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A Narrative of Surprising Conversions


The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God


Summary and Analysis


On May 30, 1735, Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter of eight pages to Dr. Benjamin Colman (1673-1747), pastor of Brattle Street Church in Boston, in which he described the nature of the revival he was seeing. Colman sent much of the letter to a friend in London where news quickly spread about what was happening in the Colonies. Edwards was then asked to write a more detailed account, the result of which is:


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 the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England.


Edwards completed work on the document on Nov. 6, 1736. What he describes is the first wave of revival (1734-36) that was later to be followed by what has come to be known as the Great Awakening (1740-42).


A.            Historical precedents of the revival


Edwards identified five so-called harvests under his predecessor and grandfather, Solomon Stoddard (who served as pastor in Northampton for 60 years), in each of which Edwards heard Stoddard say "the greater part of the young people in the town, seemed to be mainly concerned for their eternal salvation" (9).


The unexpected deaths of two young people evidently stirred the people. Says Edwards: "This seemed to contribute to render solemn the spirits of many young persons; and there began evidently to appear more of a religious concern on people's minds" (11).


B.            The Occasion of the revival


N.B. The origin/cause of the revival cannot be traced to the fearful reaction to some natural calamity. Whereas a diphtheria epidemic hit New England from 1735 to 1740, Gaustad points out that


"the epidemic appeared in New Jersey in 1735, long after the revival movement had been under way there; in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the severity of the epidemic in any given area bears no observable relation to the intensity of the revival in that area, either before or after Whitefield; in New Hampshire the epidemic was all over by 1736, making difficult an explanation of the five-year lapse between its terminus and the beginning of the Great Awakening in the Kingston-Hampton Falls area; and finally, while the epidemic was from four to five times as severe in New Hampshire and Maine as in Connecticut and Massachusetts, it was in the latter area that the revival was most pervasive" (The Great Awakening in New England  [Peter Smith Publishers, 1965]).


Edwards links the outbreak of spiritual renewal to two factors: 1) a series of sermons on justification by faith, and 2) the unusual conversion of an immoral young lady (see p. 12 of Narrative ).


C.            Characteristics of the revival


1.             The daily conversation of virtually everyone was the revival - "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" (13).


2.             Virtual neglect of daily affairs - "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" (13). "The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing into it. The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances" (13).


3.             Widespread impact - "There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world" (13). See p. 14 of Narrative


4.             Transformation in worship - "Our public praises were then greatly enlivened. . . . [People] were evidently wont to sing with unusual elevation of heart and voice, which made the duty pleasant indeed" (14).


5.             Focus on Christ


6.             The backslidden were restored


7.             The reaction of observers was two-fold:


a) "Many scoffed at and ridiculed it; and some compared what we called conversion, to certain distempers" (15).


b) Others were so impressed that they told others "that the state of the town could not be conceived of by those who had not seen it" (15). Edwards makes this interesting comment:


"There were many instances of persons who came from abroad on visits, or on business, who had not been long here, before, to all appearances, they were savingly wrought upon, and partook of that shower of divine blessing which God rained down here, and went home rejoicing; till at length the same work began evidently to appear and prevail in several other towns in the country" (15).


8.             Geographic dimensions - Edwards cites more than 30 other communities where the revival erupted.


9.             The revival impacted all ages, all sorts


10.          Many saved - Edwards writes: "I hope that more than 300 souls were savingly brought home to Christ, in this town [Northampton], in the space of half a year, and about the same number of males as females" (19).


11.          Acceleration/Intensification of God's activity - "God has also seemed to have gone out of his usual way, in the quickness of his work, and the swift progress his Spirit has made in his operations on the hearts of many. It is wonderful that persons should be so suddenly and yet so greatly changed" (21). Again, "when God in so remarkable a manner took the work into his own hands, there was as much done in a day or two, as at ordinary times, with all endeavours that men can use, and with such a blessing as we commonly have, is done in a year" (21).


D.            The Nature of Conversions


There appeared to be a pattern only in this regard, that conversion entailed two stages:


1.             Deep conviction of sin - With some this occurred suddenly, whereas others experienced it gradually. Results: a) they "quit their sinful practices; and the looser sort have been brought to forsake and dread their former vices and extravagances" (23); b) they began to seek the "means of salvation, reading, prayer, meditation, the ordinances of God's house" etc. (24). "The place of resort," writes Edwards, "was now altered, it was no longer the tavern, but the minister's house that was thronged far more than ever the tavern had been wont to be" (24). There was also variation in both the degree of fear experienced and the duration of it. Says Edwards:


"Some few instances there have been, of persons who have had such a sense of God's wrath for sin, that they have been overborne; and made to cry out under an astonishing sense of their guilt, wondering that God suffers such guilty wretches to live upon earth, and that he doth not immediately send them to hell" (25-26).


2.             Sense of God's love, mercy, saving grace in Christ Edwards writes:


"It was very wonderful to see how person's affections were sometimes moved -- when God did as it were suddenly open their eyes, and let into their minds a sense of the greatness of his grace, the fullness of Christ, and his readiness to save . . . Their joyful surprise has caused their hearts as it were to leap, so that they have been ready to break forth into laughter, tears often at the same time issuing like a flood, and intermingling a loud weeping. Sometimes they have not been able to forbear crying out with a loud voice, expressing their great admiration" (37-38).


This overwhelming assurance of saving love had varied effects on the people:


"Some persons having had such longing desires after Christ, or which have risen to such degree, as to take away their natural strength. Some have been so overcome with a sense of the dying love of Christ to such poor, wretched, and unworthy creatures, as to weaken the body. Several persons have had so great a sense of the glory of God, and excellency of Christ, that nature and life seemed almost to sink under it; and in all probability, if God had showed them a little more of himself, it would have dissolved their frame. . . . And they have talked, when able to speak, of the glory of God's perfections . . ." (45).


"Many, while their minds have been filled with spiritual delights, have as it were forgot their food; their bodily appetite has failed, while their minds have been entertained with meat to eat that others knew not of"" (46).


Edwards describes the "unparalleled joy" of many (46), which often expressed itself in "earnest longings of soul to praise God" (47). Others expressed a new love for the Bible: "Some, by reason of their love to God's word, at times have been wonderfully delighted and affected at the sight of a Bible; and then, also, there was no time so prized as the Lord's day, and no place in this world so desired as God's house" (47).


Again, "never, I believe, was so much done in confessing injuries, and making up differences, as the last year. Persons, after their own conversion, have commonly expressed an exceeding great desire for the conversion of others" (47).


On the experience of many with visions, impressions, etc., see pp. 51-54 of Narrative.


Goen makes this interesting comment in summing up:


"During the awakening of 1734-35 Edwards faithfully pursued his pastoral work with reverent wonder, for as already noted, his surprise was genuine. But when he gave his narrative to the world, the simple fact is that no revival could ever be a surprise again. His account showed plainly what kind of preaching would awaken sleeply sinners and what sort of responses could be expected. The day would come too soon when overzealous evangelists would attempt to manipulate audiences so as to elicit the responses described by Edwards, and the revival -- if it came -- would be not a surprising work of God but a planned contrivance of man" (27).


E.            Two remarkable testimonies


Abigail Hutchinson


Phebe Bartlet


Observations on the end of the revival:


Edwards makes an interesting observation regarding the physical condition of the community during the revival: "it was the most remarkable time of health that ever I knew since I have been in the town. We ordinarily have several bills put up, every sabbath, for sick persons; but now we had not so much as one for many sabbaths together. But after this [i.e., after the revival lifted] it seemed to be otherwise" (69).


Concerning the end of the revival, Edwards writes:


"In the latter part of May, it began to be very sensible that the Spirit of God was gradually withdrawing from us, and after this time Satan seemed to be more let loose, and raged in a dreadful manner" (69).


One event seemed to Edwards to hasten the demise of religion: a man who committed suicide by cutting his throat. He was from a family prone to depression ("melancholy"). "The devil took the advantage, and drove him into despairing thoughts" (70).[The man was in fact Joseph Hawley, Edwards' own uncle.]


Of special interest is the impact this had on the community:


"After this, multitudes in this and other towns seemed to have it strongly suggested to them, and pressed upon them, to do as this person had done. And many who seemed to be under no melancholy, some pious persons who had no special darkness or doubts about the goodness of their state . . . had it urged upon them as if somebody had spoke to them, Cut your throat, now is a good opportunity. Now! Now!" (70)


The Spirit of God, writes Edwards, "not long after this time, appeared very sensibly withdrawing from all parts of the country" (71). Nevertheless, Edwards was convinced that the vast majority of those who professed to having been saved in the revival "seem to have had an abiding change wrought on them; . . . they generally appear to be persons who have a new sense of things, new apprehensions and views of God, of the divine attributes of Jesus Christ, and the great things of the gospel" (71).


F.             The Revival of 1740-42


1.             George Whitefield (1714-71) - Whitefield, called "The Grand Itinerant", arrived in the fall of 1740 and "set all New England aflame with a revival compared to which the Valley awakening of 1734-35 was but a brush fire" (C. C. Goen, Works of JE, 4:48).


After preaching to thousands all along the Atlantic coast, Whitefield arrived in Edwards' Northampton in mid October. After one Sunday morning sermon in Edwards' church, Whitefield wrote in his diary that "Good Mr. Edwards wept during the whole time of exercise. The people were equally affected; and, in the afternoon, the power increased yet more" (Goen, 49).


Sarah Edwards was equally impressed. In a letter to her brother, the Rev. James Pierrepont of New Haven, she said:


"It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible. I have seen upward of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence, broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob. He impresses the ignorant, and not less the educated and refined . . . our mechanics shut up their shops, and the day-labourers throw down their tools to go and hear him preach, and few return unaffected. . . . Many, very many persons in Northampton date the beginning of new thoughts, new desires, new purposes and a new life, from the day they heard him preach of Christ" (Dallimore, pp. 89-90).


Benjamin Franklin, who, although an unbeliever, regarded Whitefield to be his friend, said this of his oratorical gift:


"He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories observed the most perfect silence. . . . By hearing him often, I came to distinguish easily between sermons newly composed and those which he had often preached in the course of his travels. His delivery of the latter was so improved by frequent repetition, that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of the voice, was so perfectly well turned and well placed, that, without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse" (Gaustad, 29).


According to Goen (49), "by the time he passed from Connecticut into New York, his journal showed that he had spent 45 days, visited 40 towns, and delivered 97 sermons and exhortations."


Whitefield set sail for England on Jan. 16, 1741, after 14 1/2 months of preaching in America. He returned for a brief visit in the fall of 1744.


The best work on Whitefield is George Whitefield: God's Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century  [adapted, rewritten and abridged from the 2 volume work published previously under the title, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth Century Revival  (Banner of Truth)] by Arnold A. Dallimore (Crossway Books, 1990).


2.             Gilbert Tennent (1703-64) - Tennent was leader of the Presbyterian revival in the middle Colonies.


According to Goen, "after Tennent passed through eastern Connecticut, emotional outbursts in time of worship became common. Preachers sometimes had to stop in mid-sermon, as 'weeping, sighs and sobs' mingled with cries of distress: 'Alas! I'm undone; I'm undone! O, my sins! How they prey upon my vitals! What will become of me? How shall I escape the damnation of hell, who have spent away a golden opportunity under Gospel light, in vanity?'" (51) Visions and trances, says Goen, were commonplace.


Chief among Tennent's messages was his belief that most ministers of the day were unconverted. Needless to say, this didn't fare well with the established clergy of New England!


3.             James Davenport (1716-57) - Davenport was an "enthusiast" who in many ways was responsible for those excesses that Edwards believed led to the end of the revival.


The word "enthusiasm", as Goen defines it, "is belief in God's immediate inspiration or possession, leading often to claims of divine authority" (62). Charles Chauncy, principal opponent of the revival (see below), applied the word to Davenport "in a bad sense, as intending an imaginary, not a real inspiration: according to which sense, the Enthusiast is one who has a conceit of himself as a person favored with the extraordinary presence of the Deity. He mistakes the workings of his own passions for divine communications, and fancies himself immediately inspired by the Spirit of God, when all the while he is under no other influence than that of an overheated imagination" (Goen, 62).


4.             Edwards delivers a message to the faculty and students of Yale on Sept. 10, 1741, entitled The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.  


G.            Opposition and Division


1.             Charles Chauncy (1705-87) - Pastor of Boston's most influential church and leader of the "Old Lights", Chauncy "vilified the whole revival as 'the effect of enthusiastic heat'" (Goen, 63).


2.             Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England, by Jonathan Edwards (late 1742).


3.             In Sept. 1743 Chauncy published a detailed response to Edwards entitled: Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England.


4.             The principal objections to the revival were:


a.             Itinerant ministry: "Besides creating jealousies and threatening prerogatives, itineracy flaunted the Congregational theory of the ministerial office" (Gaustad 70).


b.             Lay exhorters. One critic wrote: "There is a creature here whom perhaps you never heard of before. It is called an Exhorter. It is of both sexes, but generally of the male, and young. Its distinguished qualities are ignorance, impudence, zeal. Numbers of these Exhorters are amongst the people here. They go from town to town, creep into houses, lead captive silly women, and then the men. Such of them as have good voices do great execution as they move their hearers, make them cry, faint, swoon, fall into convulsions" (quoted in Gaustad, 72).


c.             Censoriousness, especially the accusations by some revivalists that the traditional clergy were unsaved.


d.             “Enthusiasm” and “Emotionalism”


"By the end of 1743," says Gaustad, "all the principles, even most of the details, of criticism of the revival had been established. The Great Awakening was dead, although many were trying to force air into its lungs while others were still hacking at the corpse whenever possible" (79).


5.             Edwards' letter to Thomas Prince of Boston, dated Dec. 12, 1743, was his last public word on the events of the revival "at high tide" (Goen, 85).


Edwin Gaustad on the end of the Awakening:


"The suddenness with which the blessings of heaven fell on New England soil in 1741 is comparable only to the abruptness with which those showers were withdrawn. And the ending appeared as inexplicable as the beginning. . . . The dramatic quality of the New England Awakening is due in large part to the very swiftness with which it moved, as a great flood: in, all over, and out" (61).


Numerous explanations for the end of the revival have been suggested and Edwards had his own opinion. But Gaustad looks at what happened with the common sense of an historian:


"From our vantage point, no special perspicacity is required to conclude that the religious intensity of 1741 could not long be maintained. The dreadful concerns, the traumatic awakenings, the accelerated devotion -- these by their nature are of limited duration. The fever pitch must soon pass, else the patient dies . . . The ebb of this flood of revivalism would seem then to require no elaborate explanation: it declined simply because it had to, because society could not maintain itself in so great a disequilibrium" (61-62).