User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active
 

It was not wholly dark in American Christendom before the dawn of the Great Awakening. The censoriousness which was the besetting sin of the evangelists in that great religious movement, the rhetorical temptation to glorify the revival by intensifying the contrast with the antecedent condition, and the exaggerated _revivalism_ ever since so prevalent in the American church,--the tendency to consider religion as consisting mainly in scenes and periods of special fervor, and the intervals between as so much void space and waste time,--all these have combined to deepen the dark tints in which the former state is set before us in history.

The power of godliness was manifest in the earlier days by many infallible signs, not excluding those "times of refreshing" in which the simultaneous earnestness of many souls compels the general attention. Even in Northampton, where the doctrine of the venerable Stoddard as to the conditions of communion has been thought to be the low-water mark of church vitality, not less than five such "harvest seasons" were within recent memory. It was to this parish in a country town on the frontier of civilization, but the most important in Massachusetts outside of Boston, that there came, in the year 1727, to serve as colleague to his aged grandfather, Pastor Stoddard, a young man whose wonderful intellectual and spiritual gifts had from his childhood awakened the pious hopes of all who had known him, and who was destined in his future career to be recognized as the most illustrious of the saints and doctors of the American church. The authentic facts of the boyhood of Jonathan Edwards read like the myths that adorn the legendary Lives of the Saints. As an undergraduate of Yale College, before the age of seventeen, his reflections on the mysteries of God, and the universe, and the human mind, were such as even yet command the attention and respect of students of philosophy. He remained at New Haven two years after graduation, for the further study of theology, and then spent eight months in charge of the newly organized Presbyterian church in New York.[156:1] After this he spent two years as tutor at Yale,--"one of the pillar tutors, and the glory of the college,"--at the critical period after the defection of Rector Cutler to the Church of England.[156:2] From this position he was called in 1726, at the age of twenty-three, to the church at Northampton. There he was ordained February 15, 1727, and thither a few months later he brought his "espousèd saint," Sarah Pierpont, consummate flower of Puritan womanhood, thenceforth the companion not only of his pastoral cares and sorrows, but of his seraphic contemplations of divine things.

The intensely earnest sermons, the holy life, and the loving prayers of one of the greatest preachers in the history of the church were not long in bearing abundant fruit. In a time of spiritual and moral depression, when the world, the flesh, and the devil seemed to be gaining against the gospel, sometime in the year 1733 signs began to be visible of yielding to the power of God's Word. The frivolous or wanton frolics of the youth began to be exchanged for meetings for religious conference. The pastor was encouraged to renewed tenderness and solemnity in his preaching. His themes were justification by faith, the awfulness of God's justice, the excellency of Christ, the duty of pressing into the kingdom of God. Presently a young woman, a leader in the village gayeties, became "serious, giving evidence," even to the severe judgment of Edwards, "of a heart truly broken and sanctified." A general seriousness began to spread over the whole town. Hardly a single person, old or young, but felt concerned about eternal things. According to Edwards's "Narrative":

     "The work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town, so that in the spring and summer, anno 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It was never so full of love, nor so full of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God's presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on the account of salvation's being brought unto them; parents rejoicing over their children as being new-born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The goings of God were then seen in his sanctuary. God's day was a delight, and his tabernacles were amiable. Our public assemblies were then beautiful; the congregation was alive in God's service, every one intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly in general were from time to time in tears while the Word was preached, some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors. Our public praises were then greatly enlivened; God was then served in our psalmody in some measure in the beauty of holiness."

The crucial test of the divineness of the work was given when the people presented themselves before the Lord with a solemn act of thanksgiving for his great goodness and his gracious presence in the town of Northampton, with publicly recorded vows to renounce their evil ways and put away their abominations from before his eyes. They solemnly promise thenceforth, in all dealings with their neighbor, to be governed by the rules of honesty, justice, and uprightness; not to overreach or defraud him, nor anywise to injure him, whether willfully or through want of care; to regard not only their own interest, but his; particularly, to be faithful in the payment of just debts; in the case of past wrongs against any, never to rest till they have made full reparation; to refrain from evil speaking, and from everything that feeds a spirit of bitterness; to do nothing in a spirit of revenge; not to be led by private or partisan interest into any course hurtful to the interests of Christ's kingdom; particularly, in public affairs, not to allow ambition or partisanship to lead them counter to the interest of true religion. Those who are young promise to allow themselves in no diversions that would hinder a devout spirit, and to avoid everything that tends to lasciviousness, and which will not be approved by the infinitely pure and holy eye of God. Finally, they consecrate themselves watchfully to perform the relative duties of parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, masters, mistresses, and servants.

So great a work as this could not be hid. The whole region of the Connecticut Valley, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and neighboring regions felt the influence of it. The fame of it went abroad. A letter of Edwards's in reply to inquiries from his friend, Dr. Colman, of Boston, was forwarded to Dr. Watts and Dr. Guise, of London, and by them published under the title of "Narrative of Surprising Conversions." A copy of the little book was carried in his pocket for wayside reading on a walk from London to Oxford by John Wesley, in the year 1738. Not yet in the course of his work had he "seen it on this fashion," and he writes in his journal: "Surely this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes."

Both in this narrative and in a later work on "The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God," one cannot but admire the divine gift of a calm wisdom with which Edwards had been endowed as if for this exigency. He is never dazzled by the incidents of the work, nor distracted by them from the essence of it. His argument for the divineness of the work is not founded on the unusual or extraordinary character of it, nor on the impressive bodily effects sometimes attending it, such as tears, groans, outcries, convulsions, or faintings, nor on visions or ecstasies or "impressions." What he claims is that the work may be divine, _notwithstanding_ the presence of these incidents.[159:1] It was doubtless owing to the firm and judicious guidance of such a pastor that the intense religious fervor of this first awakening at Northampton was marked by so much of sobriety and order. In later years, in other regions, and under the influence of preachers not of greater earnestness, but of less wisdom and discretion, there were habitual scenes of extravagant and senseless enthusiasm, which make the closing pages of this chapter of church history painfully instructive.

It is not difficult to understand how one of the first places at a distance to feel the kindling example of Northampton should be the neighborhood of Newark. To this region, planted, as we have seen, with so strong a stock from New England, from old England, and from Scotland, came, in 1708, a youth of twenty years, Jonathan Dickinson, a native of the historic little town of Hatfield, next neighbor to Northampton. He was pastor at Elizabeth, but his influence and activity extended through all that part of New Jersey, and he became easily the leader of the rapidly growing communion of Presbyterian churches in that province, and the opponent, in the interest of Christian liberty and sincerity, of rigid terms of subscription, demanded by men of little faith. There is a great career before him; but that which concerns the present topic is his account of what took place "sometime in August, 1739 (the summer before Mr. Whitefield came first into these parts), when there was a remarkable revival at Newark.... This revival of religion was chiefly observable among the younger people, till the following March, when the whole town in general was brought under an uncommon concern about their eternal interests, and the congregation appeared universally affected under some sermons that were then preached to them."

Like scenes of spiritual quickening were witnessed that same season in other parts of New Jersey; but special interest attaches to the report from New Londonderry, Penn., where a Scotch-Irish community received as its pastor, in the spring of 1740, Samuel Blair, a native of Ireland, trained in the Log College of William Tennent. He describes the people, at his first knowledge of them, as sunk in a religious torpor, ignorance, and indifference. The first sign of vitality was observed in March, 1740, during the pastor's absence, when, under an alarming sermon from a neighbor minister:

     "There was a visible appearance of much soul-concern among the hearers; so that some burst out with an audible noise into bitter crying, a thing not known in these parts before.... The first sermon I preached after my return to them was from Matthew vi. 33: 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.' After opening up and explaining the parts of the text, when in the improvement I came to press the injunction in the text upon the unconverted and ungodly, and offered this as one reason among others why they should now first of all seek the kingdom and righteousness of God, viz., that they had neglected too long to do so already, this consideration seemed to come and cut like a sword upon several in the congregation; so that while I was speaking upon it they could no longer contain, but burst out in the most bitter mourning. I desired them as much as possible to restrain themselves from making any noise that would hinder themselves or others from hearing what was spoken; and often afterward I had occasion to repeat the same counsel. I still advised people to endeavor to moderate and bound their passions, but not so as to resist and stifle their convictions. The number of the awakened increased very fast. Frequently under sermons there were some newly convicted and brought into deep distress of soul about their perishing estate. Our Sabbath assemblies soon became vastly large, many people from almost all parts around inclining very much to come where there was such appearance of the divine power and presence. I think there was scarcely a sermon or lecture preached here through that whole summer but there were manifest evidences of impressions on the hearers, and many times the impressions were very great and general. Several would be overcome and fainting; others deeply sobbing, hardly able to contain; others crying in a most dolorous manner; many others more silently weeping, and a solemn concern appearing in the countenances of many others. And sometimes the soul-exercises of some (though comparatively but very few) would so far affect their bodies as to occasion some strange, unusual bodily motions. I had opportunities of speaking particularly with a great many of those who afforded such outward tokens of inward soul-concern in the time of public worship and hearing of the Word. Indeed, many came to me of themselves, in their distress, for private instruction and counsel; and I found, so far as I can remember, that with by far the greater part their apparent concern in public was not just a transient qualm of conscience or merely a floating commotion of the affections, but a rational, fixed conviction of their dangerous, perishing estate....

     "In some time many of the convinced and distressed afforded very hopeful, satisfying evidence that the Lord had brought them to true closure with Jesus Christ, and that their distresses and fears had been in a great measure removed in a right gospel way, by believing in the Son of God. Several of them had very remarkable and sweet deliverances this way. It was very agreeable to hear their accounts how that when they were in the deepest perplexity and darkness, distress and difficulty, seeking God as poor, condemned, hell-deserving sinners, the scene of recovering grace through a Redeemer has been opened to their understandings with a surprising beauty and glory, so that they were enabled to believe in Christ with joy unspeakable and full of glory."[162:1]

The experience of Gilbert Tennent at New Brunswick had no connection with the first awakening at Northampton, but had important relations with later events. He was the eldest of the four sons whom William Tennent, the Episcopalian minister from Ireland, had brought with him to America and educated at his Log College. In 1727 he became pastor of a church at New Brunswick, where he was much impressed with what he saw of the results of the work of the Rev. Theodore Frelinghuysen, who for seven years had been pastor of a neighboring Dutch church. The example and fraternal counsel of this good man made him sensible of the fruitlessness of his own work, and moved him to more earnest prayers and labors. Having been brought low with sickness, he prayed to God to grant him one half-year more in which to "endeavor to promote his kingdom with all my might at all adventures." Being raised up from sickness, he devoted himself to earnest personal labors with individuals and to renewed faithfulness in the pulpit, "which method was sealed by the Holy Spirit in the conviction and conversion of a considerable number of persons, at various times and in different places, in that part of the country, as appeared by their acquaintance with experimental religion and good conversation." This bit of pastoral history, in which is nothing startling or prodigious, was at least five years previous to the "Surprising Conversions" at Northampton. There must have been generally throughout the country a preparedness for the Great Awakening.