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Jonathan Edward’s and the Little Awakening

This was one of the best essays I have had to write yet – I knew next to nothing about Jonathan Edwards – was I in for a treat! Coming from a scientific background I really appreciated Edward’s analytical approach which he applied to the Little Awakening. He left an enormous legacy of theological writing, and is regarded by some as the greatest theologian from America.

I for one, couldn’t get enough!

Examine one historical or contemporary example of Kingdom ministry, demonstrating how practices of ministry relate to underlying theological commitments, and evaluating those commitments.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards, The Little Awakening and his Theology of Conversion

In this essay I will study some of the underlying theological commitments of Jonathan Edwards with reference to the ‘Little Awakening’ that occurred during 1734/5.[1] In 1737 Edwards wrote up a detailed description and analysis of what took place in his famous essay ‘A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God’ first published in London in 1737. The essay can be split into sections ‘A New Awakening Begins’ dealing with a chronology of events, the ‘Responses of the Awakened’ dealing with the process and ‘Two notable Converts’ where Edwards details the experience of two persons.

Edwards bought an empirical method to the study of theology, and sought to develop his theology without ignoring what he saw happening around him whilst integrating it with scripture. The events of 1734/5 turned him into a ‘psychologist of religion’ and Edwards conducted interviews with his parishioners which functioned as the basis for the incisive theological and empirical analysis in ‘Faithful Narrative.’[2]

I begin with a brief outline of his formative years, going on to a description of the events and then an analysis of some of the underlying theology.

Jonathan Edwards from Birth to Solomon Stoddard.

George Trevelyan, the British historian, describes the early decades of the eighteenth century as an ‘Augustan Age,’ referring to the reign of the Emperor Augustine who founded the Roman Empire. This was a period of peace, prosperity and stability, which began to collapse around 1740.[3] Prior to this collapse was a period of manufacturing, commerce and expansion, and the first mass media was introduced.[4] There was a rapid expansion of the colonial populations from around two hundred thousand to two and a half million, many of whom were descended from Puritan migrants who arrived during 1630-40, bringing their strong belief in the ‘second birth’ with them.[5]

Into this prosperous and rapidly changing time Johnathan Edwards was born, the only son of eleven children on the 5th October 1703, the fourth generation of his family in the Connecticut area. His father, Timothy was a pastor of a congregational church and his mother, Esther was daughter of Pastor Solomon Stoddard of Northampton.[6] Esther taught him Latin, arithmetic and composition and Timothy, who was often absent, urged that Jonathan not be ‘too free with his time.’ By age twelve Jonathan was wandering around the countryside studying natural phenomena, performing experiments and writing essays containing both his results and conclusions. Brockway quotes Jonathan referring to a spider which he had subjected to repeated trials until he was ‘fully satisfied of his way of working’ and adding

‘we hence see the exuberant Goodness of the Creator Who hath not only Provided all the Necessities but also for the Pleasure and Recreation of all sorts of Creatures. And even the insects and those that are most Despicable.’[7]

By the age of twelve he was mastering the scientific methods of hypothesis, experiment and verification, and applying them with a theological bent. This was formative in his later writings and ministry as we shall see.

In 1716 Jonathan went to study in a new Collegiate at New Haven, which would later become Yale. There, picking up great ‘powers in the world of learning’ he had access to a library containing many important works by authors such as Locke, Newton and Berkeley. During his time at Yale, Jonathan wrote a series of resolutions concerning how he would live his day to day life. They give insight into his personality at the beginning of his work life. Resolution 1 includes ‘I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God and my own good, profit and pleasure’ and Resolution 38 includes ‘Never to utter anything that is sportive, or matter of laughter, on a Lord’s Day.’[8]  It is said of Edwards, who usually read his talks, that ‘he felt a day was wasted if he didn’t study thirteen hours for his sermons.’[9]

Jonathan Edwards was clearly a talented and highly educated individual, with an analytical mind which was just at home reading ancient languages as it was analysing the world around him empirically.

In 1727 Jonathan became assistant pastor at Solomon Stoddard’s church in Northampton on the Connecticut River, a remote but prosperous area.[10] Previously Stoddard had seen several awakenings, and during this year there was yet another, preceded by an earthquake. Naturally, Edwards would have witnessed this revival first hand. In 1729 Stoddard died and Edwards pastored the church until 1750. In a significant way the people of the area were prepared for the awakening that Edwards would bring, and as Lambert points out, so was Edwards.[11]

The Youth are in Decline

The people of Northampton as a whole were in something of a spiritual decline when Edwards took over the church, and there were some significant social pressures, especially on the young people.

The practice of distributing land to young men when they came of age was disrupted due to the scarcity of new land. Some large farmers were consolidating their holdings by absorbing the common lands which had given foundation to the communal Puritan ideals. Overall, people were prosperous but the young people were trapped in this ‘in-between situation’ being dependent on their parents and not able to strike out on their own and getting married.[12]

The effect of all this was that the young people went into something of a spiritual decline. Edwards writes of the young people that they ‘[got] together in conventions of both sexes, for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics’ often during his lectures, or on the Sabbath, and goes on to say ‘family government did too much fail in the town.’ He also describes a long on-going feud between two parties ‘by which they maintained a jealousy one of the other, and they were prepared to oppose one another in all public affairs.’ [13]

There is a tendency to try to explain spiritual things away as simply cause and effect. Thus it could be stated that the revival that was about to break out was a natural consequence of the ‘in-between’ status of the youth, and their impoverished spiritual conditions at the time. Marsden states that Edwards would not have been concerned by this analysis at all. One of his key theological beliefs was that God always worked through a means by which he provided soil for revival. The means could be anything, including the in-between status of the young people caused by land shortage. Edwards response was to provide a ‘means of grace’ to tend to the soil of the young people, by analytically approaching the problem much in the same way he had studied spiders. Edwards clearly had a holistic approach where God was involved in all aspects of life, working out his good plans. Edwards allowed his practice to be shaped by this theology of ‘means’, and in this case he did it in several, practical ways.[14]

Edwards had laboured since his arrival to produce more spiritual fruit in the lives of his Northampton parishioners. In March 1734 he preached a sermon using Isaiah 5:4 to show that God would trample underfoot the ‘vineyard’ despite all his hard work in cultivating it. Edwards also confronted the behaviour of the youth by appealing to the heads of households – the men – to get their young people under control, and to keep them at home at these times. Edwards saw himself and his flock as being like a tribe of Israel, and so, following the biblical pattern he worked through the heads of the families and thus extend his authority over the community.[15] The day after the sermon it was discovered that there was no need for the parents to ‘exercise their government’ since the ‘young people had declared themselves convinced’ by the sermon.

Here we see Edwards acting in ways which follow what he would have understood as the biblical hierarchy for society. In his day the pastor was a person of high regard, who carried authority, hence the ‘tribal head’ motif, and so he ‘gathered together’ the heads of the families just as the bible describes. Societal structure now is very different to that in the Old Testament, and indeed to that of the 17th century too. Nowadays of course it would most likely be a very different story, since the standing of a pastor in the community has changed dramatically. If a similar thing were to be tried today within a local church, there would doubtless be considerable opposition as we are generally much more independently minded and questioning of authority.

The Awakening Begins

Soon after this softening of the youth, Edwards describes how the congregation of a small outlying village called Pascommuck, began to show ‘remarkable religious concern’ and how some were ‘savingly wrought upon.’ Then, in April 1734 came the news of ‘a very sudden and awful death of a young man in the bloom of his youth’.[16] Edwards had nearly died twice when he was young and had therefore spent time reflecting upon the ‘folly of loving earthly pleasures when on the brink of eternity.’ With this in mind, Jonathan preached a sermon to the Northampton mourners based on Psalm 90:5-6 emphasising how the beautiful flowers of the field can wither away so quickly in the prime of their lives if cut down.

Marsden goes on to state that he ended the sermon by restating one of his core values – how unreasonable it is ‘to be misled by the beauty and pleasures of this earthly body when they could look forward to a vastly greater pleasure in the world to come.’[17] This is interesting when compared with his first resolution where he specifically talks about doing whatever is for ‘his own good, profit and pleasure.’ He clearly had a sense that the pleasures of this world were of far less ‘profit and good’ than thinking of the world to come, and again laid this out before the people as a ‘means of grace.’

Soon after a young, married woman died who had been ‘considerably exercised in the mind about the salvation of her soul’ at the start of her illness, but who had reached a place of ‘satisfying evidences of God’s saving mercy.’[18] Since the lady died a saint, Edwards was this time able to preach a sermon full of joy and comfort at her funeral in June.

All these events together lead to Edwards describing the ‘solemnizing of the spirits of many young persons’, and so in the following Autumn, he suggested that the young people set up meetings during what had been a previous favourite ‘frolicking time.’  This was so successful that the older folk copied the idea. Such meetings, run by and for the laity, had always been a bedrock of the Puritan ideal, and Edwards was breathing new life into them. The meetings were thriving, joyful occasions full of prayer and singing.[19]

Edwards describes how at about this time there ‘began a great noise … about Arminianism’ which surprisingly seemed to have a good effect in that it was ‘strongly to be overruled for the promoting of religion.’[20] In fact Edwards goes on to describe how towards the end of December five or six people were suddenly saved in a sovereign manner as the Spirit of God began to ‘extraordinarily set it.’[21]

At this point a young woman was gloriously saved that Edwards had regarded as one of the greatest frolickers, and who to his surprise gave an account of how God had given her a new heart, truly broken and sanctified. He expresses his concern that her conversion might have a negative effect, but in reality ‘God made it the greatest occasion of awakening of others, of anything that ever came to pass in the town.’[22]

After this the talk in the whole town was of nothing but religion, as Edwards puts it. The world was a thing of ‘by the bye,’ conversions appeared to be happening almost every day, and the town was never so full of love and joy as it was now. In services people would weep from sorrow and distress, or joy and love, and for concern for their neighbours who might be in danger of ‘dropping into hell.’[23] Those formerly converted were renewed, and Christians who had fears for their own salvation had their doubts removed by ‘clear discoveries of God’s love.’[24]

Later Edwards writes that some three hundred souls were added in half a year, and that the numbers were unusually equally split between men and women, and included (also unusually) many older folk who were ‘savingly changed.’[25]

Marsden states that the revival’s end came abruptly and tragically with the death by suicide of Jonathan’s Uncle Hawley, probably as a result of depression. After the shock of this dreadful event the religious fervour gradually died down.[26]

Theological Themes

Preparation for Conversion

Early in ‘Faithful Narrative’ we read of the people of Pascommuck that they seemed to be ‘savingly wrought upon’ a phrase which is variously repeated throughout the work.[27] The phrase implies a process that is done to a person from an outside agency – the Holy Spirit. The word ‘wrought’ implies that it is hard work, and ‘savingly’ that the person can be wrought upon and not be saved. This latter point of course bring up the relationship between Edwards and Calvinism, which is fortunately beyond the scope of this essay. There is plenty too in the narrative to suggest that persons who were wrought upon did not always get converted.

As we noted the Puritans had a strong emphasis on conversion. At this time they had a theory called the ‘morphology of conversion’ whereby the new saint had been prepared for conversion by going through a series of steps such as knowledge of the law, conviction of sin and saving faith. The saint would go through these steps using ‘a means of grace’ such as preaching or prayer, and whilst Edwards was happy to agree that preparation comes before conversion in except in the most exceptional of cases, he shows in his research that there are many and varied ways to God works upon people.[28]

Whilst Edwards is quick to point out that there is huge variety in how persons get converted, he also states that ‘in many things there is a great analogy in all.’ We get the sense that there is always the preparatory work, with several recognisable phases which may or may not be included, and if indeed they are, in no particular order. We can see this as he describes people’s fear of judgement, conviction of sin, recognition of their total dependence on God and so forth.[29] As a whole this suggests that a water-tight classification is impossible, which of course if hardly surprising.

That this preparatory work is usually essential is clearly illustrated in a passage in ‘Faithful Narrative’ in which Edwards writes that ‘God seems to have gone out of his usual way in the quickness of his work’ and that it is ‘wonderful that persons should be so suddenly, and yet so greatly changed.’ In case the reader is tempted to think that these might be sudden converts that bypassed the preparation phase he then adds that ‘many have been taken from loose and careless way of living, and seized with strong convictions of their guilt and misery.’ To further underline the point that these ‘persons’ had indeed been properly ‘wrought upon’ he ends the section by quoting 2 Cor 5:17 writing ‘and in a very little time ‘old things have passed away, and all things have become new with them.’ [30]

Edwards felt that the preparation was needed to bring about the radical change to the mind of a convert. Logically this is correct because the preparation enables you to have a good sense of the state of your soul, and the certain outcome of that state. If you are not fully aware of this state and its consequences, you are more likely to return to it later.

That the events at Northampton were anything but a sovereign work of God would not have crossed the mind of Edwards. He was clear that if anyone was to start seeking God it was only because the Holy Spirit was first acting upon them to do so, and thus even the preparation was a work of God.

Hell, Wrath and Damnation

Edwards lived of course in a very different time to us, as has already been illustrated with reference to the pastor being akin to a tribal leader. As you read ‘Faithful Narrative’ it is increasingly apparent that talk of hell, judgement, wrath and so forth is very much the norm. From his interviews Edwards variously describes people as being ‘awakened with a sense of … the danger they are in of perishing eternally’ and ‘sleeping upon the brink of hell.’  He says of one woman ‘she saw nothing but blackness of darkness before her, and her very flesh trembled for fear of God’s wrath’ and records the eleven year old Phebe saying ‘I am afraid I shall go to hell.’[31]

It could be argued by moderns that the awakening was triggered by invoking fear in people in the way that Edwards reacted to the poor behaviour of the youth, and the untimely deaths that occurred. However, Edwards probably did exactly that, reacting to these events to awaken the people to the state of their souls. He would have considered his response as one step in the ‘means of grace’ that God would use to bring people to their conversion. Edwards clearly believed what is written about these unpopular subjects without question, and it is to his credit that he reacted to them with seeming integrity. It would be unfair to say that Edwards was preoccupied with such subjects, but rather perhaps we are reminded that in our expression we have perhaps lost sight of these ‘unpalatable’ messages.

A New Sense of Heart

Jonathan Edwards believed that God communicates in a way that goes beyond the rational understanding of humans. A converted person is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is thus able to perceive the things of God which the unconverted cannot. Edwards describes this as a new sense, although perhaps it is rather the reclaiming of one that was lost at the fall. Either way, this is a marvellous notion, and the ‘power necessary to appreciate the spiritual light that radiates from God’ as Marsden puts it.[32]

McClymond and McDermott further describe Edwards’s illustrations of this new sense. Being able to describe honey in great detail is vastly inferior to having tasted it. You may be told much of a person’s loveliness, but you cannot fully appreciate their beauty without physically beholding it. Thus an unconverted person can know a lot of wonderful things about God, but without this new sense they have ‘as little understanding of God as those born blind have of colours.’[33]

Edwards talked a lot about the ‘affections’, which he understood to mean the driving force behind the will, emotions and mind. The affections are therefore more basic than emotions, and are responsible for determining nearly everything that a person does, feels or thinks.[34] Edwards relates that the new sense is both ‘qualitative and affective, not simply rational or theoretical.’[35] This is interesting because it appears that Edwards is suggesting that on conversion, as a result of the new heart sense, the affections are in some way reworked such that new ‘springs of motion’ are put into place. Examples of this new motion would be the way that the young people ceased their frolicking and devoted themselves to the things of religion or the way in which Edwards could write of the people ‘the only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven.’[36]

Edwards believed that this ‘sense of the heart’ brings transformation. He contrasted how ‘natural men’ with great ‘knowledge of divinity’ are not transformed, but that for the believer this new sense changes their ‘very innermost principles’ and creates a new creature with ‘an heavenly temper’ and ‘angelic mind.’ [37] This is clearly demonstrated in the previously quoted passage describing the loving and religious atmosphere in Northampton as the revival progressed.

When Paul talks of a new creation he is referring to many things, one of which Edwards would say is this transformation of the affections bought about by the new ability to see the goodness and glory of God.  Edwards would say that on conversion the Holy Spirit gives the saint the ability to perceive spiritual things which they could not before, such as glimpses of the sovereignty, glory, kindness and power of God. These things are of such beauty that transformation is wrought within the affections, and inevitably a person changes.

However, it is important to remember that to Edwards salvation required regeneration and was thus an ongoing process – what could be referred to as ‘continuing conversion’ whereby there were fresh illuminations and infusions as time went on.[38]  In my experience there are times when the inner light reveals some new aspect of God that reigniting that sense of his beauty, and reawakens the affection that Edwards spoke about. This is backed up when Edwards speaks of the pleasure that man can have in natural pursuits, but ‘it is nothing to that joy that arises from this divine light shining into the soul.’[39] The sight of God’s holy beauty beginning at conversion, continues on throughout the Christian life and when fresh glimpses of it are given there is nothing to compare with it. As Edwards writes concerning the reaction of the formerly converted to the Northampton events, they ‘were greatly enlivened and renewed with fresh and extraordinary incomes of the Spirit of God.’[40] This indeed has been my experience of the Christian life, especially since I have undertaken some theological study.

Lastly then, throughout the narrative a reoccurring theme is that of people seeking assurance of their salvation. McClymond and McDermott state that with this pleasure of the divine light shining on the soul comes certainty and so assurance. The ‘divine and supernatural light’ gives such ‘intense and affecting’ knowledge of divine things that they ‘do appear real to us.’[41] Thus in the example of young Phebe we see her wrestling because she could not find God, and then after a while beginning to smile and saying ‘Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me!’ and then saying that she can find God.[42]

Concluding Remarks

The revival at Northampton was carefully recorded by Jonathan Edwards and he both described and analysed what happened. His theology clearly guided his practice in many ways as his interviews and actions show. But it would also be true to say that his research guided his theology, albeit under the wing of scripture. He believed that as a problem or situation presented itself he could analyse it, and in response try things out until they worked. This is evidenced by both the years of preparation that he went through with his Northampton ‘vineyard’ and the preparation of the people as they were wrought upon.

A continuing theme is that Edwards believed God acted sovereignly and indeed the full name of the narrative includes the phrase ‘surprising work of God.’ Thus it seems that Edwards felt the awakening came out of the blue. However, he was in fact working for a change in the hearts of the people for a long time, and reacted as we have said to what he saw as God’s sovereign means around him. Perhaps Edwards was just not prepared for the scale of his success?

Whilst some in his day felt that conversion was a purely a matter of intellectual agreement or an emotional response, Edwards believed that his research showed that it was both. Persons would normally go through some painful emotional preparation, passing through barriers as the Spirit guided them. There would as well have to be rational understanding and intellectual acceptance. In this Edwards therefore steered a middle course.

He believed that at the point of conversion the Holy Spirit entered a person, giving them a new sense whereby the things of God were sensible to them. This then led to an experience of the beauty of God in some way, which led in turn to tangible change of some sort. This is documented many times in the narrative. However, there are those who claim to have no conversion moment that they can pinpoint. Also what of those who claim to have some experience of God before they are converted? Most likely Edwards, given the breadth of his writings had plenty to say about them too.


[1] Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 29.

[2] Ibid., 79.

[3] Robert W Brockway, A Wonderful Work of God: Puritanism and the Great Awakening (Cranbury: Associated University Press, 2003), 25.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] |Ibid., 29.

[6] E. Earle Cairns, An Endless Line of Splendour: Revivals and their Leaders from The Great Awakening to the Present (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986), 44.

[7] Brockway, Wonderful Work, 83.

[8] Ibid., 86.

[9] Cairns, Splendour, 45.

[10] Brockway, Wonderful Work, 86.

[11] Frank Lambert, Inventing the Geat Awakening (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 62.

[12] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 150, 151.

[13] Jonathan Edwards, ‘Faithful Narrative’ in Works of Jonathan Edwards 4, Great Awakening (ed. C.C. Goen; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 144-211, 146.

[14] Marsden, A Life, 152.

[15] Ibid., 152.

[16] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 147.

[17] Marsden, A Life, 154.

[18] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 148.

[19] Marsden, A Life, 156.

[20] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 148.

[21] Ibid., 149.

[22] Ibid., 149.

[23] Ibid., 150 – 151.

[24] Ibid., 152.

[25] Ibid., 158.

[26] Brockway, A Wonderful Work, 91.

[27] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 147.

[28] McClymond and McDermott, Theology, 373.

[29] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 160.

[30] Ibid., 159.

[31] Ibid., 160, 162, 192, 200.

[32] Marsden, Edwards: A Life, 157.

[33] McClymond and McDermott, Theology, 379.

[34] Ibid., 311.

[35] Marsden, A Life, 157.

[36] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 150.

[37] McClymond and McDermott, Theology, 379.

[38] Ibid., 19.

[39] Ibid., 380.

[40] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 152.

[41] McClymond and McDermott, Theology, 380.

[42] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 200.

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