Jonathan Edwards, “Father of the First Great Awakening”

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One of the first things I think of when I hear the name Jonathan Edwards is “Father of the First Great Awakening.”  His powerful preaching is credited with jumpstarting the spiritual fervor of the colonies. In 1734 there were six sudden conversions within his church, which opened up the gates for about thirty conversions every week that followed.  It is said that people would travel up to one hundred miles just to hear him preach. [1]

Edwards worked hard to become the “Father of the First Great Awakening.” He was born to a family with ministry in the blood. His father was a pastor in Connecticut and his grand father was a pastor in Massachusetts. He was the only son, born fifth of eleven children in 1703. He received a very strict education at home, which led him to leave for college at the age of 13. He attended Yale for four years where he graduated at the top of his class. It was during his college training that he “began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him.” [2]

When he had completed his college years, he had a short tenure in a New York church, then was appointed as a tutor at Yale. During this period of his life Edwards began a list of resolutions, which would set up the framework for how he lived the rest of his life. Some of the Resolutions included:

#5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.


#55. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to act as I can think I should do, if, I had already seen the happiness of heaven, and hell torments. July 8, 1723.

In 1724 he became a colleague of his own grandfather, and was given the whole pastorate when his grandpa passed away five years later. This was the breeding ground for the Awakening, which started in 1734.

Edwards preaching was heard with mixed emotions. However no one can cloud the success with which his message turned people from Hell. Edwards was known for his hell-fire preaching. This was most likely a direct result of his questioning mind in college. Some would contest that Edwards was a very gloomy preacher. His most famous sermon of note would be “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God.” Here is just a short excerpt from it.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousands times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

It wasn’t that Edwards had a negative view of the world. In fact he had a very positive outlook, in his 22nd resolution he, “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can […].” How then do we explain his obvious dark overtone in the sermons he preached?  To answer this question, we must look to the heart of Edwards’s ministry.

Early in life, Edwards was seeking after God. He said of himself, “When I was yet a child, no child’s play to me was pleasing; all my mind was set serious to learn and know […].”  [3]

He was diligent to his study and wanted to know as much as he could. Edwards didn’t come to his belief because of an emotional experience or by a huge life crisis. He came to his faith by studying God’s word. Edwards advanced in his spiritual life and it is from this that began to sense the inward reality of the regeneration of Christ in his soul. He became consumed with placing God as sovereign over all things and held closely to the Calvinistic mindset.

The main thrust of his teaching was to make people aware of the difference between the divine and human. His method was to bring the individual face to face with God, if he couldn’t accomplish that then he felt as if he were laboring in vain [4]. This is why his sermons seem to have such dark overtones. Edwards truly wanted to see people come to Christ for redemption–so, he would show them the wrath of God.

Some would say that he could not be evangelistic because he was a Calvinist, but that is not the case. He believed man could not save himself and that it was a total work of the grace of God on their behalf, but he felt they needed to be stimulated to move toward God’s prompting.

Edwards said,

“If there really be a hell of such dreadful and never-ending torments, as is generally supposed, then why is it not proper to take great pains to make men a sensible of it? Why should they not be told as much of the truth as can be? If I am in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much as possibly I can of the dreadfulness of it… The Gospel is to be preached as well as the law, and the law is to be preached only to make way for the Gospel, and in order that it may be preached more effectively.” [5]

 

Edwards wanted to make people aware of the reality that is to come, if they continue in the path that they are on. He desperately wanted them to have what he had–a relationship with God. So, he preached to everyone of the coming wrath of God, that those who were being regenerated by God would move closer to Him.

It is no wonder that Edwards is the stimulus of the Great Awakening. He not only was a great hell-fire preacher, but also was also concerned with the souls of those around him, and was an accomplished writer. There are many works that Edwards wrote on various subjects. He wrote much about grace and the sovereignty of God.  He also wrote defending what he believed against the Armenians. He was so much of an influence that it was said of him that the evangelicals of the 18th century were all in some degree under the intellectual dominion of Jonathan Edwards. [6]

During the time of his preaching, Edwards had many problems with some of the families in his congregation. These problems were mostly over the admission of the unconverted to the Lords supper. He believed that only those who showed visible evidence of being truly converted and regenerated should be admitted. He eventually relented and allowed those who only made a public confession of faith to participate. It was a two-year battle that ended with him being dismissed from his pastorate in 1750. [1]

After his dismissal he went to the frontier town of Stockbridge, and was a missionary to the Indians for six years. Then was elected to be the president of Princeton, which he reluctantly accepted and was inaugurated in 1787. One month later he died from the effects of a smallpox vaccination. He left behind a wife, three sons, and seven daughters. [7]

Jonathan Edwards was only one man, but he was one man that was set apart by God. He was educated and lead throughout his life by the sovereign will of God. He was given the knowledge and character to move at the right time to spark not just a great revival, but a Great Awakening. While some may not agree with what he believed, we all must recognize the awesome gift that he had given him by God to share the gospel effectively through preaching.

 

Do you have any thoughts on Jonathan Edwards? Do you agree or disagree with his theology? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

[1] Mark Browning, “Jonathan Edwards,” Accessed at http://www.ccel.org/e/edwards/edwards.html

[2] http://www.puritansermons.com/bio/bioedwar.htm

[3]  Ralph G. Turnbull, Jonathan Edwards the Preacher, (Grand Rapids: Barker Book House, 1958), 13.

[4] Ibid, 115.

[5] Ibid, 145-146.

[6] Terrence Erdt. Jonathan Edwards: Art and the Sense of the Heart, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 83.

[7] Alexander Leitch, “A Princeton Companion,” Princeton University Press 1978. accessed at http://etc.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/edwards_jonathan.html

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