Jonathan Edwards the Revivalist

In the aftermath of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards saw the work of the Spirit of God in colonial America. Unlike men such as Boston pastor Charles Chauncy, the Northampton theologian was unwilling to dismiss the entire movement as ungodly simply due to its spiritual aberrations. Edwards was well aware of the many factions and excesses brought about by the Great Awakening. In many ways, Edwards navigated a via media between enthusiasts like James Davenport and rationalists similar to Chauncy. His support for the revival, however, never wavered. In 1741, Edwards composed The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God in order to aid the church in locating the authentic work of the Lord against Satanic perversions. In the treatise the author identifies a handful of positive signs. According to Edwards, when the Spirit of God is at work, (1) esteem for Jesus is raised, (2) the interests of Satan are opposed, (3) men have a greater regard for the Holy Scriptures, (4) a spirit of truth operates against a spirit of error, (5) and a spirit of love prevails among men.

In many ways, the last positive sign was the most prominent for Edwards. Within the triune life of God Himself, love was the perfect, continuous delight enjoyed between the Father and Son – the Holy Spirit Himself. Therefore a revival of the Spirit of God was absolutely a revival of love, an outpouring of the very love God has for Himself. According to Edwards, the Holy Spirit is “the spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, all flows out or is breathed forth in love.” (Works, 8, p.370) The eternal society and blessed fellowship between the three Persons of the Godhead is not a self-contained community; it seeks to communicate itself by lovingly obtaining a spouse for the Son of God through the indwelling of the Spirit. This was, for Edwards, the work of revival in essence. If revivalists had not love, they were not acting according to the Spirit of God. Nothing else could qualify as Spirit-led revival. Edwards avers,

“Christ nowhere says, Ye shall know the tree by its leaves or flowers, or ye shall know men by their talk, or ye shall know them by the good story they tell of their experiences, or ye shall know them by the manner and air of their speaking, and emphasis and pathos of expression, or by their speaking feelingly, or by making a very great show by abundance of talk, or by many tears and affectionate expressions.” (Works, 2, p.407)

Love desires union. Therefore Edwards looked upon the factiousness of the revival as a Satanic perversion of a heavenly gift of God. The very same Spirit that served as the union of divine love between the Father and Son and forged the hypostatic union of Christ’s natures was also the Spirit that unified the people of God with one another and with Christ. The cornerstone of this unity is the self-giving love of God Himself. In The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God, Edwards compares godly unity with worldly unity: “it is only the working of a natural self-love, and no true benevolence, any more than the union and friendship which may be among a company of pirates, that are at war with all the rest of the world.”

Renowned Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom describes Edwards’ revivalist legacy brilliantly: “As a defender of the revivals he put his mark on the New England conception of Christian piety for a century and more. By the power of his thought he would also revolutionize the Puritan theological tradition. In view of the scope, subtlety, and significance of this effort, it is an outrage that Edwards should be best known throughout America as a hell-fire revivalist and by a few lines from one imprecatory sermon, delivered outside of his own parish, on ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’” (“Theology in America,” The Shaping of American Religion)

As Ahlstrom points out, in order to truly understand Edwards the revivalist the modern observer must start not with Edwards’ theology of wrath but with his theology of the Spirit. Inevitably the themes of love and union will follow. Only then can we begin to plumb the depths of Edwards’ revivalism and conversionism.

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