Jonathan Edwards 3: A Time of Surprising Conversions
Sixteen years had passed since the last revival in Northampton under Solomon Stoddard when, at the end of 1734, there were again the beginnings of a work of grace; five or six people ‘were to all appearances savingly converted’. By early 1735, people throughout the town where speaking about ‘the great things of religion, and the eternal world’. Everybody seemed to treat the ordinary affairs of the world as of very little consequence; indeed every day seemed in many ways to be like a Sabbath.1
They seemed now, Edwards felt, to be spending too little time on worldly affairs and too much on religious activities. ‘The only thing in the view’, he wrote, ‘was to get the kingdom of heaven, and everyone appeared pressing into it. The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances. It then was a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell; and what persons’ minds were intent upon was to escape for their lives and to fly from wrath to come. All would eagerly lay hold of opportunities for their souls and were wont very often to meet together in private houses for religious purposes.’2 The people gave up their quarrels and kept away from the inn; in fact, far more of them were now making their way to Edwards’ parsonage, for spiritual counsel, than ever used to go to the inn. Scarcely anyone, old or young, seemed any more to be unconcerned about their souls. And the influence of Edwards’ preaching also touched many who visited Northampton from the surrounding districts.
Based on the numbers who applied to be admitted to the Lord’s table, Edwards believed that, for five for six weeks, an average of about four people were being converted each day. He may later have had to take a less optimistic view, but at this point he considered that the majority of people in the town who were at least 16 years old had a ‘saving knowledge of Jesus Christ’ and that there were very few homes in the town in which at least one person had not been recently converted. He noted too the suddenness of the change in many cases; many who had been living carelessly were ‘seized with strong convictions of their guilt and misery, and in a very little time old things have passed away and all things have become new with them’.3
But this was not the uniform experience of the converts. ‘Others’, Edwards noted, ‘are awakened more gradually; they begin at first to be something more thoughtful and considerate, so as to come to a conclusion in their minds that it is their best and wisest way to delay no longer but to improve the present opportunity. They have accordingly set themselves seriously to meditate on those things that have the most awakening tendency, on purpose to obtain convictions; and so their awakenings have increased till a sense of their misery, by God’s Holy Spirit setting in therewith, has laid fast hold of them. Others who before had been somewhat religious and concerned for their salvation have been awakened in a new manner, and made sensible that their slack and dull way of seeking was never like to attain that purpose.’ These awakenings had two effects: those under conviction of sin gave up at once their sinful practices, and they earnestly made use of the means of salvation. Their cry was, as Edwards expressed it: ‘What shall we do to be saved?’
He noted a great variation in the degree of fear that different individuals experienced. And some were concerned that they had not been awakened at all but were sleeping on the brink of hell. Edwards considered that the purpose of the Spirit ‘in His legal strivings with persons’ was to bring them ‘to a conviction of their absolute dependence on His sovereign power and grace, and a universal necessity of a mediator’. But he pointed out the great variation also in ‘the manner and distinctness of such convictions’. 4
In his dealings with those under conviction, Edwards felt obliged to lay emphasis on the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners – ‘that God is under no manner of obligation to show mercy to any natural man whose heart is not turned to God, and that a man can challenge nothing, either in absolute justice or by free promise, from anything he does before he has believed on Jesus Christ, or has true repentance begun in him’. He believed that if he had presented any other teaching to those who came to him under soul concern, ‘I should have taken a most direct cause utterly to undo them’ 5. He was afraid of encouraging self-flattery and carelessness and so putting an end to their convictions. He believed that none of his sermons were more blessed than those which dealt with the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of sinners, in answering their prayers and in blessing their efforts to seek for salvation. Yet he was also aware that at the other extreme to self-flattery there was the danger of despair.
Edwards observed that, most frequently, when spiritual deliverance was given, ‘Christ is distinctly made the object of the mind, in His all-sufficiency and willingness to save sinners, but some have their thoughts more especially fixed on God in some of His sweet and glorious attributes manifested in the gospel and shining forth in the face of Christ. Some view the all-sufficiency of the mercy and grace of God; some chiefly the infinite power of God and His ability to save them and to do all things for them; and some look most at the truth and faithfulness of God. . . Some are struck with the glory and wonderfulness of the dying love of Christ, and some with the sufficiency and preciousness of His blood, as offered to make an atonement for sin, and others with the value and glory of His obedience and righteousness. In some the excellency and loveliness of Christ chiefly engages their thoughts; in some His divinity, that He is indeed the Son of the living God; and in others the excellency of the way of salvation by Christ and the suitableness of it to their necessities. . . There is often in the mind some particular text of Scripture holding forth some evangelical ground of consolation, sometimes a multitude of texts, gracious invitations and promises flooding in one after another, filling the soul more and more with comfort and satisfaction.’6
Edwards was later to become well-known for his book on The Religious Affections, in which he defined the affections as ‘the more vigorous and sensible [that is, conscious] exercises of the inclination and will of the soul’.7 But at this stage he was already commenting that ‘it was very wonderful to see how persons’ affections were sometimes moved – when God did, as it were suddenly, open their eyes and let into their minds a sense of the greatness of His grace, the fullness of Christ and His readiness to save – after having been broken with apprehensions of divine wrath . . . under a sense of guilt which they were ready to think was beyond the mercy of God’. Yet he noted how others, even after a long ‘course of gracious exercises and experiences’, had not been able to accept that they were converted.8 But he believed that it was those who had experienced the greatest terrors under conviction who were most conscious of the time of their conversion.
Referring to the fact that, ‘because they see them in a new light’, many of the converts referred to the Bible and the preaching as new, Edwards used as an illustration a 70-year-old woman who had spent most of her days under his grandfather’s ‘powerful ministry’: ‘Reading in the New Testament concerning Christ’s sufferings for sinners, she seemed to be astonished at what she read, as what was real and very wonderful, but quite new to her. At first. . . she wondered within herself that she had never heard of it before, but then immediately recollected herself and thought she had often heard of it and read it, but never till now saw it as real. She then cast in her mind how wonderful this was, that the Son of God should undergo such things for sinners and how she had spent her time in ungratefully sinning against so good a God and such a Saviour – though she was a person apparently of a very blameless and inoffensive life. And she was so overcome by those considerations that her nature was ready to fail under them.’9
But why were converted people afflicted with doubts and fears about the state of their soul? Edwards believed that it was because of the degree of corruption remaining in their hearts. At first, their souls seemed to be all alive and they could engage in religious duties with little difficulty. But when they later found themselves unaffected by the same religious duties, and when they felt such sins as pride, envy and revenge in their souls, they were ready to conclude that they were only hypocrites. As a good physician of souls, Edwards points to the true explanation: ‘The case seems plainly to be that now they feel the pain of their own wound; they have a watchful eye upon their hearts that they did not use to have. They take more notice of what sin is there, which is now more burdensome to them; they strive more against it and feel more of its strength. They are somewhat surprised that they should in this respect find themselves so different from the idea they generally had entertained of godly persons.’ 10
In the last chapter of his Narrative of Surprising Conversions, Edwards gives accounts of the experiences of some of the converts. The first of these was Abigail Hutchinson,11 a young woman who did not enjoy good health. She came under concern one Monday when she heard about another young woman who had been converted and through a remark her brother made about the necessity of earnestly seeking regenerating grace. She felt it was impossible for her to be converted because she knew so little about the principles of religion. She decided she must search the Scriptures and started to read from the beginning of Genesis. Her concern suddenly increased on the Thursday and she gave up reading the Old Testament, turning to the New to see if she could find relief for her soul there. She was particularly concerned about the sinfulness of her nature. Her great fear stemmed from a consciousness that she had sinned against God. She was amazed that, while she had for long been so concerned for her body, often consulting doctors, she had completely neglected her soul. On the Saturday she read the Bible so intensely that, in the end, she was no longer able to make out the words. Then she remembered the warning of Christ that the heathen will not be heard for their ‘much speaking’ in prayer. She saw that she had been trusting in her own prayers and religious duties, and now she did not know where to turn.
But when she wakened on the following Monday, she felt great happiness in thinking of the scriptures (though she did not remember them with perfect accuracy): ‘The words of the Lord are pure words, health to the soul, and marrow to the bones’, and, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ. . . cleanseth us from all sin’. And in these last words she saw clearly the excellency of Christ and His sufficiency to satisfy for the sins of the whole world. Edwards wrote in some detail about her sense of the glory of God and of Christ, particularly of the excellence and loveliness of Christ in His meekness, referring to the glory of God in nature. She died not long afterwards, after displaying remarkable submission to the will of God.
Another convert was Phebe Bartlet,12 who was just four. She was influenced when her 11-year-old brother spoke to her about the truth. Her parents noticed her going away several times a day on her own; they realised that she must be going to pray. Just once she said something to the effect that she could not find God, but for about three months she kept going away to her bedroom to pray. One day her mother heard her praying out loud. Very earnestly she was pleading, ‘Pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation. I pray, beg, pardon all my sins.’ She then came very upset to her mother and sat beside her. Her mother asked her what was wrong. Eventually she replied, ‘I am afraid I shall go to hell’. Her mother tried to encourage her, but Phebe went on crying. At last she suddenly stopped crying and began to smile. She said, ‘Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me’. Her mother did not know what to make of this and said nothing. Then Phebe told her: ‘There is another come to me and there is another; there is three’. When her mother asked what she meant, she answered, ‘One is, Thy will be done, and there is another, Enjoy Him for ever’. The ‘three’ were evidently portions of Scripture. Later she told her mother: ‘I can find God now’.
After Edwards had visited her home, with some people visiting the district who talked to her about spiritual things, she said, ‘I wish they would come again’. Her mother asked, ‘Why?’ She explained, ‘I love to hear them talk’. Another day she went with some older children to a neighbour’s garden and they took away plums without permission. Her mother explained that she should not have done so because it was sin. She was upset. Even after the neighbour was told and said the children could have the plums, Phebe would not eat them. She became upset again. At last she told her mother why she was crying: ‘It was because it was sin’. One morning her mother asked Phebe why she was crying in bed the previous night. ‘I was thinking about God and Christ, and they loved me,’ she explained. ‘Does thinking of God and Christ loving you make you cry?’ her mother asked. ‘Yes, it does sometimes,’ Phebe answered. Anyone listening could well have found the words of the Saviour particularly appropriate: ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise’.
- The previous article saw Edwards installed as minister of Northampton, as successor to his grandfather, the noted Solomon Stoddard.
- Select Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, 1965 Banner of Truth edition, p.13
- Edwards, Select Works, vol 1, p.21
- Edwards, Select Works, vol 1. pp.26, 27
- Edwards, Select Works, vol 1, p.30
- Edwards, Select Works, vol 1, pp.34,35.
- 1961 Banner of Truth Trust edition, p.24
- Edwards, Select Works, vol 1, pp. 37, 38
- Edwards, Select Works, vol 1, p.44.
- Edwards Select Works, vol 1, p.50
- See Edwards, Select Works, vol 1, pp. 55-63 for the account of Abigail Hutchinson
- Edwards, Select Works, vol 1, pp.63-69 for the account of Phebe Bartlet
*Other articles in this series on Jonathan Edwards appear on the website as follows:
1. ‘A New Sort of Affection’ on June 20th 2006
2. ‘Eager Pursuits after Holiness’ on August 22nd 2006
4. ‘A Considerable Work of God’ on September 19th 2006.
5. Analysing the Revival on December 4th 2006.
6. Division in Northampton on January 11th 2007.
7. Stockbridge and Princeton on March 16th 2007.
They are taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine of June, July, September, October & December 2006, and January 2007.
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