Today marks the 310th birthday of Great Awakening preacher Jonathan Edwards. While the First Great Awakening spread up and down the American colonies in the 1700s, the great awakening in New England centered on the ministry of Congregationalist pastor Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and the subsequent itinerant visits by George Whitefield from England. Edwards’ place in early American Christianity stands without peer. Remembered for his preaching, philosophical contributions, theological formulations, and his personal piety, Oliver Wendell Holmes echoed the opinion of many when he called Edwards and Benjamin Franklin the two most significant thinkers in early America.
C. C. Goen noted the importance of Edwards to the First Great Awakening and the ongoing heritage of revival in the West: “It was Jonathan Edwards who began the historical documentation and the theological defense which have sustained it as ongoing tradition.”
Edwards was born on October 5, 1703, the only son among eleven children to the Rev. and Mrs. Timothy Edwards. Timothy and Esther Stoddard Edwards lived in the same modest flat the entirety of their sixty-three years of marriage. Young Jonathan quickly distinguished himself as a prodigy. He read Latin by age six, and by thirteen read the writings of Locke with great pleasure. He wrote remarkable treatises, including Of Insects at age eleven, Of the Rainbow at about the same time, and he finished A Facetious Rebuttal to the Notion of a Material Soul before his thirteenth birthday. He graduated as valedictorian from Yale when he was sixteen.
Following his graduation Edwards briefly served as pastor of a Presbyterian church. Soon thereafter he earned his M.A. at Yale and was employed as a tutor for the school two years. During this time he wrote his Diary and Resolutions. The Diary consists of brief statements about his daily relationship with God. A total of seventy resolutions make up the latter work.
Edwards’ conversion came following a bout with pleurisy which caused him to fear for his life. He lived a disciplined life in the mode of his Puritan forefathers. His voluminous appetite for reading was satisfied with a variety of tastes. His writings reflect a broad knowledge of the Bible. He also searched out books with which he disagreed, which explains in part his aptitude toward apologetic and polemical writing. Fasting and prayer characterized his life, including the spending of days of prayer and fasting often through the course of a year. His Memoirs record as a boy of only seven or eight how he prayed five times daily in secret prayer. He also, with the help of schoolmates, built a booth in a swamp designed to be a place of prayer.
He married Sarah Pierrepont, who has been recognized along with Susannah Wesley as one of the models of a godly woman in Christian history. In 1726 he became associate pastor to the famous pastor Solomon Stoddard at the distinguished Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts. Stoddard, the maternal grandfather to Edwards, was so famous he was called the “Pope” by some and the “the White God” by some Indian tribes. After Stoddard’s death in 1729 Edwards became pastor of the church. Edwards’ Northampton pastorate would become a lightning rod for the growing thunderclouds of awakening.
In the Puritan style Edwards preached on Sundays and gave a Thursday lecture. He averaged thirteen hours daily in his study. His penchant for writing demonstrates the breadth of his intellect and his piety. His writings include works on philosophy and theology; however, the writings of Edwards related to revival provide a thorough history, explanation, and defense of the awakening in his day.
Before the widespread awakening of the early 1740s several localized revivals occurred in New England. Edwards’ first record of revival, the Narrative, chronicled the Valley Revival of 1734-35. Edwards was only thirty-one at the time. Edwards began by noting five church revivals under Solomon Stoddard’s ministry in Northampton during the years 1679, 1683, 1696, 1712, and 1718. The Valley Revival was so named because it spread from Northampton up and down the Connecticutt River valley.
Several factors contributed to the revival’s origin. Concerned about the dullness of the people toward the faith, Edwards called his people to honor the day of the Lord. This caused some to grow concerned over their laxity. This concern increased following the conversion of several families in the nearby town of Pascommuck.
Edwards also encouraged youth to form small groups for prayer and discussion; many adults joined in as well. Edwards repeatedly commented on the preeminent role young people had in this and subsequent revivals. The death of two young people in separate incidents added to the growing seriousness of the people. Revival erupted when Edwards preached a series of messages on justification by faith (note: in historic revivals, the leaders did not preach series on revival; they preached the gospel with power). Edwards himself was amazed at what he termed the “surprising works of God.” He wrote how that for some time in Northampton the only topic of discussion was of spiritual matters. Many persons came to Christ as a result of the supernatural activity of God. A frivolous young woman’s dramatic conversion was the first of many. Over three hundred professed faith in Christ in only six months.
By the spring of 1735 the church was crowded to capacity each week. Often the entire congregation was moved to tears due in some cases to joy, in others to sorrow for sin. In the months of March and April, nearly thirty were added to the church in addition to the spirit of revival among the believers. People came from other areas to see the amazing work. Many of them were awakened and spread the revival elsewhere. Edwards recorded that no less than twenty-seven towns ultimately experienced revival. Soon Edwards’ church counted over six hundred members, encompassing virtually the entire adult population of the town. And an even greater movement would come in the 1740s.
May we see God move in our time like in Edwards’ day. May God find ministers of the gospel with the personal piety, theological clarity, and ability to speak to the times and understand the work of God like Edwards.
The above was excerpted from Malcolm McDow and Alvin L. Reid, Firefall: How God Shapes History Through Revival. This book will be released in a new and updated edition early 2014.