Second Thoughts on the Great Awakening

jedwardsWhen I was in College and new to Reformed Theology I was a member of an independent church that fit the mold of the New Calvinism movement. Our pastor emphasized the first Great Awakening, the experience of the new birth, and the possibility of a Surprising Work of God in our own day. Naturally I became very interested in the works of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

While I was reading through Iain Murray’s rose-tinted biography of Jonathan Edwards, I began to have second thoughts on the Great Awakening. There were a number of odd facts that didn’t seem to fit the narrative of true Revival. For instance, I thought it was strange that on the heels of the first wave of revival (1734-35) that a spirit of mass depression and even suicidal tendencies (and several actual suicides) came upon the Northampton residents (Faithful Narrative: Works 4: 205-207). Following the second wave of revival (1740-42) Northampton again became a melancholy place and for years no one came forward to become a communicant member of the church. By 1744 Pastor Edwards became a persona non grata among most. Edwards was mired in various controversies his remaining years at Northampton. By 1750 the church members voted 230-23 to give Edwards the boot!

The Wesley brothers (and later, Charles Finney) could interpret such disappointments as due to a lack of perseverance by the people. But Edwards and Whitfield correctly believed that perseverance is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Where there is true conversion, there can be no such falling away. Such dissension and strife in Northampton is hardly compatible with the fruit of the Spirit.

How did Jonathan Edwards interpret being fired by his spiritual children? In 1751 Edwards wrote a letter to Scotsman Thomas Gillespie that contained his own reevaluation of the Northampton debacle. Edwards traced much of the problem to the well-intentioned but misguided theology of Northampton’s previous minister, his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Pastor Stoddard was possessed “of a dogmatical temper” and had inculcated “certain wrong notions and ways in religion” among Northampton’s residents. Particularly, they were too ready to stress the “impressions on the imagination” that they took to be their conversion experiences and too unwilling to see “the abiding sense and temper of their hearts” and the “exercises and fruits of grace” as the true evidences of regeneration. Edwards confesses that he too was swept up in these notions and that being young, “I was not thoroughly aware of the ill consequences of such a custom.” He further admitted, “The number of true converts was not so great as was then imagined.”

I began to suspect that the true significance of the Great Awakening was not in bringing a revival of religion, but rather it signaled a new way Christians interpreted their Christian faith, piety and practice. Perhaps it was not so different from the second Great Awakening after all.

Part 2: The Forgotten Edwards