Theology of Revival Based on Jonathan Edwards’ Writings

Is the concept of “revival” biblically and theologically sound? One of America’s greatest theological minds, Jonathan Edwards, experienced waves of revival and wrote his reflections on the topic. You can read a summary of Edwards’ thoughts in this article by pastor Dr. Sam Storms.

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A Narrative of Surprising Conversions 


The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God 

Summary and Analysis 

On May 30, 1735, Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter of eight pages to Dr. Benjamin Colman (1673-1747), pastor of Brattle Street Church in Boston, in which he described the nature of the revival he was seeing. Colman sent much of the letter to a friend in London where news quickly spread about what was happening in the Colonies. Edwards was then asked to write a more detailed account, the result of which is:

A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of many hundred souls in Northampton, and the Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. 

Edwards completed work on the document on Nov. 6, 1736. What he describes is the first wave of revival (1734-36) that was later to be followed by what has come to be known as the Great Awakening (1740-42).

A. Historical precedents of the revival

Edwards identified five so-called harvests under his predecessor and grandfather, Solomon Stoddard (who served as pastor in Northampton for 60 years), in each of which Edwards heard Stoddard say "the greater part of the young people in the town, seemed to be mainly concerned for their eternal salvation" (9).

The unexpected deaths of two young people evidently stirred the people. Says Edwards: "This seemed to contribute to render solemn the spirits of many young persons; and there began evidently to appear more of a religious concern on people's minds" (11).

B. The Occasion of the revival

N.B. The origin/cause of the revival cannot be traced to the fearful reaction to some natural calamity. Whereas a diphtheria epidemic hit New England from 1735 to 1740, Gaustad points out that

"the epidemic appeared in New Jersey in 1735, long after the revival movement had been under way there; in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the severity of the epidemic in any given area bears no observable relation to the intensity of the revival in that area, either before or after Whitefield; in New Hampshire the epidemic was all over by 1736, making difficult an explanation of the five-year lapse between its terminus and the beginning of the Great Awakening in the Kingston-Hampton Falls area; and finally, while the epidemic was from four to five times as severe in New Hampshire and Maine as in Connecticut and Massachusetts, it was in the latter area that the revival was most pervasive" (The Great Awakening in New England  [Peter Smith Publishers, 1965]).

Edwards links the outbreak of spiritual renewal to two factors: 1) a series of sermons on justification by faith, and 2) the unusual conversion of an immoral young lady (see p. 12 of Narrative ).

C. Characteristics of the revival

  1. The daily conversation of virtually everyone was the revival - "Other discourse than of the things of religion would scarcely be tolerated in any company. The minds of people were wonderfully taken off from the world, it was treated amongst us as a thing of very little consequence" (13).
  2. Virtual neglect of daily affairs - "They seemed to follow their worldly business, more as a part of their duty, than from any disposition they had to it; the temptation now seemed to lie on that hand, to neglect worldly affairs too much, and to spend too much time in the immediate exercise of religion" (13). "The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing into it. The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances"(13).
  3. Widespread impact - "There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world" (13). See p. 14 of Narrative 
  4. Transformation in worship - "Our public praises were then greatly enlivened. . . . [People] were evidently wont to sing with unusual elevation of heart and voice, which made the duty pleasant indeed" (14).
  5. Focus on Christ
  6. The backslidden were restored
  7. The reaction of observers was two-fold:
    a) "Many scoffed at and ridiculed it; and some compared what we called conversion, to certain distempers" (15).
    b) Others were so impressed that they told others "that the state of the town could not be conceived of by those who had not seen it" (15). Edwards makes this interesting comment:

    "There were many instances of persons who came from abroad on visits, or on business, who had not been long here, before, to all appearances, they were savingly wrought upon, and partook of that shower of divine blessing which God rained down here, and went home rejoicing; till at length the same work began evidently to appear and prevail in several other towns in the country" (15).

  8. Geographic dimensions - Edwards cites more than 30 other communities where the revival erupted.
  9. The revival impacted all ages, all sorts
  10. Many saved - Edwards writes: "I hope that more than 300 souls were savingly brought home to Christ, in this town [Northampton], in the space of half a year, and about the same number of males as females" (19).
  11. Acceleration/Intensification of God's activity - "God has also seemed to have gone out of his usual way, in the quickness of his work, and the swift progress his Spirit has made in his operations on the hearts of many. It is wonderful that persons should be so suddenly and yet so greatly changed" (21). Again, "when God in so remarkable a manner took the work into his own hands, there was as much done in a day or two, as at ordinary times, with all endeavours that men can use, and with such a blessing as we commonly have, is done in a year" (21).

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