A Sovereign God and a Great Awakening: Jonathan Edwards’ Defense of Revival in 18th Century America.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is considered by many as America’s greatest theologian. If there were a gene for revival, Jonathan Edwards surely had it. From his father Timothy, Edwards learned how to become a great preacher, to be ambitious, and a learned theologian; and from his maternal grandfather Stoddard, Edwards gained an ineffable revivalist zeal.[1] Edwards, along with the likes of George Whitefield and John Wesley, was a central figure in what is often referred to as the First Great Awakening in America which was characterized by a huge spiritual revival throughout the American colonies. During this time, many known as the “old lights” rose up against these revivals in what they saw as a break away from biblical and traditional church practices.[2] Their primary issue was the way in which they saw men and women having their passions stirred by the evangelistic preaching often leading to tears and outbursts crying out for salvation. In stepped Edwards. Edwards stood against these revival detractors as the theological bastion for the “new lights” and the revivals of the Great Awakening by arguing that these religious displays of affection were merely the outworking of a mighty work of the Sovereign God. Of all Jonathan Edwards’ works there is one that stands above the rest providing a biblical defense and balanced view on the way God works on the affections of man, and how those affections are rightly displayed. This work is known as a Treatise on Religious Affections. Originally a series of sermons on the proper place of religious affections in the Christian life, Edwards later expanded them and it was published in 1746.[3] The book is divided up into three parts. In part one, Edwards establishes the legitimacy of religious affections, in part two he provides balance by arguing that outward displays of the affections do not immediately equate to a work of God, and then in part three he provides what are the distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections.


Edwards opens up the treatise by showing that the affections were specifically built into the human being by the creator in order that the fullness of the born again person would experience the goodness and holiness of God. He writes, “The Author of human nature has not only given affections to men, but has made them very much the spring of men’s actions,” therefore, “human affections do not only belong to true religion, but are a very great part of it.”[4] Throughout the treatise, Edwards sought to show that throughout “the Holy Scriptures when God moved upon his people there was always a move upon their affections, be it fear, hope, love, hatred, joy sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal.”[5] Edwards throughout the work creates a powerful apologetic for what was happening in the Great Awakening against those who disregard the affections, but also against those who abuse them through perverted displays of the affections. He does this by showing what signs are indeed the direct result of God’s Spirit working among a people, and which ones are not. There is one common thread that runs through the signs put forth by Edwards: God is both the author and the object of the affection. For Edwards, this massive scale of a movement towards God throughout the American colonies could not be the product of the carnal methods of men.

For Edwards the great awakening of hearts towards Christ, and those whose lives revealed true conversion through their obedience to God’s word, was a clear sign, not of savvy new methods implemented by men, but a work of the Sovereign God on the affections of sinners being saved. Edwards never deterred from his conviction that true revival (something that unlike many then and since have been able to clearly define) has a single Agent, the Sovereign God of all Creation. For Edwards, these revivals were constant displays of God building His church and pressing it towards its eschatalogical age of peace. In spite of the detractors on the outside of the Awakening, and those who were perverting the great work of God within it, Edwards provided clarity in a time of confusion. It was not Whitefield or Wesley’s great preaching, the use of multiple itinerant preachers, or vivid language in sermons that led to the Great Awakening, these were all just instruments of God to bring a great revival that spanned from Britain across the Atlantic into the colonies. After fully investigating the movement of God throughout history and comparing them to what was happening in the awakening, Edwards writes, “Therefore, if what has been said before be sufficient to determine it to be, as the main, the work of God, then it must be acknowledged to be a very wonderful and glorious work of God.”[7] Jonathan Edwards had come to a clear conclusion: Revival was no mere human evangelistic campaign, it was an outpouring of the Spirit of God. It was revival in the hands of a sovereign God.


[1] Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of America, revised ed., (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 58.

[2] Gaustad, 61.

[3] Ibid., 58.

[4] Jonathan Edwards and Sereno Edwards Dwight, The Works of President Edwards : With a Memoir of his Life, Vol. 5, (New Haven, CT: Baldwin and Treadway, 1829), 14. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, accessed November 12, 2020. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CY0111762546/SABN?u=vic_liberty&sid=SABN&xid=e6b1e2c3.

[5] Edwards, 14.

[6] Ibid., 35.


Edwards, Jonathan, and Sereno Edwards Dwight. The Works of President Edwards : With a Memoir of his Life, Vol. 5. New Haven, CT: Baldwin and Treadway, 1829. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926. Accessed 12 Nov. 2020. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CY0111762546/SABN?u=vic_liberty&sid=SABN&xid=e6b1e2c3.

Gaustad, Edwin and Leigh Schmidt. The Religious History of America. Revised Ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.

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