It is to be expected that wickedness will often attempt to tarnish God’s good works, working to extinguish the light of the Gospel. But evidence of some perversion did not, and could not, destroy the whole. Revival is the work of God and must be judged by the whole, according to Scripture, distinguishing good from evil. Let us, like Edwards, judge rightly and earnestly pray for religious revival in our own day.
The Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century provoked the ire of many Protestants. This was due to reports of hysteria surrounding the Awakening’s particular brand of revivalism. Many did not know what to make of the excitement and fervor exuded by those caught-up in the movement.
In New England, the relatively unassuming Jonathan Edwards found himself at the center of debates concerning the revival’s legitimacy. He was friends with men like George Whitefield who (his opponents believed) had a certain degree of pageantry while preaching that played on the emotions of listeners to manipulate and coerce various responses. This emotional style of preaching had evidently been taken up by other preachers in Edwards’ day, adding fuel to the fiery distrust of many.
While Edwards was not particularly known for any sort of flamboyance in his preaching, he had special interest in the events taking place and had experienced some of the religious fervor firsthand. His most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was met with a shocking response when he preached it in 1741 for a second time in the town of Enfield. Edwards could not finish the sermon because the congregation erupted in a flurry of emotions. Many came to saving faith that day.
A Definition of Revival and the Need to Judge Rightly
Iain H. Murray helpfully defined revival as: “A sovereign and large giving of the Spirit of God, resulting in the addition of many to the kingdom of God.” Just as in Edwards’ time, many today are right to distrust the supposed “revival services” offered by some churches. Just as no mortal can produce salvation in another, neither can a preacher or church produce legitimate revival apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as the salvation of the sinner cannot be scheduled or planned, neither can revival. As Jesus taught, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8). It is God’s sovereign work to save and revive, and no amount of scheduling, planning, or blue-faced preaching can accomplish what only God sovereignly can.
Edwards wrote Some Thoughts on the Present Revival because he saw three ways to judge the legitimacy of an apparent spiritual awakening. He explained that many had erred in their judgments of the revival:
“First, In judging of this work a priori. Secondly, In not taking the Holy Scriptures as a whole rule whereby to judge of such operations. Thirdly, In not justly separating and distinguishing the good from the bad.”
The First Judgment
First, Edwards warned against judging the apparent revival a priori because the way something began would necessarily be the way something ended. Just as a prophet was to be judged based on whether the prophecy came to fruition (Deut. 18:22), an apparent revival could only be truly understood as a whole. Edwards explained, “We are to observe the effect wrought; and if, upon examination of that, it be found to be agreeable to the word of God, we are bound to rest in it as God’s work…”