sinew, and marrow of his life and purpose. He had no interest in philosophy for its own sake.
"Edwards divided men in his lifetime and to no less degree he continues to divide his biographers," wrote Iain Murray.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones agreed. "He divided opinions. He has been denounced without measure."
Oliver Wendell Holmes was sure that "if he had lived a hundred years later and breathed the air of freedom, he could not have written with such old-world barbarism as we find in his volcanic sermons."
John Newton (1725–1807) was asked, Who was the greatest divine of his era? He replied unhesitatingly, "Edwards."
The great Scottish preacher, Thomas Chalmers, wrote, "Never was there a happier combination of great power with great piety."
Samuel Davies, one of the founders of Princeton College, spoke for many when he said Edwards was "the profoundest reasoner, and the greatest divine, in my opinion, that America ever produced."2
Who was Jonathan Edwards, why does he provoke such reactions, and why is he important to us today?
A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, October 1703. His father, Timothy Edwards, graduated from Harvard and was the village pastor.
Like all youngsters of his time, Jonathan was home schooled. Because he showed unusual intelligence, his father enrolled him at Yale at age 13. During graduate school, he had an intense conversion experience that radically altered his life and laid the foundation for all the profound and wonderful fruit that followed.
After graduation he married New England’s most eligible maiden, 17-year-old Sarah Pierrepont. They had 11 children, and the legacy of their posterity was phenomenal.3 Although several books have been written about their marriage and family life, it was Jonathan’s deep grasp of the Bible that links his name with Christianity’s greatest thinkers.
Jonathan soon moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, to become the assistant pastor to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. A few years later Stoddard died and Jonathan became senior pastor. He labored at Northampton for 21 years.
In 1735–37, a revival swept through Northampton. About it Edwards wrote, "A great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and eternal world became universal in all parts of the town…the work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner and increased more and more; souls did, as it were, by flocks come to Jesus Christ."4
Overnight, the town was transformed. The citizens sang hymns in the streets, the tavern closed, the young people pursued God in bands, and it was impossible to get into church unless one arrived hours early.
Then in 1740, like a great flash flood, the Great Awakening rolled through New England, and Northampton was included. It was at this time that Edwards preached "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" at Enfield with such remarkable results. It is estimated that 10 percent of New England was converted during this time. Imagine today 28 million converted in 2 years. Picture every church in your town doubling or tripling in the next 2 years, and you have some grasp of the enormity of what happened.
Wherever there is fire there is also smoke. Many excesses accompanied the revival as people experienced highly unusual spiritual phenomenon. Sometimes, during sermons, they screamed and dropped unconscious to the floor. Edwards’ own wife sat trance-like in a corner of their living room for long periods, unable to move, utterly overwhelmed by God’s love.
Reverend Wheelock’s diary for October 1741 is typical. "The zeal of some too furious: they tell of many visions, revelations, and many strong impressions upon the imagination…. Preached twice with enlargement. Many cried out; many stood trembling; the whole assembly very solemn."5 After another meeting he writes, "Thirty cried out. Almost all the Negroes in town wounded (convicted of sin)…. I was forced to break off my sermon before done, the outcry was so great."
As in every revival, some of these manifestations were from God, some from the flesh, and some demonic.
This mixture ensured much criticism. (Every age has its self-appointed Spirit-quenchers.) Edwards believed the essential work was from God. But he recognized that the entire work would be discredited and abandoned unless the church learned to sort the wheat from the chaff. He wrote prolifically to this end. His most important work on this subject was On Religious Affections, a Christian classic still in print today by at least three publishers.
REJECTION AND DEATH
Eight years after the revival, a controversy over Communion split Edwards’ congregation. To their enduring shame, over 90 percent of the members voted to remove Mr. Edwards. He was 47, still had eight children at home, and was trained to do nothing but preach. The only job he could secure was missionary work among an obscure Indian tribe on the western frontier of Massachusetts. In utter isolation, he ministered to this small congregation and faithfully used these years to write most of his great theological treatises.
Eight years later, at age 55, he accepted a call from Princeton Theological Seminary to be its next president. A few months after the move, but before Sarah and the children could join him, he contracted smallpox and died. It was 1758.
TODAY’S PASTOR AND EDWARDS
Why does this 250-year-old theologian matter to us today? First, Edwards was preeminently the theologian of revival. No one else matches his penetrating insights. Everyone from Michael Brown to J.I. Packer cites Edwards when the subject of revival arises. Edwards’ ministry was forged in the heat of revival, and he wrote hundreds of pages defending and analyzing it. "He was preeminently the theologian of Revival…the theologian of experience, or as some have put it ‘the theologian of the heart,’ " wrote Martyn Lloyd-Jones.6 His Religious Affections dissects the nature of conversion. "You are doing well if you can read it and still think you are a Christian," concludes Banner of Truth Trust.
Second, Edwards is important because eternity saturated his thought life. He constantly leads his reader to heaven, hell, or the judgment seat of Christ. His perspective was eternal, and his insights were amazing. Those who read Edwards lose their fear of death. They exult in the hope of sharing the glory of God, and they shudder at the horrors of damnation. Edwards’ writing will enhance your concept of eternity and transform your ministry.
Third, Edwards knew and loved a big God. Whatever you now think about God, He will be bigger, bolder, and more satisfying after reading Edwards. Some people go on vacation to get refreshed; I go to the 18th century and read Edwards. For there I find the sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient God who is gracious and good beyond human comprehension. Edwards’ favorite adjective for God was "sweet."
Fourth, Edwards understood the smallness and frailty of man. He grasped the truth that man must become small in his own eyes to be happy or useful to God. His relentless biblical logic corners his readers until they cry "uncle," gladly embracing their sinfulness, while increasingly exulting in God’s goodness. It is not the sophistication of Edwards’ writing that draws his admirers; it is its penetration. It divides joints and marrow, redirecting men from themselves to God and His sufficiency.
Discover Jonathan Edwards for yourself. He is the Pentecostal’s theologian. "The element of the Holy Spirit is more prominent in Edwards than in any other of the Puritans," concluded Lloyd-Jones.
Edwards’ insights are the great tonic needed by the North American church. History is His story. Mine its treasures. You won’t be disappointed.
William P. Farley is editor of The Raven, a free monthly publication whose mission is to proclaim the faith and doctrine of the Reformers with a special emphasis on the felt power of the Holy Spirit, published by Pinnacle Communications, Spokane, WA.
Call 1-888-622-4170 for your free annual subscription. For His Glory, by William P. Farley, can be ordered from Pinnacle Press, P.O. Box 8146, Spokane, WA 99203 or by calling 1-888-622-4170.
1. Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth), 169.
2. Ibid., xx, xvi, xv.
3. See Elizabeth Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press).
4. Peter Marshall, The Light and the Glory (Grand Rapids: Fleming Revell, 1977), 242.
5. Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1976), 201.
6. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1987), 361.
1. Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography, by Iain Murray, (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth) is the best place to get to know this man. Read Murray’s works at www.Jonathanedwards.com, or buy his works on CD-ROM at the same Web site.
2. Christian History magazine has devoted Vol. 8, #3. "The Great Awakening" to Edwards.