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‘The dungeon flamed with light’

November 2003 | by Michael Haykin

After two relatively brief stints pastoring in New York and Bolton, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards served as a tutor at his alma mater in New Haven from 1724 to 1726. It was, however, a situation in which he was not entirely happy.

He finally found his niche in August 1726, when he was invited to become assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton, Massachusetts. When Stoddard died in February 1729, Edwards became the sole pastor of the church.

Sarah Edwards

Within a year of arriving at Northampton, Edwards had married. He had known his bride, Sarah Pierpont (1710-1758), since his days at Yale. What had impressed him when they first met in 1723 was her piety and spiritual maturity.

Though she was but thirteen at the time, he wrote of his future wife: ‘They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who is beloved of that almighty Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight; and that she hardly cares for any thing, except to meditate on him’.

By God’s grace Edwards had found a soul-mate — her affective piety and commitment to meditation upon God and spiritual things were in perfect harmony with his spirituality of the Word. They were married on 28 July 1727.

Northampton in the 1730s

The Northampton church had enjoyed a number of small revivals during Solomon Stoddard’s long pastorate, the last one in 1718. After that time, though, Edwards judged there had been little spiritual advance. In his words, taken from his account of the revival, the A faithful Narrative:

‘Just after my grandfather’s death, it seemed to be a time of extraordinary dullness in religion. Licentiousness for some years prevailed among the youth of the town; they were many of them very much addicted to night-walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices, wherein some, by their example, exceedingly corrupted others.

‘It was their manner very frequently to get together, in conventions of both sexes for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics; and they would often spend the greater part of the night in them, without regard to any order in the families they belonged to: and indeed family government did too much fail in the town.

‘It was become very customary with many of our young people to be indecent in their carriage at meetings, which doubtless would not have prevailed in such a degree, had it not been that my grandfather, through his great age (though he retained his powers, surprisingly to the last), was not so able to observe them.

‘There had also long prevailed in the town a spirit of contention between two parties, into which they had for many years been divided; by which they maintained a jealousy one of the other, and were prepared to oppose one another in all public affairs.’

No inward religion

As Edwards notes, the adults in the town were split into two factions, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ — those who were wealthy and had property, and those who were jealous of them and who sought to diminish their power and influence.

Most of these adults were taken up, not with the things of God and his kingdom, but with other cares and pursuits, especially the pursuit of material wealth. Outwardly they were orthodox, but they had no inward religion.

Their orthodoxy was dry and lifeless. Not surprisingly their children were, in Edwards’ own words, ‘very much addicted to night-walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices’. As American historian Richard Lovelace has noted, if these teens had had drugs, they would have used them.

Justification by faith alone

In the early 1730s, however, there was a growing sensitivity to sin and a willingness to listen to religious counsel.

A series of sermons on justification by faith alone — the doctrine that had been so central to the Reformation — were particularly used of God to awaken the lost and the spiritually indifferent. The series was preached by Edwards in November and December 1734.

Edwards especially stressed that God, in justifying sinners, does so on the basis of his mercy alone. Those whom God saves are not saved because God sees anything in them that would merit his favour and blessing.

To quote Edwards, when God justifies a person he ‘has no regard to anything in the person justified, as godliness, or any goodness’. In fact, Edwards went on to say, ‘before this act [of justification], God beholds him as an ungodly creature’.

Justification entails God choosing to reckon Christ’s perfect righteousness to the sinner and in this way the sinner can be declared righteous.

Revival in Northampton

Edwards identified the exposition of this central feature of the New Testament as the major catalyst that the Holy Spirit used to begin an extraordinary time of revival in Northampton. He wrote:

‘There were some things said publicly … concerning justification by faith alone … It proved a word spoken in season here; and was most evidently attended with a very remarkable blessing of heaven to the souls of the people in this town…

‘And then it was, in the latter part of December [1734], that the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us; and there were very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons, who were to all appearances savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner.’

Edwards here makes a direct link between the preaching of biblical truth and the onset of revival. It was after the preaching of justification by faith alone — which Edwards also denotes as ‘the way of the gospel … the true and only way’ — that the Spirit began to work so ‘wonderfully’ and ‘suddenly’.

Not reason alone

It is important to emphasise what American church historian John Hannah has pointed out:

‘Though Edwards presented argument after argument to sustain his points [in his sermons], he did not believe that rational explanations or carefully crafted sermons possessed the power in themselves to convince anyone.

‘He felt that that was the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. He wrote, “The light of reason convinces the world that it is so: the Word of God puts it past doubt”. Reason can demonstrate that something is true, but only the Spirit of God can create an affectionate desire or delight in it.’

The great concern

Soon, an intense concern gripped the town to be right with God and to walk with him. Edwards narrates in his account of this revival:

‘Although people did not ordinarily neglect their worldly business, yet religion was with all sorts the great concern, and the world was a thing only by the bye. The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing into it…

‘It then was a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell; and what persons’ minds were intent upon, was to escape for their lives, and to fly from wrath to come.

‘All would eagerly lay hold of opportunities for their souls, and were wont very often to meet together in private houses, for religious purposes: and such meetings when appointed were greatly thronged.’

Conversions overestimated

Out of a town of about twelve hundred people, Edwards initially reckoned that some three hundred were saved in about six months.

At the revival’s height, in March and April of 1735, there were about thirty people a week professing conversion. Many of them could be seen on a Monday morning waiting outside Edwards’ home, seeking to talk to their pastor about the state of their souls.

Edwards would later judge that there were not as many converts as he had thought during the actual time of the revival. Nevertheless, he never doubted that what took place during 1734 and 1735 was a great, God-wrought awakening in the town.

In the next instalment we shall look at the impact of this revival and the coming of the Great Awakening in 1740-1742.

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