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

September 2003 | by Michael Haykin

The writings of the New England divine Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) are of special importance when it comes to the subject of the Holy Spirit’s work in personal renewal and corporate revival.

This is because — as Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said — Edwards is ‘pre-eminently the theologian of revival’. His writings on the subject possess ongoing value, because, first of all, they are rooted in a personal and intimate acquaintance with revival.

Mapping revival

The earliest letter we possess from his hand, written to his elder sister Mary when he was but twelve years of age, tells of a revival in his hometown of East Windsor, Connecticut. It occurred under the preaching of his father, Timothy Edwards (1669-1758).

He describes it as ‘a very remarkable stirring and pouring out of the Spirit of God’. While the revival was in progress, it was common on Mondays (after the Word had been preached the day before) for ‘above thirty persons to speak with father about the condition of their souls’.

More significantly, the revival that profoundly affected the Connecticut Valley during the winter of 1734-1735 began in Jonathan Edwards’ own church in Northampton, Massachusetts.

He subsequently described and analysed this work in his book A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, and the Neighbouring Towns and Villages of New [sic] Hampshire in New-England (1737).

Over a hundred years later this powerful book was still being consulted as a handbook on the nature of revival.

The Great Awakening

Five years after this regional revival, there occurred what is known as the Great Awakening — the revival that swept the entirety of the American colonies from 1740 to 1742.

Although the English itinerant evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) was the main human instrument in this revival, Edwards also played a very prominent role, travelling and preaching extensively beyond the borders of his own parish.

Moreover, in print, Edwards was this revival’s most theologically astute champion as well as its most perceptive critic. This dual role with regard to the revival gave birth to some of Edwards’ finest books.

Some of these works are still regarded as Christian classics, of which the most notable is A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746).

Knowing the heart

Edwards’ reflections on the work of the Spirit are also of immense value because he possessed a wonderful facility for meticulous and minute observation.

This facility can be seen in the intriguing and detailed investigation he conducted during the early 1720s into the way spiders made their webs. Later in his life, this gift — now exercised in the realm of pastoral ministry and theology — yielded a profound understanding of the human heart and its workings.

Sereno E. Dwight, Edwards’ great grandson and one of his early biographers, stated that his ‘knowledge of the human heart, and its operations, has scarcely been equalled by that of any uninspired preacher’.

Dwight goes on to mention three probable sources for this insightful understanding of the human heart — Edwards’ perceptive reading of the Scriptures; ‘his thorough acquaintance with his own heart’; and his grasp of philosophy.

Thus, it should not be surprising that the combination of personal experience and empirical insight — insight that is thoroughly rooted in Scripture — produced some of the most significant literature on the Spirit’s work in revival in the history of the church.

To quote Lloyd-Jones again: ‘If you want to know anything about the psychology of religion, conversion, revivals, read Jonathan Edwards’.

Pursuing God’s glory

One further reason for the classic nature of Jonathan Edwards’ corpus of work on revival is the fact that he was blessed with a heart devoted to the pursuit of the glory of God.

‘The great end of God’s works’, Edwards wrote, ‘is most properly and comprehensively called, the glory of God’.

According to the American writer Joseph G. Haroutunian, even ‘a superficial perusal of the essays and sermons of Edwards reveals a mind passionately devoted to God, permeated with the beauty and excellence of God’.

Haroutunian cites as an example a passage from the sermon ‘Ruth’s resolution’, which Edwards preached during the revival in Northampton in 1734-1735 and which was published three years later.

Reflecting on Ruth’s determination to cleave to her mother-in-law Naomi, and to embrace her God, the God of Israel, as her own (Ruth 1:16), Edwards stated that this God is ‘[a] glorious God. There is none like him, who is infinite in glory and excellency. He is the most high God, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders.

‘His name is excellent in all the earth, and his glory is above the heavens. Among the gods there is none like unto him; there is none in heaven to be compared to him, nor are there any among the sons of the mighty that can be likened unto him…

‘God is the fountain of all good, and an inexhaustible fountain; he is an all-sufficient God, able to protect and defend … and do all things … He is the king of glory, the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle: a strong rock, and a high tower…

‘He is a God who hath all things in his hands, and does whatsoever he pleases: he killeth and maketh alive; he bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up; he maketh poor and maketh rich: the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s…

‘God is an infinitely holy God; there is none holy as the Lord. And he is infinitely good and merciful. Many that others worship and serve as gods, are cruel beings, spirits that seek the ruin of souls; but this is a God that delighteth in mercy; his grace is infinite, and endures for ever. He is love itself, an infinite fountain and ocean of it.’

Characteristic

As Haroutunian notes, this passage is characteristic of Edwards’ view of God — especially in its focus on God’s unique excellence and the fact that the one we ever seek to glorify and serve is ‘the Creator of the universe and the Fountain of all beauty and excellence’.

This God-centred perspective led Edwards to support and promote the revivals of his day, because he saw God at work in them, bringing glory to himself.

Written from this perspective, these works on revival have been recognised by later evangelical authors as providing something of a benchmark for reflection on the nature of spiritual awakening.

Contemporary Evangelicalism, largely indifferent to the glory and beauty of God, sorely needs to ponder this rich and profound corpus of literature on revival.

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