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Jonathan Edwards on Revival

July 2013 | by Graham Harrison

On 20 May 2013, Rev. Graham Harrison, formerly minister of Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Newport, in Wales, was called into the presence of his Saviour. An obituary follows in August’s ET, but readers will appreciate the reminder of Mr Harrison’s powers of intellect, discernment and communication, as well his deep desire for revival, afforded by this article which he wrote for The Evangelical Magazine in June 2003 (used with kind permission).


It was the settled conviction of Jonathan Edwards that the great advances of the kingdom of God have been secured throughout the centuries by means of revival. The following words from one of the early sermons that make up his famous treatise A history of the work of redemption express his considered opinion:

      ‘It may be observed that from the fall of man to our day, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God.

      ‘Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always attending his ordinances; yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy’.

      This opinion was expressed after what he had known back in 1734-1735 and had described in 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 Hampshire in New England, and before what was to become the even more well known Great Awakening.

      Edwards never saw any reason to retract his opinions, even though there were undoubted excesses, deficiencies and errors abounding in that remarkable work. Many were to use these, not simply as points that could be raised in criticism of the conduct of the revival, but as conclusive arguments against it being considered as a true work of God.


The critics were not slow to condemn what they considered to be mere enthusiasm. To be fair to them, many of their criticisms had a measure of justification. One of the men who was greatly used of God in this remarkable work, Gilbert Tennent, preached a sermon in which he inveighed against an unconverted ministry.

      Not surprisingly, this drew resentment from many of those who, rightly or wrongly, conceived themselves to be the target at which the sermon was aimed. A little later, a young minister by the name of James Davenport developed the same theme much more aggressively.

      He gathered his people together, preached to them for 24 hours and then, not surprisingly, collapsed. Upon recovery, he began to discriminate amongst his church members. Those he reckoned to be Christians he called ‘brother’, the rest, ‘neighbour’, which latter group he forbade to come to the Lord’s Table.

      In a nearby parish there lived a woman who was mad and dumb. After fasting and prayer, Davenport announced that on a certain day she would recover. Came the day and she died, whereupon he promptly claimed this as an answer to prayer, for now she had been relieved of her infirmity and taken to heaven.

      In 1742 Davenport was arrested in Boston and was declared non compos mentis. But still he was unsubdued. A year later he summoned his followers in New London to purify themselves from ‘idolatrous love of worldly things’ by burning their wigs, cloaks, breeches, hoods, gowns, rings, jewels and necklaces, together with their ‘unsafe’ religious books.

      They danced around a bonfire and shouted, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Glory to God’. Amongst the volumes that went up in flames were the writings of esteemed Puritan authors.

      In fairness to Davenport, it should be recorded that he later expressed great sorrow over what he had done and was held in high esteem subsequently by many of his spiritual contemporaries.


It was not surprising, therefore, that those who were eager to criticise what was becoming a widespread work of God found plenty of ammunition to hand that they could fire against the proponents of the revival.

      A renegade Congregationalist now turned Episcopalian, Timothy Cutler, once rector of Yale College, had this to say about Gilbert Tennent: ‘A monster! Impudent and noisy — [he] told them they were all damned! damned! damned! This charmed them; and in the most dreadful winter I ever saw, the people wallowed in snow, night and day, for the benefit of his beastly brayings’.

      Another of the same ilk was Charles Chauncy, probably the leading minister in Boston, who was now the acknowledged leader of the anti-revival party.

      Not only did he preach in Boston against Davenport and his supporters, but he wrote to correspondents in Edinburgh in an attempt to discredit the ministry of George Whitefield, who by this time had become the leading figure of the Great Awakening.

      Predictably and scurrilously, he suggested affinities between the leading figures of the revival and the ‘French Prophets’ — the current scare amongst respectable Protestants.

      It was a critical moment in the progress of this amazing work. At one and the same time the revival risked being destroyed by the excesses of those who were really its friends, while being ridiculed by its (many, highly intelligent) enemies under the leadership of Chauncy.

Man for the hour

But God had his man for the hour. His name was Jonathan Edwards.

      Intellectually, there can be no doubt that he comes into the genius category. No one could question his powers of reasoning, as was evidenced by the fact that on several occasions he was the selected preacher of the colleges of Harvard and Yale.

      It was at the latter that he preached on the text, 1 John 4:1: ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world’.

      Subsequently, greatly enlarged, it was published under the title The distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God … with a particular consideration of the extraordinary circumstances with which this work is attended.

      Edwards is at his analytical best in this work and sets out to deal with the objections of those who condemned the revival on account of the phenomena accompanying it.

      He lists nine negative signs which, he says, prove nothing either way as to whether a work is of God or not. Briefly, they can be summarised as follows:


1. That the work is carried on in an unusual or extraordinary way.

2. That it produces strong effects upon the bodies of its subjects.

3. That it occasions a great deal of noise about religion.

4. That it produces lively impressions on people’s imaginations.

5. That it is prompted too much by the influence of example (i.e. imitation).

6. That it results in imprudent and irregular conduct.

7. That errors of judgment and delusions of Satan intermingle with it.

8. That some of its professed converts later fall into scandal.

9. That its preachers insist too much on the terrors of God’s wrath. 


Then Edwards goes on to list five distinctive marks that confirm a work to be of the Spirit of God. It is such if:

1. It raises men’s esteem of Jesus as Son of God and Saviour of the world.

2. It leads them to turn from their corruption and lusts to the righteousness of God.

3. It increases their regard for Holy Scripture.

4. It establishes their minds in the objective truths of revealed religion.

5. It evokes a genuine love for God and man.


‘These marks’, says Edwards, ‘are sufficient to outweigh a thousand such little objections, as many make from oddities, irregularities, and errors in conduct, and the delusions and scandals of some professors’.

      He concludes by warning those who oppose, lest they should clog or hinder the revival or find themselves guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost.   

Further defence

Eighteen months or so later, he is writing a further defence of the revival — Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New England, and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted.

In this work Edwards complains that the critics have made three fundamental errors in their assessment of the revival:

1. They have come with preconceived ideas as to what the work of God is. To use Edwards’s terminology, they judge the work a priori instead of a posteriori. But, he argues, if the effects wrought are agreeable to the Word of God, we are bound to rest in it as God’s work.

2. They have not taken the Scriptures as a whole by which to judge such things. Thus those who approve or disapprove of the revival on the basis of ‘the effects that religious exercises and affections of the mind have on the body … make a great mistake…

      ‘If [Christ] had seen it needful in order to the church’s safety, he doubtless would have given ministers rules to judge of bodily effects, and would have told them how the pulse should beat under such and such religious exercises of mind, when men should look pale, and when they should shed tears; when they should tremble, and whether or no they should ever be faint or cry out, or whether the body should ever be put into convulsions’. But Christ has not done so.

3. Put quite simply, Edwards was accusing the critics of lacking in spiritual discernment and consequently being unable to distinguish the good from the bad.

He went on to confront them with such scriptural concepts as ‘the peace of God that passes all understanding’, ‘rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory’, ‘all joy and peace in believing’, ‘having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given to us’, etc.

      And he asks the critics ‘if those things that have been mentioned’ (in their criticisms of the revival) ‘don’t answer these expressions, what else can we find out that does answer them?’


Historically, socially, and certainly spiritually, Jonathan Edwards might be deemed to have inhabited another world, or even universe, from that with which we are familiar. Our scene is not that of the relatively primitive frontiersmen to whom Edwards often had to minister. Perhaps the urban scene of more sophisticated Boston would be more familiar to us.

      Nor is the work of God proceeding amongst us with historically unparalleled vigour and success as it was then. As someone has observed, ours are the problems of the cemetery, whereas theirs were more like those abounding in the gynaecological and maternity wards!

      But we would be making a great mistake if we were to conclude that his assessment is irrelevant to us. We may have endured almost a century of comparative barrenness and spiritual decline — something that would have been quite unknown to Edwards — but it is often at such times that the spiritual discernment that was his great gift becomes most valuable.

      ‘Strange fire’, false starts, blind alleys, sometimes born of spiritual desperation by well-meaning if misguided people, have certainly been part of the scene with which we have had to cope. And lying behind all such is the ever-malignant brooding of Satan, who is always ready to seize upon the gullibility of those who think they are serving God when they are not.

      A study of Edwards’ handling of these issues would surely help us greatly when, as we hope and pray, a much needed greater awakening is granted to our land. He looked for and experienced those ‘times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord’ which must be the ultimate answer to our present desperate predicament.


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