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Enjoying God Blog

In a previous article I spoke of the first wave of the First Great Awakening, a revival that fell upon New England in 1734-36. Today we turn our attention to the second wave of the Spirit’s work and the events that can generally be dated 1740-42.

(1) Historians have typically traced the revival’s beginning to the visit to America of George Whitefield (1714-71), known as “The Grand Itinerant.” Whitefield 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, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972], 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” (Ibid., 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” (Cited in Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century [Westchester: Crossway Books, 1990], 89-90).

Benjamin Franklin, although an unbeliever, regarded Whitefield to be his friend, and 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, “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” (49). Whitefield set sail for England on January 16, 1741, after 14 1/2 months of preaching in America. He returned for a brief visit in the fall of 1744.

(2) Whitefield was far from the only participant in this awakening. One must also mention Gilbert Tennent (1703-64), leader of the Presbyterian revival in the middle Colonies. Goen reports that “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, evidently, 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) Yet another preacher, of a decidedly different disposition, was James Davenport (1716-57). Davenport was labeled an “enthusiast” and was in many ways 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).

Davenport was at one point banned from speaking in Boston pulpits. In a printed declaration, fourteen Boston pastors censured him for leaning too much on “sudden Impulses,” rashly judging other ministers as unconverted, “going with his Friends singing thro’ the Streets and High-Ways,” and encouraging “private Brethren to pray and exhort.” They pronounced him “deeply tinctur’d with a Spirit of Enthusiasm” (cited by Thomas Kidd, The Great Awakening, 144).

Davenport was temporarily incarcerated by leading opponents of the revival on the assumption that he was mentally unstable. Although Edwards denounced his extremes, they became somewhat friendly following Davenport’s repentance and restoration to ministry. In late summer of 1744 Davenport issued his Confession and Retractions in which he acknowledged the fanaticism that had brought reproach on the revival. “On the whole,” notes Kidd, “it was a sincere but limited confession” (165).

(4) Opposition to the awakening was fierce and persistent. It was led by Charles Chauncy (1705-87), pastor of Boston's most influential church. Chauncy was the acknowledged leader of the "Old Lights", those who “vilified the whole revival as 'the effect of enthusiastic heat’” (63). Chauncy and his supporters typically preferred the time-honored traditions of the established order of religion in New England and opposed the new measures introduced by the revivalists. For them, conversion was principally a transformation in one’s intellectual convictions. The Christian life, therefore, together with any alleged encounter with the Spirit, must be reasonable, courteous, and not given to visible or vocal displays of emotion.

(5) Chauncy’s principal objections to the revival were published in September, 1743, in a work entitled, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (Boston, 1743). Among other concerns, he cited the ill effects of itinerant ministry, especially among those not ordained to the task of preaching: “Besides creating jealousies and threatening prerogatives,” said Chauncy, “itineracy flaunted the Congregational theory of the ministerial office” (Gaustad, 70).

Chauncy was especially offended by what he perceived to be fanatical excess in the behavior of those who participated in the revival. True religion, said Chauncy, was primarily a matter of the mind, not the affections, and was characterized by self-control, cultural sophistication, and strict moral propriety. “The plain truth is [that] an enlightened mind, and not raised affections, ought always to be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things” (cited by George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003], 281). One should not conclude from this that Edwards denigrated the mind, as is evident from a close analysis of Religious Affections. Marsden is also quick to point out that “as any perusal of Edwards’ sermons will confirm, Edwards’ exaltation of the affections was never at the expense of reason” (282).

(6) By the end of 1743, observes 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).

Numerous explanations for the diminishing influence 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).

In his book, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale, 2007), Thomas Kidd points out that

“the controversy generated by the revivals was not just a disagreement over tactics and emotions, but over social order. To understand the deep anxieties generated by revivalism, it is important to remember how profoundly stratified eighteenth-century American society was. Land-owning white men ruled over their families, social inferiors, servants, and slaves. The elites integrated all these people into a vast system of dependencies. Authorities tried to suppress irregularities that might challenge their hegemony.

One can appreciate, then, why many might have viewed radical evangelicals as a threat to a well-ordered society. Radical evangelicals ordained untutored, and occasionally nonwhite, men as pastors. They sometimes allowed women and nonwhites to serve as deacons or even as elders. They led crowds of the poor, children, and nonwhites singing through the streets. They permitted Native Americans, African Americans, and women to exhort in mixed congregations, and they commended their words as worthy of white male attention. They endorsed the visionary, ecstatic experiences of the disenfranchised. They believed that individuals could have immediate assurance of salvation by the indwelling witness of the Spirit. They affirmed laypeople’s right to critique their pastors and founded new churches fully committed to radical revival. While to modern eyes, the radicals’ innovations may seem modest, they were for their time well-nigh revolutionary. In the revivals, the world seemed to turn upside down as those with the very least agency in eighteenth-century American felt the power of God surge in their bodies” (xv).

(7) Throughout the revivals and well into their aftermath Edwards consistently defended the work as being, in general, of divine origin. He disapproved of “enthusiasm”, subjectivism, and those excesses which Davenport insisted were sure signs of the Spirit’s work, but did not believe these peripheral problems invalidated the legitimacy of what God was doing.

In hopes of putting an end to what they deemed extravagant and “enthusiastic” behavior on the part of a number of students, the administration at Yale invited Edwards to deliver the commencement speech on September 10, 1741. What they heard was, instead, a spirited defense, in general, of the spiritual authenticity of the revival. Edwards later expanded on the work and published it that same year with a preface by the Rev. William Cooper of Boston. The abbreviated title of the work is: The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.

Edwards' design was “to show what are the true, certain, and distinguishing evidences of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may safely proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see in others” (87).

His approach was two-fold. He began with what we might call “Negative Signs,” or events, experiences, and religious phenomena from which we may conclude nothing. One is not free to deduce from the presence of these occurrences either that the Holy Spirit produced them or that he did not. They may well be the fruit of the Spirit’s activity, but then again may just as easily be the result of human weakness or emotional instability or the product of a manipulative evangelist. Scripture simply doesn’t provide explicit guidelines by which we may know.

Edwards then turned to those signs which are sure and certain evidence of the Spirit's work. He proceeds “to show positively what are the sure, distinguishing Scripture evidences and marks of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see among a people without danger of being misled” (109). Here Edwards bases his argument on principles gleaned from 1 John 4:1-6.

(8) Some, such as Davenport and his followers, claimed that they were recipients of the Spirit’s grace because they experienced a wide range of physical phenomena, whether shaking or shouting, laughing or weeping, or other overt displays of what they considered genuine religious zeal. Edwards himself was witness to folk who “lost their bodily strength” (i.e., fell to the ground), included among whom was his own wife, Sarah. Others testified to seeing visions, hearing voices, or otherwise feeling “impressions” on the “imagination”. At times, some would fall into a trance-like state and would remain therein for twenty-four hours or longer.

Were such physical manifestations and convulsions a sure sign of the Spirit’s work? Or were they in every instance the product of manipulative ministers who excelled in unleashing the emotions of unsuspecting sheep? Neither, said Edwards. Such physical phenomena may be the result of the Spirit’s encounter with the frailty of human nature. But maybe not. In any case they are insufficient grounds on which to base one’s assurance of salvation and by no means constitute the essence of the religious life.

(9) In his treatise, Religious Affections, Edwards argues, against Chauncy, that true religion consists not merely of a “notional” understanding and cognitive acquiescence to truth, but of a “sense of the heart” in which lively and vigorous affections of love and delight and joy and peace and yearning are in evidence. Such affections, said Edwards, may be accompanied by physiological phenomena, but the presence of the latter was no sure proof of the reality of the former. We must also remember that Edwards will argue, against Davenport, that physiological phenomena, in and of themselves, prove nothing about the reality of spiritual experience. We should not be surprised, said Edwards, if the body reacts in strange and manifest ways to what the mind perceives, but bodily actions can as easily be the result of any number of purely natural (not to mention demonic), physiological, and psychological factors that have nothing to do with the special saving grace of the Holy Spirit.

Yet, in spite of the undeniable excesses and emotional extremes to which Davenport and others took the revival, Edward saw in the midst of it a genuine work of God. He was not in the least inclined to throw out what he regarded as a live baby simply because some had dirtied the water with the soil of their religious delusions.

(10) With hindsight Edwards’ acknowledged that he had been somewhat naïve in his belief that as many had been saved as claimed to be. In the aftermath of revival, he had witnessed and worked with far too many people who quickly fell away from their initial zeal and profession of faith. Without dismissing the revival altogether, he became ever more convinced that the subjective experiences and physical manifestations on which many based their assurance of salvation were a poor and misleading foundation on which to build.

As Michael Haykin has pointed out, “much of the problem lay in the fact that many of the congregation had wrong notions about the way of ascertaining a genuine conversion. Too much weight was placed upon ‘impressions on the imagination’ and specific experiences, and not enough consideration given to what Edwards calls ‘the abiding sense and temper of their hearts’ and ‘fruits of grace’” (Michael A. G. Haykin, Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival [Webster, NY: Evangelical Press, 2005], 48).


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