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Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England

Summary and Analysis


This lengthy volume is Edwards' most ambitious and comprehensive treatment of the revival. He completed work on it near the close of 1742. It was published in March of 1743. The work is comprised of five parts.



Part I


"Shewing that the extraordinary work that has of late been going on in this land, is a glorious work of God" (293).


Edwards believed that much of the resistance to the revival was due to three errors made by its adversaries.


1.             "They have greatly erred in the way in which they have gone about to try this work, whether it be a work of the Spirit of God or no, viz. in judging of it a priori; from the way that it began, the instruments that have been employed, the means that have been made use of, and the methods that have been taken and succeeded in carrying it on. Whereas, if we duly consider the matter, it will evidently appear that such a work is not to be judged of a priori, but a posteriori: we are to observe the effect wrought; and if, upon examination of that, it be found to be agreeable to the Word of God, we are bound without more ado to rest in it as God's work" (293).


What Edwards means is that we cannot prejudge a work of God. We can only observe its effects and assess the latter by the rule of Scripture.


2.             "Another foundation error of those that don't acknowledge the divinity of this work, is not taking the Holy Scriptures as an whole, and in itself a sufficient rule to judge of such things by" (296).


a.             "Some make philosophy instead of the Holy Scriptures their rule of judging of this work; particularly the philosophical notions they entertain of the nature of the soul, its faculties and affections" (296).


Edwards is referring to the belief among opponents of the revival that the "affections" are at best only a secondary element in "true religion." The mind, reason, and sober judgment were regarded by men such as Chauncy to be the essence of true religion. Edwards addresses this point at length in his treatise on Religious Affections.


b.             "Many are guilty of not taking the Holy Scriptures as a sufficient and whole rule, whereby to judge of this work, whether it be the work of God, in that they judge by those things which the Scripture don't give as any signs or marks whereby to judge one way or the other, and therefore do in no wise belong to the Scripture rule of judging, viz the effects that religious exercises and affections of mind have upon the body. Scripture rules respect the state of the mind, and persons' moral conduct, and voluntary behavior, and not the physical state of the body. . . . Christ knew what instructions and rules his church would stand in need of better than we do; and if he had seen it needful in order to the church's safety, he doubtless would have given ministers rules to judge of bodily effects, and would have told 'em how the pulse should beat under such and such religious exercises of mind; when men should look pale, and when they should shed tears; when they should tremble, and whether or no they should ever be faint or cry out; or whether the body should ever be put into convulsions. He probably would have put some book into their hands that should have tended to make them excellent anatomists and physicians: but he has not done it, because he did not see it to be needful" (300).


Edwards insists that as long as we are careful to monitor the state of one's mind and moral conduct, insisting that such be in conformity with Scripture, "our fears and suspicions arising from extraordinary bodily effects seem wholly groundless" (301). But is it reasonable or biblical to think that people under the influence of the Spirit will experience intense bodily effects? Edwards answers:


"Let us rationally consider what we profess to believe of the infinite greatness of the things of God, the divine wrath, the divine glory, and the divine infinite love and grace in Jesus Christ, and the vastness and infinite importance of the things of eternity; and how reasonable is it to suppose that if it pleases God a little to withdraw the veil, and let in light into the soul, and give something of a view of the great things of another world in their transcendent and infinite greatness, that human nature, that is as the grass, a shaking leaf, a weak withering flower, should totter under such a discovery? Such a bubble is too weak to bear the weight of a view of things that are so vast. Alas! What is such dust and ashes, that it should support itself under the view of the awful wrath of infinite glory and love of Jehovah!" (302)


He cites as biblical examples, Ex. 33:20; Dan. 10:6-8; Rev. 1:17; Hab. 3:16; Ps. 119:131.


"God is pleased sometimes in dealing forth spiritual blessings to his people, in some respect to exceed the capacity of the vessel, in its present scantiness, so that he don't only fill it full, but he makes their cup to run over, agreeable to Ps. 23:5; and pours out a blessing, sometimes, in such a manner and measure that there is not room enough to receive it, Mal. 3:10" (303).


"I don't see any solid sure grounds any have to determine that God shall never make such strong impressions on the mind by his Spirit, that shall be an occasion of so impairing the frame of the body, and particularly that part of the body, the brain, that persons shall be deprived of the use of reason" (304).


One particular objection often raised was to the "distress that they have been in for the souls of others" (305). Edwards was stunned that "Christian" people would actually object to other Christian people being so overwhelmed with grief for lost souls that their bodies fainted under the sorrow. He cites several texts that point to an intensity of concern for the lost sufficient to overwhelm the body: Rom. 9:3; Ps. 119:53,136; Jer. 4:19; 9:1; 13:17; 14:17; Isa. 22:4; Esther 4:1. "And why then," asks Edwards, "should persons be thought to be distracted, when they can't forbear crying out at the consideration of the misery of those that are going to eternal destruction?" (306)


c.             "Another thing that some make their rule to judge of this work by, instead of the Holy Scriptures, is history, or former observation" (306). They do this in two ways:


First, "if there be anything new and extraordinary in the circumstances of this work that was not observed in former times, that is a rule with them to reject this work as not the work of God. Herein they make that their rule that God has not given them for their rule, and limit God where he has not limited himself" (306).


But as Edwards points out, "it has all along been God's manner to open new scenes, and to bring forth to view things new and wonderful" (306). In other words, God loves to do new and fresh things in the work of redemption.


[In the course of this discussion, Edwards cites several examples of undeniably godly men and women who experienced powerful encounters with the Holy Spirit. He writes: "There have been many instances in this and some neighbor towns, before now, of persons fainting with joyful discoveries made to their souls: once several together in this town. And there also formerly have been several instances here, of persons' flesh waxing cold and benumbed, and their hands clinched, yea, their bodies being set into convulsions, being overpowered with a strong sense of the astonishingly great and excellent things of God and the eternal world" (313).


Secondly, "another way that some err in making history and former observation their rule to judge of this work, instead of the Holy Scripture, is in comparing some external, accidental circumstances of this work, with what has appeared sometimes in enthusiasts; and as they find an agreement in some such things, so they reject the whole work, or at least the substance of it, concluding it to be enthusiasm" (313).


In other words, the presence of one or two errors that were also found among the Quakers and the French Prophets (notorious at one time for their "enthusiastic" excesses) is deemed sufficient to condemn the entire revival as misguided.


d.             "I would propose it to be considered whether or no some, instead of making the Scriptures their only rule to judge of this work, don't make their own experience the rule, and reject such and such things as are now professed and experienced because they never felt 'em themselves" (313).


Says Edwards, "People are very ready to be suspicious of what they have not felt themselves" (313).


3.             "Another foundation error of those that reject this work, is their not duly distinguishing the good from the bad, and very unjustly judging of the whole by a part; and so rejecting the work in general, or in the main substance of it, for the sake of some things that are accidental to it, that are evil" (314). In particular, "when any profess to have received light and influence and comforts from heaven, and to have had sensible communion with God, many are ready to expect that now they appear like angels, and not still like poor, feeble, blind and sinful worms of the dust. There being so much corruption left in the hearts of God's own children, and its prevailing as it sometimes does, is indeed a mysterious thing, and always was a stumbling block to the world" (314).


Edwards argues that often a fresh outpouring of the Spirit does as much to stir up sin in the flesh as to eliminate it. For example, "the influences of the Spirit . . . may be an occasion of new ways of the exercise of pride, as has been acknowledged by orthodox divines in general" (315). Indeed, consider the case of Paul in 2 Cor. 12 . . .


Even an intense love for God can "strongly move a person to do that which he believes to be agreeable to God's will; and therefore, if he be mistaken, and be persuaded that that is agreeable to the will of God, which indeed is very contrary to it, then his love will accidentally, but strongly, incline him to that which is indeed very contrary to the will of God" (316). An example of the latter is the reaction of the disciples recorded in Luke 9:51-56; the rash words of Moses (Ps. 106:32-33; Num. 20:7-12); the zeal for holiness that led to a legalistic spirit (Rom. 14); etc.


Indeed, Edwards believed that "a great deal of noise and tumult, confusion and uproar, and darkness mixed with light, and evil with good, is always to be expected in the beginning of something very extraordinary, and very glorious in the state of things in human society, or the church of God" (318). After citing several NT examples of such, he writes:


"The church in that great effusion of the Spirit that was then, and the strong impressions that God's people were then under, was under the care of infallible guides, that watched over them day and night; but yet so prone were they, through the weakness and corruption of human nature, to get out of the way, that irregularity and confusion rose in some churches, where there was an extraordinary outpouring of the Spirit, to a very great height, even in the apostles' lifetime, and under their eye" (319).


In particular, consider the church at Corinth.


Edwards did not believe it difficult to account for the errors that were spawned by the revival. He attributed them principally to,


the fact that many who were most powerfully touched by God were quite young, and thus immature, naive, etc.;


the fact that the outpouring of the Spirit was new and unprecedented ["And why should it be thought strange, that those that scarce ever heard of any such thing as an outpouring of the Spirit of God before; or if they did, had no notion of it; don't know how to behave themselves in such a new and strange state of things?" (321)]


Though we may wish it were otherwise, God has not obligated himself "to increase civil prudence in proportion to the degrees of spiritual light" (323).


Edwards makes an important point concerning God's role in the errors of the revival:


"If we consider the errors that attend this work, not only as from man and his infirmity, but also as from God, and by his permission and disposal, they are not strange, upon the supposition of its being, as to the substance of it, a work of God" (323).


Why would God permit such errors? According to Edwards,


"it will be very likely to be of excellent benefit to his church, in the continuance and progress of the work afterwards: their experience in the first setting out of the mischievous consequences of these errors, and smarting for them in the beginning, may be an happy defense to them afterwards, for many generations, from these errors, which otherwise they might continually be exposed to" (324).


Furthermore, permitting such error will serve


"to teach them what they be, to humble them, and fit them for that glorious prosperity he is about to advance them to, and the more to secure to himself the honor of such a glorious work: for by man's exceeding weakness appearing in the beginning of it, 'tis evident that God don't lay the foundation of it in man's strength or wisdom" (324).


Still, Satan is surely responsible for much of the excess. "For as the work is much greater than any other outpouring of the Spirit that ever has been in New England, so no wonder that the Devil is more alarmed and enraged, and exerts himself more vigorously against it, and does more powerfully endeavor to tempt and mislead those that are the subjects of it, or are its promoters" (324-25).


Notwithstanding the errors, excesses, "imprudences" and "sinful irregularities" (325), Edwards carefully documents and describes the remarkable and virtuous fruit of God's work. See pp. 325-330 of The Great Awakening (Yale ed., Vol. 4).


N.B. At this point in the present work, Edwards digresses to describe the experience of his wife, Sarah. He portrays her, anonymously, as "An Example of Evangelical Piety," i.e., as an illustration of the fruit of the awakening.




Part II


"Shewing the obligations that all are under to acknowledge, rejoice in, and promote this work, and the great danger of the contrary"


The thesis of Part II is that "at a time when God manifests himself in such a great work for his church, there is no such thing as being neuters; there is a necessity of being either for or against the king that then gloriously appears" (349).


Thus, Edwards appeals to everyone to acknowledge and support the work of revival. He begins by citing dozens of examples from the Bible in which the people of God are called on to support, defend, promote, and honor the manifest presence and power of God. He also cites examples of warnings to those who would oppose such a work.


Edwards then appeals to civil rulers, ministers, and the laity, explaining their responsibility in this time of spiritual awakening.




Part III


"Shewing in many instances wherein the subjects or zealous promoters of this work have been injuriously blamed" (384).


In Part III of his treatise, Edwards answers ten objections or criticisms brought against those who participated in and supported the revival.


1.             "One thing that has been complained of, is ministers addressing themselves rather to the affections of their hearers than to their understandings, and striving to raise their passions to the utmost height, rather by a very affectionate manner of speaking and a great appearance of earnestness in voice and gesture, than by clear reasoning and informing their judgment: by which means, it is objected, that the affections are moved without a proportionable enlightening of the understanding" (385).


Edwards' response to this criticism is simple and to the point:


"I don't think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. 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" (387).


2.             "Another thing that some ministers have been greatly blamed for, and I think unjustly, is speaking terror to them that are already under great terrors, instead of comforting them" (389).


If a minister is terrifying someone with that which is not true or is representing their condition as worse than it really is, then certainly the objection holds. But "why should we be afraid to let persons that are in an infinitely miserable condition, know the truth, or bring 'em into the light, for fear it should terrify them?" (390). To do otherwise would be like a physician stopping in mid-surgery because of the distress of his patient, sewing him up without removing the cancer that threatens his life.


3.             "What has more especially given offense to many, and raised a loud cry against some preachers, as though their conduct were intolerable, is their frighting [sic] poor innocent children with talk of hell fire and eternal damnation" (394).


But are not even children, while they remain in unbelief, subject to the wrath of God? "Will those children that have been dealt tenderly with in this respect [i.e., not told of the reality of divine wrath and hell], and lived and died insensible of their misery till they come to feel it in hell, ever thank parents and others for their tenderness, in not letting them know what they were in danger of?" (394).


4.             "Another thing that a great deal has been said against, is having so frequent religious meetings, and spending so much time in religion" (394-95).


Says Edwards,


"Though worldly business must be done, and persons ought not to neglect the business of their particular callings, yet 'tis to the honor of God that a people should be so much in outward acts of religion, as to carry in it a visible, public appearance of a great engagedness of mind in it, as the main business of life" (395).


If this objection were true, it would have to be applied to the early church as well (cf. Acts 2:46).




"None objects against injuring one temporal affair for the sake of another temporal affair of much greater importance; and therefore, if eternal things are as real as temporal things, and are indeed of infinitely greater importance; then why may we not voluntarily suffer, in some measure, in our temporal concerns, while we are seeking eternal riches and immortal glory?" (396).


Having said this, Edwards takes issue with whether the objection is even based in fact. He doesn't believe that people have lost time for their temporal affairs because of their participation in the revival, "but have rather gained time; and that more time has been saved from frolicking and tavern-haunting, idleness, unprofitable visits, vain talk, fruitless pastimes, and needless diversions, than has lately been spent in extraordinary religion; and probably five times as much has been saved in persons' estates, at the tavern and in their apparel, as has been spent by religious meetings" (396-97).


5.             "The frequent preaching that has lately been, has in a particular manner been objected against as unprofitable and prejudicial" (397).


6.             "Another thing wherein I think some ministers have been injured, is in being very much blamed for making so much of outcries, faintings, and other bodily effects; speaking of them as tokens of the presence of God, and arguments of the success of preaching; seeming to strive to their utmost to bring a congregation to that pass, and seeming to rejoice in it, yea, even blessing God for it, when they see these effects" (399).


Edwards' response to this objection is worthy of citation in full:


"Concerning this I would observe, in the first place, that there are many things with respect to cryings out, falling down, etc., that are charged on ministers, that they are not guilty of. Some would have it, that they speak of these things as certain evidences of a work of the Spirit of God on the hearts of their hearers, or that they esteem these bodily effects themselves to be the work of God, as though the Spirit of God took hold of, and agitated the bodies of men; and some are charged with making these things essential, and supposing that persons can't be converted without them; whereas I never yet could see the person that held either of these things.


But for speaking of such effects as probable tokens of God's presence [emphasis mine], and arguments of the success of preaching, it seems to me they are not to be blamed; because I think they are so indeed: and therefore when I see them excited by preaching the important truths of God's Word, urged and enforced by proper arguments and motives, or are consequent on other means that are good, I don't scruple to speak of them, and to rejoice in them, and bless God for them as such; and that for this (as I think) good reason, viz. that from time to time, upon proper inquiry and examination, and observation of the consequence and fruits, I have found that there are all evidences that the persons in whom these effects appear, are under the influences of God's Spirit, in such cases. . . . I confess that when I see a great crying out in a congregation, in the manner that I have seen it, when those things are held forth to 'em that are worthy of their being greatly affected by, I rejoice in it, much more than merely in an appearance of solemn attention, and a shew of affection by weeping; and that because there have been those outcries, I have found from time to time a much greater and more excellent effect. To rejoice that the work of God is carried on calmly, without much ado, is in effect to rejoice that 'tis carried on with less power, or that there is not so much of the influence of God's Spirit: for though the degree of the influence of the Spirit of God on particular persons, is by no means to be judged of by the degree of external appearances, because of the different constitution, tempers, and circumstances of men; yet if there be a very powerful influence of the Spirit of God on a mixed multitude, it will cause, some way or other, a great visible commotion" [emphasis mine] (399-400).


Thus, so long as the principal aim of a preacher is to raise someone's affections to as great a height as possible, the fact that bodily effects often appear as the fruit thereof is not a legitimate ground for criticism.


7.             "Again, some ministers have been blamed for keeping persons together that have been under great affections, which have appeared in such extraordinary outward manifestations. Many think this promotes confusion, that persons in such circumstances do but discompose each other's minds, and disturb the minds of others; and that therefore 'tis best they should be dispersed, and that when any in a congregation are [so] strongly seized that they can't forbear outward manifestations of it, they should be removed, that others' minds may not be diverted" (400).


On the contrary, says Edwards,


"the unavoidable manifestations of strong religious affections tend to an happy influence on the minds of bystanders, and are found by experience to have an excellent and durable effect; and so to contrive and order things, that others may have opportunity and advantage to observe them, has been found to be blessed as a great means to promote the work of God; and to prevent their being in the way of observation, is to prevent the effect of that which God makes use of as a principal means of carrying on his work at such an extraordinary time, viz. example; which is often spoken of in Scripture as one of the chief means by which God would carry on his work, in the time of the prosperity of religion in the latter days" (400-01).


8.             "Another thing that gives great disgust to many is the disposition that persons shew, under great affections, to speak so much, and with such earnestness and vehemence, to be setting forth the greatness and wonderfulness and importance of divine and eternal things; and to be so passionately warning, inviting and entreating others" (401-02).


Edwards believed that those who voiced this criticism "have one rule of reasoning about temporal things, and another about spiritual things. They won't at all wonder, if a person on some very great and affecting occasion of extraordinary danger or great joy, that eminently and immediately concerns him and others, is disposed to speak much, and with great earnestness, especially to those to whom he is united in the bonds of dear affection and great concern for their good. And therefore, if they were just, why would they not allow it in spiritual things? And much more in them, agreeably to the vastly greater importance and more affecting nature of spiritual things, and the concern which true religion causes in men's minds for the good of others, and the disposition it gives and excites to speak God's praises, to shew forth his infinite glory, and talk of all his glorious perfections and works?" (402)


N.B. At this point, Edwards makes use of Zech. 9:15-17 in response to those who complained that when participants in the revival "get together, talking loud and earnestly, in their pretended great joys, several in a room talking at the same time, make a noise just like a company of drunken persons" (403).


Edwards believed that this text described the experience of God's people in the latter days. During a time of revival, God's people


"shall be filled as the vessels of the sanctuary that contained the drink offering, which was wine; and yet the words imply that it shall not literally be wine that they shall drink, and be filled with, because it is said, 'They shall drink, and make a noise, as through wine,' as if they had drank wine: which implies that they had not literally done it; and therefore we must understand the words [as meaning] that they shall drink into that, and be filled with that, which the wine of the drink offering represented, or was a type of, which is the Holy Spirit, as well as the blood of Christ, that new wine that is drank [sic] in our heavenly Father's kingdom. They shall be filled with the Spirit, which the Apostle sets in opposition to a being drunk with wine, Eph. 5:18. . . . 'Tis here foretold that the children of Zion, in the latter days, should be filled with that which should make 'em cheerful, and cause 'em to make a noise as through wine, and by which these joyful happy persons that are thus filled, shall be 'as the stones of a crown, lifted up as an ensign upon God's land,' being made joyful in the extraordinary manifestations of the beauty and love of Christ" (403-04).


9.             "Another thing that some have found fault with, is abounding so much in singing in religious meetings" (405).


Edwards thinks he knows the basis for this objection. It arises from their doubts about the authenticity of the work of revival as a whole. These critics "doubt of the pretended extraordinary love and joys that attend this work, and so find fault with the manifestations of them. If they thought persons were truly the subjects of an extraordinary degree of divine love, and heavenly rejoicing in God, I suppose they would not wonder at their having a disposition to be much in praise. They won't object against the saints and angels in heaven singing praises and hallelujahs to God, without ceasing day or night; and therefore doubtless will allow that the more the saints on earth are like 'em in their dispositions, the more they will be disposed to do like 'em" (405-06).


Another related objection was to the practice of "making use of hymns of human composure" (406), i.e., singing hymns other than those found in the book of Psalms. "But I know of no obligation we are under," responds Edwards, "to confine ourselves to it [the book of Psalms]. I can find no command or rule of God's Word, that does any more confine us to the words of the Scripture in our singing, than it does in our praying" (407).


10.          "Another thing that many have disliked, is the religious meetings of children, to read and pray together, and perform religious exercises by themselves. What is objected is children's want of that knowledge and discretion that is requisite, in order to a decent and profitable management of religious exercises" (407). Cf. Mt. 21:15-16.