Trevor Anderson and Jon Lewis

 

Jonathan Edwards’ 1730s

Jonathan Edwards, in his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, wrote of the New Englanders during the Northampton Revival that they were “evidently a people blessed of the Lord! For here, in this corner of the world, God dwells, and manifests His glory.” Edwards’ words ably described the remarkable work God had done in Northampton but—unknown to him—his localized awakening was the harbinger of something much bigger, something not limited to New England. The 1730s were a decade of preparation, marked by two significant developments: the revival in Northampton and the formation of John Wesley and George Whitefield’s early ministry. Together, these were catalysts for the Great Awakening.

In 1731 Solomon Stoddard had been dead two years, leaving Edwards in charge of the Northampton pulpit. During that time Edwards had worked hard to inspire the religious affections of his congregation, often with little notable success. But in the middle of 1731 Edwards began to notice “winds of change”[1] in the youth who were otherwise prone to “night walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices.”[2] In addition, the older population at Northampton slowly began to abandon the party spirit that had been a staple of the city. However, it would not be until 1734 that Edwards would see the palpable evidence of spiritual renewal.

Meanwhile, in England, God was in the process of stirring up the hearts of two other men who would become significant international figures in the immanent awakenings: John Wesley and George Whitefield. In 1732 Whitefield joined the Wesley brothers at Pembroke College, Oxford. Dissatisfied with the licentiousness of their fellow classmates and culture, the men dedicated their lives to the pursuit of holiness (forming a “Holy Club”) and eventually became known as the Methodists because of the methodical way in which they conducted their daily affairs.

In 1733 John Wesley preached the sermon titled “The Circumcision of the Heart” at Oxford. In that sermon he explained his conception of religion as primarily a matter of the heart, not merely the head. “[I]t is,” he said, “that habitual disposition of the soul which in the Sacred Writings is termed ‘holiness….’”[3] This sermon also struck many of the same chords that would find their way into the doctrine of Christian perfection propounded by the Wesley brothers. This sermon—as well as its theology—became a staple of the Methodist movement.

Back in Northampton, spiritual revival was about to begin in earnest. The death of a popular young man in April 1734 drove home a point Edwards had been emphasizing for years: that it is eternal, not temporal, things that matter most. The spiritual fervor quickly pervaded the city, and revival began. The news of Northampton’s religious experiences soon spread around New England and even across the pond, so that in 1736 Edwards would write his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, in which he recounted the work God had done in and around his parish.

During the same year, Whitefield had graduated at the age of twenty-two and received his ordination as an Anglican minister. While preaching in England he began to hear reports from his friends John and Charles about the exciting work God was doing in Georgia, the newly founded colony. The Wesleys had gone ahead as missionaries to the American Indians but quickly realized they needed more support. Whitefield longed to aid in the endeavor, but was delayed until the following year. While waiting to travel abroad he had become “a bonafide sensation. He had preached to thousands, and his printed sermons could not keep up with popular demand.”[4] He eventually set sail on Deceber 30, 1737, just moments prior to a discouraged John Wesley’s return to England.[5]

The mission had gone poorly in Wesley’s eyes, and he came back to England feeling so dejected and unsure of his work that he wrote in his journal: “I came to convert the Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?”[6] The experience left him in a state of self-doubt for some time. But on May 24, 1738, he no longer had reason to question his own salvation—it was on this day that he had the now-famous experience of his heart being “strangely warmed”[7] as he contemplated Christ’s death on his behalf. This experience marked a turning point for Wesley and his ministry. The Methodist denomination grew rapidly and steadily under his influence.

On arriving in Georgia, Whitefield had a different impression of Wesley’s work. In his journal he wrote, “Surely I must labor most heartily since I come after such worthy men. The good Mr. John Wesley has done in America is inexpressible…. Oh that I may follow him as he has followed Christ.”[8] Whitefield’s work in Georgia was limited due to his office in the church. In 1738 he traveled back to London and was ordained as a priest at Oxford on January 14, 1739.[9] While he grew in popularity with the people, the official clergy began to question his methods and even shut him out of their churches. As the crowds grew, Whitefield began to practice his famous—or infamous—open air preaching. After collecting enough money, he sailed again for Georgia to continue his ministry and build an orphanage.

By this time, the initial spiritual fervor in Edwards’ Northampton had abated, even to the point that some churches had lower attendance rates than before the revival. Always on the lookout for ways to spur his congregation on, Edwards would later invite the by-then-superstar Whitefield to come and preach in Northampton, a decision that met with great success. Though not the closest of friends, Edwards and Whitefield greatly respected each other, and their combined efforts were one of the main human engines that would drive the Great Awakening.

Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield ushered in a desperately needed revival to a world that was becoming more and more apathetic to religion and morality. David Hume, a philosopher born in 1711, “argued that it is unreasonable to believe testimonies of alleged miraculous events, and, accordingly, hinted that we should reject religions that are founded on miracle testimonies.”[10] Heavily influenced by enlightenment ideals, the famous poet Alexander Pope attempted to defend the existence of God but only by using reason. His “Essays on Man” made no reference or appeal to the Holy Scriptures.

These were only some of the signs of a growing spiritual decline. Edwards hoped God would preserve his life so that he might see a revival brought to “a benighted, wicked, and miserable world and age and in the most guilty of all nations.”[11]

This assessment was not merely an overstatement from a “pietistic” Puritan. Historian J. H. Plumb described it as an age when the aristocratic circles “hardly bothered with the pretense of virtue, and the possession of lovers and mistresses was regarded as a commonplace, a matter for gossip but not reproach.” Michael Haykin notes how many other segments of society followed suit. “Pornographic literature, for instance, multiplied almost unchecked. Newspapers advertised such things as the services of gigolos and cures for venereal disease.”[12] It was in the midst of this sort of spiritual decline in England and apathy in Northampton that God chose to show himself mightily.

The work of Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley had a profound impact on English and American culture. Though not without flaws, and certainly not without detractors, all three were men who earnestly pursued God and saw him work amazing things during their lifetime. They lived in a world steeped in spiritual decline and moral decay that saw God as more of an abstract concept than a personal Father and friend. Their theology and methods often contradicted social norms, and the results of their labor permanently changed the spiritual topography of America. In retrospect it does not seem an overstatement to say that the Great Awakening was largely ushered in by three Great Ambassadors of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1]. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) p. 150.

 

[2]. Ibid., 126.

[3]. Joane Williams-Elliott, “The Circumcision of the Heart,” http://jacksonsnyder.com/arc/2006/circumcision-heart.htm

. Accessed 12 February 2011.

 

[4]. Stout, p. 48.

 

[5]. Belcher, p. 54.

 

[6]. http://www.iscuo.org/georgia.htm

 

[7]. http://www.ccel.org/w/wesley/

 

[8]. Belcher, p. 65

 

[9]. Ibid., p. 68

 

[10]. http://www.iep.utm.edu/humelife/#H2

[11] Marsden, p. 204.

 

[12] Hayken, p.15 (http://www.sgfcanada.com/files/frps/george_whitefield.pdf).