Jonathan Edwards on Revival, Spiritual Discernment, and God’s Beauty -- By: Gerald R. McDermott

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 06:1 (Winter 1997)
Article: Jonathan Edwards on Revival, Spiritual Discernment, and God’s Beauty
Author: Gerald R. McDermott


Jonathan Edwards on Revival, Spiritual Discernment, and God’s Beauty

Gerald R. McDermott

The dashing young minister had a captivating personality. Educated at a prestigious college, this brilliant scion of a distinguished family was a magnetic preacher. When spiritual awakening came to his area of New England, he gathered his congregation for a special meeting. Unbelievably, he preached to as many as would listen for twenty-four hours—until he collapsed. From then on he called those he regarded as truly saved “brother” and “sister,” and the rest “neighbor.” When speaking as a guest preacher in a Connecticut city, he concluded his address by sauntering down the center aisle crying out, “Come to Christ! Come to Christ! Come away [from the world]!” Then he went into a pew full of women and sang and prayed intermittently. Women joined in with him, some fainting and others erupting in hysterics. This continued into the evening, when he marched off through the streets singing at the top of his lungs.

After the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert fiascoes of the late eighties, American evangelicals shudder when they hear a story like this one. Are they to be subjected to further embarrassment? Has another prominent preacher smeared by association the reputations of thousands of faithful ministers and millions of their parishioners?

American evangelicals in the nineties need not worry. James Davenport’s religious antics took place two hundred fifty years ago. But Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) worried. Edwards was a pastor in Western Massachusetts whose theological and philosophical writings have since been recognized as among the greatest achievements in the history of American thought. As a prominent leader of the momentous religious revivals (the Great Awakening) that swept up and down the thirteen colonies in the 1740s, he was determined

that the religious shenanigans staged by Davenport and others like him not be used by those opposed to the Awakening to characterize all those who had been touched by it. Edwards was convinced that the Awakening was a work of the Spirit of God. Its reputation had been sullied by egotistical leaders like Davenport, and many were led astray by false teachings. But the Spirit had moved nonetheless, and thousands were experiencing true and vital religion as a result.

To help protect future generations against similar problems, and to teach spiritual discernment to participants in future revivals, Edwards wrote Religious Affections (1746). Harvard historian Perry Miller called this book the greatest work of religious psychology ever penned on American soil. Some consider it the most profound guide to spiritual dis...

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