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‘The dungeon flamed with light’

May 2004 | by Michael Haykin

Evangelical revivals of the 18th century

Jonathan Edwards and praying for revival (1)

by Michael Haykin

In an essay published in the mid-1960s, before the resurgence of interest in Jonathan Edwards, Peter Gay, an historian with little sympathy for Edwards’ theological vision, contrasted him with Charles Chauncy (1705-1787). Chauncy was Edwards’ main theological opponent during the Great Awakening.

Chauncy, said Gay, embraced the perspective of eighteenth-century modernity, while Edwards clung to the Puritanism of the previous century. However, Chauncy and others like him ‘paid a price for their modernity: they surrendered the citadel of their Puritan faith’.

One has to admit that Gay rightly understood the theological scene in mid-eighteenth-century New England. Jonathan Edwards held fast to his Puritan heritage, and nowhere is this more evident than in his view of prayer.

The Puritans at prayer

Prayer is central to any expression of biblical spirituality. The Puritans — who sought to frame their lives according to God’s Word and were Edwards’ spiritual forebears — wrote a great deal about this subject. In the words of Puritan John Geree (c.1601-1649), they were ‘much in prayer’.

Congregationalist theologian Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) remarked, ‘our speaking to God by prayers, and his speaking to us by answers thereunto, is one great part of our walking with God’.

John Bunyan (1628-1688) made a similar judgement about the importance of prayer when he told those gathered around him as he lay dying in London: ‘The Spirit of Prayer is more precious than treasure of gold and silver’.

Edwards, who had his part in this stream of Reformed piety, also highly prized prayer. Among his Resolutions is one dated 23 July and 10 August 1723 that declares the believer’s life-long duty to pray:

‘Resolved, very much to exercise myself in this, all my life long, viz. with the greatest openness of which I am capable, to declare my ways to God, and lay open my soul to him: all my sins, temptations, difficulties, sorrows, fears, hopes, desires, and every thing, and every circumstance; according to Dr. Manton’s 27th Sermon on Psalm 119.’

In the cited sermon, Puritan author Thomas Manton (1620-1677) states: ‘They that would speed with God, should learn this point of Christian ingenuity, unfeignedly to lay open their whole case to him’.

God hears prayer

Why did God institute prayer? Edwards addressed the subject in his sermon ‘The Most High A Prayer-Hearing God’ (1736).

First, he notes that prayer was not instituted because God is ignorant of our wants or desires. ‘He is omniscient’, Edwards reminds his hearers, ‘and with respect to his knowledge, unchangeable’.

Nor do we pray in order to alter God’s sovereign will. Edwards is well aware of the anthropomorphic language of Scripture and admits, ‘God is sometimes represented as if he were moved and persuaded by the prayers of his people; yet it is not to be thought that God is properly moved or made willing by our prayers; for it is no more possible that there should be any new inclination or will in God, than new knowledge’.

Why then are Christians commanded to pray? Working from the Reformation principle that God alone can do the work of God, Edwards states that ‘God has been pleased to constitute prayer to be antecedent to the bestowment of mercy, and he is pleased to bestow mercy in consequence of prayer, as though he were prevailed upon by prayer’.

American historian Stephen J. Nichols writes with regard to this passage: ‘In other words, God ordains the end or the results, and he also ordains the means. Prayer is a God-ordained means to carrying out his will. We don’t pray to change his mind; we pray so that we can be used of him’.

The goal of creation

Sincere prayer also furthers the glorification of God, the goal of all creation. As Edwards puts it, ‘prayer is but a sensible acknowledgment of our dependence on him to his glory’.

Prayer is also designed to put those who pray in a proper frame of mind and heart to receive answers to their requests. Prayer changes those who pray, preparing them to be the sort of people through whom God can work. Edwards continues:

‘Hereby is excited a sense of our need, and of the value of the mercy which we seek, and at the same time earnest desires for it, whereby the mind is more prepared to prize it, to rejoice in it when bestowed, and to be thankful for it.

‘Prayer, with suitable confession, may excite a sense of our unworthiness of the mercy we seek. And the placing of ourselves in the immediate presence of God, may make us sensible of his majesty, and in a sense fit to receive mercy of him.

‘Our prayer to God may excite in us a suitable sense and consideration of our dependence on God for the mercy we ask, and a suitable exercise of faith in God’s sufficiency, that so we may be prepared to glorify his name when the mercy is received.’

Finally, because Edwards was persuaded that ‘the great duty of secret prayer … is more expressly required in the Word of God than any other kind [of prayer]’.

He believed it was the duty of Christians to ‘be much employed in the duty of prayer. Let us pray with all prayer and supplication. Let us live prayerful lives, continuing instant in prayer, watching thereunto with all perseverance. Praying always, without ceasing, earnestly, and not fainting.’

Corporate prayer

Another activity that Edwards believed was vital for the expansion of God’s kingdom was corporate prayer. While he was an innovator in his own time with regard to prayer meetings (what he called ‘concerts of prayer’) there was some Puritan precedent.

For example, the New England Puritan Cotton Mather (1663-1728) believed that the vitality of the church in any era depends on the Holy Spirit’s sovereign power. He thus maintained that the most significant practical response to the spiritual decline of his day was concerted prayer.

He states in ‘The Nets of Salvation’ (1704): ‘Praying for souls is a main stroke in the winning of souls. If once the Spirit of Grace be poured out upon a soul, that soul is won immediately…

‘Yea, who can tell, how far the prayers of the saints, and of a few saints, may prevail with heaven to obtain that grace that shall win whole peoples and kingdoms to serve the Lord?…

‘It may be, the nations of the world, would quickly be won from the idolatries of paganism, and the impostures of Mahomet, if a Spirit of Prayer were at work among the people of God.’

Small groups

A later booklet from the pen of Mather, ‘Private Meetings Animated & Regulated’, published in 1706, encouraged believers to meet in small groups so that, among other things, ‘their fervent supplications’ would hopefully result in ‘the Spirit of Grace [being] mightily poured out upon the rising generation’.

Mather recommended bi-monthly meetings in which the whole evening could be devoted ‘unto supplications for the conversion and salvation of the rising generation in the land; and particularly for the success of the gospel in that congregation’ to which the members of the prayer-meeting belonged.

Although Mather prayed long and hard for revival, he never personally saw it. He died in 1728, a few years before it came to New England and Great Britain. Yet he typified a rising hunger among God’s people in the transatlantic British community to see God move in revival in their society, and translated that longing into prayer.

The Humble Attempt

Jonathan Edwards’ involvement in the Northampton revival of 1734-1735 and the Great Awakening of 1740-1742 left him with the keen conviction that the historical advance of God’s kingdom was intimately connected to such times of spiritual blessing.

The New England divine was also certain that prayer for these times of spiritual awakening was central to their occurrence. Thus he drew up and published in 1748 a treatise encouraging believers to gather regularly to pray for the outpouring of God’s Spirit.

It was entitled ‘An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer, For the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, pursuant to Scripture-Promises and Prophecies concerning the Last Time’ (henceforth referred to simply as the Humble Attempt). The treatise is well summed up by a sentence near the beginning of the work:

‘It is a very suitable thing, and well-pleasing to God, for many people, in different parts of the world, by express agreement, to come into a visible union in extraordinary, speedy, fervent, and constant prayer, for those great effusions of the Holy Spirit, which shall bring on that advancement of Christ’s church and kingdom, that God has so often promised shall be in the latter ages of the world.’

This treatise had some impact during Edwards’ own lifetime, but its main influence came during the final decades of the eighteenth century — when it was instrumental in kindling a profoundly significant revival among the Calvinistic Baptists of Great Britain and initiating the modern missionary movement.

Next month we shall look at this important treatise more closely.

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