The fourth in a series on revival
Jonathan Edwards — Unlikely revivalist
By Ken Horn
A shy figure steps meekly to the front of a dimly lit
church. He carries his sermon manuscript with him — several pages that
will be read word for word. Nearsighted, the preacher’s eyes strain at the
candlelit document. He delivers his message in a dull monotone that is at times
barely audible, especially to those farthest from the pulpit. There is no
emotion in his voice, and little eye contact with the congregation, as he plods
through his reading. Surely revival could not spring from preaching such as
And yet, that is exactly what happened. On July 8, 1741, in
Enfield, Conn., Jonathan Edwards delivered just such a message. It shook its
hearers and, by extension, the world. It is probably the best-known sermon in
the English language — “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This
message was delivered at the high tide of a remarkable time in Colonial
America. And while it lacked a high-energy, charismatic delivery, it did have
one element far more important than that — it was anointed by God.
This is one of the most important lessons of the movement
history now knows as The First Great Awakening. Revival does not depend on
eloquent and entertaining messages by superstar speakers. No ministry can lead
to revival without the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
When Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry
God,” that anointing was present. Listeners cried out and clutched the pillars
of the church for fear of plunging into hell before they could get right with
God. It is in vogue today to criticize “hellfire” preaching. But no genuine
revival has ever ignored it. Since the Bible makes it clear that hell is the
fate of those who ignore the claims of Christ, it must be preached. The key is
to preach it with love … and with anointing.
This first revival in the American colonies is often dated
from 1734 1, when Edwards, pastoring in Northampton, Mass., noted the beginning
of “a surprising work of God.” Edwards said, “The Spirit of God began
extraordinarily to set in and wonderfully to work amongst us.” This is an
excellent early definition of revival.
Edwards was an unlikely revivalist. He was a shy, bookish
man who was socially awkward and spent more than 10 hours a day in his study.
Yet it was in that study that God prompted him to begin a series of messages
pressing for conversion to Christ. Yes, many of his parishioners were unsaved.
Edwards inherited this problem from his grandfather, Solomon
Stoddard, who had pastored the church before him. Stoddard practiced a
radically open Communion that did not even require a salvation experience to
participate. An upright, moral life was considered enough, and Stoddard thought
the sacrament itself could work “savingly” on an unbeliever who received it.
Stoddard was trying to keep unbelievers from leaving the church, but he diluted
God’s standard of holiness and endangered those who partook of Communion
“unworthily.” (See 1 Corinthians 11:27,29,30.)
When Edwards assumed the pastorate upon Stoddard’s death,
things changed. He would not tolerate unbelievers at the Lord’s table. He saw
it as bad for the church — and bad for the unbeliever.
Edwards’ stand, coupled with his God-driven sermon series on
salvation, ignited the revival, beginning among the youth of his parish then
spreading to all ages. He knew the importance of prayer in sustaining such a
work and reinstituted home prayer meetings. But Edwards did not begin this
revival single-handedly. For years many ministers in New England had been
praying fervently for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to bring the Colonies
back to spiritual life. Edwards was the catalyst God chose.
But, despite being the catalyst for a great move of God
throughout New England, Edwards was eventually dismissed from his congregation
over the Communion issue. A number of influential people trained under more
permissive standards would not sit still for the biblical standards required by
an uncompromising pastor. Revival does not come without a price.
And it does not come without controversy. While God moved in
Northampton, revival caught fire in other New England locales. Not all were
well tended. There are usually extremes in revival; it was no different in
Edwards’ day. He was never comfortable with some of the more demonstrative
emotional responses that attended the revival meetings, but he couldn’t
complain too much — his wife, Sarah, was one of the most expressive at times.
And the “cryings out in the meeting house” that sometimes punctuated his
sermons he understood to be conviction, a necessary step if souls were to come
Clergymen James Davenport and Charles Chauncy typified two
Davenport was a hothead who preached that many ministers
were unconverted and bound for hell. He was probably right about this, but
there were definite excesses in Davenport’s ministry. Sometimes he named names.
He burned religious books that didn’t meet his standards.
On the other side was the elite Bostonian Charles Chauncy,
for whom dignity and ritual were more important than souls.
When the revival as a whole was criticized, Edwards rightly
responded, “We should distinguish the good from the bad, and not judge of the
whole by a part.”
He also pointed to one undeniable fruit of the awakening
— changed lives. Those who came to Christ had definite and lasting
transformations. Society as a whole changed for the better. This remains one of
the most important measures of true spiritual success in any ministry —
are lives being changed?
Edwards was frank about hell, but “Sinners in the Hands of
an Angry God” was not typical of his preaching. He did not scare all of his
converts into professing Christ. He preached doctrine … and he also preached
that coming to Christ would lead to a life of joy.
In a message on Isaiah 32:2, he implored, “Come to Him who
is ‘as rivers of water in a dry place.’ There are plenty and fullness in Him;
He is like a river that is always flowing. You may live by it forever and never
be in want.”
Edwards left voluminous writings on theology and philosophy,
and is still considered one of North America’s greatest minds. But the thrust
of Edwards’ ministry that made him a revivalist can be boiled down to two very
important themes: (1) You need to know Jesus; (2) There is joy in serving
When it comes right down to it, those are the two things we
need to be emphasizing over and over if we want to see revival come to our
1. The First Great Awakening is often dated c.1734-58, to
account for Edwards’ influence. But it should probably be dated to include a
few years earlier and a decade or so later.
KEN HORN is the editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and
blogs at Snapshots (khorn.agblogger.org).
This is the fourth in a series on revival. Part 1, “Stirred
Up,” appeared in the Jan. 11, 2009, issue. Part 2, “Uncomfortable,” appeared
Feb. 8. Part 3, “How to Stop a Revival,” appeared March 29.
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