Reviewed (Rev) Hugh M Cartwright
Thoughts on the New England Revival
Thoughts on the New England Revival, was written by Jonathan Edwards, and is published by the Banner of Truth Trust [hardback, 294 pages, £14.50 or $26.99.] This title was written in 1742 as Some Thoughts concerning the present Revival of Religion in New England, and the Way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted and reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust in their 1974 edition of the 1834 two-volume set The Works of Jonathan Edwards.. It is now available in an edition which is attractively produced and more easily handled and read. There are differences in layout, section headings and some sentence construction between the two Banner of Truth editions, but the content is the same.
Edwards (1703-1758) experienced revival during his ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the 1730s, when 300 were added to the church within six months, and in the 1740s, while Whitefield was touring New England. A similar work was then occurring in some Scottish parishes - Cambuslang, Kilsyth and Nigg come to mind. Edwards himself was increasingly unhappy over some of the circumstantial accompaniments of the 1740s awakening but was persuaded, unlike some of its critics, that it was substantially a glorious work of God. He wrote several books, of which this is one, to defend the work, though acknowledging that there were errors and abuses. A full account of the circumstances in which this book was written is given in Chapters 11 and 12 of Rev Iain Murray's Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (1987). Mr Murray makes the interesting observation: "The structure of his book gives some grounds for believing that in the course of its composition his uppermost concern shifted from the opponents of the revival to the excesses of those who proclaimed that they were its best friends" (pp 237,238).
In the First Part of the book, Edwards calls us to judge the work by Scripture as a whole rather than by human philosophy, rules not laid down in Scripture, historical precedents, personal experience or incidental defects. Attributing defects to such causes as human corruption, immaturity and inˇexperience and Satan's alarmed busyness, he brings forward ordinary and extraordinary effects in individual lives and society which persuade him that this was a genuine work of God. In doing so he provides us with biblical tests to be applied to spiritual experience at all times.
In the Second Part he calls on readers to acknowledge, rejoice in and promote this work since "the Church of Christ is called upon greatly to rejoice when at any time Christ remarkably appears coming to His Church to carry on the work of salvation, to enlarge His own kingdom, and to deliver poor souls out of the pit wherein is no water" (p 71). His attempt to argue from Scripture that the glory of the latter days would begin in America and that this work was the beginning of these days is the weakest part of the book and shows how even the best of men can err when they endeavour "to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power" (Acts 1:7). In the Third Part he deals with some of the objections brought against the work. Although he does not agree with those who objected to introducing "hymns of human composition", we do. Given his emphasis on the impression made upon the mind by the truth, his defence of ministers earnestly addressing the affections is instructive.
The Fourth, and longest, Part consists of serious warnings to those engaged in, or affected by, this work. "Indeed the enemies of religion would not know what to do for weapons to fight with were it not for the errors of its friends . . . the friends of the work ought to be exceedingly circumspect and vigilant, diffident and jealous of themselves, and humbly dependent on the guidance of the good Shepherd" (p 148). He warns solemnly against the workings of spiritual pride, the influence of wrong principles, the introduction of novelties which have a tendency to shock and surprise, a readiness to encourage oneˇself in practices and attitudes contrary to God's Word because of providential events or a sense of comfort, and the censuring as unconverted those who are in good standing. Among the various other spiritual and practical pitfalls for the unwary he refers to censoriousness, improper readiness to assume teaching roles, a lack of reverence in worship and of regard for order in the external matters of religion.
In the Fifth Part of the book Edwards shows what ought to be done by those in various stations of life and in the Church who seek to promote this work. Amidst many counsels he lays stress on self-scrutiny as to one's own partaking in the work, on private and corporate prayer and fasting, and on the expression of inward religion in outward acts of worship and obedience to God's moral commands. Apart from the specific purpose for which the book was written it includes extended and instructive treatments of such ever-pressing subjects as spiritual pride, the difference between going by impressions and being led by the Word and Spirit of God, and the need for biblically-proportioned experience. Spiritual pride "is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those that are zealous for the advancement of religion. It is the chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit, to darken the mind and mislead the judgement. This is the main handle by which the devil has hold of religious persons, and the chief source of all the mischief that he introduces to clog and hinder a work of God" (p 152).
Going by impressions "is quite a different thing from the Spirit's enlightˇening the mind to understand the precepts or propositions of the Word of God and know what is contained and revealed in them and what consequences may justly be drawn from them and to see how they are applicable to our case and circumstances; which is done without any new revelation, only by enabling the mind to understand and apply a revelation already made" (pp 178,179). Urging the need for experience proportioned to the revelation given of God in Scripture in the face of Jesus Christ, he says: "A defect on the one hand, having much of a discovery of His love and grace without a proportionable discovery of His awful majesty and His holy and searching purity, would tend to spiritual pride, carnal confidence and presumption; and a defect on the other hand, having much of a discovery of His holy majesty without a proportionable discovery of His grace, tends to unbelief, a sinful fearfulness and spirit of bondage" (p 214).
It is not that these tendencies arise from these revelations of the Spirit in themselves but, as he says elseˇwhere, "from the intervention or interposition of some infirmity, blindness, inadvertence, deceit or corruption of ours" (p 188). No one should be put off reading this book by Jonathan Edwards' reputˇation as a philosopher. It was written by a pastor for pastors and people. It should make us long for a powerful work of God's grace, spoiled as little as possible by the hand of man. It should help us in the meantime to examine our own experience and the state of religion among ourselves.
(Rev) Hugh M Cartwright
(With permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, August 2005. www.fpchurch.org.uk)
Price: £14.50 UK $26.99 US, Clothbound, 294 pages
ISBN 0 85151 894 X