Strange Fire Continues to Burn: An Historical Reflection on Modern Revivalism

Gregory Edward Reynolds

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 6, no. 3 (July 1997)

Jonathan Edwards’ A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746) has been referred to as the first great American psychological treatise; and is now, I am told by a local antiquarian book seller, highly sought after by students of philosophy. However, great philosopher and psychologist though he was, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards was by his own intention first and foremost a pastor-theologian. Twentieth century attempts to co-opt the obvious genius of Edwards fail miserably upon a cursory reading of the Religious Affections, not to mention their failure in light of a careful consideration of Edwards’ historical context. Like Luther, Edwards stood contra mundum. Acutely aware of Enlightenment thought and its impact on the theology and practice of the churches of New England, Edwards used every ounce of his genius to oppose the zeitgeist with a solid exposition of biblical Calvinism.

It is also significant that Edwards was a Presbyterian at heart.[1] One may profitably wonder what difference Presbyterian church government might have made in standing against the tidal wave of Unitarianism and Deism that has overwhelmed the Puritanism of New England.[2] It is clear that the Individualism fostered by the Great Awakening found a comfortable home in the democratic structure of Independency. In our century even secular sociologists have noted with alarm the destructive effects of Individualism. Witness Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1978), and Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985).

The present essay is an historical reflection on revivalism, prompted by a front page article in the New Hampshire Sunday News (March 2, 1997): “Fire, Brimstone, Not an Empty Seat.” The article compares a present “revival” in Pensacola, Florida, with the Great Awakening in New England. Page 14A gives the headline: “Minister Says His Revival May Be Third ‘Awakening.’” Associated Press religion writer David Briggs reports people “running down the aisles, stepping over the bodies of teenage girls and middle age-men already ‘slain in the Spirit.’” Forty-three-year-old missionary evangelist Stephen Hill preaches, “Get on your face before God.... You’ve got 40 seconds left, What on earth are you waiting for?... 11, 10, 9, hurry, hurry, hurry.” The “contemporary worship style ... allows participants the freedom to cry, dance, sing or do whatever else the Holy Spirit tells them to do.”

While this may remind us of the excesses of the Great Awakening, which most of its most ardent supporters deplored, there is little else in Pensacola that compares with the spiritual reality of that great eighteenth century work of God. It reminds us more of the “Toronto Blessing.” This manifestation of the Vineyard Movement of John Wimber is an extreme example of a modern “revival.” To be fair, Hill, amidst the histrionics, preaches the reality of heaven and hell and calls people to repent, believe in Jesus Christ, and “follow an exacting code of holiness.” But in such an environment radical Individualism, the legalism of the Assemblies of God, and “easy believism” come into their own. At the conclusion of the article Briggs asks, “How many souls have been saved? Perhaps 100,000, say revival organizers. But in random interviews over a three-day period, no one said they were ‘born again.’ Yes, they had rededicated their lives to Christ, they said—but these were people who had previously accepted Jesus as savior.” Then Briggs tellingly observes, “Studies indicate that many who promise to change their lives slide back into old habits once they are away from the highly charged revival.”

What is the difference, then, between the Pensacola “revival” and the Great Awakening? The inspiring, insightful and cogent answer to that question was written by Jonathan Edwards two and a half centuries ago. The remainder of this article will survey Edwards’ assessment of the Awakening. As Cyprian of Carthage once said of Tertullian, “Da mihi magistrum” [Give me the master!].

Edwards begins A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections in his Preface with the state of the question, the most important question a person can ask: “What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favour with God, and entitled to His eternal rewards? ... What is the nature of true religion? And wherein do lie the distinguishing notes of that virtue and holiness that is acceptable in the sight of God?”[3]

Edwards, ever a physician of the soul, looks for the answer to his eighteenth century diagnostic question in the Scriptures. “But though it be of such importance, and though we have clear and abundant light in the word of God to direct us in this matter, yet there is no one point wherein professing Christians do more differ one from another.”[4] Edwards cuts to the quick, separating the wheat from the chaff, affirming the true work of God against the rationalists and distinguishing it from the excesses of the enthusiasts.

There were two poles between which answers to this question were given in Edwards’ day. On the one pole there were the Old Light rationalist Arminians, like Charles Chauncy of Boston, who were essentially moralists, to whom regeneration was a distasteful idea. The Great Awakening was decried as pure “enthusiasm” [an eighteenth century word for “fanaticism”]. This was the mindset that made way for Unitarianism and Transcendentalism: Christian morality without the redemption of a crucified and risen Christ. On the other pole were the New Light antinomians, like James Davenport of Southold, Long Island, whose authoritarian declamations of everyone who didn’t share his “enthusiasms” knew no bounds. For such the Great Awakening was an unmixed blessing. This was the mindset that made way for the radical Individualism that has plagued New England Christendom ever since.

As early as 1735 Edwards began to reflect on the nature of true religion after the first wave of the Awakening (1734,5). A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737) was an expansion of a letter to his Boston correspondent Benjamin Coleman. This was more of a positive account than his later, more critical and mature reflections. In 1741 The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God was published. Here he began to examine the difference between essential and nonessential marks of the Spirit’s work. A year later Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742) distinguishes between the “occasional” and “proper” causes of visible phenomena. The “proper” causes being the fruit of the Spirit. Finally in 1746 Edwards’ mature assessment of the Great Awakening was published in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.

In Part I, “Concerning The Nature of the Affections, and Their Importance in Religion,” Edwards begins by defining true religion: “True Religion, in great part, consists in Holy Affections.”[5] “The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”[6] The will (inclinations) approves or disapproves of the objects (thoughts and ideas) beheld by the mind (heart). Holy affections are distinguished by “vigorous exercise of the inclination and will towards divine objects.”[7] In a letter to Benjamin Coleman, Edwards states that new converts “seem to be brought to a lively sense of the excellency of Jesus Christ.” After surveying several Biblical categories of Holy Affections Edwards concludes: “true religion consists so much in the affections that there can be no true religion without them.”[8] True religion consists of hearts enlightened by the truth and affected with the “power of godliness.”

Parts II is an exposition “Showing What Are No Certain Signs That Religious Affections Are Truly Gracious, or That They Are Not.”

1. It is no sign one way or the other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high.

2. It is no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body.

3. It is no sign that affections are truly gracious affections, or that they have not, that they cause those who have them to be fluent, fervent, and abundant, in talking of the things of religion.

4. It is no sign that affections are gracious, or that they are otherwise, that persons did not make themselves, or excite them of their own contrivance, and by their own strength.

5. It is no sign that religious affections are truly holy and spiritual, or that they are not, that they come from texts of Scripture, remarkably brought to mind.

6. It is no evidence that religious affections are saving, or that they are otherwise, that there is an appearance of love in them.

7. Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another, is not sufficient to determine whether they have any gracious affections or no.

8. Nothing can certainly be determined concerning the nature of the affections by this, that comforts and joys seem to follow awakenings and convictions of conscience, in a certain order.

9. It is no certain sign that the religious affections which persons have are such as have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship.

10. Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections by this, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God.

11. It is no sign that affections are right, or that they are wrong, that they make persons that have them exceeding confident that what they experience is divine, and that they are in a good estate.

12. Nothing can be certainly concluded concerning the nature of religious affections from this, that the outward manifestations of them, and the relation persons give them, are very affecting and pleasing to the truly godly, and such as greatly gain their charity and win their hearts.

Parts III is an exposition “Showing What Are Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections.”

1. Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious do arise from those influences and operations on the heart which are spiritual, supernatural and divine.

2. The primary ground of gracious affections is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest.

3. Those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things.

4. Gracious affections arise from the mind being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things.

5. Truly gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the reality and certainty of divine things.

6. Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation.

7. Another thing, wherein gracious affections are distinguished from others, is, that they are attended with a change of nature.

8. Truly gracious affections differ from those affections that are false and delusive, in that they tend to, and are attended with, the lamb-like, dove-like spirit and temper of Jesus Christ.

9. Gracious affections soften the heart and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit.

10. Another thing wherein those affections that are truly gracious and holy differ from those that are false, is beautiful symmetry and proportion.

11. Another great and distinguishing difference between gracious affections and others is, that the higher gracious affections are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased. On the contrary, false affections rest satisfied in themselves.

12. Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.

Edwards concludes: “But if we had got into the way of looking chiefly at those things which Christ and His apostles and prophets chiefly insisted on, and so in judging ourselves and others, chiefly regarding practical exercises and effects of grace, not neglecting other things, it would be of manifold happy consequence. It would above all tend to the conviction of deluded hypocrites, and to prevent the delusion of those whose hearts were never brought to a thorough compliance with the straight and narrow way which leads to life. It would tend to deliver us from innumerable perplexities, arising from the various inconsistent schemes there are about methods and steps of experience. It would greatly tend to prevent professors neglecting strictness of life and tend to promote their engagedness and earnestness in their Christian walk. It would be become fashionable for men to show their Christianity, more by an amiable distinguished behavior, than by an abundant and excessive declaring their experiences. We should get into the way of appearing lively in religion, more by being lively in the service of God and our generation than by the liveliness and forwardness of our tongues, and making a business of proclaiming on the house tops with our mouths the holy and eminent acts and exercise of our own hearts.”[9]

Weighed in the balance of Edwards’ exposition what today passes for “revival” must be found seriously wanting. The centrality in present “revivals” of those things which Edwards denotes as “no sure signs of true religion” is deeply troubling in itself. But what is profoundly more troubling is the relative absence of those things which Edwards denotes as “sure signs of true religion.”

While Edwards did not experience the manufactured “revivals” of recent American Christianity, he was very clear in asserting that true revivals are initiated by the Sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, as Distinguishing Sign #1 attests. The external phenomena of the Great Awakening bear a marked resemblance to contemporary excesses. Edwards was not as concerned to prevent such excesses as he was to assess them properly. Between the Devil and our own sinfulness, emotional excesses will probably always be present in varying degrees, wherever the true work of revival is present. The absence of such phenomena in the Bible should be our primary desideratum in assessing these phenomena. There when the Spirit works in a persons heart the understanding is illuminated with truth and the affections are moved to ardent pursuit of the Savior in holy living (cf. Acts 2 and Luke 24). How opposite this is to barking, howling and being “slain in the spirit.” Such responses are not in accord with Scripture. They are more akin to pagan rites such as the Bacchanalian feasts.

Edwards also emphasized the centrality of Scripture and its exposition along with the abiding nature of Christ likeness in converts. “The impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men is evidently one great and main end for which God has ordained that His Word delivered in the holy Scriptures should be opened, applied, and set home upon men, in preaching.”[10] Preaching to the emotions, instead of to the affections was already a problem in Edwards’ day. Preachers used methods that “have a great tendency to stir up the passions of weak and ignorant persons, and yet have no great tendency to benefit their souls.”[11] Certain ordinary means have a tendency to stir up true religious affections. “Such books, and such a way of preaching the word, and administering ordinances, and such way of worshipping God in prayer, and singing praises, is much to be desired, as have a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means.”[12] These, Edwards’ lamented, were falling out of favor. A new methodology compatible with a rising anti-intellectualism and subjectivism was invading the churches. Experience oriented spirituality is reflected in and cultivated by the absence of searching expositions of Scripture in modern evangelism.

Furthermore Edwards insisted that the chief fruit of genuine conversion is Christ-like humility and love. Modern revivalism, on the other hand, promotes the very self absorption of which people should be called to repent. Distinguishing Sign #2 warns us against using religion for self-interest. The accent of modern revivalists, even in revivalistic calls to repent, is often on selfimprovement, instead of self denial. “The Scriptures do represent true religion, as being summarily comprehended in love, the chief of the affections and the fountain of all other affections.”[13] Distinguishing Signs #8 and #9 paint a lovely picture of holiness. 8. Truly gracious affections differ from those affections that are false and delusive, in that they tend to, and are attended with, the lamb-like, dove-like spirit and temper of Jesus Christ. 9. Gracious affections soften the heart and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit” (emphasis added). The “highly charged” atmosphere of contemporary revivals is not conducive to what Edwards refers to as “habitual”[14] holy affections. The lasting reality of Christ-likeness is replaced by the momentary thrill of the spectacular.

The tragedy of present “revivals,” from the perspective of Reformed Christians, comes clearly into focus when one realizes that for the uninformed secular public there are only three alternatives: secularism, Liberalism (and its New Age cousins), and Fundamentalist-Charismatic fanaticism. Our task is to communicate to our culture an alternative of which they are almost entirely ignorant; by preaching, living, talking and writing about true religion; and praying fervently for the revival of the same in New England.

This historical critique is not meant to deny the genuine work of God in Christian circles where some of the cited abuses seem most obvious. Indeed it is offered with a sense of urgent need and out of deep concern for the health of the whole church and the integrity of its witness to a dying world. If the theology and practice of Jonathan Edwards is our model, then Reformed Christians, too, must admit failure. We have not presented the whole counsel of God to the world with the vigor and energy that our theology warrants. Nor have we pleaded for the lost in prayer before the throne of our sovereign and gracious God as we ought. Each of us must begin at home in the presence of our God if we really want revival and reformation in our day.


[1] From August 1722 to May 1723 Edwards supplied the pulpit of a newly formed Presbyterian church in New York City. In a letter to friend and correspondent John Erskine he remarked, “I have long been out of conceit of our unsettled, independent, confused way of church government; and the Presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the word of God, and the reason and nature of things.” Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Vol. II, p. 59, fn.

[2] Cf. A. Donald MacLeod, “Alexander Blaikie’s Presbyterianism in New England,” New England Reformed Journal, Issue 2, Winter 1997, 9-20.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, Treatise Concerning The Religious Affections, Select Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. III (No city: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), p. 15. Hereafter: Religious Affections.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 23.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] Ibid., 29.

[8] Ibid., 49.

[9] Ibid., 381,2.

[10] Ibid., 44.

[11] Ibid., 51.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 35.

[14] Ibid., 48.

Rev. Gregory E. Reynolds is serving as a regional home missionary for the Presbytery of New York and New England, and is presently located in Manchester, New Hampshire.