Jonathan Edwards 4: ‘A Considerable Work of God’
The previous article focused on the awakening under Edwards in Northampton in 1735.
Notwithstanding the work of the Spirit in Northampton and elsewhere in New England in 1735, Samuel Blair of New Londonderry was not alone in bemoaning the dismal state of religion in early 1740: it ‘lay as it were a-dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in this part of the visible Church’.1 Yet even in the first half of that year, some ministers were again more conscious of the Lord’s presence in their congregations. Among them was Edwards. He was aware of the decline in religion since 1735, describing it as ‘a very lamentable decay’. Yet all the progress of that year was not, by any means, lost. In the spring of 1740 he was again conscious of a greater seriousness, especially among young people, and their conversation far more often was about religion. Many of them were now coming to speak to their minister about their souls.
That October, George Whitefield arrived in Northampton on a Saturday. He reported of that day’s service: ‘I began with fear and trembling, but God assisted me. Few eyes were dry in the assembly.’2 Edwards gives a similar account of the services of the Sabbath, also conducted by Whitefield, and noted further that they ‘were suitable to the circumstances of the town’. Whitefield’s preaching had a beneficial effect, and by the middle of December ‘a considerable work of God’ was taking place, even among the very young. And Edwards was able to tell Whitefield that he believed that some of his own children had been ‘savingly brought home to Christ’.
By the spring of 1741, young people and children were showing a marked seriousness in religion. This revival was to continue in Northampton throughout that year. At a sermon Edwards preached in a private house in May, one or two church members had such a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things that it had a very obvious effect on their bodies. Those physical effects were to be the occasion of considerable opposition among a significant proportion of the clergy in various other parts of New England.
After the usual services one Sabbath, Edwards held a meeting with the under-seventeens to emphasise again what he had said in his preaching. Many of them were very much moved by what they heard in this extra address. In many cases, the effect did not last, but in others Edwards believed that the gospel had a truly saving effect. Almost all who seemed to have been converted that year, Edwards noted, had been too young during the previous revival to profit by what they heard. He also noted the effects of the revival on those who were already converted. They had ‘much deeper convictions of their sins of both nature and practice than ever before. . . and the kingdom of heaven suffered violence from some of them in a far more remarkable manner than before. . . and after. . . agonising with God they had Christ discovered to them anew as an all-sufficient Saviour, and in the glories of His grace, and in a far more clear manner than before; and with greater humility, self-emptiness and brokenness of heart, and a purer, a higher joy, and greater desires after holiness of life; but with greater self-diffidence and distrust of their treacherous hearts’.3
In the middle of March 1742 Edwards called a day of fasting and prayer, when the congregation of Northampton signed a solemn covenant with the Most High. They acknowledged God’s goodness in the revival and promised in all their dealings with each other to have a strict regard to honesty, justice and uprightness; they promised to avoid backbiting, revenge, enmity and everything that would stir up lust; they promised to perform their duties to each other within their families; and particularly, ‘depending on divine grace and assistance, solemnly to devote our whole lives, to be laboriously spent in the business of religion. . . that we will not abuse a hope or opinion that any of us may have of our being interested in Christ to indulge ourselves in sloth. . . but will run with perseverance the race that is set before us and work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.’4
In the first part of this revival, during 1740 and 1741, Edwards believed that it was purer than in 1735 — that the people had learned more of their own hearts, that there was a greater humility and more striving after holy living. But he blamed outside influences for a change which occurred in 1742. Those subject to these influences had great zeal and even raptures of joy, and people assumed that these were the result of greater grace.
Reviewing the events of this period, Edwards concluded ‘that the degree of grace is by no means to be judged of by the degree of joy or the degree of zeal, and that indeed we cannot at all determine by these things who are gracious and who are not, and that it is not the degree of religious affections but the nature of them that is chiefly to be looked at. Some that have had very great raptures of joy and have been extraordinarily filled (as the vulgar phrase is) and have had their bodies overcome. . . very often have manifested far less of the temper of Christians in their conduct since than some others that have been still and have made no great outward show.’5 Yet he regarded others who experienced extraordinary joys as eminent, humble Christians — and they included Edwards’ wife Sarah, who recorded at length her altogether remarkable experiences of this time. While regretting the ‘corrupt mixtures’ that had influenced the revival, he was glad to note the extent to which the party spirit had disappeared which had affected the town during the previous three or four years.
In these days of the outpouring of the Spirit, Edwards and some of his brethren went on occasional preaching tours through the surrounding districts. July 8 saw him in the village of Enfield, where as yet the effects of the awakening had not appeared. When he entered the meeting house, as another minister Eleazer Wheelock later recalled, the congregation were ‘thoughtless and vain’ and ‘hardly conducted themselves with common decency’. Edwards was by no means a dramatic preacher; one of his hearers described his delivery as ‘easy, natural and very solemn. He had not a strong, loud voice, but appeared with such gravity and solemnity and spoke with such distinctness, clearness and precision; his words were so full of ideas, set in such a plain and striking light, that few speakers have been so able to demand the attention of an audience as he.’7 Edwards was held to have ‘the most universal character of a good preacher of almost any minister in America’. A former student give three reasons for this excellence: ‘(1) the great care he took in composing his sermons, (2) his great acquaintance with divinity and knowledge of the Bible, (3) his spiritual experience; he well knew what was in man, both the saint and the sinner’.8
That day in Enfield, Edwards preached on Deuteronomy 32:35: ‘Their foot shall slide in due time’. Edwards’s theme was: ‘There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell but the mere pleasure of God’ — ‘His sovereign pleasure. . . restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty’. He made the following points: ‘There is no want of power in God to cast men into hell at any moment’; ‘They deserve to be cast into hell’; ‘They are already under the sentence of condemnation to hell’; ‘They are now the objects of that very same anger and work of God that is expressed in the torments of hell’; ‘The devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him’; and five further, equally-solemn points.
Edwards then turned to his application, which was much the longer part of the sermon. His purpose, he stated, was ‘for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation’. He continued to emphasise the awfulness of the wrath of God but he pointed his hearers also to God’s long-suffering. ‘There is no other reason to be given’, the sermon went on, ‘why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning but that God’s hand has held you up. . . You hang by a slender thread, with the claims of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the claims of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.’
Though the emphasis was almost entirely on the danger of the unconverted, yet the gospel was not altogether left to one side: ‘Now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to Him and pressing into the kingdom of God’.9 And the tremendous impact of such preaching, as applied by the Holy Spirit, is clear from the remark of a youth in 1739: that ‘he fully supposed that as soon as Mr Edwards should close his discourse, the Judge would descend and the final separation [of the Day of Judgement] take place’.
Stephen Williams, a cousin of Edwards and himself a minister, recorded in his diary the effects on the Enfield congregation of what they were hearing: ‘Before sermon was done, there was a great moaning and crying out through the whole house: What shall I do to be saved? O I am going to hell. O what shall I do for Christ?’ The preacher could no longer make himself heard; he had to ask for silence. But he was not able to finish the sermon. Williams continued: ‘After some time of waiting, the congregation were still, so that a prayer was made by Mr Wheelock, 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 the power of God was seen, and several souls were hopefully wrought upon that night. And O the cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances that received comfort. O that God would strengthen and confirm!’10 Edwards’ delivered the whole of this sermon on other occasions, and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has become the best known of all his discourses.
However, there was significant opposition to the revival, led by Charles Chauncy of Boston, who at that time might, not unfairly, be compared to one of the Moderate clergy in Scotland, but more especially so in the later, more liberal period of his life. Offence was taken when men like Gilbert Tennant and George Whitefield questioned the spiritual standing of many of the New England ministers. The opponents of the revival made great play of ‘extravagances’ and ‘enthusiasm’ — what would today be called fanaticism. But enthusiasm ought in many cases to be understood as lively spiritual life, while, on the other hand, it has to be admitted that there were extravagances, though scarcely on the scale that was alleged. The excesses of James Davenport in particular caused serious damage. This minister had no doubt whatever that he could accurately determine which ministers were without grace and he made sure that everyone knew his conclusions; eventually he took to proclaiming the imminent end of the world. But he afterwards expressed repentance for his actions and carried out the duties of the ministry in an orderly way.
- Quoted in Iain H Murray, Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography, p 159.
- Quoted in Murray, Edwards, p 161.
- Quoted in Sereno E Dwight, Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol 1, p lix.
- Quoted in Dwight, Memoirs, p lix.
- Dwight, Memoirs, p lxi.
- See Dwight, Memoirs, p lxii-lxviii.
- Quoted in George M Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, A Life, p 220.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p 191.
- The whole sermon can be found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol 2, pp 5-12.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p 169.
*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
3. A Time of Surprising Conversions on August 29th 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, August, October & December 2006, and January 2007.
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