Marsden's Edwards V
Bill Long 9/12/05
The "Suprising" Work of God in 1734-35
I should confess at the outset my ambivalence for the notion of "revival" or "awakening." I wasn't always this way. Indeed, when I went to Seminary at Gordon-Conwell in South Hamilton, MA in 1974, I was ready to join in prayer and work for the coming "great revival" that surely would come to New England sometime in the near future. I took seminars on Edwards, studied with a professor (Richard Lovelace) who was an expert on revivalism and generally immured myself in a world of like-minded people who believed that since God's first great "harvests" (according to our reading of history) were in New England in the 1730s, his next great movement ought to be in New England in the 1970s. When I took courses at other campuses of member schools of the BTI (Boston Theological Institute, such as Harvard, Episcopal Divinity School, St. John's Catholic Seminary), I perceived they didn't sense the same "revival" fever as I felt, but I attributed it either to their flagging theological ardor or their being tied up in (rather useless) religious traditions.
Thirty years later, however, I see things differently. Though I am interested in the subject of "vital piety" or "religion that lives," I am pretty suspicious of efforts to "revive" others spiritually. There always seems to be more of an agenda than revival itself or, alternatively, there seems not to be clarity on what you do with a roomful of "revived" people once you have them. Indeed, the cycles of revival experienced by Edwards in the "Suprising Work of God" in Northampton in 1734-35 confirm for me that, like the demoniac from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, often one's latter state is worse than one's former condition.
Yet, I will further (and finally) confess that whenever I study about revival and the "great" Northampton revival of 1734-35, the "warm" feelings return. It is as if I am trying to vault over the previous 30 years of my life and land right back into the pristine and uncluttered feelings I had at GCTS in the mid-1970s. Thus, even though I am at a "distance" from Edwards' revival theology and suspicious of the value of awakenings, I eagerly study the subject.
Phases of an Awakening*
[*I am using the words "awakening" and "revival" synonymously. Not everyone does. Just thought I would warn you.]
If no one tells of an awakening, did it happen? One of the reasons why everyone who studies revivals in American history knows of 1734-35 in Northampton is that Edwards left such a copious account of it. Marsden's chapter (ch. 9) is a sympathetic and careful portryal of it. I think it best to study the anatomy of revival by breaking it into four phases: (1) the long "decline" of piety in the years preceding the awakening; (2) events that spark revival; (3) the "changed" lives of those who experience the fresh work of the Spirit of God; and (4) the entry of "Satan" to throw cold water on the fires of the Spirit.
1. In telling the account of the Northampton awakening, Marsden brings fresh insights. Chief among them is the changed social situation in Northampton in the early 1730s. He notes two interrelated things. First, young people were postponing marriage until their mid-late twenties (about three years later than their parents). Second, because the land had been duly doled out to the eldest sons, and since development in the "West" was not yet safe, an increasing number of young people were living with their parents well into their 20s. This led, as can be imagined, to "frolicking" and idleness among the young. Yep, spiritual decline. The real key to the revival was Edwards' skill at learning to harness the excess energy possessed by these young people in the direction of spiritual things.
2. Although the first "flame" of revival appeared in a tiny village outside of Northampton, it caught fire in the town in April 1734 when there was "a very sudden and awful death of a young man in the bloom of his youth; who being violently seized with a pleurisy and taken immediately very delirious, died in about two days" (Marsden, 153). As we see today when so many of our young people are tragically killed in auto accidents, such an event "much affected many young people." Skillfully seizing this opportunity, Edwards preached on Ps. 90:5-6 "In the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up. In the evening it is cut down and withereth" and pointed out the nearness and unpredictability of death and the corresponding need to take one's spiritual life seriously. Several young people decided to commit themselves to spiritual things as a result.
3. But the revival spread and began to affect the adults, too. I don't know if many have pointed this out but just as teen fashions and gestures often make it into adult culture (the high-five, turned-around caps, etc.), so the teen "culture" in religion often spreads to the adults. And it did here. The key to the spread of the revival in Northampton was the organization of small private religious meetings (what today would be called a "small group ministry") in homes, in which one could sing the new songs (see preceding essay) as well as pray and study Scripture. Anchoring the revival was Edwards' own thinking on the subject which was expressed concisely in the memorable "A Divine and Supernatural Light," in which he talked about the immediacy of the divine communication to the soul through the work of the Holy Spirit. Though Edwards might be accused of seeing this phase of the revival with rose-colored glasses, he characterized the life of Northampton as revival-oriented: "a great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and the eternal world became universal in all parts of the town, and among persons of all degrees and all ages" (Marsden, 159).
4. All good things must end, however, and revivals are no exception. In this case it came to a rather jarring conclusion or, to put it differently, ran into an interpretive crisis, through the suicide of a prominent man in town, Joseph Hawley, on June 1, 1735. Though seeking an explanation of this "awful providence" in the man's prior mental distress, Edwards was clearly thrown off balance by the sudden turn of events. Ultimately blaming the turn of events on the work of Satan, the ever-present spoiler of things divine, Edwards tried to "redeem" even this horrible event by placing its meaning in an overall purpose of God in the universe.
The Northampton awakening of 1734-35 was not only a challenge to Edwards' pastoral skills but also to his hermeneutic abilities. Yet, he was only 30 and 31 at the time, and the richness and intensity of this experience formed the basis for his views on spiritual affections as well as the work of God in the world generally.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long