Although John Wesley was disappointed with the lack of response he received in Newgate Prison, London, there was another Christian working amongst the prisoners with great effect.
Sarah Peters, described by Wesley as caring, even-tempered and able to handle pressurised situations well, spent many hours talking with the condemned prisoners. When she died in 1748, John Wesley gave a tribute to her in his journal.
The tribute consists of the collected testimonies of some of those who were facing execution. Paying a heavy price for a range of different crimes (some of which would not receive such harsh sentences today), these men were lost and facing the reality of death. Sarah came, taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ and prayed with them.
Over the next few posts we’ll read some breathtaking statements that are her enduring legacy…
Convicted, tried and condemned and unable to have his sentence reduced, said:
‘I thank God, I do feel that He has forgiven me my sins: I do know it!’
Sarah asked him how he knew that. He replied, ‘I was in great heaviness, till the very morning you came hither first.
‘That morning I was in earnest prayer; and just as St Paul’s clock struck five, the Lord poured into my soul such peace as I had never felt; so that I was scarce able to bear it.
‘From that hour I have never been afraid to die; for I know, and am sure, as soon as my soul departs from the body, the Lord Jesus will stand ready to carry it into glory.’
For the next installment of this story read here (from John Wesley Journal, Vol 2, p.121, Baker Edition)
This is getting silly!
Having failed to secure a hearing with a Judge in Wednesbury, the crowd decide to march Wesley to a Justice of the Peace in nearby Walsal.
It’s not clear exactly what they thought they would accomplish; possibly to have Wesley censured for disturbing the peace.
(Read the first part of the story here and follow the links)
As news was being delivered to them that the second judge was already in bed and not willing to see them, it happened!
Two Mobs attack each other!
Wesley writes, ‘About fifty of them undertook to convoy me. But we had not gone a hundred yards when the mob of Walsal came, pouring in like a flood, and bore down all before them.
‘The Darleston mob made what defence they could; but they were weary, as well as out-numbered, so that in a short time, many being knocked down, the rest ran away, and left me in their hands.
‘To attempt speaking was in vain, for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea.
Yanked by the hair
‘So they dragged me along till we came to the town where, seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob.
‘They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other.
‘I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness.
‘At the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made towards it and would have gone in, but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground.
‘However, I stood at the door and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No! No! Knock his brains out! Down with him! Kill him at once!”‘ (From John Wesley Journal, Vol 1, p.437-438, Baker Edition)
We’ll pick up the final installment in the story next time…
Although the Methodists enjoyed great successes they also endured terrible persecution which lasted several years.
But God gave them power to press through into victories. Historian John Simon writes:
‘If Methodism had not come into contact with the mob it would never have reached that section of the English people which most needed salvation.’ [He’s not right here. All sections of English society needed (and still need) salvation. What he means is that the Methodists could never have reach the majority of the population, and thus influenced the culture of English life without facing violence – a sobering thought!].
‘The ‘Religious Societies’ shut up in their rooms, would never have reformed the country.
‘A superb courage, rarely equalled on the battlefield’
‘It was necessary that a race of heroic men should arise, who would dare to confront the wildest and most brutal of men, and tell them the meaning of sin, and show them the Christ of the Cross and of the judgement throne.
‘The incessant assaults of the mob on the Methodist preachers showed they had reached the masses.
‘With a superb courage, rarely equalled on the battlefield, the Methodist preachers went again and again to the places from which they had been driven by violence, until their persistence wore down the antagonism of their assailants.
(Part Three – see Part One and Two)
Nathan Cole and his wife had heard that the famous Evangelist George Whitefield would be preaching in Middletown, just 12 miles from their farm.
They immediately stopped what they were doing, saddled the horse and rode as fast as they could to get to the meeting place.
Cole describes how, as they approached Middletown, a great fog or cloud appeared. As they got nearer, it was clear that the fog was created by the hundreds of horses and carriages, and the thousands of people rushing and racing to get to the meeting place.
Finally, the young couple find a place among the four thousand gathered and wait until Whitefield appears.
Whitefield gets up to preach
He writes, ‘When I saw Mr Whitefield come up upon the scaffold he looked almost angelic.
‘A young, slim, slender youth before thousands of people and with a bold, undaunted countenance and my hearing how God was with him everywhere he went solemnized my mind and put me in a trembling fear before he began to preach.
‘For he looked as if he was clothed with authority from the great God.’
Whitefield preached passionately and powerfully. He spoke of how Jesus paid the price in full for our sins, how forgiveness is available through the cross, how a person can truly find peace with God through faith in Christ and receive His free righteousness. He told the people how God has made a way to forgive sins and bring us to heaven.
What the Evangelist Said
A short segment of his often preached sermon, ‘The Lord our Righteousness’ gives us an idea of what he would have said on this occasion. He has already preached the gospel and is now making his appeal for the people to respond to the message:
‘Alas, my heart almost bleeds! What a multitude of precious souls are now before me! How shortly must all be ushered into eternity! And yet, O cutting thought! Was God now to require all your souls, how few, comparatively speaking, could really say, ‘the Lord our righteousness!’
‘…You need not fear the greatness or number of your sins. For are you sinners? So am I. Are you the chief of sinners? So am I. Are you backsliding sinners? So am I. And yet the Lord (for ever adored be his rich, free and sovereign grace) the Lord is my righteousness.
Come then, O young man, who (as I acted once myself) are playing the prodigal, and wandering away afar off from your heavenly Father’s house, come home, come home, and leave your swine’s trough. Feed no longer on the husks of sensual delights: for Christ’s sake arise, and come home!
‘Your heavenly Father now calls you. See yonder the best robe, even the righteousness of his dear Son, awaits you. See it, view it again and again.
‘Consider at how dear a rate it was purchased, even by the blood of God. Consider what great need you have of it. You are lost, undone, damned for ever, without it. Come then, poor, guilty prodigals, come home…’
A Broad Appeal to All
During this evangelistic appeal, he is eager that no-one be left out. He speaks specifically to young women, to young men, to merchants, to the slaves listening, to those ‘of middle age’, to the children, to those in their later years:
‘Alas, you have one foot already in the grave, your glass is just run out, your sun is just going down, and it will set and leave you in an eternal darkness, unless the Lord be your righteousness! Flee then, O flee for your lives!’
Nathan Cole, standing with his wife, in the midst of thousands, listening to Whitefield, said this:
‘My hearing him preach gave me a heart wound and by God’s blessing my old foundation was broken up and I saw that my righteousness would not save me.’
Cole did finally come to Christ and was changed forever. (Sources: Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield Vol.1, Banner of Truth, p541 and John Pollock, George Whitefield, Hodder, p164f)
What about us?
Where do you stand with God today? These truths are not only for yesterday but for today. You can come to Christ today.
Perhaps you are already a follower of Christ. Do you know something of this passion to communicate the gospel to others? Are you eager to see those you work with come to Christ?
Wherever you are, in whatever circumstance, you can appeal to God for mercy because of what Jesus has done for you. He came, He died, He rose again and He will hear your prayer and help you come into a genuine relationship with Him. Sins can be washed away, life can be transformed and you can become a part of God’s great purpose in the earth.
If you don’t know what to do there may be a church near you listed here or try here for more help.
‘The Lord our Righteousness’ is published in ‘The Select Sermons of George Whitefield’ (Banner of Truth). You can order it here.
Evangelistic progress in the West, and its downside
There’s little doubt that gains have been made in the Western church in terms of evangelism. While the work of evangelism has been roaring ahead in the Global South, we have been carefully seeking to engage our communities.
We are, I hope, doing so respectfully and with increasing fruit. We are creating a context in which objections can be raised and hopefully answered.
The appetite for apologetics in the church has increased. And enquirers are given time rather than exhorted to respond without much information. That’s good.
But, in the midst of our modest gains, there’s a downside. The trend towards apologetics has slowed the evangelistic process so comprehensively that some would be sceptical if a guest were to ask to become a Christian after a single sermon.
Alongside the tremendous success of multi-week evangelistic courses and seeker friendly sermon series in the Western church, we may doubt the possibility of God bringing saving power ‘right now’, as it were! We may also have become unnecessarily nervous of any ‘demonstrations of power’ in the evangelistic arena (cf. 1 Cor 2:4).
Do we still believe that someone’s heart can be ‘strangely warmed’ as they hear the gospel? Can we believe that during a single sermon ‘the Lord opens the heart to believe’? Would we, like Paul, baptise someone after such a short exposure to the Christian message? (see Acts 16:11-15)
We acknowledge that everyone goes through a process of discovery. Jesus Himself spoke about sowing and reaping. This is how the influence of the Kingdom of God expands (Matt 13:1-9, Mark 4:26-29).
But we must never forget that what’s being described is not a natural but a supernatural process.
When things were speeding up for John Wesley; when hundreds were hearing the gospel, experiencing the power of the Spirit and being converted, he was criticised for promoting it. Although he is responding primarily to concern about the power aspects of the meetings, his faith in the suddenness of genuine conversion is refreshing.
His defence, copied into his journal in May 1739, is helpful for us so that, while continuing to carefully instruct inquirers, we avoid the danger of lowering our expectation of God’s power in the gospel. (Rom 1:16)
John Wesley defends the work
Wesley writes, ‘The question between us turns chiefly, if not wholly, on matter of fact. You deny that God does now work these effects, at least that he works with them in this manner.
‘I affirm both, because I have heard these things with my own ears, and have seen them with my eyes.
‘I have seen (as far as a thing of this kind can be seen) very many persons changed in a moment from the spirit of fear, horror, despair, to the spirit of love, joy, and peace; and from sinful desire, till then reigning over them, to a pure desire of doing the will of God.
‘These are matters of fact, whereof I have been, and almost daily am, an eye or an ear witness.
‘…I know several persons in whom this great change was wrought in a dream, or during a strong representation to the eye of their mind, of Christ either on the cross, or in glory.
‘This is the fact,’ Wesley continued, ‘let any judge of it as they please. And that such a change was then wrought, appears (not from their shedding tears only, or falling into fits, or crying out: these are not the fruits, as you seem to suppose, whereby I judge, but) from the whole tenor of their life, till then, many ways wicked; from that time, holy, just and good.
‘I will show you him that was a lion till then, and is now a lamb; him that was a drunkard, and is now exemplarily sober; the whoremonger that was, who now abhors the very ‘garment spotted by the flesh’.
‘These are my living arguments for what I assert, viz. ‘That God does now, as [in the past], give remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, even to us and to our children; yea, and that always suddenly, as far as I have known, and often in dreams or in the visions of God.’ (John Wesley Journals, Vol 1, Baker edition, p.195-6)
For more on the power of the Holy Spirit read here
In Isaiah 44 God promises ‘I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit…’ (Isa 44:3).
What took place on George Whitefield’s visits to the coal miners of Bristol seems to be an apt fulfillment of this wonderful promise.
Having ‘broken the ice’ and preached twice from a small hill to the colliers, the 24 yr old Whitefield returned several times.
On his third visit, in a freezing cold February, between four and five thousand people gathered to hear the passionate Evangelist. He says, ‘The sun shone very bright, and the people standing in such an awful [awe-filled] manner round the mount, in the profoundest silence, filled me with a holy admiration. Blessed be God for such a plentiful harvest.’ (George Whitefield Journals, Banner of Truth edition, p.221)
However, nothing could quite prepare him for the wonder of seeing the first truly huge crowds gathering in the open air to hear him.
From 200 to 2000 to 4000 to 10,000!
He writes, ‘At four I hastened to Kingswood. At a moderate computation there were about ten thousand people to hear me.
‘The trees and the hedges were full. All was hush when I began; the sun shone bright, and God enabled me to preach for an hour with great power and so loudly that all, I was told, could hear me.
Mr. B…n spoke right. The fire is kindled in the country; and I know, all the devils in hell shall not be able to quench it.’ (ibid p.223)
The white gutters made by their tears
He adds, ‘Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus who was a friend of publicans and sinners, and came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
‘The first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by their tears which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits.
‘Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep convictions, which, as the event proved, happily ended in a sound and thorough conversion.’ (quoted in ‘Memoirs of the Life of the Reverend George Whitefield, MA’, John Gillies, 1772 edition, p.28)
Mass Evangelism, Emotionalism or Effective Mission?
Ah, someone might say, typical emotionalism in Evangelism. But where’s the fruit? Didn’t Whitefield himself give the impression that he had not built stability into the young converts?
Here is John Wesley’s assessment from one year after the events we’ve been looking at. Let his testimony stand:
‘The scene is already changed. Kingswood does not now, as a year ago, resound with cursing and blasphemy. It is no more filled with drunkenness and uncleanness, no longer full of wars and fightings, of wrath and envyings. Peace and love are there. Great numbers of the people are mild, gentle and easy to be entreated.’ (Quoted by John Pollock in Wesley, Hodder edition, p.133)
Gathering Information on the health of the new believers
In John Wesley’s Journal entry for December 5th 1738 he writes,
‘About this time, being desirous to know how the work of God went on among our brethren in London, I wrote to many of them concerning the state of their souls.’ He then quotes from some of the replies he received.
The experiences described, and which he includes in his journal may well have been the perfect preparation for him to be positive about the outpouring of the Spirit that took place on January 1st 1739. This outpouring, during an all night prayer meeting, has arguably been portrayed as the beginning, the spark, of the Great Awakening in the British Isles.
[N.B. In sharing these quotes I am encouraging us to learn about the processes of church history. I am noting openness to the Holy Spirit exhibited by the early Methodist leadership – just on the eve of a mighty breakthrough that radically affected their generation. I am not endorsing Wesley’s later teaching on sinless perfection.]
Sealed with the Spirit
One of the letters Wesley quotes from includes the following remarkable statements:
‘Now St. Paul says, ‘After ye believed, ye were sealed with the Spirit of promise.’ So it was with me.
After I had believed on Him that ‘justifieth the ungodly,’ I received that seal of the Spirit, which is the ‘earnest of our inheritance.’…
‘then I began to feel the ‘Spirit of God bearing witness with my spirit, that I was born of God.’
‘Because I was a child of God, He ‘sent forth the Spirit of his Son into me, crying, Abba, Father.’ For that is the cry of every new born soul.
The love of God undeniably experienced
‘O mighty, powerful, happy change!…
‘The love of God was shed abroad in my heart, and a flame kindled there, so that my body was almost torn asunder.
‘I loved. The Spirit cried strong in my heart.
‘I trembled: I sung: I joined my voice with those ‘that excel in strength’
Hungering after God!
‘My soul was got up into the holy mount. I had no thoughts of coming down again into the body. I who not long before had called to ‘the rocks to fall on me, and the mountains to cover me,’ could now call for nothing else but, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.’
‘Then I could cry out with great boldness, There, O God, is my Surety! There, O death, is thy plague! There, O grave, is thy destruction! There, O serpent, is the Seed that shall for ever bruise thy head!
The Lover and the Beloved
‘O, I thought my head was a fountain of water. I was dissolved in love. ‘My Beloved is mine, and I am his.’ He has all charms.
‘He has ravished my heart. He is my comforter, my friend, my all. He is now in his garden, feeding among the lilies.
‘O, ‘I am sick of love.’ He is altogether lovely, ‘the chiefest among ten thousand.’”
(From John Wesley Journals Vol 1, p.168-169, Baker edition)
Wesley makes no comment on the letters he quotes but leaves judgement to the reader.
Next time we’ll look at the historic gathering on January 1st 1739…
The disappointing ‘missionary’ attempt by the Wesley brothers to serve God in America made them realise they themselves were in real need of salvation (see, John Wesley: the non-Christian).
Charles, the First!
Charles was the first to experience the new birth, the main topic about which Whitefield was now preaching. He heard Whitefield in London and records at the time, ‘Mr Whitefield [preaches] not with persuasive words of man’s wisdom, but with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power. The churches will not contain the multitudes that throng to hear him,’ (Charles Wesley Journals, Vol 1. P.79 Baker)
The brothers had been impressed with the faith of the Moravians on board ship during a storm, and John had received a surprise grilling by the Moravian leader, Augustus Spangenberg, in America. Following these encounters they began seeking them out once they had returned to England.
The Moravian Peter Bohler was leading a regular meeting in London’s Fetter Lane. Dallimore writes, ‘Charles and John were in almost daily contact with Bohler.’
He asked Charles ‘Do you hope to be saved? He replied, ‘I do!’
‘For what reason do you hope it?’ ‘Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God.’
Charles reports, ‘He shook his head, and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart, ‘What, are not my endeavours sufficient ground of hope? Would he rob me of my endeavours? I have nothing else to trust to.’ (Arnold Dallimore, Charles Wesley, Crossway, p.58-59)
Power on Pentecost Sunday
Charles had discovered the vital doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone as he read Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians.
‘21 May was Pentecost Sunday…[and] the day of Charles Wesley’s conversion.’ Charles said he felt the Spirit of God striving with his spirit ‘till by degrees He chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced…I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.’
John, in his Journal records on that day, ‘I received the surprising news that my brother had found rest to his soul.’
Indeed, Charles wrote: ‘I was in a new heaven and a new earth!’ (See Dallimore, p.61-62)
John Wesley’s ‘heart strangely warmed’
Finally, three days later, at one of the Moravian meetings in Aldersgate Street, John Wesley got his breakthrough. He had already discussed Justification by faith with Peter Bohler, but this was different.
At 34 years of age (more than ten years older than Whitefield) he was finally born again.
He wrote in his journal:
‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.
I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ (John Wesley Journal, May 24th 1738, Vol. 1. p.103)
After this Wesley followed Whitefield’s example and began preaching both justification by faith and the new birth in the churches. And one by one, the Anglican church leaders resisted him. (see here for further examples of Wesley following Whitefield’s example)
It wasn’t long before these newly converted ‘Methodists’, George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley, began to gather others together to seek God for greater blessings.
1739 was approaching, and little did these men know what a significant year it was to be!
To read something of the amazing influence of the Wesleys click here
A shift was taking place: Whitefield had personally experienced the new birth, and now he was boldly declaring it to others.
In 1736 George Whitefield was officially ordained as an Anglican Minister and set about preaching. Outwardly unimpressive, yet inwardly fervent in his love for God and people, Whitefield began preaching.
‘I preached’, he tells us in his Journals, ‘as usual about five times a week…it was wonderful to see how the people hung upon the rails of the organ loft, climbed upon the leads of the church, and made the church itself so hot with their breath that the steam would fall from the pillars like drops of rain.’
‘Sometimes almost as many would go away from want of room as came in, and it was with great difficulty that I got into the [pulpit].’ (GW Journals, Banner of Truth edition, p.84-85)
As Whitefield’s popularity grew and more and more were experiencing the new birth, it became evident that something bigger than the stir caused by a young preacher was taking place. Scenes of religious excitement that had never been witnessed before now began to take place daily.
Increasing conversions, increasing interest
A little later, and still a year before the Wesleys brothers’ conversion, George was able to write:
‘The sight of the congregations was [awesome]. One might as it were, walk upon the people’s heads…They were all attention, and heard like people hearing for eternity.’
‘I now preached generally nine times a week. The early sacraments were exceeding [awesome]…how often have we seen Jesus Christ, evidently set forth before us, crucified!’
‘On Sunday mornings, long before day, you might see streets filled with people going to church, with their lanterns in their hands, and hear them conversing about the things of God…[the people] were so deeply affected that they were like persons mourning for a first born child.’ (Arnold Dallimore, Life of George Whitefield, Vol 1, p.30-31)
Whitefield senses his destiny and prays courageously
Whitefield sensed he was on the edge of a powerful breakthrough and on December 30 1737 prayed, ‘God give me a deep humility, a well-guided zeal, a burning love and a single eye, and then let men or devils do their worst!’
From Whitefield’s personal experience of salvation to his first efforts in sharing his faith
The first sign of a breakthrough came when George Whitefield, after months of legalism and misguided fervency, was finally born again at Oxford University in 1735.
He immediately returned to his home town of Gloucester where he joyfully preached the gospel. Several young people were converted and he organised them into a small group (or, ‘society’ as they were called) based on Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’ at Oxford.
A season of growing and learning in Gloucester
Whitefield was overjoyed in his new found faith, much to the surprise of his friends who were expecting a glum, religious depressive. He began to diligently study the Scriptures.
He became clearer in his responsibility to preach justification by faith alone, rather than some of the more mystical teachings he had been exposed to by the Oxford group.
He writes, ‘Oh what sweet communion had I daily…with God in prayer..! How often have I been carried beyond myself when sweetly meditating in the fields! How assuredly have I felt that Christ dwelt in me and I in Him! And how did I daily walk in the comforts of the Holy Ghost and was refreshed in a multitude of peace!’ (GW Journals, BOT edition, p.61)
His personal relationship with God was the foundation of His own desire to serve God. He had many wonderful experiences of the Spirit at this time which began to govern his early view of ministry.
Promptings from God?
He had a dream of a prisoner in Gloucester coming to him for help and instruction. He went to the prison but could not gain access. A little while later, a letter arrived from Oxford saying that there was a prisoner who had escaped the Oxford prison but had been recaptured and was now held in Gloucester. Would Whitefield visit him? He did so and began preaching to a group of prisoners in the prison, providing for them and helping secure the release of some of them. (GW Journals, p.63)
He tended to respond to what he felt were definite promptings of the Holy Spirit and the immediate fruit was remarkable. Although cautioned on this point by Edwards a few years later, Whitefield instinctively knew that being ‘led by the Spirit’ was certainly preferable to John Wesley’s practice of casting lots for guidance.
After 6 months in Gloucester, he was ready to return to Oxford, ready to face the daunting possibility of being ordained as a Minister, and ready to face the challenge of bringing the teaching of the New Birth, of Justification by Faith in Christ alone, to 18th Century England.
So George Whitefield, merely months before becoming one of England’s youngest and most popular preachers, discovers that he needs to be born again in order to get right with God. He discovers that spiritual life is imparted by God through faith.
But strangely, he then acts in the opposite direction – throwing himself into a round of even more exacting religious exercises and good works, desperately trying to appease God.
Self-denial, satanic oppression, sickness and scaring Charles Wesley!
He increases his fasts, he stops eating fruit, giving the money he would have spent to the poor, he goes outside in rain and storm to cry out to God and confess his sinfulness.
Rather than finding relief from any of these exercises he becomes even more disconsolate, fearful and insecure. Feeling himself to be horribly oppressed by the devil he finally decides to ‘forsake’ all, including his new friends and stays in his study for days on end. He becomes physically ill and his tutor sends a physician.
His gloomy, depressed demeanour, the terrible loss of weight, all of this alarms the other students.
Charles Wesley is way out of his depth, doesn’t know what to do, and so refers him to his older brother John (already in his thirties, clearly the leader by this time, but not yet converted).
John painstakingly talks George down from the extremity of legalism in which he is bound and gives him Thomas a Kempis to read. Perhaps John realises even at this point that the strictness of the lifestyle he is promoting, the intensity of examination of every moment, is not working.
Locked in the second half of Romans 7
George seemed to have been caged in experience into what Paul merely illustrates in Romans 7:7-25.
There, Paul illustrates the inability of the Law to produce freedom from sin. Life is in the Gospel not in the Law. George Whitefield, having been awakened to the rightness of God’s Commands, then went on to try and justify himself through religious duty to fulfill those Commands. But Paul clearly demonstrates that the Law cannot produce life – only Christ can.
But, as in Paul’s illustration, so in real life, and as Whitefield was about to experience – the bondage of the cycle of sin and death is broken only by the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Finally the breakthrough
Whitefield had come to that great pre-conversion cry, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?’ (Rom 7:24)
In his Journal he records, ‘God was pleased to set me free in the following manner. One day, perceiving an uncommon drought and a disagreeable clamminess in my mouth and using things to allay my thirst, but in vain, it was suggested to me, that when Jesus Christ cried out, ‘I thirst!’ His sufferings were near at an end. Upon which I cast myself down on the bed, crying out, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’’
From Mourning to Dancing
Although it seems a small thing – to be desperately thirsty, and to somehow see that when Christ cried out that He thirsted, it was near the end of His anguish – yet, here’s the point, when George Whitefield cried out to God, God intervened and heard him.
‘Soon after this’, writes George, ‘I found and felt in myself that I was delivered from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me. The spirit of mourning was taken from me and I knew what it was truly to rejoice in God my Saviour; and, for some time, could not avoid singing psalms wherever I was…’
‘Thus were the days of my mourning ended. After a long night of desertion and temptation, the Star, which I had seen at a distance before [referring to the doctrine of the New Birth in Scougal’s book], began to appear again, and the Day Star arose in my heart.
Now did the Spirit of God take possession of my soul, and, as I humbly hope, seal me unto the day of redemption.’ (GW Journals, Banner of Truth, p.58)
Well, he had wrestled and struggled and, at last, discovered God’s free and Sovereign grace. Being now certain of the new birth in his own experience he began to proclaim the message of it to the English speaking world.
While George Whitefield was doing menial tasks for the richer students at Oxford University, his own interests became intensely focussed.
He discovered that his experience in the ‘public house was now of service to me’, in that he was able to serve others diligently and humbly. Yet he could not throw in his lot with the other servitors, whom he felt would become a bad influence on him.
He was aiming for higher things.
Religion vs. Being Born Again
He began to read the books that Charles Wesley, his new friend, lent him. One small volume had a real impact on him, Henry Scougal’s ‘The Life of God in the Soul of Man.’ (see Piper on Scougal)
Whitefield realised that, to get right with God, he needed to be born again, not merely to increase his religious efforts.
‘At my first reading it, I wondered what the author meant by saying, ‘That some falsely placed religion in going to church, doing hurt to no one, being constant in the duties of the closet [ie. private prayer], and now and then reaching out their hands to give alms to their poor neighbours.’
‘Alas!’ though I, ‘if this be not true religion, what is?’
An inward change of heart was needed. What Scougal called, the ‘union of the soul with God, and Christ formed within us.’ Whitefield writes, ‘a ray of Divine light was instantaneously darted in upon my soul, and from that moment…did I know that I must be a new creature.’ (GW Journals, Banner of Truth, p.47)
A pre-evangelistic flurry!
At last he’d seen it! Not religious duty, but the life of God coming and changing us! And he immediately began communicating it to others even though he had not yet experienced it himself!
Whitefield realised that the New Birth was absolutely central for an individual’s relationship to God and for any hope of getting to heaven. It was a clear-as-day revelation to him – and it was to become the pivotal emphasis in his preaching.
The New Birth not a New Teaching
This doctrine of the New Birth didn’t begin with Whitefield, of course, nor with Henry Scougal.
In John’s Gospel we’re told that a highly religious man, Nicodemus visited Jesus one evening to ask him questions. Nicodemus was a well known teacher, and was a respected authority on Scripture.
Yet Jesus cuts across Nicodemus’ expectations by telling him, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Faith Comes to Life
The new birth is, as Whitefield discovered, an inner work of God. As you learn more about Jesus Christ, on hearing about His perfect life, His sacrificial death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead – faith is aroused! Faith that perhaps wasn’t there before!
As it begins to dawn on you that Jesus truly and specifically died on the cross for your sins, to forgive you of every one, and present you before God as holy – faith is aroused, and springs up!
This faith, as it comes alive causes a desire for Christ and for His forgiveness. We find ourselves being drawn to God! We long for His forgiveness and for His purposes in our lives. We are willing to turn from sin and live for Him.
My friend, you can discover right now what George Whitefield discovered hundreds of years ago: that God loves you deeply, that He is willing to forgive your sins, and bring you home to Himself. You can have a brand new start and come into a right relationship with God today.
Why don’t you ask God to turn you around and make you into a follower of Jesus Christ?
You’ll need to find a church. You can begin by looking here.
enthral (verb) = to captivate, hold spellbound, by pleasing qualities. (OED)
When God plans to bless a region or nation with the Gospel, He seems to begin by calling and preparing His chosen instruments.
George Whitefield, along with the Wesley brothers and many others were key figures in a mighty, sweeping, nation-changing season of God’s blessing.
The effect of what took place in England following their preaching and church planting has been described by historian J.R. Green:
‘A religious revival burst forth…which changed in a few years the whole temper of English society.
The church was restored to life and activity. Religion carried to the hearts of the people a fresh spirit of moral zeal, while it purified our literature and our manners.
A new philanthropy reformed our prisons, infused clemency and wisdom into our penal laws, abolished the slave trade, and gave the first impulse to popular education.’ (Green, A short history of the English People, Harper, p. 736-7)
Breathtaking Service for God
Before we get into the details of Whitefield’s incredible life let me outline a few facts:
• he was a tireless preacher – estimates are that he preached/taught 30,000 times during his relatively short life (he died aged 56)
• during the summer of 1739 in England the outdoor crowds are estimated to have been up to 1 million – all without amplification, obviously
• he invested much of his time in America
• something like 80% of the American population heard him preach
• Whitefield became the prototype Evangelist
• he continually emphasised the need for the new birth
• he passionately appealed for people to come to Christ immediately
• it wasn’t unusual for him to stop in the middle of a sermon and join the crowd in weeping at the revelation of Christ’s love
• he often coughed up blood after preaching
• he became the first transatlantic ‘celebrity’ – and therefore was widely ridiculed in the papers!
• he was genuinely non-denominational, choosing to be buried in the crypt of the Presbyterian Church he had planted!
• he was able to effectively reach both poor and rich
• he was, by all accounts, a happy Calvinist!
It is difficult to read about Whitefield without becoming increasingly passionate for God, and passionate to see the gospel breaking into the lives of those around us.
We continue our enjoyment of quotations from the 18th century spiritual leader, Jonathan Edwards.
In his sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, gathered together in a volume published as ‘Charity and its Fruits’, Edwards, the great soul-physician applies the light of Scripture to our innermost motives and thoughts.
The sermons speak directly to the heart and perhaps these few quotes will ignite a desire in you to read them in full.
‘A Christian should at all times keep a strong guard against everything that tends to overthrow or corrupt or undermine a spirit of love.’ (Edwards, Charity and its Fruits (Sermons on 1 Cor 13), Banner of Truth, p.23)
Seeing the Sovereignty of God when we are offended
‘Love to God disposes men to have regard to the hand of God in the injuries they suffer, and not only to the hand of man.’ (ibid p.79)
‘Let us not say in our heart, I will do to him as he hath done to me.’ (p.82)
‘The spirit of Christian long-suffering, and of meekness in bearing injuries, is a mark of true greatness of soul.’ (p.87)
On Overlooking Offences
‘It is from littleness of mind that the soul is easily disturbed and put out of repose by the reproaches and ill-treatment of men:
just as little streams of water are much disturbed by the small unevennesses and obstacles they meet with in their course, and make a great deal of noise as they pass over them,
whereas great and mighty streams pass over the same obstacles calmly and quietly, without a ripple on the surface to show they are disturbed.’ (p.87)
You can purchase Charity and its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards here
Here are some choice quotes from Jonathan Edwards. These thoughts and insights represent a sampling of his style both in the pulpit and on paper.
Most are pretty challenging and all show his eagerness to apply Biblical thinking to living the Christian life.
‘The humble man is…disposed to renounce all the glory of the good he has or does, and to give it all to God.’ (Charity and its Fruits (Sermons on 1 Cor 13), Banner of Truth, p.137)
On Martin Luther’s Aggressive Style
‘Luther, that great Reformer, had a great deal of bitterness with his zeal.’ (Edwards, Thoughts on the New England Revival, Banner of Truth, p.28)
Edwards on the Reasonableness of Passion when urging folk to escape the possibility of Hell
‘If any of you who are heads of families saw one of your children in a house all on fire, and in imminent danger of being soon consumed in the flames, yet seemed to be very insensible of its danger, and neglected to escape after you had often called to it–would you go on to speak to it only in a cold and indifferent manner?
Would not you cry aloud, and call earnestly to it, and represent the danger it was in, and its own folly in delaying, in the most lively manner of which you was capable?
If you should continue to speak to it only in a cold manner, as you are wont to do in ordinary conversation about indifferent matters, would not those about you begin to think you were bereft of reason yourself?’ (Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, from Edwards on Revival, Banner of Truth, p.107)
On a Man being powerfully filled with the Holy Spirit
‘There have been instances before now, of persons crying out in transports of divine joy in New England.
We have an instance in Capt. Clap’s Memoirs, published by the Rev. Mr. Prince, not of a silly woman or child, but a man of solid understanding, that in a high transport of spiritual joy, was made to cry out aloud on his bed.
His words are: “God’s Holy Spirit did witness (I do believe) together with my spirit, that I was a child of God; and did fill my heart and soul with such full assurance that Christ was mine, that it did so transport me as to make me cry out upon my bed with a loud voice, He is come, he is come!”’ (Edwards, Thoughts on the New England Revival, Banner of Truth, p.22)
You can purchase several books by Jonathan Edwards here
We’ve been enjoying Sarah Edwards’ articulate descriptions of being filled with Holy Spirit during the 1741-1742 revival in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Here, she concludes her experience…
Monday morning at the Edwards’ house…
‘So strong were my feelings, I could not refrain from conversing with those around me, in a very earnest manner, for about a quarter of an hour, on the infinite riches of divine love in the work of salvation.’
Carried to the fireside entirely without strength
‘[Then], my strength entirely failing, my flesh grew very cold, and they carried me and set me by the fire.
As I sat there, I had a most affecting sense of the mighty power of Christ, which had been exerted in what he had done for my soul…and of the glorious and wonderful grace of God in causing the ark to return to Northampton.’
Mrs. Edwards leaps for joy!
‘So intense were my feelings, when speaking of these things, that I could not forbear rising up and leaping with joy and exultation.’
The Following Sunday at church…a foretaste of heavenly glory!
‘When I heard him [the preacher, William Williams] say, that those, who have assurance, have a foretaste of heavenly glory, I knew the truth of it from what I then felt: I knew that I then tasted the clusters of the heavenly Canaan: My soul was filled and overwhelmed with light, and love, and joy in the Holy Ghost, and seemed just ready to go away from the body. I could scarcely refrain from expressing my joy aloud, in the midst of the service.’
This was not ‘mere excitement’
Over-emotional? Iain Murray, himself wary of mere emotionalism, writes, ‘her joy, it should be noted, was far from the exuberance of mere excitement.’ (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, p.196)
And her loving husband Jonathan writes of his wife’s ‘season in the Spirit’, ‘It was the greatest, fullest, longest continued and most constant assurance of the favour of God and of a title to future glory that I ever saw…in any person.’ (Quoted by Murray, p.195-6)
May God the Father bless you with similar assurances of His love for you in Christ, by the influence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Was Sarah Edwards an over-emotional person? Was she a kind of ‘balance’ for her supposedly unemotional, strict husband Jonathan Edwards?
Or was she an intelligent and articulate woman, highly respected in the community, who had the privilege of personal encounters with God?
Jonathan encouraged her to record her various experiences (covering two and a half weeks in 1742) for the edification of others.
Iain Murray calls her words ‘an amazing testimony to how much of heaven can be enjoyed upon earth.’ (Murray, Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, p.193)
So without more ado, these are a few excerpts of her story…
The Presence of God
‘Under a delightful sense of the immediate presence and love of God, these words seemed to come over and over in my mind, ‘My God, my all;
my God, my all.’
The presence of God was so near, and so real, that I seemed scarcely conscious of any things else. God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, seemed as distinct persons, both manifesting their inconceivable loveliness, and mildness, and gentleness, and their great and immutable love to me.
I seemed to be taken under the care and charge of my God and Saviour, in an inexpressibly endearing manner; and Christ appeared to me as a mighty Saviour.’
The Dignity of a Royal Priesthood
‘The next day, which was the Sabbath, I enjoyed a sweet, and lively and assured sense of God’s infinite grace, and favour and love to me, in taking me out of the depths of hell, and exalting me to the heavenly glory, and the dignity of a royal priesthood.’
Intense admiration of God’s Grace
‘To my mind there was the clearest evidence, that God was present in the congregation, on the work of redeeming love; and in the clear view of this, I was all at once filled with such intense admiration of the wonderful condescension and grace of God, in returning again to Northampton, as overwhelmed my soul, and immediately took away my bodily strength.’
Back at the house…trying not to leap for joy
‘While I was uttering the words [of one of Isaac Watts’ hymns], my mind was so deeply impressed with the love of Christ, and a sense of his immediate presence, that I could with difficulty refrain from rising from my seat, and leaping for joy.’
When a revival of Christianity took place in Northampton, Massachusetts in the early 1700’s Jonathan Edwards unexpectedly became the apologist of the new movement, warts and all.
His discernment and level-headedness in the midst of much religious excitement and emotion have impressed Christian leaders ever since.
As a young Pastor in his early thirties he led the congregation and the town through a turbulent and spiritually explosive time with great ability.
Edwards defended the fact that a powerful apprehension of God’s glory does tend to affect people in noticeable ways, particularly in their emotions, but sometimes even physically.
Because this was a major cause of concern and criticism from those outside the town he tends to speak quite a lot about it when discussing that period.
‘Joy inexpressible and full of glory!’
He had himself experienced something of the overwhelming love of God. Iain Murray in his biography of Edwards records one such moment:
‘Another Saturday night (Jan 1739) I had such a sense, how sweet and blessed a thing it was to walk in the way of duty; to do that which was right and meet to be done, and agreeable to the holy mind of God; that it caused me to break forth into a kind of loud weeping, which held me some time, so that I was forced to shut myself up, and fasten the doors.
I could not but, as it were, cry out, ‘How happy are they who do that which is right in the sight of God! They are blessed indeed. They are the happy ones!’ (Quoted by Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, p.146)
But not only had Jonathan had personal encounters of joy and delight in God’s presence; so had his wife!
And, certainly by the time he published ‘Religious Affections’ in 1746, he was surely drawing not only on his general pastoral experience but also on the experience of the woman he both loved and trusted.
He apparently urged her to write her story down. In this, and the next post, we’ll listen to her testimony of God’s presence and power. She was 32 when she wrote of her experience.
Justified by faith and free from accusation!
Having described her longing for a more profound experience of God’s grace, she began reading Romans 8 once again, and particularly Rom 8:33f
‘Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.
Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Rom 8:33-35 KJV)
‘The words…were impressed on my heart with vastly greater power and sweetness still. They appeared to me with undoubted certainty as the words of God, and as words which God did pronounce concerning me.
I had no more doubt of it than I had of my being. I seemed as it were to hear the great God proclaiming thus to the world concerning me; ‘Who shall lay anything to thy charge’, and had it strongly impressed on me how impossible it was for anything in heaven or earth, in this world or the future, ever to separate me from the love of God which was in Christ Jesus.
I cannot find language to express how certain this appeared…My safety and happiness and eternal enjoyment of God’s immutable love seemed as durable and unchangeable as God Himself.
Melted and overcome by the sweetness of this assurance, I fell into a great flow of tears and could not forbear weeping aloud. It appeared certain to me that God was my Father, and Christ my Lord and Saviour, that He was mine and I His.’ (From ‘The Narrative of Sarah Pierpont Edwards’, Jonathan Edwards , Family Writings and Related Documents (WJE Online Vol. 41) also for pictures above)
More next time…I’m struggling to keep these posts short!
Expanding our Expectations of what God might do through His Church
There’s a somewhat tired caricature of the Reformed believer as an overly religious and narrow-minded fundamentalist.
Such a person supposedly takes solace in the Sovereignty of God in light of the failure of the message he proclaims. After all, it is supposed, not many are being converted because it’s ‘not the will of God’…so goes the caricature.
But actually, as we have seen already from the writing of Jonathan Edwards, an affectionate love for the doctrines of grace not only expands our view of the majesty of God (in His transcendence), but also includes real, passionate, personal experiences of God (in His immanence, His closeness).
And a Biblical view of the nature of God both as the One who graciously forgives us and as the mighty Head of the Church, will enable us to believe Him for new and perhaps even greater seasons of blessing in the world, through the Church.
We can get nervous when we hear preachers telling us we could limit God, somehow restricting what He could or couldn’t do. That kind of talk grates on our understanding of God’s ultimate freeness and our ultimate dependance. Jonathan Edwards was not merely a theologian, He was directly involved in an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Northampton, Mass in the early 1700s and was a witness to what appeared to be a rapid acceleration of normal evangelistic processes. Here’s his view on these things:
The Church’s Past Experience not the Ultimate Guide
‘What the church has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge; because there may be new and extraordinary works of God, and he has heretofore evidently wrought in an extraordinary manner.
He has brought to pass new things, strange works; and has wrought in such a manner as to surprise both men and angels. And as God has done thus in times past, so we have no reason to think but that he will do so still.’ (Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, from Edwards on Revival, Banner of Truth, p.89)
‘The Holy Spirit is sovereign in his operation; and we know that he uses a great variety; and we cannot tell how great a variety he may use, within the compass of the rules he himself has fixed.’
Don’t Limit God!
‘We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself.’ (ibid p.89)
This reminds me of Martin Luther’s famous phrase, ‘Let God be God!’
Edwards is exhorting us not to settle and bring our expectations down to our past experience. Rather, we are to trust God for new initiatives and breakthroughs, and even new outpourings of the Spirit, in the mission.
May God continue to help you as you receive His grace in your own life and seek to serve others with life changing message of His mercy in Christ.
You can read a review of Edwards on Revival here
Effects on the body are neutral from a Scriptural point of view
In his ‘Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God’ Edwards once again urges an impartial and judicious evaluation if such physical manifestations take place.
‘A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength.
The influence persons are under, is not to be judged of one way or other, by such effects on the body; and the reason is, because the Scripture nowhere gives us any such rule.’ (Jonathan Edwards, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God’, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth p.91)
But Edwards ‘comes out fighting’ to defend the convictions the Spirit produces
So having stated that they are strictly ‘neutral’ in respect of Scripture he then strongly defends such experiences, even suggesting that it is foolish to be dismissive about them:
‘I do not know that we have any express mention in the New Testament of any person’s weeping, or groaning, or sighing through fear of hell, or a sense of God’s anger;
but is there any body so foolish as from hence to argue, that in whomsoever these things appear, their convictions are not from the Spirit of God?’ (ibid p.93)
and he continues,
‘indeed spiritual and eternal things are so great, and of such infinite concern, that there is a great absurdity in men’s being but moderately moved and affected by them.’ (ibid p.95)
Encouragement for Worship Leaders
To the delight of many current worship leaders, he, perhaps unintentionally, gives us a beautiful apologetic for exuberant worship when he writes,
‘And when was there ever any such thing since the world stood, as a people in general being greatly affected in any affair whatsoever, without noise or stir? The nature of man will not allow it.’ (ibid p.95)
While arguing that the effects on the body are not in themselves evidence of true conversion, Edwards is careful not to dismiss such effects automatically as being wrong, in and of themselves.
Whether Edwards desired it or not, he found himself pastoring people who claimed to be having wonderful encounters with God. Sometimes they cried, sometimes they remained silent and sometimes they seemed to lose all physical strength.
This was inevitably a concern both to him and to those who heard what was happening. And so, in seeking to discern the way God was working, Edwards finds himself defending the work of the Spirit while urging restraint on those affected by their experience of God’s glory.
As this is a common feature of times of revival we would do well to allow Edwards’ insights and comments to help shape our own opinion.
And in so doing, perhaps our minds and hearts might be prepared for fresh encounters with the ‘the glorious splendour of His majesty’ (Psalm 145:5)!
God’s Glory can ‘overbear’ the body!
In his ‘Treatise Concerning Religious Affections’, Edwards is keen to discern authentic spiritual encounters, and the fruit that follows such encounters. But he very definitely defends the role of emotion, or ‘affections’ as a key element in Christian spirituality. Sometimes these religious affections can overpower us physically.
‘And who that considers what man’s nature is, and what the nature of the affections are, can reasonably doubt but that such unutterable and glorious joys, may be too great and mighty for weak dust and ashes, so as to be considerably overbearing to it?
It is evident by the Scripture, that true divine discoveries, or ideas of God’s glory, when given in a great degree, have a tendency, by affecting the mind, to overbear the body.’ (A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 1746, Section 2, Yale, http://edwards.yale.edu/)
Good Jonathan Edwards spends so much time considering these ‘power encounters’ that we will spend a few more posts listening both to his eye-witness accounts and to his judicious conclusions.
You can purchase Edwards on Revival here
You can read a review of Edwards on Revival here
In 1735 there was a sudden outpouring of grace on the town of Northampton. Many came to Christ under great conviction of sin and revelation of the sovereignty and justice of God.
Having described some of the struggles that some converts went through in terms of a realisation of their sin and guilt before God, Edwards describes the longed-for breakthrough of personal salvation.
‘Conversion is a great and glorious work of God’s power, at once changing the heart, and infusing life into the dead soul; though the grace then implanted more gradually displays itself in some than in others.’
In some, converting light is like a glorious brightness suddenly shining upon a person, and all around him: they are in a remarkable manner brought out of darkness into marvellous light.
In many others it has been like the dawning of the day, when at first but a little light appears…and gradually increases.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.40, 41)
The Newness of things
‘Persons after their conversion often speak of religious things as seeming new to them; that preaching is a new thing; that it seems to them they never heard preaching before; that the Bible is a new book: they find there new chapters, new psalms, new histories, because they see them in a new light.’ (ibid p.44)
‘While God was so remarkably present amongst us by His Spirit, there was no book so delightful as the Bible.’ (ibid p.47)
A love for God
‘Many have spoken much of their hearts being drawn out in love to God and Christ; and of their minds being wrapt up in delightful contemplation of the glory and wonderful grace of God, the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ; and of their souls going forth in longing desires after God and Christ.’ (ibid p.44-45)
A young peoples’ revival
In writing of the revival that broke out in 1735, Jonathan Edwards gives an objective yet compassionate account. The first changes visible were amongst the youth of the town, but the influence quickly spread to other age groups until he was able to make this astonishing observation:
‘In all companies…on whatever occasions persons met together, Christ was to be heard of, and seen in the midst of them.
Our young people, when they met, were [inclined] to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ…
Those amongst us that had been formerly converted, were greatly enlivened and renewed with fresh and extraordinary incomes of the Spirit of God.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.13-15)
The work of the Spirit in Conversion is Varied
Edwards describes in general terms the order of events in those who were converted at this time:
‘Persons are first awakened with a sense of their miserable condition by nature, the danger they are in of perishing eternally, and it is of great importance to them that they speedily escape and get into a better state…
Some are more suddenly seized with convictions-it may be, by the news of others’ conversion, or some thing they hear in public, or in private conference-their consciences are smitten, as if their hearts were pierced through with a dart.
Others are awakened more gradually…’ (ibid p.23)
George Whitefield, the pre-eminent Evangelist of the 18th Century spoke in similar terms:
‘Therefore, far be it from me to confine the Almighty to one way of acting, or say, that all undergo an equal degree of conviction: no, there is a holy variety in God’s methods of calling home his elect.’ (From Sermon, The Holy Spirit Convincing the World of Sin, Righteousness, and Judgment)
Jonathan Edawrds describes different levels of alarm and concern experienced amongst the people, but the same objective – forgiveness – being reached by those who seek God’s mercy.
‘Some are from the beginning carried on with abundantly more encouragement and hope than others. Some have had ten times less trouble of mind than others, in whom yet the issue seems to be the same.
Some have had such a sense of the displeasure of God, and the great danger they were in of damnation, that they could not sleep at nights.’ (ibid p.24)
‘Many times persons under great awakenings were concerned, because they thought they were not awakened, but miserable, hard-hearted, senseless, sottish creatures still, and sleeping upon the brink of hell.’ (p.25)
Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit is active He would reveal to men and women the reality of their condition before God.
‘And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…’ (John 16:8 NASB)
And, as Whitefield urged when he preached on that verse, it is in order that mercy might be obtained. Yet, what a challenge it is for us to read of the impact of conviction of sin on a whole town!
The people of Northampton in the 1730’s could thank God that they had at least one wise Christian leader in Edwards to help them find their way to the cross of Christ and receive forgiveness there.
Edwards in Revival
One of the contributory factors to Edwards’ depth and openness to the Spirit in his writings is simply the fact that he had experienced the power of God himself.
He was not merely an armchair theologian or commentator, writing from a remote perspective, without having seen the power of God at work in the conversions of men and women and the subsequent impact in a community.
This made a considerable difference in his ability to value peoples’ spiritual experience. To put it simply, he wasn’t freaked out by the operation of the Holy Spirit in peoples’ lives, and their various responses to His power.
Edwards was a participant as well as an observer. At just 33 years of age, he was an astute student of the ways of God.
From single to multiple conversions
It wasn’t long after the sudden conversion of a young lady that the whole town was in the grip of a full-scale revival. This was not a case of christian believers becoming more fervent in their faith. This was the major part of the population being suddenly drawn to God.
The impact on the town itself was palpable. The main topic of conversation was Jesus Christ and the way of Salvation. Hundreds were converted.
‘All other talk but about spiritual and eternal things, was soon thrown by; all the conversation, in all companies and upon all occasions, was upon these things only, unless so much as was necessary for people carrying on their ordinary secular business.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.13)
‘But although people did not ordinarily neglect their worldly business; yet religion was with all sorts the great concern, and the world was a thing only by the bye.
The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing into it.
The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances.
It then was a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell;
and what persons’ minds were intent upon, was to escape for their lives, and to fly from wrath to come.
There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world.
‘The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and increased more and more; souls did as it were come by flocks to Jesus Christ. (ibid p.13)
The Town itself seemed altered
This work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town…
the town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it was never so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then.
There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. (p.14)
Our public assemblies were then beautiful; the congregation was alive in God’s service, every one earnestly 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 neighbours. (p.14)
‘Remarkable Outpourings of the Spirit’
‘From the fall of man to this day…the Work of Redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.’ (Jonathan Edwards, Sermon: History of the work of Redemption quoted by Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism, IVP, p.129)
Jonathan Edwards is generally regarded as America’s greatest theologian. His ability as both preacher and writer, and his impact of the lives of millions is unprecedented in American religious literature.
However, like Calvin and the Puritans after the Reformation, Edwards is often caricatured as a hard hearted and even cruel preacher (at face value, this is because of his most famous sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’).
However, anyone who has read his sermons or other works will be pleasantly surprised to find a diligent and humble observer of revival as well as a powerful and moving preacher of God’s word.
Setting the Scene
The town of Northampton, Massachusetts comprising of about 200 families, had seen several local awakenings before Edwards’ ministry. There had been several ‘harvests’, seasons of conversions and church growth, but nothing as extensive as that which took place in 1735.
Edwards writes, ‘Then it was, in the latter part of December that the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us; and there were very suddenly one after another, five or six persons, who were to all appearances savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.12)
The youth are the first to enter in
The awakening began amongst the youth. A young lady who was well known for her lack of respect for the things of God was suddenly converted and began to evangelise everyone she met.
Her conversion experience had an unexpectedly powerful impact on others. So much so that Edwards could write:
‘God made it, I suppose, the greatest occasion of awakening to others, of any thing that ever came to pass in the town…
The news of it seemed to be almost like a flash of lightning upon the hearts of young people, all over the town, and upon many others.
Many went to talk with her, concerning what she had met with…’ (ibid p.12)