The Personal Narrative of Jonathan Edwards - Part I
Of all that Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) wrote, nothing provides the penetrating gaze into his own soul, together with his spiritual struggles and triumphs, as does his Personal Narrative. This is the closest thing in the vast corpus of Edwardsean writings to what we today would call a “personal testimony”. It was written sometime in 1740 and provides us with a remarkable view of the reflections and affections of Edwards on the nature of true spirituality.
I am continually disturbed by how little of Edwards is actually read by Christians in our day. So what I propose to do is cite extensive portions of Edwards’ Personal Narrative, at times with my own observations inserted throughout and at other times with his comments standing alone. Resist the temptation to ignore these studies. I dare say that nothing I have read in the history of Christian thought compares with Edwards when it comes to expressions of love for Christ and descriptions of divine beauty and yearnings of heart for holiness and humility. You won’t always agree with Edwards, but even where you differ with him you’ll be challenged and instructed.
The narrative opens with Edwards describing his “religious” experience as a child. As you read, note well that he was skeptical of whether there was any “saving” value in these early encounters. Edwards is always brutally and biblically honest in his evaluation of the nature of religious experience, a concern of his that reached its climax in the publication of his celebrated treatise on Religious Affections. So let’s begin.
“I had a variety of concerns and exercises about my soul from my childhood; but had two more remarkable seasons of awakening, before I met with that change by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things, that I have since had. The first time was when I was a boy, some years before I went to college, at a time of remarkable awakening in my father's congregation. I was then very much affected for many months, and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul's salvation; and was abundant in duties. I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys; and used to meet with them to pray together. I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion. My mind was much engaged in it, and had much self-righteous pleasure; and it was my delight to abound in religious duties. I with some of my schoolmates joined together, and built a booth in a swamp, in a very retired spot, for a place of prayer. And besides, I had particular secret places of my own in the woods, where I used to retire by myself; and was from time to time much affected. My affections seemed to be lively and easily moved, and I seemed to be in my element when engaged in religious duties. And I am ready to think, many are deceived with such affections, and such a kind of delight as I then had in religion, and mistake it for grace.
But in process of time, my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin. Indeed I was at times very uneasy, especially towards the latter part of my time at college; when it pleased God, to seize me with a pleurisy; in which he brought me nigh to the grave, and shook me over the pit of hell. And yet, it was not long after my recovery, before I fell again into my old ways of sin. But God would not suffer me to go on with any quietness; I had great and violent inward struggles, till, after many conflicts with wicked inclinations, repeated resolutions, and bonds that I laid myself under by a kind of vows to God.
I was brought wholly to break off all former wicked ways, and all ways of known outward sin; and to apply myself to seek salvation, and practice many religious duties; but without that kind of affection and delight which I had formerly experienced. My concern now wrought more by inward struggles and conflicts, and self-reflections. But yet, it seems to me, I sought after a miserable manner; which has made me sometimes since to question, whether ever it issued in that which was saving; being ready to doubt, whether such miserable seeking ever succeeded. I was indeed brought to seek salvation in a manner that I never was before; I felt a spirit to part with all things in the world, for an interest in Christ. My concern continued and prevailed, with many exercising thoughts and inwards struggles; but yet it never seemed to be proper to express that concern by the name of terror.”
This is a stunning confession on Edwards’ part and incredibly instructive for us today, especially if we are the sort who quickly concludes that any display of interest in spiritual or religious matters is evidence of the new birth. Note that Edwards was “very much affected” with religious impulses and was “concerned about things of religion” and his own “salvation”. He delighted in the fulfillment of “religious duties,” especially prayer, and yet felt a “self-righteous pleasure” in them.
He doubted that this was the fruit of genuine salvation. “I am ready to think,” said Edwards, that “many are deceived with such affections, and such a kind of delight as I then had in religion, and mistake it for grace.” Were ever more relevant words spoken to the “church” of the 21st century? A person raises a hand, signs a card, walks an aisle, serves in the nursery, attends a prayer meeting, shares a “conversion” story, and we immediately assume they are saved, notwithstanding the fact that, as in Edwards’ own case, they “return as a dog to its vomit” and continue on “in the ways of sin.”
Was Edwards the boy truly converted? Perhaps. My sense is that he thinks not. The key phrase in these opening paragraphs of the Narrative is where he refers to “that change by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things.” He clearly has in mind here what he would later describe as “the new sense of the heart” that is the fruit of “a divine and supernatural light” that God in grace shines into the souls of his elect. Considerably more will be said about this in the remainder of the Narrative, but it is enough now to note that what so often passes for genuine conversion in our churches and revival meetings is little more than “self-righteous pleasure” in the external duties of religion, a sort of psychological pacifying of spiritual rumblings in the soul. Edwards’ description of what he is convinced was his conversion experience will come in Part Two of our study.