Revive Us Again: Learning from the First Great Awakening – Douglas Sweeney

ABSTRACT: As a young pastor, Jonathan Edwards yearned for revival — and in time, God was pleased to bring revival, first in 1734, and then into the 1740s as the Great Awakening spread through the Western world. Edwards watched hundreds of formerly apathetic neighbors become earnest seekers of God; he saw evening revelries become gatherings for singing and prayer. Along the way, however, he also observed many spurious signs of spiritual life. His ministry yields insight into both the spiritual means of revival and the genuine marks of revival, and it also gives hope that God might be pleased to bring similar revival today.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Douglas Sweeney, professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, to draw lessons on revival from the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.

The young Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) longed for nothing more than revival. He viewed special works of the Spirit as special tokens of God’s blessing, and he hoped beyond hope that he would receive some himself. He had moved to Northampton while in his early twenties to assist his aging grandfather, Rev. Solomon Stoddard, at the only church in town. Stoddard had led the congregation in occasional seasons of grace, but soon after he passed away, leaving Edwards by himself as the town’s only pastor, the church’s spiritual life began to go downhill. The young people, especially, started sowing wild oats, partying especially after corporate worship services. They seemed deaf to their Lord. Edwards wondered what would become of his ministry.

After five years of anxiety, hard work, and prayer, signs of spring began to appear. Early in 1734, a revival started to stir the nearby village of Pascommuck, roughly three miles from town. Then in April of that year, Northampton’s youth were faced with the unexpected deaths of two of their friends — the first “a young man in the bloom of his youth,” who was “violently seized with a pleurisy and . . . died in about two days”; the other “a young married woman, who had been considerably exercised in mind about the salvation of her soul before she was ill, and was in great distress in the beginning of her illness; but seemed to have satisfying evidences of God’s saving mercy to her before her death; so that she died very full of comfort, in a most earnest and moving manner warning and counseling others.” As Edwards noted of her passing, “This seemed much to contribute to the solemnizing of the spirits of many young persons: and there began evidently to appear more of a religious concern on people’s minds.”1

Leaning into this concern, Edwards spoke to the youth that fall, recommending that they turn their Thursday evening revelry into a time of “social religion,” meeting in homes throughout the town for Christian fellowship and prayer. No sooner had they done so than the town was forced again to deal with a strange, surprising death — this time of a senior citizen. “Many were much moved and affected” by this tragedy.2 The adults in town followed the lead of their own children, meeting on Sunday nights for fellowship, prayer, and hymn-singing. Soon these spiritual practices led to transformation. Revival roared through town, spreading up and down the Connecticut River Valley.

God’s Surprising Work

Edwards, of course, was biased, but his testimony regarding this revival’s holy fruit suggests a massive outpouring of the Spirit in Northampton. “This work of God . . . soon made a glorious alteration in the town; so that in the spring and summer following [1735] . . . the town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor so full of joy; and yet so full of distress, as it was then.”3

In addition to the changes wrought in individual souls, this revival changed the nature of corporate worship in Northampton. “Our public assemblies were then beautiful,” as Edwards later recalled. “The congregation was alive in God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship . . . ; the assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the Word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors.”4

It amazes one to consider that Edwards was barely 31 years old when he led this great revival. His wife Sarah was 24. Even contemporaries stood in awe of what was taking place. Edwards scribbled a breathless report to a senior colleague living in Boston, who in turn spread the word along his own social network. Soon the news reverberated all the way to England. A detailed account was in demand across the sea, and Edwards stepped up to supply it in the form of his first book, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprizing Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, and the Neighbouring Towns and Villages (1737). Within three years, this book was printed both in Edinburgh and Boston, and translated and republished in both German and Dutch editions. It inspired other ministers to work toward revival. It compelled George Whitefield to resume his work in the colonies, encouraged John Wesley to practice outdoor preaching in England, and exerted a powerful force on the spread of the Great Awakening, which would crest during the early 1740s.

Edwards gave the credit to the work of his sovereign God. But he knew that God is wont to work through prayer and gospel preaching. In 1747, Edwards published a lengthy treatise on the need to pray for revival. He preached for many years about the importance of praying persistently. Late in 1734, he also began, prayerfully, to preach a gospel series on the sinner’s justification and conversion by faith alone — a series used by God to effect the work of redemption in Northampton.

He commenced this series in November of that year, attributing his church’s own revival to its contents. It began with a talk on “Justification by Faith Alone,” based on Romans 4:5: “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” He took from the text this doctrine: “We are justified only by faith in Christ, and not by any manner of virtue or goodness of our own.” And he expounded this doctrine with passion, making it clear that justification comes as a gift of God’s free grace, not for anything we do, but because of what God effects when he unites us to his Son, by the power of the Spirit, making us part of his holy church, the mystical bride of Jesus Christ. Our faith is that by which we cling to Christ in spiritual union. God brings it to life in us; we merely exercise it “actively.” And as we cling to Christ and trust in his merit for salvation, God sees that we are one with him and reckons his merit as our own. “What is real in the union between Christ and his people, is the foundation of what is legal,” Edwards postulated famously.5

Marks of the Spirit

Like the Puritans before him, Edwards placed a high premium on the Christian’s union with Christ as the basis of salvation. We are saved, he taught, not merely by assenting to the gospel; even “the devils . . . believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). We are saved, as well, because the Holy Spirit inhabits our bodies, reorients our souls by uniting them to Christ, makes us sharers in the Lord’s righteousness, and bears fruit in our lives.

This teaching about the Spirit’s role in salvation might have been the defining feature of Edwards’s ministry. He lived in a setting where everyone had to go to church and almost everyone affirmed the basic truths of the Christian faith. He worked as a tax-supported servant of his colony’s state church, an institution that he knew was full of merely cultural Protestantism. He loved his people dearly and believed that he would have to give an account someday for his ministry. So he labored tirelessly to help his hearers understand that there is a wide, eternal difference between authentic faith in Christ and perfunctory religion, or nominal Christianity. That difference, furthermore, has to do with the Holy Spirit and his work of regeneration, of quickening the soul, giving it spiritual life in Christ.

After struggling with his predecessors’ doctrines of conversion, Edwards came to see that God does not convert us all in exactly the same way, that the substance of conversion matters much more than the form. He also saw that true conversion was primarily supernatural. It is not something sinners effect by taking the right steps. They can (and should) certainly prepare for conversion, availing themselves of God’s means of grace and praying for mercy. But they cannot make it happen by their practice of religion. God effects conversion. And the main thing he does when he converts penitent sinners is give them a new heart, reorienting their “affections.” He fills them with his Spirit. He engenders in the soul a deep longing to walk with him, to know him better, and to honor him in everything. So when Edwards counseled sinners, he asked about their hearts. He wanted to find out what they loved, how they wished to spend their time, what they aspired to in life. Moreover, his burden during the rest of his revivalistic ministry was to help others discern the Spirit’s presence in their lives — to “try the spirits” (1 John 4:1), distinguishing God’s Spirit from counterfeits.

Edwards’s strategy was to point people away from what we might call externals of religion, red herrings of the faith, qualities he labeled “negative signs” — they neither confirm nor disprove the Spirit’s presence and activity — and toward what he referred to as the “positive signs” of grace, qualities the Bible says result from true revival and conversion. The negative signs included strong emotions, loss of control (either physically or spiritually), and irregular worship practices. Such qualities had often attended God’s regenerating work, but they could also be the products of religious “hypocrites” (a term Edwards used quite frequently), or even of the devil.

Edwards’s positive signs, by contrast, included esteem for Jesus, opposition to the devil, greater regard to the Scriptures, and a spirit of love to God and man, qualities that guarantee that God is active in one’s life. They cannot be fabricated. They are supernatural gifts. And the “chief” of all these gifts, the sign most clearly taught in Scripture as an indicator of grace, was the sign of “Christian practice,” or biblical holiness. This was no red herring. It was the sum of true religion and, in Edwards’s estimation, it had characterized Northampton for a period of several months — like never before in local history — from December of 1734 through summer of 1735.

Whitefield Visits Northampton

Unfortunately, however, this revival of the Spirit and its signs of grace would fade — nearly as fast as they had appeared — during the dog days of summer. Despite (or rather because of) these positive signs of saving grace, the devil was haunting the town by spring, trying to thwart the work of God by spreading melancholy, doubt, and even suicidal urges. The revival came to a halt that summer.

The good news is that Edwards continued grow in grace through the late 1730s and taught his people to do the same, preaching some of the best sermons in the history of the church. This faithfulness contributed to even larger revivals, which culminated regionally in the early 1740s and were tied to the preaching of Edwards’s friend George Whitefield, thought by some to be the greatest preacher in history.

Only 26 years old at the height of this work of God, Whitefield spoke to larger crowds than anyone else in colonial history — at times to tens of thousands — long before the invention of microphones and amplifiers. A poor man from England with distinctly crossed eyes, he was blessed by God with a booming voice, a flair for the dramatic, and a remarkable gift of extemporaneous speech. He preached a basic gospel message from all over the biblical canon. He told stories with charisma. The most compelling stories he told as he progressed from place to place had to do with the spread of revival through the Anglo-American world. He personified the Awakening and its international scope.

During his second trip to the colonies, Whitefield sent a letter to Edwards asking permission to visit his church. Edwards replied warmly. He knew of Whitefield’s record as a winsome gospel preacher, and he longed for help renewing the work of revival in Northampton. By the spring of 1740, Edwards’s parish started to show the signs of another work of God, especially among the youth. Then when Whitefield finally arrived — on Friday, October 17, eleven months after he had written to Edwards — these sparks were fanned into flame.

Whitefield stayed for three days. He spoke twice on the day he arrived, once in church and once at the manse; once the following afternoon (after another sermon in Hadley, nearly five miles away); and twice more “upon the sabbath.” Edwards reported to a friend that his “congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time.” Edwards “wept” as well, “during the whole time” of the Sunday morning service, according to Whitefield. God’s Spirit was at work, as nearly everyone could tell. While in town for only three days, Whitefield played a crucial role in drawing Edwards’s flock back into the Great Awakening.6

Whitefield was impetuous, at times spiritually arrogant. He had earned a reputation for judging other pastors rashly, claiming that many — maybe most — were unconverted. So as Edwards traveled with him to his next few preaching stations, he advised the young star that it could be dangerous to rely too much on spiritual impulses without help from the word of God. He also said that, while he affirmed Whitefield’s emphasis on the need for clergy themselves to be converted, he believed it inappropriate to judge precipitately which of their colleagues were regenerate — and which were not. Edwards listened to Whitefield preach to several thousand in the fields, thanked him heartily for his labors, and returned home hopeful for the future. Right away, he preached a series on the parable of the sower (Matthew 13), exhorting his people not to be starstruck by Whitefield’s obvious eloquence, but to live as the kind of soil in which the word bears fruit.

Within the next couple of months, Northampton bore abundant fruit. “There was a great alteration in the town,” Edwards testified, particularly among the local children. “By the middle of December a very considerable work of God appeared among those that were very young, and the revival of religion continued to increase; so that in the spring, an engagedness of spirit about things of religion was become very general amongst young people and children, and religious subjects almost wholly took up their conversation.” Even Edwards’s own daughters had come under the work of the Spirit. Many other children, as well, had been affected by the gospel. Edwards later described this time as “the most wonderful work among children that ever was in Northampton.” It rekindled his flame for revival and conversion in New England.7

Pastor as Watchman

During the following spring and summer, Edwards himself was called upon to serve as a traveling gospel preacher. Inspired by Whitefield’s example, he did more of this than ever during 1741. He is best known for a sermon he preached in Enfield, near the border with Connecticut. He had preached this sermon before to his own congregation. As he preached it on the road, however, amazing things happened. Edwards’s text was very brief: “Their foot shall slide in due time” (Deuteronomy 32:35). His doctrine somewhat longer and more memorable today: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” He applied this doctrine at length, in words that have gone down in history:

The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given, and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. ’Tis true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of God’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the meantime is constantly increasing. . . . Thus are all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all that were never born again, and made new creatures. . . . You are thus in the hands of an angry God; ’tis nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction.

So goes the famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a truly frightening piece of work, but one that is also full of love and passionate literary artistry.8

Edwards preached dozens of hellfire sermons during his ministry, many of which survive. Like the Puritans before him, he did so in the manner of the “watchman” of Ezekiel, whom God held responsible to sound a trumpet clearly when his people were threatened with danger. This was serious business. Edwards believed, as he proclaimed at one of his colleagues’ ordinations, that “ministers of the gospel have the precious and immortal souls of men committed to their care and trust by the Lord Jesus Christ.” He believed that he would give an account on judgment day for his ministry. So he preached from time to time on the dangers of damnation. “If there be really a hell,” he wrote in 1741,

of such dreadful, and never-ending torments, . . . that multitudes are in great danger of, and that the bigger part of men in Christian countries do actually from generation to generation fall into, for want of a sense of the terribleness of it, and their danger of it, and so for want of taking due care to avoid it; then why is it not proper for those that have the care of souls, to take great pains to make men sensible of it? Why should not they be told as much of the truth as can be? If I am in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much as possibly I can of the dreadfulness of it: if I am very prone to neglect due care to avoid it, he does me the best kindness, that does most to represent to me the truth of the case, that sets forth my misery and danger in the liveliest manner.9

Such preaching saw success at the apex of the Awakening. Thousands were converted — in America alone — during 1741. The Great Awakening was divisive, but it also crystallized the crucial importance of conversion and of living with eschatological urgency.

Ten Lessons from Edwards’s Ministry

What might we learn from Edwards and his work on revival? Let me conclude by offering ten brief lessons.

First, Edwards and his colleagues show what God has often done — and still wants to do today — by means of urgent, vivid, preaching framed by the doctrines of grace. How many preachers can you name who share Edwards’s ability to render Bible doctrine urgent and Edwards’s commitment to write sermons that leave a beautiful, intellectually compelling, and enduring impression on their hearers?

Second, Edwards and his colleagues demonstrate the great promise of preaching to people’s hearts. As Edwards wrote in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1743), “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. . . . Our people don’t so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched; and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching that has the greatest tendency to do this.”10

Third, Great Awakening Christians showed that testimonies matter. I cannot do justice to this topic in this essay. Suffice it to say that what they often called “religious intelligence,” or news of the work of God and the spread of the gospel both at home and abroad, played a central role in spreading the revival. This news was shared orally in evangelistic services. It was also published in Christian magazines and newspapers, used by God to expand people’s horizons and make them feel part of the global cause of Christ.

Fourth, Edwards and his peers showed that prayer matters even more. Edwards preached for many years about the importance of praying persistently. He published a major treatise on the need to pray for revival, An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. And he exhorted all who listened to participate in transatlantic concerts of prayer for revival.

Fifth, Edwards and pastors like him demonstrated the importance of preaching what the apostle Paul called the whole counsel of God — even the parts about hell and the consequences of sin. God used such preaching to draw thousands to himself. Do we have the wisdom, faith, courage, and spiritual sensitivity to preach this way today, to the honor and glory of God?

Sixth, Edwards and his peers modeled pastoral wisdom in the midst of signs and wonders and spiritual intensity. They often failed to discern rightly. But they tried their best to open their Bibles and interpret the signs of the Spirit all around them, teaching the distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God.

Seventh, Edwards and his peers demonstrated that word and Spirit always go hand in hand. Against those who taught the word without spiritual vitality, they called for real conversion and walking with the Spirit. Against those who made claims to immediate revelation, or to spiritual impulses not grounded in the Scriptures, they called for theological accountability.

Eighth, Edwards and his peers modeled evangelical ecumenism. They avoided spiritual rashness and judgmental attitudes toward serious Christians, at least when at their best. Some did prove divisive from time to time. But again, when at their best, they showed that Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others can work together for the gospel — giving rise to modern evangelicalism.

Ninth, Edwards and his colleagues did not let anyone despise them for their youth, as Paul said to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12). Edwards was in his thirties at the height of the Great Awakening. Whitefield was in his twenties. God used them remarkably in spite of themselves.

Finally, the early evangelicals demonstrated the crucial importance of “social religion”: Christian fellowship, Bible study, testimony, prayer, and spiritual singing in small-group contexts. Indeed, they put these practices on the church-historical map. Millions have come to know Jesus as a result.

May God help us all make good use of their example, facilitating revival and renewal in our time.11

Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (hereafter WJE), vol. 4, The Great Awakening, ed. C.C. Goen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 147–48. 

Edwards, Great Awakening, 148. 

Edwards, Great Awakening, 151. 

Edwards, Great Awakening, 151. 

Jonathan Edwards, “Justification by Faith Alone,” in WJE, vol. 19, Sermons and Discourses, 1734–1738, ed. M.X. Lesser (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 147, 149, 158. 

Jonathan Edwards to the Rev. Thomas Prince, December 12, 1743, in WJE, vol. 16, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn (New Haven: Yale University Press), 116; and George Whitefield’s Journals, ed. Iain Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), 476–77. 

Edwards to the Rev. Thomas Prince, December 12, 1743, in Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, 116–19. 

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema, Wilson H. Kimnach, and Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 49–50, 56–57. 

Jonathan Edwards, “The Great Concern of a Watchman for Souls,” in WJE, vol. 25, Sermons and Discourses, 1743–1758 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 63; and Jonathan Edwards, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, in Edwards, Great Awakening, 246–47. 

Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England, in Edwards, Great Awakening, 387–88. 

Parts of this essay have been adapted from Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, by Douglas A. Sweeney. Copyright © 2009 by Douglas A. Sweeney. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426 (www.ivpress.com). 

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