Karie Schultz


18th Century Theology


Professor Westblade


November 26, 2013


            Jonathan Edwards: The Head and the Heart in the First Great Awakening


            During the 1740s, a series of religious “awakenings” swept across New England, and many colonists experienced extreme emotions and passions preceding conversion. In response, New England Calvinists diverged into two distinct groups: the Old Lights (those who denounced the enthusiasm of the awakenings) and the New Lights (those who supported the awakenings as legitimate conversion experiences). Jonathan Edwards, a leading New Light Calvinist, attempted to answer the criticisms of Old Lights who favored rationality rather than emotion in conversion. For Edwards, though, the head and the heart were not irreconcilable means of obtaining spiritual knowledge; rather, emotional conversion experiences logically correlated with his rational and empirical epistemology. According to Edwards, man first gains essential factual knowledge of God through human reason and sensory experience, but this knowledge alone does not signify salvation. Once man possesses this basic knowledge, God may impart a divine and supernatural light to a sixth “moral sense” of the heart which enables man to feel and sense God’s goodness, the type of Christian knowledge indicative of conversion. Edwards thus invalidated the dichotomy between the head and the heart suggested by many Old Lights; for Edwards, emotional conversion experiences resulted from a combination of empirical knowledge about God and God’s own divine light imparted to the “moral sense” of the heart, justifying the role of the heart as seen in the First Great Awakening conversions.

            The Old Light and New Light controversy ignited in response to the emotional enthusiasm of the “awakenings” Edwards depicted in documents such as his 1736 “Narrative of Many Surprising Conversions in Northampton and Vicinity.” In this narrative, Edwards documented various visible signs of conversion experienced by members of his congregation while simultaneously justifying the role of the heart in conversion. Edwards first described the awakenings generally, writing that many in his congregation were “suddenly seized with convictions...their consciences [were] suddenly smitten, as if their hearts were pierced through with a dart.”[1] Edwards then included specific case study examples that proved to be highly controversial for the Old Lights. In the famous instance of Phebe Bartlet, the young girl prayed in a closet for God’s salvation, and upon concluding, “she continued exceedingly crying, and wreathing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit.”[2] Although Edwards believed such an emotional experience evidenced the girl’s true conversion, most Old Lights discredited these events. One of Edwards’ primary opponents, Charles Chauncy, “concluded that the religious awakening, because of its excesses, could not in any sense be judged a work of the Spirit of God.”[3]For Chauncy, the “screamings and writhings by the congregations” were only “abundant improprieties” that made the awakenings a “despicable instance of wanton emotionalism.”[4] As Conrad Cherry argues, “Chauncy’s rationalism [came] into full play in his insistence that the balance between warmed passions and enlightened reason is to be governed by the authority of enlightened reason.”[5] Like Chauncy, Edwards recognized and cautioned against the dangers of extreme emotional enthusiasm in his “Narrative of Many Surprising Conversions,” but he ultimately argued that these particular awakenings were legitimate conversion experiences despite the emphasis on the heart.

            Perhaps Edwards’ defense of the awakenings would not have been so surprising if Edwards did not adhere to a highly empirical epistemology that prioritized human rationality rather than the human heart. As a result, Edwards’ defense of the emotional awakenings wrought additional criticism, because many Old Lights perceived an incongruence between Edwards’ own rational, empirical epistemology and his emphasis on the heart in conversion. Like Chauncy and many of the Old Lights, Edwards fell into an epistemological tradition indebted to philosophers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton, men who emphasized that reason, the greatest human faculty, best interpreted and understood the natural world. According to William J. Wainwright, the elements of the tradition which Edwards and other New England Calvinists drew from “had an important feature in common – an almost uncritical confidence in reason’s power and scope.”[6] This epistemology consisted of the essential belief that each man comes into the world with a tabula rasa, or a blank slate. As he gains worldly experience from his senses, his reason orders, categorizes, and inscribes this sensory data on the blank slate. Man thus comprehends his natural world primarily through sensory experience and reason. This epistemology also had implications for religion. Since God endowed man with reason to comprehend the natural world, man ought also rationally approach Scripture, the primary means of communication with God. Edwards thus embraced these elements of a rational epistemology and used them “for the rational grounding, or re-grounding, of his inherited Puritanism.”[7]

            Edwards therefore found himself confronted with a perceived dichotomy between his epistemology (the head) and the emotional conversion experiences he witnessed (the heart). However, Edwards did not see the head and heart as irreconcilable. Although Edwards identified with the same rational epistemological tradition of many Old Lights, he drew his epistemological beliefs to a starkly different conclusion by assigning the heart and emotion a more significant role in obtaining Christian knowledge. As Marsden argues, “Edwards was no Lockean in any strict sense. When, as a tutor at Yale a few years later, he recorded his view of Locke in his notebooks, it was to refute him or go far beyond him.”[8] This suggests that although Edwards embraced many elements of the aforementioned Lockean epistemology, he also introduced a variety of innovations. His discussion of how man obtains different varieties of Christian knowledge reflect how such innovations enabled Edwards to defend the heart as a significant actor in a true conversion experience.

            Even though Edwards relied heavily on empiricism to understand the physical and natural world, Edwards did not believe man could fully obtain Christian knowledge, including spiritual truth and a belief in God’s goodness, through such an epistemology. Edwards indicated the limits of empiricism when he divided Christian knowledge into two categories: the “speculative and practical, or in other terms, natural and spiritual.[9] In his essay, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” Edwards delineated these two forms of knowledge. First, by practical knowledge, Edwards referred to a type of religious knowledge that can be obtained “by the natural exercise of our own faculties, without any special illumination of the Spirit of God.”[10] Edwards then proceeded to describe how men could obtain such knowledge through reason and sensory experience in a manner ultimately consistent with his own epistemology. For example, God provided man with reason as a vehicle for understanding the factual truth in Scripture. As Edwards argued, “all those abundant instructions which are contained in the Scriptures were written that they might be understood: otherwise they are not instructions.”[11] Not only can man gain natural knowledge of God through rationally approaching Scripture, but his sensory experience also plays an important role, a belief Edwards demonstrated in his own preaching. Edwards famously employed sensual imagery in his sermons to elicit strong reactions from his congregation, because “the very point of preaching was to touch the affections, to bring people beyond a merely theoretical knowledge of spiritual realities.”[12] In order to do so, preachers needed to evoke “‘lively pictures’ of the truth in their mind.”[13] Sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” demonstrate Edwards’ appeal to the senses of his congregation to convince them of spiritual truth. Thus, the first type of knowledge of God, practical knowledge, could be obtained through the exercise of reason and sensory experience, making it the type of knowledge related primarily to the head.

            However, this type of practical knowledge also had limitations. Edwards believed practical knowledge of God gained through empiricism and rationality was not enough for salvation. According to Edwards, 

“A person therefore may have affecting view of the things of religion, and yet be very destitute of spiritual light. Flesh and blood may be the author of this: one man may give another an affecting view of divine things with but common assistance, but God alone can give a spiritual discovery of them.”[14]


Even though practical knowledge did not signify salvation, it laid the essential foundation for man to receive a more important type Christian knowledge, that of the heart. As Edwards stated, “there can be no spiritual knowledge of that of which there is not first a rational knowledge.”[15] While this factual knowledge laid an essential foundation, true conversion required a type of knowledge beyond the practical that could only be obtained through God’s direct influence. Edwards deemed this spiritual knowledge, a type of knowledge that enables man to feel and sense God’s goodness and glory in his heart, a true indication of conversion. Furthermore, this type of knowledge was “above any that flesh and blood can reveal,” and none of man’s own rational faculties could provide him with it.[16] Rather, this type of knowledge struck the heart. As Edwards argued, spiritual knowledge “rests not entirely in the head, or in the speculative ideas of things: but the heart is concerned in it: it principally consists in the sense of the heart.”[17] Thus, Edwards postulated that the head and the heart were not dichotomous means of obtaining Christian knowledge, because practical knowledge obtained by reason laid the foundation for spiritual knowledge concerning the heart.

            After demarcating these two types of Christian knowledge, Edwards needed to address how man received such spiritual knowledge if flesh and blood could not reveal it; he did so through his description of a sixth “moral sense” of the heart, one of his innovations on the Lockean epistemological tradition. This moral sense receives what Edwards termed God’s “divine and supernatural light,” the true indication of conversion and salvation. Edwards offered the following definition of the divine and supernatural light:

“A real sense and apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed in the Word of God. A spiritual and saving conviction of the truth and reality of these things, arises from such a sight of their divine excellency and glory; so that this conviction of their truth is an effect and natural consequence of this sight of their divine glory.”[18]


Once man possesses factual Christian knowledge resulting from the senses and human rationality, God decides whether or not to impart His divine and supernatural light to man’s heart. In order to receive this divine light, man must already have a “moral sense” of the heart which makes him receptive to understanding God’s goodness, an important indication of conversion. While explaining how men receive spiritual knowledge of God’s goodness, Edwards sought to reconcile the heart with his empirical epistemology; Edwards both called the receptor for God’s divine and supernatural light a moral sense and described it in terms of taste with the sense acting as taste buds for God’s goodness. In this manner, Edwards intentionally linked his empirical epistemology with the sense of the heart in terms of Christian knowledge.

            Once Edwards delineated the two types of knowledge relating to the head and the heart, he demonstrated how the emotional “awakenings” sweeping through New England were legitimate examples of God imparting this divine and supernatural light. Mark Valeri suggests that Edwards specifically wrote “A Divine and Supernatural Light” as a direct response to those who criticized the legitimacy of the awakenings. In this essay, Edwards criticized New Englanders who “deny–or simply ignore– the possibilities of a conversion experience initiated by the infusion of the divine and supernatural light of the Spirit.”[19] Edwards further described the importance of the divine and supernatural light in emotional conversion experiences when he wrote that men will now “have that sight and taste of the divinity, or divine excellency, that there is in the things of the gospel,” and the effect of the heart “is more to convince them, than reading many volumes of arguments about it.”[20] For Edwards, the divine and supernatural light changed the nature of the heart “and effectually disposed one to goodness,” the “fruit of conversion.”[21] Thus, Edwards used his idea of the divine and supernatural light to demonstrate how God converted members of his congregation by appealing to their hearts with the significant emotional reactions as a byproduct. Subsequently, Edwards concluded that the passionate conversions he witnessed in New England in the 1740s were the result of members of his congregation experiencing the divine and supernatural light imparted immediately upon their moral sense of the heart.

            Ultimately, when the New Englanders experienced such passionate conversions resembling those in the “Narrative of Surprising Conversions,” Edwards did not perceive their conversions as cases of rampant emotionalism, unlike his Old Light opponents. For Edwards, the conversions were a legitimate work of God. The emotions resulted from God imparting his divine and supernatural light upon the hearts of men who had already received factual knowledge of Christ and whose sixth moral sense had enabled them to favorably experience spiritual knowledge of Christ. Thus, through his discussion of the types of the Christian knowledge, the divine and supernatural light, and the sixth “moral sense,” Edwards seems to have successively dispelled the Old Lights’ suggested dichotomous relationship between the head and the heart.

Primary Sources

Edwards, Jonathan. “A divine and supernatural light.” In Vol. 17, The Works of Jonathan             Edwards: Sermons and Discourses: 1730-1733. Edited by Mark Valeri. New Haven: Yale     University Press, 2003.


–––. “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred    Souls.” In Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800.


            search/conversion (accessed November 10, 2013).


–––. “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth.” In Vol. 22,      The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742. Edited by Harry      S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003: 80-102.


Secondary Sources

Cherry, Conrad. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal. Bloomington: Indiana           University Press, 1990.


Gura, Philip F. Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.


Helm, Paul and Oliver Crisp. Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian. Burlington, VT:        Ashgate, 2003.


––– “A Forensic Dilemma: John Locke and Jonathan Edwards on Personal Identity.” In Jonathan            Edwards: Philosophical Theologian. Edited by Paul Helm and Oliver Crisp. Burlington,        VT: Ashgate, 2003.


Lee, Sang Hyun. The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Princeton, NJ: Princeton        University Press, 1988.


Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.


McClymond, Michael J. Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan

            Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Piper, John. God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. Wheaton:        Crossway Books, 1998.


Stein, Stephen J. The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge           University Press, 2007.


Wainwright, William J. Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomenon to a Critique of Passional             Reason. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls,” in Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800, https://archive.org/stream/anarrativemanys00edwagoog#page/n32/mode/2up/search/conversion (accessed November 10, 2013), 22.

[2] Ibid, 67.

[3] Conrad Cherry, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 165.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cherry, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 166.

[6] William J. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomenon to a Critique of Passional Reason (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 7.

[7] Paul Helm, “A Forensic Dilemma: John Locke and Jonathan Edwards on Personal Identity,” in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian, ed. Paul Helm and Oliver Crisp (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003), 45.

[8] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 63-64.

[9] Jonathan Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742, vol. 22, eds. Harry S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 87.

[10] Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” 87.

[11] Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” 94.

[12] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 161.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses: 1730-1733, vol. 17, ed. Mark Valeri (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 413.

[15] Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” 88.

[16] Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” 409.

[17] Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” 87.

[18] Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” 413.

[19] Mark Valeri, Introduction to “A Divine and Supernatural Light” in vol. 17, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses: 1730-1733, ed. Mark Valeri (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 406.

[20] Jonathan Edwards, “Narrative of Many Surprising Conversions in Northampton and Vicinity,” 43.

[21] Philip F. Gura, Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 69.