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‘The dungeon flamed with light’ Evangelical revivals of the 18th century

March 2004 | by Michael Haykin

Jonathan Edwards (5)

by Michael Haykin

The New Testament was written in the context of the greatest spiritual revival that the world has ever seen – and it plainly indicates that there are problems even in times of revival. The revivals of the eighteenth century were no exception.

I

n New England, Jonathan Edwards soon realised that there were destructive forces at work in the revival, threatening to play havoc with it and bring it to a halt. The preaching and behaviour of James Davenport (1716-1757) typified these forces.

He was a minister from Southold, Long Island, and came from a distinguished Puritan lineage. Davenport became acquainted with the great evangelist George Whitefield in 1740 in New York, and soon sought to imitate the success of the Englishman.

Fanaticism

Itinerating throughout New England, however, Davenport adopted increasingly fanatical attitudes and patterns of behaviour. When he came to a town he would seek to interrogate the local minister as to his spiritual state.

Those who refused to answer his questions, or whose answers did not satisfy him, he declared to be unconverted and unfit to be spiritual leaders.

Davenport was convinced that he had the ability to distinguish who was among the elect of God and who was not — a supposed gift he relied upon when he called into question the spiritual state of these various New England ministers.

Davenport would then proceed to encourage the members of their congregations to forsake them and conduct their own meetings. Invariably, he would publicly upbraid those members of the clergy he deemed to be unconverted.

For example, in 1741 at New Haven, Connecticut, he branded the pastor Joseph Noyes ‘an unconverted hypocrite and the devil incarnate’.

The following summer of 1742 Davenport was in the Boston region, where he spent two months accusing the majority of the Boston ministers of ‘leading their people blindfold to hell’.

He urged their congregations to ‘pull them down, turn them out, and put others in their places’. Not surprisingly, wherever Davenport went he left divided congregations in his wake.

Old Brick

Davenport’s evident fanaticism — ‘enthusiasm’ in eighteenth-century jargon — provided the anti-revival forces (known as the ‘Old Lights’) with a highly visible target for their attacks. To them he came to epitomise the anarchy and destruction of church harmony that the revival sometimes brought in its wake.

The captain of these forces was Charles Chauncy (1705-1787), the junior pastor of Boston’s prestigious First Church. ‘Short in stature and assertive in temperament’, as George Marsden has recently described him, Chauncy came to be known as ‘Old Brick’, which was also the nickname of the church he pastored.

Marsden suggests that this may have been due to the fact that ‘he resembled a brick both in appearance and in his solid temperament’!

In July of 1742 Davenport had appeared in Boston and specifically sought out Chauncy to pronounce judgement on the latter’s spirituality.

The encounter took place in the doorway of Chauncy’s study and decisively turned the latter against the revival. Chauncy bluntly told Davenport that he was suffering from ‘a heated imagination’.

Attacking the revival

The Boston minister quickly fired off a sermon, published as Enthusiasm described and cautioned against. In this work, Chauncy accused Davenport and his ilk of being ‘enthusiasts’, who show their true colours by their blatant disregard of the ‘dictates of reason’.

In particular, Chauncy stressed that the arousal of one’s ‘passions and affections’ needs to be carefully monitored. The ‘passions’, when properly acted upon by the Spirit, ‘tend mightily to awaken the reasonable powers’.

But if one’s passions are set ablaze and one’s reason and understanding are not enlightened, it is all to no avail. Reason and judgement — the ‘more noble part’ of the human being — must be pre-eminent in all religious experience. Otherwise it is but a sham and ‘enthusiasm’. Real religion, he concluded, is ‘a sober, calm, reasonable thing’.

Chauncy’s main attack on the revival was his Seasonable thoughts on the state of religion in New England (1743). It continued to press home what Chauncy saw as the main work of the Spirit, the enlightenment of the mind.

‘An enlightened mind, and not raised affections’, he stated, ‘ought always to be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things: And it will be so, where God really works on their hearts by his Spirit’.

Undergirding Chauncy’s views was his conviction that the affections were essentially base animal passions that needed to be held in check by reason.

A balanced view

As the religious situation in New England began to polarize between those who took Chauncy’s position and those who defended the revival (excesses and all), a Presbyterian named John Moorehead, who was sympathetic to the revival, prayed: ‘God direct us what to do, particularly with pious zealots and cold, diabolical opposers!’

The answer to Moorhead’s prayer came by way of a series of books from the pen of Edwards on the nature of true spirituality. In them, Edwards found himself in the unenviable position of having to answer both sides in the debate about the nature of the work of the Holy Spirit and what is a genuine revival.

But from this theological crucible came forth one of the richest books on Christian spirituality in the history of the church — A treatise concerning the religious affections (1746).

A heart aflame

Edwards’ Religious affections seeks to answer both the positions of Davenport and Chauncy. To the ‘pious zealots’ like Davenport he stressed that biblical Christianity must involve the mind and reason. When God converts a person, light is shed upon the mind.

On the other hand, there is much more to conversion than mental enlightenment. In response to Chauncy and those of his persuasion, Edwards maintained that genuine spirituality flows from a heart aflame with the love of God. There is no genuine Christianity without a warm heart.

It is absolutely vital to note that the longest section of the book is an answer to Davenport’s position. Edwards regarded the misguided zeal of a Davenport as a much more serious hindrance to the advance of the gospel in times of revival than the intellectualism of a Chauncy.

Next month we shall briefly explore this classic study of Christian experience, The religious affections.

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