10 Things You Should Know about the First Great Awakening / First Phase (1734-36)2
On May 30, 1735, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) wrote a letter of eight pages to Dr. Benjamin Colman (1673-1747), pastor of Brattle Street Church in Boston, in which he described the nature of the revival he was seeing. Colman forwarded a substantial portion of the letter to a friend in London where news quickly spread about religious events in the Colonies. Edwards was in turn asked to write a more detailed account of what he had witnessed, the result of which was titled: A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of many hundred souls in Northampton, and the Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England.
Edwards completed work on the document on November 6, 1736. What he describes in this short book is the first wave of revival (1734-36) that was to be followed by what has come to be known as the Great Awakening (1740-42).
(1) It’s important to remember that revival was nothing new to the people of Massachusetts. Edwards was able to identify five so-called harvests under his predecessor and grandfather, Solomon Stoddard (who served as pastor in Northampton for 60 years), in each of which Edwards heard Stoddard say that "the greater part of the young people in the town, seemed to be mainly concerned for their eternal salvation” (9). The first wave of the Spirit’s movement during Edwards’ pastoral charge in Northampton may have initially been stirred by the unexpected deaths of two young people in a neighboring town, which “seemed to contribute to render solemn the spirits of many young persons; and there began evidently to appear more of a religious concern on people's minds” (11).
(2) Some scholars are inclined to dismiss any supernatural or divine cause for the revival and insist that it can be traced to the fearful reaction of the community to some natural calamity. Whereas it is true that a diphtheria epidemic struck New England from 1735 to 1740, Edwin Gaustad points out that
"the epidemic appeared in New Jersey in 1735, long after the revival movement had been under way there; in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the severity of the epidemic in any given area bears no observable relation to the intensity of the revival in that area, either before or after Whitefield; in New Hampshire the epidemic was all over by 1736, making difficult an explanation of the five-year lapse between its terminus and the beginning of the Great Awakening in the Kingston-Hampton Falls area; and finally, while the epidemic was from four to five times as severe in New Hampshire and Maine as in Connecticut and Massachusetts, it was in the latter area that the revival was most pervasive" (The Great Awakening in New England [Peter Smith Publishers, 1965]).
Edwards himself connected the outbreak of spiritual renewal to a series of sermons he preached on justification by faith, and the unusual conversion of an immoral young lady in the Northampton community (he discretely referred to her as “one of the greatest company-keepers in the whole town” (FN, 12).
(3) Edwards couldn’t help but notice that the revival was, quite literally, the talk of the town: "Other discourse than of the things of religion,” he noted, “would scarcely be tolerated in any company. The minds of people were wonderfully taken off from the world, it was treated amongst us as a thing of very little consequence” (13).
People were inclined to neglect their daily affairs, or at least subordinate them to the higher interest of the state of their souls. “They seemed to follow their worldly business, more as a part of their duty, than from any disposition they had to it; the temptation now seemed to lie on that hand, to neglect worldly affairs too much, and to spend too much time in the immediate exercise of religion” (13). Their primary concern “was to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing into it. The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances” (13).
(4) Edwards was especially impressed by the widespread impact of the awakening, citing more than thirty other communities where signs of renewal occurred. As for Northampton, “there was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world” (13). There was also a remarkable transformation in the worship of God. “Our public praises,” he observed, “were then greatly enlivened. . . . [People] were evidently wont [inclined] to sing with unusual elevation of heart and voice, which made the duty pleasant indeed” (14). Above all else, the person of Jesus Christ became central in the thoughts and concerns of those involved.
(5) The reaction of outside observers was mixed. “Many scoffed at and ridiculed it; and some compared what we called conversion, to certain distempers” (15). Others were so impressed that they spread word “that the state of the town could not be conceived of by those who had not seen it” (15). There were a number of instances, said Edwards, “of persons who came from abroad on visits, or on business, who had not been long here, before, to all appearances, they were savingly wrought upon, and partook of that shower of divine blessing which God rained down here, and went home rejoicing; till at length the same work began evidently to appear and prevail in several other towns in the country” (15).
(6) Not only were the backslidden convicted and returned to the fold, many were saved. Edwards was confident “that more than 300 souls were savingly brought home to Christ, in this town [Northampton], in the space of half a year, and about the same number of males as females” (19).
(7) One of the more distinguishing features of the awakening was the acceleration or intensification of God’s activity. Edwards described it this way: “God has also seemed to have gone out of his usual way, in the quickness of his work, and the swift progress his Spirit has made in his operations on the hearts of many. It is wonderful that persons should be so suddenly and yet so greatly changed” (21). Again, “when God in so remarkable a manner took the work into his own hands, there was as much done in a day or two, as at ordinary times, with all endeavours that men can use, and with such a blessing as we commonly have, is done in a year” (21).
(8) Edwards was reluctant to suggest that true conversions followed some strict pattern or structure. Still, there appeared to be a consistency in that conversion generally entailed two stages.
First, there was typically a deep and penetrating conviction of sin. With some this occurred suddenly, whereas others experienced it gradually. The result was that they “quit their sinful practices; and the looser sort have been brought to forsake and dread their former vices and extravagances” (23). This was followed by their seeking the “means of salvation, reading, prayer, meditation, [and] the ordinances of God's house” (24). The “place of resort,” writes Edwards, “was now altered, it was no longer the tavern, but the minister's house that was thronged far more than ever the tavern had been wont to be” (24).
There was also variation in both the degree of fear experienced and the duration of it. There were a few instances in which individuals “had such a sense of God's wrath for sin . . . that they have been overborne; and made to cry out under an astonishing sense of their guilt, wondering that God suffers such guilty wretches to live upon earth, and that he doth not immediately send them to hell” (25-26).
The second dimension in the conversion experience was a sense of God's love, mercy, and saving grace in Christ. Again, Edwards explains:
“It was very wonderful to see how person's affections were sometimes moved – when God did as it were suddenly open their eyes, and let into their minds a sense of the greatness of his grace, the fullness of Christ, and his readiness to save . . . Their joyful surprise has caused their hearts as it were to leap, so that they have been ready to break forth into laughter, tears often at the same time issuing like a flood, and intermingling a loud weeping. Sometimes they have not been able to forbear crying out with a loud voice, expressing their great admiration” (37-38).
This overwhelming assurance of saving love had varied effects on the people:
“Some persons having had such longing desires after Christ, or which have risen to such degree, as to take away their natural strength. Some have been so overcome with a sense of the dying love of Christ to such poor, wretched, and unworthy creatures, as to weaken the body. Several persons have had so great a sense of the glory of God, and excellency of Christ, that nature and life seemed almost to sink under it; and in all probability, if God had showed them a little more of himself, it would have dissolved their frame. . . . And they have talked, when able to speak, of the glory of God's perfections . . .” (45).
“Many, while their minds have been filled with spiritual delights, have as it were forgot their food; their bodily appetite has failed, while their minds have been entertained with meat to eat that others knew not of” (46).
(9) Edwards was duly impressed with the unparalleled joy of many, which often expressed itself in “earnest longings of soul to praise God” (47). Others expressed a new love for the Bible: “Some, by reason of their love to God's word, at times have been wonderfully delighted and affected at the sight of a Bible; and then, also, there was no time so prized as the Lord's day, and no place in this world so desired as God's house” (47).
Again, observed Edwards, “never, I believe, was so much done in confessing injuries, and making up differences, as the last year. Persons, after their own conversion, have commonly expressed an exceeding great desire for the conversion of others” (47). There was also a noticeable improvement in the physical condition of the community during the revival: "it was the most remarkable time of health that ever I knew since I have been in the town,” observed Edwards. “We ordinarily have several bills put up, every sabbath, for sick persons; but now we had not so much as one for many sabbaths together. But after this [i.e., after the revival lifted] it seemed to be otherwise” (69).
(10) Although the history of revival reveals that no two outpourings were precisely the same, they do share one thing in common: they all came to an end. Edwards noted that “in the latter part of May, it began to be very sensible that the Spirit of God was gradually withdrawing from us, and after this time Satan seemed to be more let loose, and raged in a dreadful manner” (69). One event seemed to Edwards to hasten the demise of religion: a man, from a family prone to depression (what Edwards called “melancholy”), committed suicide by cutting his throat. “The devil took the advantage, and drove him into despairing thoughts” (70). [The man was in fact Joseph Hawley, Edwards' uncle.] The impact of this on the community was devastating:
“After this, multitudes in this and other towns seemed to have it strongly suggested to them, and pressed upon them, to do as this person had done. And many who seemed to be under no melancholy, some pious persons who had no special darkness or doubts about the goodness of their state . . . had it urged upon them as if somebody had spoke to them, Cut your throat, now is a good opportunity. Now! Now!” (70).
The Spirit of God, “not long after this time, appeared very sensibly withdrawing from all parts of the country” (71). Nevertheless, Edwards was convinced that the vast majority of those who professed to having been saved in the revival “seem to have had an abiding change wrought on them; . . . they generally appear to be persons who have a new sense of things, new apprehensions and views of God, of the divine attributes of Jesus Christ, and the great things of the gospel” (71). Following the revival of 1740-42, with the benefit of hindsight, Edwards appeared less confident.