Jonathan Edwards on Revival
We can learn so much from Jonathan Edwards about revival:
Given how much talk there is about revival at the moment, and how much interest is being shown to the various campus awakenings in the United States, and all the discussions and debates about them, I continue to be amazed that so little attention is being paid to perhaps the most spiritually discerning analyst and appraiser of revival: Jonathan Edwards.
He of course participated in revivals during his day and was constantly writing about what were true and false revivals, and what were the marks of real revivals and what were the marks of counterfeits. I have written often about him, especially of late. For those who know nothing about Edwards, see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/02/25/notable-christians-jonathan-edwards/
And for some articles specifically on his thoughts on revival, see these three pieces:
Since this piece will feature Martyn Lloyd-Jones and how he looks at Edwards and revival, see also this earlier piece that I did on how MLJ viewed emotion in the Christian life: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/10/11/emotion-the-spirit-and-the-christian-life/
In the first article I linked to above, I focused especially on a key book by MLJ: The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Banner of Truth, 1987). There I quoted from his chapter on “Jonathan Edwards and the Crucial Importance of Revival.”
This was a paper he had delivered back in 1976, and it is loaded with so much useful information on Edwards and revival. As Lloyd-Jones says toward the end of his paper: “No man is more relevant to the present condition of Christianity than Jonathan Edwards. None is more needed.” (p. 367)
Here I want to offer some more quotes from that chapter. It is hoped they will spur the reader on to get the volume by MLJ and read it for himself. And further, it is hoped that the quotes will spur the reader on to get some of the key works by Edwards as well. Here then are some key quotes:
“But we must leave that and come to what, after all, is the most remarkable thing of all about Jonathan Edwards. He was pre-eminently the theologian of Revival, the theologian of experience, or as some have put it ‘the theologian of the heart’. The most astonishing thing about this phenomenon, this mighty intellect, was that no man knew more about the workings of the human heart, regenerate and unregenerate, than Jonathan Edwards. If you want to know anything about the psychology of religion, conversion, revivals, read Jonathan Edwards.” p. 361
“But what is unique and superlative is the way in which he analyses experiences – both individual experiences and revival in general. It is here that he is pre-eminently the expert. If you want to know anything about true revival, Edwards is the man to consult. His knowledge of the human heart, and the psychology of human nature, is quite incomparable.
Edwards wrote these things because in a sense he was compelled to do so, because of criticisms and misunderstandings. He was always fighting on two fronts right through his life. A movement of the Spirit took place’ in his own church, and spread to other churches in quite an extensive area, and then came the Great Awakening in 1740 associated with his name and also Whitefield and others. All this divided the people and the churches into two groups. There were some who were totally opposed to the revival. They were orthodox men who held the same theology as Edwards. They were Calvinists, but they disliked revival. They disliked the emotional element, they disliked the novelty. They had many objections to what was happening; and Edwards had to defend the revival against these critics. But then there were men at the other extreme, the wild men; and with them the wild fire came in that always tends to come in during a revival. These were the enthusiasts, the men who went to extremes, the men who were guilty of folly. Edwards had to deal with them also; so here he was, fighting on the two fronts. But, of course, his one interest was the glory of God and the benefit of the church. He had no desire to be a controversialist, but he had to write for and defend the truth.” p. 362
“That was Edwards. He is not credulous, and he is not hypercritical. He examines the two sides always. He had to defend a number of unusual and remarkable phenomena that occurred in the revival of the 1740’S. He had to defend, and does defend, the fact that even the body may be affected. Edwards’ wife, on one occasion, exhibited the phenomenon which is known as levitation. She was literally carried from one part of the room to another without making any effort or exertion herself. Sometimes people would swoon and become unconscious in meetings. Edwards did not teach that such phenomena were of the devil. He has some striking things to say about this. He was always warning on both sides, warning against quenching the Spirit, warning also against being carried away by the flesh and being deluded by Satan through the flesh. He warned everybody. On one occasion Edwards even warned George Whitefield, who was staying with him. Whitefield had a tendency to obey and to listen to ‘impulses’ and he would act on them. Edwards ventured to criticize Whitefield on that score, and to warn him against possible dangers.” pp. 363-364
“The New Testament warns us against ‘quenching the Spirit’. We can be guilty of doing so in many ways. We can quench the Spirit by being exclusively interested in theology. We can do so also by being concerned only about the application of Christianity to industry, to education, to art, to politics etc. At the same time Edwards gives similar warnings to those who emphasize experience only. Nothing is more striking than the balance of this man. You must have the theology; but it must be theology on fire. There must be warmth and heat as well as light. In Edwards we find the ideal combination – the great doctrines with the fire of the Spirit upon them.” p. 368
“Then a word to church members. Does all I have said make you feel that you are hopeless? Does it make you doubt perhaps whether you are Christian? My advice to you is: Read Jonathan Edwards. Stop going to so many meetings; stop craving for the various forms of entertainment which are so popular in evangelical circles at the present time. Learn to stay at home. learn to read again, and do not merely read the exciting stories of certain modern people. Go back to something solid and deep and real. Are we losing the art of reading? Revivals have often started as the result of people reading volumes such as these two volumes of Edwards’ works. So read this man. Decide to do so. Read his sermons; read his practical treatises, and then go on to the great discourses on theological subjects.” pp. 369-370
“But above all, let all of us, preachers and listeners, having read this man, try to capture and to lay hold upon his greatest emphasis of all – the glory of God. Let us not stop at any benefit we may have had, and not even with the highest experiences we may have enjoyed. Let us seek to know more and more of the glory of God. That is what leads always to a true experience. We need to know the majesty of God, the sovereignty of God, and to feel a sense of awe, and of wonder. Do we know this? Is there in our churches a sense of wonder and of amazement? This is the impression Jonathan Edwards always conveys and creates. He teaches that these things are possible for the humblest Christian. He was preaching and ministering to most ordinary people, and yet he tells them that these things are possible to all of them. Then, beyond all, and at a time of crisis and uncertainty like the present, I know nothing more wonderful than his emphasis on the ‘blessed hope’. Read the sermon which he preached at the funeral of David Brainerd. It is an account of heaven and of the glory that awaits us as God’s children. In a collapsing world with everything dissolving before our eyes, is it not time that we lifted up our heads and our eyes, and looked to the glory that is coming. Let the financial position of this country collapse, let everything collapse, God’s purposes are sure and certain. Nothing ‘can make Him His purpose forego’; and there is a glory awaiting us which baffles description. It has been prepared for us, and there it awaits all who truly look to these things, and ‘the blessed appearing of our great God and Savior’.” p. 370
One Reply to “Jonathan Edwards on Revival”
“They disliked the emotional element, they disliked the novelty. They had many objections to what was happening; and Edwards had to defend the revival against these critics. But then there were men at the other extreme, the wild men; and with them the wild fire came in that always tends to come in during a revival.”
The first are often very content with the status quo, they’re quite comfortable in their faith and rituals and the like, and don’t wish to have things stirred up. Don’t want anyone upsetting the apple cart.
The second is more complex because there are often those who are for revival and understand that spirit filled emotion is good who can’t seem to recognize the wild fire when it burns right in front of them and when you warn them they claim you quenching the Spirit or don’t believe in the gifts of the spirit.
Of the two I would say the latter is harder to deal with. With the former you can through scripture expose that the objections they have aren’t supported by the Bible and their TRUE objections are simply not wanting to exchange the comfortable religion they have for Bible based Christianity! With the latter you have to convince them they are not seeing a controlled burn from the Holy Spirit but a wildfire from a different source, a great imitator, that will ultimately destroy them not breathe life into them.
I think it’s why even many true believers are wary of Pentecostals and Charismatics because they have seen how gullible those two groups often are and don’t wish to get involved. It’s not that they deny the gifts of the spirit or they want to quench the Spirit but they’ve seen these guys playing with fire too much to want to get burned.
I have noticed that sometimes cities or towns sometimes even regions will experience revival but national ones seem rarer at least in the past few hundred years. Every time a revival happens in some town like this asbury revival people think the next great awakening is starting yet time and again they have turned out to be localized revivals and no great awakening has occurred. Not saying it can’t but we tend to jump the gun an awful lot. I wish Christians would stop doing that and stop doing and saying stupid foolish things. I have seen numerous examples in my lifetime and read of more in the first half of the 20th century and in the 60’s and 70’s (born late 77).
We have enough trouble with the world thinking we are fools, idiots, and backwards without helping them out needlessly. For example how many things has the church declared the mark of the beast over the years??? How many have set dates for either the rapture or second coming?? (I do believe in the rapture I just don’t believe we can know the date nor should we be setting dates hoping that we get it right.) For goodness sake’s there is a well known meme/cartoon of a religious guy with a long white beard wearing a robe carrying a sign that says the end is nigh. That’s not because of effective preaching! Just because Jesus said the world will hate you doesn’t mean you have to make their job easy for them.