Jonathan Edwards on Revival
Alwyn York, CCCC Historian
Jonathan Edwards is a towering figure in the history of American Congregationalism. He is remembered as a legendary preacher, a chronicler and defender of religious revivals, and a profound theologian. He was a voluminous writer, which can make the prospect of reading his works intimidating. Yale University Press has published the definitive edition of his works in twenty-six volumes. This was a monumental undertaking, begun in 1957 and not completed until 2008. The natural question, then, is where to begin reading him. To help those who are not familiar with his writings I plan to present a series of articles introducing some of his shorter and more accessible works.
Banner of Truth has published a small paperback putting together two of the most important of Edwards’ early writings. Jonathan Edwards on Revival includes A Narrative of Surprising Conversions and The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. The former work describes the spiritual awakening which Edwards observed in Northampton, MA (where he was pastor) and in neighboring communities during 1734-35. This revival was so dramatic and so different from what was commonly seen in churches during this time that it produced much criticism and skepticism. Edwards wrote “The Distinguishing Marks” to defend the soundness and authenticity of the spiritual changes produced by the awakening.
A Narrative of Surprising Conversions was the work which brought Jonathan Edwards to the attention of the world. He had written an account of the revival in Northampton to a Boston minister, who shared extracts of it with two leading pastors in London. In response to the request of these two pastors to have the whole story, Edwards’s entire narrative was published in London. It became a publishing sensation, going through three editions and twenty printings between 1737 and 1739. Christians in England were fascinated to read about widespread and powerful conversions taking place on the western edge of the American colonies. One of Edwards’ correspondents wrote, “We have not heard anything like it since the Reformation.”
The Narrative is what may be described as religious journalism. The first section describes the spiritual condition of the community before the revival and describes the way the awakening unfolded. Section two is entitled “The Manner of Conversion Various.” Edwards reveals himself to be a careful observer of people’s religious experience. He summarizes his experience of observing and counseling scores of people as they underwent conversion. He shows how the Holy Spirit worked differently in different people in terms of what first produced concern about their souls, how long and how intensely they were under conviction of sin, and how they came to find peace and assurance of salvation. The third section gives a detailed account of the conversion of two individuals, a young woman and a little girl. The little girl, Phebe Bartlet, was just four years old. The spiritual depth and understanding which Edwards witnessed in this child was truly remarkable.
The spiritual movement seen in Northampton was controversial from the beginning. Seeing the intensity of emotion that was produced during the revival, both the severity of distress of those under conviction of sin and the euphoria of those who experienced conversion, led many to charge that the revival was mere emotionalism or fanaticism. Edwards wrote “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God” to defend the subjects of the awakening from these charges. I will save a summary and analysis of this book for a future article.