Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening

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Eerdmans has posted the chapter I wrote on Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, in their recently published Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. In my endorsement for the volume generally, I wrote, “The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia assembles a remarkable cast of Edwards experts, whose entries offer a treasure trove of insights into Edwards’s vast body of work. A fitting monument to Edwards himself, this compendium will be an essential resource for scholars and admirers of this great preacher and theologian.”

Here’s some of the chapter:

Jonathan Edwards’s best-known sermon is his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” delivered in Enfield, Massachusetts (later Connecticut), on July 8, 1741, at the height of the Great Awakening in New England. Two days before that famous sermon, Edwards was preaching in nearby Suffield, Massachusetts, in a private residence packed with two hundred people, many of whom would be in attendance two days later. The scene was chaotic, with a cacophony of sobs, groans, yelling, and screeching nearly drowning out Edwards’s voice. One observer noted that the ecstatic penitents’ bodies dropped to the floor with such devastation that “you would have thought their bones all broken, or rather that they had no bones.”

The scene sets the backdrop for Edwards’s Enfield sermon—at this stage of the Great Awakening, Edwards was quite familiar with, and prepared to accept, the most radical manifestations of evangelical piety. Historians have sometimes thought of Enfield as an unanticipated outburst of enthusiastic fervor—one that became so heated that Edwards decided to conclude the sermon before he finished his text. But understood in the context of the Suffield excitement, Edwards may have planned the Enfield sermon to get precisely the fervent response it received, from some of the same people he had addressed across the Connecticut River in Suffield only two days before. Yet Edwards would come to wonder about the value and propriety of such heated scenes, and would expend much effort trying to craft a rubric to test the godly fruit, or the hypocrisy, of the intense awakenings.

The era of the Great Awakening saw its greatest upsurge of revivals in the early 1740s, catalyzed by the itinerant preaching of the Anglican evangelist George Whitefield. Historians have debated the extent and significance of the Great Awakening, but there is little reason to doubt that it was the greatest religious and cultural upheaval in Anglo-America prior to the American Revolution. Discussions of the Great Awakening have often cast it as a contest between Old Lights and New Lights, the former opposing the revivals as disruptive chaos, and the latter welcoming them as a gift of God.

But even in Edwards, we see that the New Lights could range from radical enthusiasm to cautious moderation. It was typical for the leaders of the awakening to make their own journey from radicalism to moderation. Edwards may not have ever fully plumbed the depths of evangelical radicalism in his personal piety, but he never repudiated the transcendent experiences of the radicals, either. Nevertheless, by the end of 1740 Edwards was already beginning to question some of the most incendiary practices of the radicals, and by the mid-1740s he had become hesitant about the scenes he once fostered in Suffield and Enfield.

Read the whole thing here.

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