Edwards on Testing True Revival

The Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century provoked the ire of many Protestants. This was due to reports of hysteria surrounding the Awakening's particular brand of revivalism. Many did not know what to make of the excitement and fervor exuded by those caught-up in the movement.

In New England, the relatively unassuming Jonathan Edwards found himself at the center of debates concerning the revival’s legitimacy. He was friends with men like George Whitefield who (his opponents believed) had a certain degree of pageantry while preaching that played on the emotions of listeners to manipulate and coerce various responses. This emotional style of preaching had evidently been taken up by other preachers in Edwards’ day, adding fuel to the fiery distrust of many.

While Edwards was not particularly known for any sort of flamboyance in his preaching, he had special interest in the events taking place and had experienced some of the religious fervor firsthand. His most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was met with a shocking response when he preached it in 1741 for a second time in the town of Enfield. Edwards could not finish the sermon because the congregation erupted in a flurry of emotions. Many came to saving faith that day.[1]

A Definition of Revival and the Need to Judge Rightly

Iain H. Murray helpfully defined revival as: “A sovereign and large giving of the Spirit of God, resulting in the addition of many to the kingdom of God.”[2] Just as in Edwards’ time, many today are right to distrust the supposed “revival services” offered by some churches.[3] Just as no mortal can produce salvation in another, neither can a preacher or church produce legitimate revival apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as the salvation of the sinner cannot be scheduled or planned, neither can revival. As Jesus taught, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8). It is God’s sovereign work to save and revive, and no amount of scheduling, planning, or blue-faced preaching can accomplish what only God sovereignly can.

Edwards wrote Some Thoughts on the Present Revival because he saw three ways to judge the legitimacy of an apparent spiritual awakening. He explained that many had erred in their judgments of the revival:

“First, In judging of this work a priori. Secondly, In not taking the Holy Scriptures as a whole rule whereby to judge of such operations. Thirdly, In not justly separating and distinguishing the good from the bad.”[4]

The First Judgment

First, Edwards warned against judging the apparent revival a priori because the way something began would necessarily be the way something ended. Just as a prophet was to be judged based on whether the prophecy came to fruition (Deut. 18:22), an apparent revival could only be truly understood as a whole. Edwards explained, “We are to observe the effect wrought; and if, upon examination of that, it be found to be agreeable to the word of God, we are bound to rest in it as God’s work…”[5]

If others were startled by how the revival began, Edwards remarked that,

“Indeed God has not taken that course, nor made use of those means, to begin and carry on this great work, which men in their wisdom would have thought most advisable, if he had asked their counsel; but quite the contrary.”[6]

In other words, God is free to work salvation in surprising ways. For Edwards, the goals of God mattered more than the wisdom of men. Because of this, Edwards’ approach was to exercise and advise patience. Only if the work of revival remained agreeable with God’s Word throughout, and only if conversions proved true, then could it be rejoiced in that revival had taken place. If, on the other hand, the work ended badly, and great apostacy followed, then it would have to be admitted that the work was not God’s.

The Second Judgment

Second, Edwards noted that, “We should judge [the legitimacy of revivals] by the rule of Scripture.”[7]

Edwards’ concern was the way men were leaning into philosophy, rather than Scripture, to test the Great Awakening. For example:

“Some are ready to say, ‘There is but little sober solid religion in this work; it is little else but flash and noise. Religion now all runs out into transports and high flights of the passions and affections.’”[8]

It would seem that these men were quicker to test the revival according to their philosophy of what Christianity was supposed to be, rather than what Scripture itself reported. Now, Edwards was not suggesting that they were wrong to wonder about the emotionalism associated with the revival. He conceded, “It is true; distinction must be made in the affections or passions.”[9] But at the same time, Edwards saw a great deal of room for emotion to be expressed if a true revival was taking place, according to Scripture. Thus, he concluded of emotions that:

"Though there are false affections in religion, and in some respects raised high; yet undoubtedly there are also true, holy, and solid affections; and the higher these are raised, the better. And, when they are raised to an exceeding great height, they are not to be suspected merely because of their degree, but on the contrary to be esteemed."[10]

Edwards knew that emotional behavior could easily accompany the understanding and apprehension of divine truth and, when it was legitimate, ought to be encouraged rather than hindered.

The Third Judgment

Finally, he taught others to “Distinguish the good from the bad, and not judge of the whole by a part.”[11] There was a tendency in some to reject the whole because of an “accidental evil” to be found in a part.[12] Along these lines Edwards wrote:

“Many, if they see any thing very ill in a particular person, a minister or private professor, will at once brand him as a hypocrite. And, if there be two or three of a people or society that behave themselves very irregularly, the whole must bear the blame of it.”[13]

Edwards makes a good point. After all, is this not the heart of many unbelievers when, judging one hypocrite, label the entire Church as nothing but a house of hypocrites? When it comes to evaluating a revival movement, it is all too easy to fall into an "all-or-nothing" mindset:

“They who highly approve of the affair in general, cannot bear to have any thing at all found fault with; and, on the other hand, those who fasten their eyes upon some things in the affair that are amiss, and appear very disagreeable to them, at once reject the whole.”[14]

Thus, good and evil have to be distinguished:

"A great deal of noise and tumult, confusion and uproar, darkness mixed with light, and evil with good, is always to be expected in the beginning of something very glorious in the state of things in human society, or the church of God. After nature has long been shut up in a cold dead state, when the sun returns in the spring, there is, together with the increase of the light and heat of the sun, very tempestuous weather, before all is settled calm and serene, and all nature rejoices in its bloom and beauty."[15]

It is to be expected that wickedness will often attempt to tarnish God’s good works, working to extinguish the light of the Gospel. But evidence of some perversion did not, and could not, destroy the whole.

Revival is the work of God and must be judged by the whole, according to Scripture, distinguishing good from evil. Let us, like Edwards, judge rightly and earnestly pray for religious revival in our own day.

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, currently have one son, Josiah. He is completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Related Links

"Revival and Revivalism," a lecture series by Iain Murray

"The Korean Revival and Following Persecution" by Simonetta Carr

"Revival and Revivalism," review by James Rich

"Time on Our Hands" by Megan Taylor

"Jonathan Edwards and True Revival" by Steve Lawson


[1] See: Josh Moody, “This Day in History: Jonathan Edwards Preaches “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” July 8, 2018: crossway.org/articles/this-day-in-history-jonathan-edwards-preaches-sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god/.


[2] Iain H. Murray, Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Trust, 1994), 374.


[3] I am not necessarily criticizing churches that hold conferences and call them “Revival” services. I understand the history of the terminology and am aware that ministry context plays a role into the naming of these events.


[4] Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts on the Present Revival of Religion in New England and the Way in Which It Ought to be Acknowledged and Promoted, within The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1.366.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 367.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 371.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 372.

Image: "American methodists proceeding to their camp meeting" by J. Milbert & M. Dubourg

Jacob Tanner