Jonathan Edwards: On the Great Awakening
December 12, 1743
Between 1730 and 1745 there swept over the American colonies from Maine to Georgia a religious revival known as the Great Awakening. The revival movement, unlike the earlier doctrine of the Puritans, promised the grace of God to all who could experience a desire for it. An account of the second wave of the Great Awakening in Northampton, Massachusetts, is given in the following letter of December 12, 1743, addressed by Jonathan Edwards to the Reverend Thomas Prince in Boston. The Mr. Whitefield mentioned by Edwards was the Reverend George Whitefield, an English evangelist who traveled the American colonies in 1740 preaching to massive revival meetings.
Ever since the great work of God that was wrought here about nine years ago, there has been a great abiding alteration in this town in many respects. There has been vastly more religion kept up in the town, among all sorts of persons, in religious exercises and in common conversation than used to be before. There has remained a more general seriousness and decency in attending the public worship. There has been a very great alteration among the youth of the town with respect to reveling, frolicking, profane and unclean conversation, and lewd songs. Instances of fornication have been very rare. There has also been a great alteration among both old and young with respect to tavern haunting. I suppose the town has been in no measure so free of vice in these respects for any long time together for this sixty years as it has been this nine years past.
There has also been an evident alteration with respect to a charitable spirit to the poor (though I think with regard to this in this town, as the land in general, come far short of Gospel rules). And though after that great work nine years ago there has been a very lamentable decay of religious affections and the engagedness of people's spirit in religion, yet many societies for prayer and social religion were all along kept up; and there were some few instances of awakening and deep concern about the doings of another world, even in the most dead time.
In the year 1740, in the spring, before Mr. Whitefield came to this town, there was a visible alteration. There was more seriousness and religious conversation, especially among young people; those things that were of ill tendency among them were more forborne. And it was a more frequent thing for persons to visit their minister upon soul accounts; and in some particular persons there appeared a great alteration about that time. And thus it continued till Mr. Whitefield came to town, which was about the middle of October following. He preached here four sermons in the meeting-house (besides a private lecture at my house)-one on Friday, another on Saturday, and two upon the Sabbath. The congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time. Mr. Whitefield's sermons were suitable to the circumstances of the town, containing just reproofs of our backslidings, and, in a most moving and affecting manner, making use of our great profession and great mercies as arguments with us to return to God, from whom we had departed.
Immediately after this, the minds of the people in general appeared more engaged in religion, showing a greater forwardness to make religion the subject of their conversation, and to meet frequently together for religious purposes, and to embrace all opportunities to hear the Word preached. The revival at first appeared chiefly among professors and those that had entertained the hope that they were in a state of grace, to whom Mr. Whitefield chiefly addressed himself. But in a very short time there appeared an awakening and deep concern among some young persons that looked upon themselves as in a Christless state; and there were some hopeful appearances of conversion; and some professors were greatly revived.
In about a month or six weeks, there was a great alteration in the town, both as to the revivals of professors and awakenings of others. By the middle of December, a very considerable work of God appeared among those that were very young; and the revival of religion continued to increase; so that in the spring an engagedness of spirit about things of religion was become very general among young people and children, and religious subjects almost wholly took up their conversation when they were together.
In the month of May 1741, a sermon was preached to a company at a private house. Near the conclusion of the exercise, one or two persons that were professors were so greatly affected with a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things, and the infinite importance of the things of eternity, that they were not able to conceal it; the affection of their minds overcoming their strength, and having a very visible effect on their bodies. When the exercise was over, the young people that were present removed into the other room for religious conference; and particularly that they might have opportunity to inquire of those that were thus affected what apprehensions they had, and what things they were that thus deeply impressed their minds. And there soon appeared a very great effect of their conversation; the affection was quickly propagated through the room; many of the young people and children that were professors appeared to be overcome with a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things, and with admiration, love, joy and praise, and compassion to others that looked upon themselves as in a state of nature. And many others at the same time were overcome with distress about their sinful and miserable state and condition; so that the whole room was full of nothing but outcries, faintings, and suchlike.
Others soon heard of it, in several parts of the town, and came to them; and what they saw and heard there was greatly affecting to them; so that many of them were overpowered in like manner. And it continued thus for some hours, the time spent in prayer, singing, counseling, and conferring. There seemed to be a consequent happy effect of that meeting to several particular persons, and in the state of religion in the town in general. After this were meetings from time to time attended with like appearances.
But a little after it, at the conclusion of the public exercise on the Sabbath, I appointed the children that were under sixteen years of age to go from the meetinghouse to a neighbor house, that I there might further enforce what they had heard in public, and might give in some counsels proper for their age. The children were there very generally and greatly affected with the warnings and counsels that were given them, and many exceedingly overcome; and the room was filled with cries. And when they were dismissed, they, almost all of them, went home crying aloud through the streets, to all parts of the town. The like appearances attended several such meetings of children that were appointed.
But their affections appeared by what followed to be of a very different nature; in many they appeared to be indeed but childish affections, and in a day or two would leave them as they were before. Others were deeply impressed; their convictions took fast hold of them and abode by them. And there were some that from one meeting to another seemed extraordinarily affected for some time, to but little purpose, their affections presently vanishing, from time to time; but yet afterward were seized with abiding convictions, and their affections became durable.
About the middle of the summer, I called together the young people that were communicants, from sixteen to twenty-six years of age, to my house; which proved to be a most happy meeting. Many seemed to be very greatly and most agreeably affected with those views which excited humility, self-condemnation, self-abhorrence, love, and joy; many fainted under these affections. We had several meetings that summer of young people attended with like appearances. It was about that time that there first began to be cryings out in the meetinghouse; which several times occasioned many of the congregation to stay in the house after the public exercise was over, to confer with those who seemed to be overcome with religious convictions and affection which was found to tend much to the propagation of their impressions, with lasting effect upon many, conference being at these times commonly joined with prayer and singing. In the summer and fall, the children in various parts of the town had religious meetings by themselves for prayer, sometimes joined with fasting; wherein many of them seemed to be greatly and properly affected, and I hope some of them savingly wrought upon.
The months of August and September. were the most remarkable of any this year, for appearances of conviction and conversion of sinners, and great revivings, quickenings, and comforts of professors, and for extraordinary external effects of these things. It was a very frequent thing to see a houseful of outcries, faintings, convulsions, and suchlike, both with distress and also with admiration and joy. It was not the manner here to hold meetings all night, as in some places, nor was it common to continue them until very late in the night; but it was pretty often so that there were some that were so affected, and their bodies so overcome, that they could not go home, but were obliged to stay all night at the house where they were. There was no difference that I know of here, with regard to the extraordinary effects, in meetings in night and in the daytime. The meetings which these effects appeared in the evening being commonly begun, and their extraordinary effects, in the day, and continued in the evening; and some meetings have been very remarkable for such extraordinary effects that were both begun and finished in the daytime.
There was an appearance of a glorious progress of the work of God upon the hearts of sinners in conviction and conversion this summer and fall; and great numbers. I think we have reason to hope, were brought savingly home to Christ. But this was remarkable, the work of God in His influences of this nature seemed to be almost wholly upon a new generation; those that were not come to years of discretion an that wonderful season nine years ago, children, or those that were then children. Others that had enjoyed that former glorious opportunity without any appearance of saving benefit seemed now to be almost wholly passed over and let alone. But now we had the most wonderful work among children that ever was in Northampton. The former great outpouring of the spirit was remarkable for influences upon the minds of children, beyond all that had ever been before; but this far exceeded that.
Indeed, as to influences on the minds of professors, this work was by no means confined to a new generation. Many of all ages partook of it; but, yet, in this respect, it was more general on those that were of the younger sort. Many that had formerly been wrought upon, that in the times of our declension had fallen into decays, and had in a great measure left God and gone after the world, now passed under a very remarkable new work of the spirit of God, as if they had been the subjects of a second conversion. They were first led into the wilderness, and had a work of conviction, having much greater convictions of the sin of both nature and practice than ever before (though with some new circumstances, and something new in the kind of conviction) in some with great distress, beyond what they had felt before their first conversion.
Under these convictions they were excited to strive for salvation, and the Kingdom of Heaven suffered violence from some of them in a far more remarkable manner than before. And after great convictions and humblings and agonizings with God, they had Christ discovered to them anew, as an All-sufficient Savior, and in the glories of His grace, and in a far more clear manner than before; and with greater humility, self-emptiness, and brokenness of heart, and a purer and higher joy, and greater desires after holiness of life, but with greater self-diffidence and distrust of their treacherous hearts.
One circumstance wherein this work differed from that which had been in the town five or six years before was that conversions were frequently wrought more sensibly and visibly; the impressions stronger and more manifest by external effects of them; and the progress of the spirit of God in conviction, from step to step, more apparent; and the transition from one state to another more sensible and plain; so that it might, in many instances, be as it were seen by bystanders. The preceding season had been very remarkable on this account beyond what had been before; but this more remarkable than that. And in this season these apparent or visible conversions (if I may so call them) were more frequently in the presence of others, at religious meetings, where the appearances of what was wrought on the heart fell under public observation. . . .
In the beginning of the summer 1742, there seemed to be some abatement of the liveliness of people's affections in religion; but yet many were often in a great height of them. And in the fall and winter following, there were at times extraordinary appearances. But in the general, people's engagedness in religion and the liveliness of their affections have been on the decline; and some of the young people, especially, have shamefully lost their liveliness and vigor in religion, and much of the seriousness and solemnity of their spirits. But there are many that walk as becomes saints; and, to this day, there are a considerable number in the town that seem to be near to God, and maintain much of the life of religion, and enjoy many of the sensible tokens and fruits of His gracious presence.
With respect to the late season of revival of religion among us for three or four years past, it has been observable that in the former part of it, in the years 1740 and 1741, the work seemed to be much more pure, having less of a corrupt mixture, than in the former great outpouring of the spirit in 1735 and 1736. Persons seemed to be sensible of their former errors, and had learned more of their own hearts, and experience had taught them more of the tendency and consequences of things. They were now better guarded, and their affections were not only greater but attended with greater solemnity, and greater humility and self-distrust, and greater engagedness after holy living and perseverance; and there were fewer errors in conduct.
But in the latter part of it, in the year 1742, it was otherwise. The work continued more pure, till we were infected from abroad. Our people, hearing and some of them seeing the work in other places where there was a greater visible commotion than here, and the outward appearances were more extraordinary, were ready to think that the work in those places far excelled what was among us; and their eyes were dazzled with the high profession and great show that some made who came hither from other places.
That those people went so far beyond them in raptures and violent emotions of the affections and a vehement zeal, and what they called boldness for Christ, our people were ready to think was owing to their far greater attainments in grace and intimacy with Heaven. They looked little in their own eyes in comparison of them, and were ready to submit themselves to them, and yield themselves up to their conduct, taking it for granted that everything was right that they said and did. These things. had a strange influence on the people, gave many of them a deep and unhappy tincture, that it was a hard and long labor to deliver them from and which some them are not fully delivered from to this day.
The effects and consequences of things among us plainly shows the following things, viz.: that the degree of grace is no means to be judged of by the degree of joy, or the degree of zeal; and that indeed we cannot at all determine by these things who are gracious and who are not; and that it as not the degree of religious affections but the nature of them that is chiefly to be looked at. Some that have had very great raptures of joy, and have been extraordinarily filled (as the vulgar phrase is), and have had their bodies overcome, and that very often have manifested far less of the temper of Christians in their conduct since than some others that have been still and have made no great outward show. But then again there are many others that have extraordinary joys and emotions of mind, with frequent great effects on their bodies, that behave themselves steadfastly as humble, amiable, eminent Christians
'Tis evident that there may be great religious affections that may, in show and; appearance, imitate gracious affections, and have the same effects on their bodies, but are far from having the same effect in the temper of their minds and course of their lives. And likewise there is nothing more manifest by what appears among us than that the goodness of persons' state is not chiefly to be judged of by any exactness of steps and method of experiences in what is supposed to be the first conversion; but that we must judge more by the spirit that breathes, the effect wrought on the temper of the soul, in the time of the work, and remaining afterward.
Though there have been very few instances among professors among us of what is ordinarily called scandalous sin known to me, yet the temper that some of them show and the behavior they have been of, together with some things in the kind and circumstances of their experiences, make me much afraid lest there be a considerable number that have woefully deceived themselves. Though, on the other hand, there is a great number whose temper and conversation as such as justly confirms the charity of others toward them; and not a few in whose disposition and walk there are amiable appearances of eminent grace. And notwithstanding all the corrupt mixtures that have been in the late work here, there are not only many blessed fruits of it in particular persons that yet remain, but some good effects of it upon the town in general.
A party spirit has more ceased. I suppose there has been less appearance these three or four years past of that division of the town into two parties, that has long been our bane, than has been these thirty years. And the people have apparently had much more caution and a greater guard on their spirit and their tongues to avoid contention and unchristian heats in town meetings and on other occasions. And 'tis a thing greatly to be rejoiced in, that the people very lately have come to an agreement and final issue with respect to their grand controversy relating to their common lands; which has been above any other particular thing a source of mutual prejudices, jealousies, and debates for fifteen or sixteen years past.
The people are also generally of late in some respects considerably altered and meliorated in their notions of religion, particularly they seem to be much more sensible of the danger of resting in old experiences, or what they were subjects of at their supposed first conversion; and to be more fully convinced of the necessity of forgetting the things that are behind and pressing forward, and maintaining earnest labor, watchfulness, and prayerfulness as long as they live.
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