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On May 10, 1716, Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter to one of his ten sisters, Mary. Written when he was twelve years old, it is the earliest known letter by Edwards. The very first paragraph is about awakening. That is to say, the earliest extant sentence that we have from Jonathan Edwards is about awakening. Edwards writes:

Dear Mary,

Through the wonderful mercy and goodness of God there hath in this place been a very remarkable stirring and pouring out of the Spirit of God, and likewise now is, but I think I have reason to think it is in some measure diminished, but I hope not much. About thirteen have joined the church in an estate of full communion. . . . I think there comes commonly a-Mondays above thirty persons to speak with father about the condition of their souls.

He goes on to let her know that Abigail, Hannah, and Lucy, three other sisters, all have the chicken pox and that he himself has a toothache. But this time of awakening dominates Edwards’ report of his father’s church at East Windsor, Conn.

After completing his degrees at Yale, Edwards took the post of assistant minister in Northampton, Mass. His maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, served as minister. Two years later, Stoddard died and Edwards found himself the senior and lone minister of the second-largest church in the New England Colonies. In 1731, Edwards was called upon to deliver the Thursday lecture corresponding with the commencement at Harvard. For the New England clergy, Harvard commencements were like the Super Bowl. Everyone came out to watch. Edwards preached to a packed house of clergy, many of whom had pastored for far more years than Edwards had been alive. Edwards preached the sermon “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption.” It was his first sermon to be published, and in it he declared, “God is glorified in the work of redemption in this, that there appears in it so absolute and universal dependence of the redeemed on God.” That is to say, salvation is a work of God from start to finish. “Let us exalt God alone,” Edwards concluded, “and ascribe to Him all the glory of redemption.”

For the next three years, Edwards preached the doctrines of grace to his congregation at Northampton. In 1734, he preached a sermon titled “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” When dead souls rise to new life, when blind eyes see the beauty of the gospel, and when deaf ears hear the transforming truth of the redemptive work of Christ—all of this is because of the divine and supernatural light. It is not a human or a natural light. Spiritual awakening comes from heaven above.

As Isaiah 55:10–11 promises, the preaching of the Word of God did not return void. It accomplished God’s purpose. From 1734 to 1736, there was a revival in the towns and churches dotting the Connecticut River Valley. Edwards reported on this in his first book, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton and in the Neighboring Towns (1737).

Jonathan Edwards’ first letter was an account of the outpouring of the Spirit of God. His first published sermon was a clear proclamation of the sovereignty of God in the work of redemption. His first book chronicled a revival. Awakening was a dominant theme of the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards.

Awakening was a dominant theme of the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards.

That Connecticut River Valley awakening, however, served only as prelude. In 1740–42, God brought about another season of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as awakening came not only to the churches up and down the Colonies, but also in the lands of Old England. In Old England, George Whitefield and brothers John and Charles Wesley preached to tens of thousands—mostly gathered outdoors. Soon, Whitefield crossed the Atlantic and preached to crowds of similar size in the Colonies. An indefatigable evangelist, Whitefield crisscrossed the Atlantic and logged thousands of miles on horseback.

Meanwhile, Edwards continued his compelling preaching of the gospel. On July 8, 1741, Edwards was in Enfield, Conn., for a midweek service. He was not the intended preacher that night. The intended preacher had become ill and was out of commission. Eleazer Wheelock, who would go on to found Dartmouth College, gave Edwards the nudge to stand in the pulpit. Edwards delivered what is likely the most famous and the most read sermon ever preached on American soil, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The drama overwhelmed the crowd. They shrieked and cried out. But the drama did not stem from Edwards’ technique. Rather than whoop up the crowd into a frenzy, Edwards waited for the congregation to regain its composure, and then he pressed on in his sermon. The drama came not in the technique but in the truth, the truth of eternal damnation, the truth that all of us are on the precipice of eternal judgment. The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow is pointed directly at us. We are like spiders dangling over the pit of hell, saved from the flames for the time being by a mere thread. God used Edwards’ words to pierce hearts.

Edwards equally matched his imagery of judgment with imagery of redemption. Christ has “flung the door of mercy wide open and stands in the door crying and calling with a loud voice to poor sinners.” This was passion for the gospel.

Historians call it the First Great Awakening. It remains one of the most significant events in United States history. It had proponents, opponents, and zealots. The zealots included the likes of James Davenport. He routinely characterized pastors as “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” led public bonfires for the burning of books, and exhibited all manner of extreme behavior. While he later wrote retractions and made amends, he caused great harm during the Awakening itself. His antics fueled the criticisms of the Awakening’s detractors, including men such as Charles Chauncy. Chauncy looked down on the lack of decorum he saw in the Awakening. He was for order and a far more private expression of religion. Much more problematic, though, was the theology of Chauncy. He was a universalist. Being well aware of his times, he opted not to publish the manuscript that laid forth the argument for his heretical views. But he never held back his criticism of the Awakening or of its preachers.

Between these zealots and opponents stand the ministers used by God to bring a season of awakening to the Colonies. Edwards was the great theologian of the Awakening, and Whitefield was the great evangelist of the Awakening. They were joined by a whole cast of others. Gilbert Tennent was an Irish immigrant and famous Presbyterian minister. He preached a sermon titled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” The sermon, as one might imagine, helped lead to a split in the Presbyterian church between the New Side and the Old Side. (In the Congregational churches, where Edwards roamed, the split was referred to as New Lights and Old Lights.) Another factor in the split was disagreement over ministerial training, especially concerning the training provided at the Log College in Neshaminy, Pa., which was founded and led by Gilbert Tennent’s father, William. The college moved east across the Delaware River and was renamed The College of New Jersey before it received the name Princeton. For two generations Princeton University provided well-trained and confessional Presbyterian ministers as well as lawyers and physicians. In 1812, Princeton Theological Seminary was founded to take on the task of training ministers. That great legacy of Princeton, which endured through the time of J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s, all started at the First Great Awakening.

In the early days of the First Great Awakening, Whitefield preached in an oak grove in Chester County, Pa. More than ten thousand people came to hear him preach, which is to say nearly every single person in the county and surrounding towns came to hear him preach. During this time and near this oak grove, Samuel Blair founded a Presbyterian church and his own version of the Log College. Blair had one standout pupil, Samuel Davies. Of Welsh Baptist descent, Davies would become a Presbyterian missionary in Anglican Virginia. He led his own revivals, and eventually his success made him a target for the established Anglican church. They viewed him as an “unwanted intruder into these parts.” He fought back and won the freedom to preach in Virginia, making Davies one of the earliest voices for disestablishmentarianism. Davies also wrote hymns, including “Great God of Wonders!” He succeeded Jonathan Edwards as president of Princeton in 1759. His term lasted eighteen months, as he died on February 4, 1761.

The First Great Awakening had its excesses and faults, yet it also made a significant impact during its own time, the decade of the 1740s, and had a lasting impact on both the American church and American culture. There would be more Great Awakenings. Beginning around 1825, there was the Second Great Awakening, with Charles Grandison Finney at the epicenter. Dwight L. Moody is at the center of the Third Great Awakening as the nineteenth century was coming to a close. It’s more accurate to say that the nineteenth century witnessed many waves of revivals that varied in nature, duration, and location. The twentieth century followed suit, with the two standout figures being Billy Sunday in the first half and Billy Graham in the second half.

All of this leads to some rather important questions. What are we to make of awakening and revivals? Are these good things? Should we pray for them?

No doubt, there have been excesses, and no doubt, there have been many examples of bad theology throughout America’s storied history of awakenings. Sadly, much damage has resulted. Nevertheless, we can sift through it all and find much that is helpful, especially if we return to Northampton and the years 1731–34. Edwards was simply being a faithful pastor, carrying out his charge of faithfully proclaiming the gospel of God. He preached with conviction as if lives depended on it—because they did. He preached with passion because he knew of the urgency of the moment.

You could say awakening comes in two forms. There is the awakening, the raising of new life out of death. This is the call to poor sinners. But even those who have been awakened need awakenings. We slumber in our spiritual laziness, and so we are summoned to wake up. This is the call to redeemed sinners. And it’s not by human effort or by natural means. We are awakened only and always by a divine and supernatural light—only by God’s grace and always for God’s glory.

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