Jonathan Edwards’ treatise An Humble Attempt (to promote agreement and unity in prayer) was inspired by information he received during 1745. It concerned a prayer movement for revival which had been formed by a number of Scottish evangelical ministers, including his regular correspondents John McLaurin (1693-1754) of the Ramshorn Church, Glasgow; William McCulloch (1691-1771) of Cambuslang; James Robe (1688-1753) of Kilsyth; and John Erskine (1721-1803), then of Kirkintilloch.
These ministers and their congregations had agreed to spend a part of Saturday evening and Sunday morning each week, as well as one Tuesday each quarter, in prayer to God for ‘an abundant effusion of his Holy Spirit’ so as to ‘revive true religion in all parts of Christendom, and to deliver all nations from their great and manifold spiritual calamities and miseries, and bless them with the unspeakable benefits of the kingdom of our glorious Redeemer, and fill the whole earth with his glory’.
Edwards and Zechariah 8:20-22
Edwards lost no time in promoting a similar activity in New England. He encouraged his own congregation to get involved, and communicated the idea to neighbouring ministers whom he felt would be receptive.
Although he initially met with a poor response, Edwards was not to be put off. In a sermon in February 1747 on Zechariah 8:20-22, he sought to demonstrate how the text supported his call for a union of praying Christians.
Within the year a revised and greatly expanded version of this sermon was ready for publication as the Humble Attempt.
The workhas three parts. The first section opens with a number of observations on the text and describes of the origin of the concert of prayer in Scotland.
Edwards infers from Zechariah that ‘there shall be given much of a spirit of prayer to God’s people, in many places, disposing them to come into an express agreement, unitedly to pray to God in an extraordinary manner, that he would appear for the help of his church, and in mercy to mankind, and pour out his Spirit, revive his work, and advance his spiritual kingdom in the world, as he has promised’.
Edwards concludes that it is well pleasing to God and incumbent upon God’s people to seek with ‘extraordinary, speedy, fervent and constant prayer … great effusions of the Holy Spirit’ that would dramatically advance the kingdom of Christ.
Part 2 of the treatise cites reasons for participating in the concert of prayer. ‘The sum of the blessings Christ sought’, writes Edwards, ‘by what he did and suffered in the work of redemption, was the Holy Spirit’.
He continues: ‘The Holy Spirit, in his indwelling, his influences and fruits, is the sum of all grace, holiness, comfort and joy, or in one word, of all the spiritual good Christ purchased for men in this world: and is also the sum of all perfection, glory and eternal joy, that he purchased for them in another world’.
Since this is what Christ longed for and ‘set his heart upon, from all eternity, and which he did and suffered so much for, offering up “strong crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7) … surely his disciples and members should also earnestly seek it, and be much and earnest in prayer for it’.
Scripture, moreover, is replete with commands, incentives and illustrations regarding prayer for the Holy Spirit – for example, Christ’s words in Luke 11:13, which ‘imply that prayer for the Holy Spirit is one request that God the Father is particularly pleased to answer in the affirmative’.
Further reasons to pray
Additional incentives are provided by what Edwards calls ‘the spiritual calamities and miseries of the present time’ such as the persecution of the Calvinistic Huguenots in France; the decay of vital piety; the deluge of vice and immorality; the loss of respect for those in vocational ministry; and the prevalence of religious fanaticism.
Edwards sees a further reason for prayer in the intellectual and theological currents of his day – as people rejected Puritan theology for the rationalistic world-view of the Enlightenment.
‘Never was an age wherein so many learned and elaborate treatises have been written, in proof of the truth and divinity of the Christian religion; yet never were there so many infidels, among those that were brought up under the light of the gospel. It is an age, as is supposed, of great light, freedom of thought, and discovery of truth in matters of religion, and detection of the weakness and bigotry of our ancestors … and yet vice and wickedness did never so prevail, like an overflowing deluge.
‘Tis an age wherein those mean and stingy principles (as they are called) of our forefathers, which (as is supposed) deformed religion, and led to unworthy thoughts of God, are very much discarded, and grown out of credit, and supposed more free, noble and generous thoughts of the nature of religion, and of the Christian scheme, are entertained; but yet never was an age, wherein religion in general was so much despised and trampled on, and Jesus Christ and God Almighty so blasphemed and treated with open daring contempt.’
Wonders of power and mercy
Yet, this ‘day of great apostasy’ was also a ‘day of the wonderful works of God; wonders of power and mercy’ – works that should move believers to united prayer just as much as distresses and calamities.
Edwards highlights the various spiritual revivals in Great Britain, among the New England colonies, and on the European continent – including one in Rotterdam in which a Scottish pastor, Hugh Kennedy (1698-1764), played a key role.
These ‘late remarkable religious awakenings’, he observes, ‘may justly encourage us in prayer for the promised glorious and universal outpouring of the Spirit of God’.
The beauty and benefits involved in a visible union for prayer was yet another reason to comply with his proposal. Unity, Edwards maintains, is regarded by the Scriptures as ‘the peculiar beauty of the church of Christ’ (Song of Songs 6:9; Psalm 122:3; Ephesians 4:3-6,16).
Union in prayer would also benefit the church by promoting closer rapport between members of different denominational bodies. In Edwards’ words: ‘Union in religious duties, especially in the duty of prayer, in praying one with and for another, and jointly for their common welfare, above almost all other things, tends to promote mutual affection and endearment’.
Part 3 (the longest portion of the Humble Attempt)seeks to answer various objections to a concert of prayer. Much of this section is devoted to proving his case from a post-millennial reading of New Testament eschatology.
Some objected that such a concert of prayer was previously unknown in the history of the church. In fact, such meetings had been advocated in the early eighteenth century, for instance by Cotton Mather.
Edwards makes no mention of Mather, but he does recall that in 1712 a group of London Dissenters had issued A Serious Call from the City to the Country, in which they urged that an extra hour be set aside every week to beseech God to ‘appear for the deliverance and enlargement of his church’.
A significant number of congregations in America and Scotland observed concerts of prayer throughout the 1750s. Especially during the French and Indian War (1755-1760), when the British and the French were fighting for control of North America, the concert of prayer was in wide use among American Calvinists.
In 1759, for instance, Robert Smith informed fellow Presbyterians in Pennsylvania that the concert of prayer would prove far more effective in hastening the ‘brightest period of the militant Church’s glory’ than the military victories won by British forces.
In essence, the Humble Attempt is a call for a practical expression of Reformation theology, which maintains that only God is able to do the work of God. Believing this, the church has only one option – prayer.
Let Edwards have the last word. This text comes from his funeral sermon for David Brainerd (1718-1747), a young missionary to North American Indians in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, who died of tuberculosis in Edwards’ own home. As he concluded the sermon he prayed these words;
‘Oh, that the things that were seen and heard in this extraordinary person, his holiness, heavenliness, labor and self-denial in life, his so remarkable devoting himself and his all, in heart and practice, to the glory of God … may excite in us all, both ministers and people, a due sense of the greatness of the work we have to do in the world, the excellency and amiableness of thorough religion in experience and practice, and the blessedness of the end of such whose death finishes such a life, and the infinite value of their eternal reward, when absent from the body and present with the Lord; and effectually stir us up to endeavors that in the way of such an holy life we may at last come to so blessed an end. Amen.’