At a time when critics are attacking intellectual weakness, theological decline, and worldliness among evangelical Christians, there are also rumors of revival. Tens of thousands of men attend rallies and rededicate their lives to Christ and recommit to their marriages. Students in Christian colleges line up to testify and confess their sins. In Toronto, a congregation nestled among airport hotels becomes a jet-age version of the frontier camp meetings, drawing its attendance not just from the next county, but from other continents. Are events like these the overture to another great awakening—or even just a small one?
Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan theologian who has been called the greatest mind produced by America, was also the greatest theologian of revival. When we talk about renewal in the contemporary church, Edwards's writings provide us with the best standards available to help us judge what is genuine, what is spurious, and what is a mixture waiting to be purified.
THE INTROVERTED EVANGELIST
Early in his pastoral career, Edwards had to grapple with what it would mean for his congregation to be revived. His church was solidly orthodox and had experienced several harvests of conversions under Edwards's grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. In the 1730s, however, the church's orthodoxy was merely "notional," as Puritans would say. Parishioners knew their catechism and could rattle off the elements of Christian faith, but few of them cared deeply about Christ. They were absorbed and fascinated by business and everyday life, and they gave little attention to God.
In 1734, Edwards preached "A Divine and Supernatural Light," advancing a new theory of religious semantics. Professing Christians who have had truth drilled into them by others can talk a good game even when they are totally out of touch with supernatural reality. They can move pieces of theology around like markers on the map of a territory they have never visited.
Real Christianity requires encounter with truth, but that truth must be illuminated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Only this can produce "a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the word of God." One of the effects of this encounter will be a delight in the glory of God. The convert "does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart … there is a sense of the loveliness of God's holiness." Biblical Christianity is therefore a Spirit-illumined orthodoxy that transforms the heart and reorients the whole life to focus on God and seek his will.
It is clear from Edwards's "Personal Narrative" that he is describing his own experience in these passages. When he first encountered the Scripture under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, his life began to change:
My mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him. … I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father's pasture, for contemplation. … There came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, as I know not how to express. … I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together: it was a sweet, and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.
A part of this new, Spirit-driven concern in the young Edwards was a fervent interest in revival and the extension of Christ's kingdom.
I had great longings for the advancement of Christ's kingdom in the world. … If I heard the least hint of any thing … that appeared … to have a favourable aspect on the interests of Christ's kingdom, my soul eagerly catched at it, and it would much animate and refresh me. I used to be eager to read public news-letters, mainly for that end; to see if I could not find some news favorable to the interests of religion in the world.
Edwards may not have suspected that his own congregation would be one of the major foci of the revival for which he was praying. He was an intellectual introvert who had devoured John Locke at 14 and could not manage the small talk needed for parish visitation. He spent 14 hours a day in his study. He read his sermons from manuscript on Sunday morning, staring intermittently at the bell rope. He was the last person to know "How to Promote and Conduct a Revival," to use R. A. Torrey's phrase.
But in 1734, revival broke out in his Northampton, Massachusetts, congregation. It began among the young people, who had been drifting away from the church but who now wanted to meet with Edwards to discuss his sermons. Most modern pastors would be willing to settle for this as revival enough; but as often happens, the awakening spread to the adults. Edwards stresses that spiritual things had become so pressingly real to these that it cured their addiction to the world:
A great and earnest concern about the great things of religion, and the eternal world, became universal in all parts of the town. … All other talk but about spiritual and eternal things, was soon thrown by. … Other discourse than of the things of religion, would scarcely be tolerated in any company. The minds of people were wonderfully taken off from the world, it was treated amongst us as a thing of very little consequence. They seemed to follow their worldly business, more as a part of their duty, than from any disposition they had to it; the temptation now seemed to lie on that hand, to neglect worldly affairs too much, and to spend too much time in the immediate exercise of religion.
Intense conviction of sin was nearly universal among those responding to the Northampton revival. Deeper sins like pride and envy were the focus. Some were even convicted that they were not more convicted.
Though their catechetical training should have shown most parishioners the way out of the sloughs of conviction, most had to come to Edwards in his study to be led to the Savior. The pastoral calling Edwards had always avoided was now being done in reverse!
Two other additional aspects of the Northampton revival should be noted. First, congregational worship was enlivened. Parishioners were now no longer working only from theological maps, they were in touch with the territory of divine reality:
Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive in God's service, every one earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the ministers as they came from his mouth; 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 neighbours.
Second, personal witnessing was enlarged on a scale unprecedented among Puritans. Lay witnessing rose to a new prominence. The sharing of the gospel, which was previously directed mainly from clergy to laity, now flowed in new channels—from wives to husbands, and even from children to parents: "The town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. … It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought unto them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives."
WAVES OF REVIVAL
Edwards did not think of the Northampton revival as something apart from God's aims in the rest of the church. In the 1739 sermons on "The History of Redemption," he indicates that sacred history alternates between periods of spiritual decline, relentless as the gravity of sin, and eras of grace, in which the Holy Spirit is poured out on the people of God, enabling them for spiritual warfare that will take ground from the flesh, the world, and the Devil. This spiritual force is evident in the generation that conquered Canaan, in Pentecost and the subsequent Christianizing of the Roman Empire, and in the Protestant Reformation. Edwards projected a future alternation of declines and awakenings that would ultimately lead to the church's millennial glory.
The ebb and flow of spiritual warfare accounts for the typical sine curve in the history of revivals. If we graph the military history of World War II, we see that ground is gained, then lost, than regained and expanded. The Normandy invasion is the equivalent of a major spiritual awakening, which raises the church to a new level of purity and influence. The history of the kingdom of God begins as a point of light on a fallen planet, which expands, contracts, and expands again, liberating territory until all the earth is full of light, full of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.
But Edwards's model of revival and decline, based on the ebb and flow of spiritual warfare, implied that an awakening might be more like a street fight than a spring morning. A revival movement might be diluted, disfigured, or even invaded by the resisting forces of sin and Satan.
Edwards saw this happen first in 1735 when one of his parishioners heard a persistent voice telling him to cut his own throat, and finally did so. Edwards comments that during the height of the revival, "Satan seemed to be unusually restrained" by the freeing of persons afflicted by depression and temptations; but that with the suicide, "Satan seemed to be more let loose, and raged in a dreadful manner."
Edwards evidently believed that injecting spurious and disfiguring elements into a revival is a main part of demonic strategy. He would certainly agree with J. Edwin Orr that in any awakening, the first person to wake up is the Devil.
Edwards soon saw more evidence of this, in the explosive period of revival in New England from 1739 to 1742. The great evangelistic rallies at which George Whitefield preached were powerfully effective in securing conversions, but they were disfigured by Whitefield's unguarded suggestions that his opponents were not real Christians. Gilbert Tennant's "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry" split the Presbyterian Church for 17 years, and James Davenport's praying for the conversion of local ministers, by name, from the pulpit, brought chaos to churches on Boston's North Shore. (Tennant would later heal the breach in his church by admitting that the Philadelphia Presbytery was probably just sleepy, not dead. Davenport later confessed that he did not know what spirit drove him during the revival.)
Edwards was suddenly faced with a storm of criticism, often focused on real problems in the revival. His first response was almost purely defensive. "Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God" (1741) begins by stating that there are many elements in the revival that are neither sure signs of the Spirit nor marks of the flesh or the Devil, but that are simply indifferent—a kind of accidental package surrounding the real core of spiritual awakening.
It proves nothing that revivals emerge from protracted meetings or that they seem to cause strange bodily effects. Strong preoccupation with religion or imaginative visions prove nothing either way. If revival phenomena seem to spread by contagion or imitation, this is again inconclusive. Imprudence and irregularity, satanic delusions, and even the subsequent apostasy of some converts do not disprove the real activity of the Spirit in a revival. More positively, Edwards finds five biblical marks of a genuine revival: it exalts Jesus Christ; it attacks the powers of darkness; it exalts the Holy Scriptures; it lifts up sound doctrine; and it promotes love to God and man.
Edwards was convinced that there could be a lot of immaturity in a genuine revival: "In the spring innumerable flowers and young fruits appear flourishing and bid fair, that afterwards drop off and come to nothing. … So a shower causes mushrooms suddenly to spring up, as well as good plants to grow. … (In the spring of the year when the birds sing, the frogs and toads also croak.)"
THE DEFENDER TURNS CRITIC
In subsequent writings, Edwards turns more and more from defending the revival to critiquing its defects. In "Thoughts on the Revival in New England" (1742), after opening with a strong portrayal of the revival's power, he offers a searching critique of carnal religiosity. He is concerned that revival leaders have begun to confuse their own hunches and impulses with God's leading. Above all, he laments the prevalence of spiritual pride, "the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of religion … the main handle by which the devil has hold of religious persons … to clog and hinder a work of God." Pride is so serious an impediment because it diverts Christians from repentance and makes them censorious:
Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others; whereas an humble saint is most jealous of himself, he is so suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart. … The eminently humble Christian has so much to do at home … that he is not apt to be very busy with other hearts. … He is apt to esteem others better than himself, and is ready to hope that there is nobody but what has more love and thankfulness to God than he.
Spiritually proud Christians, on the other hand, are quick to censure others and quick also to separate from them if their beliefs or behaviors do not measure up. They can manifest a carnal spirituality that sets others' teeth on edge, a self-assurance and unholy boldness, and a dogmatic inflexibility that either argues continually or will not even dialogue. Spiritual pride "often disposes persons … to affect a singular way of speaking." It "takes great notice of opposition and injuries that are received." It preens itself, while it neglects others.
In the early 1740s, Edwards longed for revival leaders who were not pompous and contentious, who were mere humble Christians:
Christians who are but fellow-worms, ought at least to treat one another with as much humility and gentleness as Christ … treats them. The eminently humble Christian is as it were clothed with lowliness, mildness, meekness, gentleness of spirit and behaviour. … Pure Christian humility has no such thing as roughness, or contempt, or fierceness, or bitterness in its nature; it makes a person like a little child … or like a lamb, destitute of all bitterness, wrath, anger, and clamour.
In the "Treatise on the Religious Affections" (1744), Edwards trained his critical powers almost exclusively on his own party. He was concerned that pure Christian spirituality was being drowned in counterfeits. " 'Tis by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ."
As in "Distinguishing Marks," Edwards starts by listing a series of "insufficient signs" that neither discredit nor validate a revival movement: intense religious emotions, involuntary bodily effects, talkativeness, self-oriented forms of love, a slavish fear of God, intense religiosity, praise of God that is really focused on self, assurance of salvation (or lack of this), and even pleasing other godly persons.
If these are not adequate signs of spiritual renewal, then what is? Edwards answers that the heart (the inmost center of the personality) must be touched by the Holy Spirit. This healing touch generates affections (driving motives that inform and direct the mind and will) flowing out of love for God himself, not just gratitude for his gifts. These affections are responses to God's own beauty, not merely to his power or greatness. They do not bypass the mind, they illuminate and transform it. They make faith more certain, but they also create humility. They change our nature, producing a meek and gentle spirit and a tender sensitivity to sin. They do not foster self-centered emotionalism but rather a vigorous social conscience that cares for bodies as well as souls. They lead inevitably to the practice of Christian charity.
By the time the "Treatise on the Affections" was published in 1746, Edwards was discouraged over the revival. In 1742, he had warned against the Devil's strategy of sowing tares among the wheat in order to discredit the whole crop:
We may observe that it has been a common device of the devil, to overset a revival of religion; when he finds he can keep men quiet and secure no longer, then he drives them to excesses and extravagances. … Though the devil will do his diligence to stir up the open enemies of religion, yet he knows … that, in a time of revival of religion, his main strength shall be tried with the friends of it; and he will chiefly exert himself in his attempts to mislead them. One truly zealous person … may do more … to hinder the work, than a hundred great, and strong, and open opposers.
In 1747, Edwards assisted a project of Scottish Presbyterians, asking for quarterly concerts of prayer for spiritual awakening in "A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement in United Prayer for the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom." At this point, he felt that the errors of revival leaders had temporarily derailed the revival. Still, he was confident that united prayer for the kind of spiritual awakening he had described in his writings could prevail. He argues that when the church is at its worst and weakest, it may be closer to revival, as it is drawn to God in greater dependence:
The church's extremity has often been God's opportunity for magnifying his power, mercy and faithfulness, towards her. The interest of vital piety has long been in general decaying, and error and wickedness prevailing; it looks as though the disease were now come to a crisis. … When his church is in a low state, and oppressed by her enemies, and cries to him, he will swiftly fly to her relief, as birds fly at the cry of their young.
IF EDWARDS WERE HERE TODAY
If Edwards could return to America today, how would he evaluate the spiritual situation?
First, he might be surprised by the degree of activism, organization, and promotion in evangelicalism, resulting from Charles Finney's influence during the last century. Puritans had been reluctant to intrude upon the work of the Holy Spirit, avoiding evangelistic invitations and all efforts to engineer spiritual response, except through presentation of biblical truth. The Edwardsian strategy was to pray for God to change the weather in human hearts. Finney, on the other hand, counterbalanced this passive/dependent approach with a stress on active planting of the seed, using weeks of extended meetings, invitations, lay exhortations, and other tactical innovations.
Edwards never doubted that God worked through human efforts, but he valued spontaneous stirrings among the laity, the churches, and a variety of leaders. He would be impressed by the huge rallies of laymen now gathering to respond to Scripture, often with a minimum of promotional hype.
For Edwards, the primary human catalyst for revival was always dependent prayer. He would be delighted with movements like David Bryant's "Concerts of Prayer," which is partly based on his own writings. He would be especially happy that prayer movements are now focused on broad-scale outpouring of the Holy Spirit and not just on support for individual ministries and campaigns.
For Edwards, as for Calvin, conviction of sin was the usual result of an awakening encounter with God. He would be nonplused by the public confessions of baby busters in Christian schools. Sharing on this level was restricted to pastor's studies and small groups during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though it became almost a public sacrament in modern movements like the East Africa Revival. In any case, Edwards would conclude that young people do not show such extraordinary candor unless God is moving them. The normal result of college revivals—for example, the Yale revival under Edwards's grandson Timothy Dwight—is a decades-long refreshing of the church's leadership.
What about the Toronto Blessing and its impact through other Vineyard churches? Edwards, Wesley, and other revival leaders also encountered fainting or prostration as the Holy Spirit dealt with individuals. Edwards's concern would be to verify that the experience involved real illumination and transformation of the heart, with lasting fruit in Christian faith and life, and not just transient bodily effects.
But he would be impressed by the Vineyard's study of his own writings and their growing grasp of the full implications of revival for evangelism and social transformation. He would be delighted with their optimism of grace, which insists that the church must become more visibly the glorious bride of Christ before the end of history.
Some of the components of the Vineyard renewal would give him pause. It is true that during the frontier revivals converts were seized with contagious behavior, jerking involuntarily and barking like dogs. Peter Cartwright encouraged the phenomena as an aid to humility, but others felt that the revival was being disfigured by these elements. One historian comments:
Those opposed to the excitement soon realized that the attitude of the preacher had a great influence upon the character of the meeting. A peremptory command from him upon the first appearance of undue excitement sufficed in most cases to quiet those affected, and prevented contagion. A Baptist minister who was preaching where one of the jerkers began his motions made a pause, and in a loud and solemn tone said, "In the name of the Lord I command all unclean spirits to leave this place." The jerker immediately became still.
Vineyard leaders are now trying to downplay the phenomena. But some have defended the animal imitations as adjuncts to humility, which could not be demonic because of the holy atmosphere of meetings. But Edwards and the other revival leaders knew that in awakenings they were always in a tug of war with the Devil. Puritans said, "When the sun shines on a swamp, mist rises." Sometimes conversion effects exorcism, and the displaced agents may not go quietly. Unable to beat the revival, they may try to join it, like the girl at Philippi who gave the apostles free advertising but was promptly exorcised by Paul (Acts 16:16).
A revival movement that finds itself replicating compulsive laughter, spiritual drunkenness, pecking like chickens or roaring like lions as expected aspects of spiritual awakening may be playing into the Enemy's hands. It is in the Devil's interest to make Christians weird. He does not need possession to do this; he can manage by suggestion. The goal of his strategy is to create a church that is so institutionally strange that unbelievers will detour around it. The goal of revival is conformity to the image of Christ, not imitation of animals.
Movements of revival usually center on recovered biblical truth. If we ask what the Toronto renewal has that would explain God's blessing, it may lie in the fact that the leaders had been praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on an Edwardsian scale. The "Third Wave" has retained the Pentecostal gifts but has recentered the charismatic movement on spiritual warfare and healing, decreasing the emphasis on tongues and accepting a broader range of gifts as signs of fullness of the Spirit. This may be a winning combination, to which God wants to draw attention.
In any case, Edwards would find many parts of modern evangelicalism much stranger than the Vineyard, full of theological weakness, cultural conformity, and the disfiguring effects of spiritual pride: barren and uncomfortable houses where there is little to nurture spiritual life. He would be pleased with the trend of prophetic criticism that pinpoints these needs, but he would not be discouraged. His own final approach to the Great Awakening was to subject it to the most rigorous critique, on the one hand, and to solicit extraordinary prayer for its advancement, on the other. These are strategies we need to follow today.
Richard F. Lovelace is professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and the author of "Dynamics of Spiritual Life" (IVP).
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