The Great Awakening in New England
The previous article in this series showed David Brainerd, desperately ill and in great bodily weakness, dying in the home of Jonathan Edwards at Northampton, Massachusetts. The practical and spiritual ministrations of that family must have been most congenial for him, for Jonathan Edwards had been powerfully used by God in the Great Awakening which profoundly influenced Brainerd.
The earliest New England colony had been established in 1620 at New Plymouth by the Pilgrim Fathers who voyaged to North America on board the Mayflower. The colonists were devout separatists from the Church of England who faced the risks and dangers of settling in America to allow them to enjoy liberty in Christian worship, free from the forms and traditions of the Church. Their aspirations were expressed in the singing of Psalm 100 when, after a difficult voyage, land was sighted. Joy must have mingled with relief!
The Massachusetts Bay colony was founded in 1630 when Puritans (with Calvinist views similar to those of the Pilgrim Fathers) under the leadership of John Winthrop crossed from England on board the Arbella. During the voyage Winthrop addressed his friends: We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ and we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love, and live in the exercise of it. The new community was to be A model of Christian charity, as a city set upon a hill. Thousands had followed the first pioneers to build strong colonies sharing the Puritan ethos, but nearly one hundred years and three generations later, the early zeal had somewhat waned though Puritan ideals remained tenacious.
Into such a society Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut in October, 1703. His father Timothy Edwards, a Harvard graduate, was the village pastor. His mother Esther was the daughter of the redoubtable minister Solomon Stoddard. Jonathan was schooled at home and his exceptional ability soon became apparent. When aged thirteen, he was sent to the recently established Yale College in New Haven where he studied theology and philosophy in preparation for the ministry. As a child Edwards had experienced religious desires, but as he grew older he felt himself to be spiritually lacking. In his "Personal Narrative" he confessed that his mind had been full of objections against the teaching that God sovereignly chooses some to salvation. After graduation Edwards served for a short time as a tutor at Yale. Facing problems in his work he suffered a period of severe depression, but this led to the turning point in his life when, early in 1721, he experienced a personal conversion. He became convinced that God had saved him by grace and came to a delightful conviction of divine sovereignty, and a new sense of God's glory revealed in Scripture and in nature.
In 1726 Edwards was appointed assistant pastor to his maternal grandfather Solomon Stoddard in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he laboured for 21 years. In that same year he married 17 year old Sarah Pierpont. It proved to be a happy union in which they had eleven children. Sarah was the great grand-daughter of Rev Thomas Hooker (born in 1586 in Leicestershire) who has been described as a towering figure in the development of colonial New England. Hooker had initially immigrated to Massachusetts, but following a disagreement with another minister he had moved to Connecticut to become a founder of that colony.
After his grandfather's death in 1729, Jonathan became the sole pastor. His first published sermon, preached to the Boston clergy in 1731, was entitled God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man's Dependence upon Him, in the Whole of it. He had a burden for young people in Northampton, and frequently preached against the sins to which he observed they were susceptible, but this was balanced by preaching on justification by faith. In the winter of 1734-35 a spiritual revival broke out and many of those young people professed conversion and applied for church membership. Edwards wrote: The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner and increased more and more; souls did, as it were, by flocks come to Jesus Christ.
The style of Edwards' preaching was recorded by one observer: He scarcely gestured or even moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination. He convinced with overwhelming weight of argument and with such intenseness of feeling. He spoke with an even voice, but with great conviction. He shunned shouting and theatrical antics, aiming to impress the listener with the power of the Truth and his desperate need for God. This recalls Paul's words: And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor 2.4).
Although revival spread to neighbouring towns, this awakening remained primarily local. After some months it seemed to have passed, and again Edwards was preaching to a congregation seemingly dull of hearing. This continued until 1740 when the Spirit of God moved in a mighty way in the preaching of George Whitefield during his second visit to British North America.¹ Whitefield's arrival was accompanied by a wave of blessing throughout the New England colonies. He preached on Boston Common to the largest crowd that had yet assembled there, and revival became widespread in the period 1740-42.
Edwards' ministry was again greatly blessed. In July, 1741, in Enfield, he preached what became his best known sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God based upon the text of Deuteronomy 32.35: To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. He had preached the sermon from his own pulpit to no apparent effect, but at Enfield the scene was extraordinary as described by Stephen Williams, an eyewitness: Before the sermon was done there was a great moaning and crying went through ye whole house…"What shall I do to be saved"…"Oh, I am going to Hell"…"Oh, what shall I do for Christ", and so forth. So the minister was obliged to desist, yet shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing. The Spirit of God was clearly moving in great power!
It has been estimated that during the revival about 10% of the population of New England was converted. Inevitably there was opposition to this divine work. Some ministers objected to the enthusiasm of the Awakening and what was regarded as the excessive emotional outbursts of some new converts. Edwards stoutly defended the revival in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God published in 1741. He explained that emotional displays did not prove that someone was a convert, but neither did these hinder God's working.
In later years problems arose for Edwards in his Northampton pastorate. He had introduced a new requirement that an applicant to church membership must give a credible profession of genuine faith before being allowed to partake of "communion". Although this was reverting to older Puritan practice, it differed from that of his grandfather who had believed that "communion" was a "converting ordinance". A large majority of the congregation rejected Edwards' convictions and the controversy led to his dismissal. On 1st July, 1750 he preached a dignified farewell sermon. Refusing other invitations, including one from Scotland, he moved to Stockbridge, a frontier town in western Massachusetts where for eight years he ministered to a small congregation and became a missionary to the local Indians. In the relative isolation of Stockbridge he produced major theological works including Freedom of Will in 1754 and Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended in 1757. A History of the Work of Redemption based upon a series of his sermons was published posthumously.
In 1758 Edwards left Stockbridge having accepted the post of President of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. He had just taken up his duties when a smallpox epidemic broke out. Edwards urged his own family and the townsfolk to be inoculated. Many were, and survived the outbreak, but in Edwards' case complications arose from his inoculation and he died at only 55 years of age.
He was a man of many parts - evangelist, pastor, and theologian. His writings proved to be formative in American thought, but perhaps his greatest work was evangelism. That was where his heart lay and God used him mightily in these great times of revival which we are now recalling.
To be continued.
¹ Believer's Magazine Article, March, 2011.