We need only look to the great awakenings of past centuries to see that the Church of 20th century America has fallen from great heights …
The men who led these great awakenings were ordinary men. They were intelligent, but they carried none of the distinguishing marks that accompany those who are capable of changing a nation. There is no money or fame here – no power or prestige. In fact, the greatest characteristic of these men was that they were consumed with a passionate love for Jesus Christ. They were humble men who loved the holiness of God. They were jealous of God’s glory and refused to compromise with those who would lower the standard of His holiness.
One of the most notable examples of such a great man of God is Jonathan Edwards. Although little honor is given to him in most history classes, historians will testify that Jonathan Edwards’ life had such an impact on the American colonies that our nation was born. Out of the unity of the Spirit that was the Great Awakening came Independence and Freedom. America was transformed by this Great Awakening which began in the ministry of one man – Jonathan Edwards.
Mason Lowance, a literary critic and historian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has this to say about Jonathan Edwards:
“Edwards was clearly the most important figure in the eighteenth century, perhaps even more critical to the development of Western thought than his contemporary Benjamin Franklin … Franklin’s political thinking far exceeded Edwards’ … However, Edward’s writing has had far greater influence than has Franklin’s…“1
John Fiske, a 19th century philosopher and historian, who taught at Harvard University, adds this assessment of Edwards:
“One of the great names in the history of philosophy is that of Jonathan Edwards, the profoundest thinker that America has ever produced. His best known work is his ‘Treatise on the Will,’ a marvellous specimen of deep and powerful reasoning, a book that no student of philosophy for many a year to come, can afford to neglect“2
Jonathan Edwards was the congregationalist minister who preached the Word of God in his home church in Northampton, Massachusetts. His preaching was the spark that set the fire that later became known as the Great Awakening. Edwards delivered intense sermons enlivened by concrete and vivid illustrations.
The most notable of these, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was so pointed in its portrayal of the horrendous evil in the hearts of men compared to the virtue which is God, that his listeners became suddenly aware of the uncertainty of life and their own sinfulness. There was a marked intrusion from the heavenlies into their midst.
Edwards delivered this sermon in Enfield, Connecticut, a town about 30 miles south of Northampton, on Sunday, July 8, 1741. We are told that Edwards read his sermon in a level voice with his sermon book in his left hand, and in spite of his calm “there was such a breathing of distress, and weeping, that the preacher was obliged to speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard.“3
Where did such anointing and conviction come from? What was it that set Edwards apart for such a great destiny? Where did the seeds of greatness begin to germinate? What were the conditions that brought about such a complete reformation of society? To answer these questions we need to look at Edwards’ inner life – a life of prayer that is hid in Jesus Christ.
From his youth, Edwards spent much time in secret with God seeking His Presence. He would often walk alone in the fields or the mountains praying to God with a deep affection. He spent much time reading and meditating on the Song of Solomon until he had a deep understanding of God’s sweetness and light. He experienced God’s presence as a sudden intrusion from “the other world” upon his natural senses. Edwards was used in a great way because he sought to be intimate with the actual Presence of God.
“I had an inward, sweet sense of these things, and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of the loveliness and sweetness of Jesus Christ. The sense I had of divine things would often kindle up a sweet burning in my soul, that I know not how to express.“4
He continued his pursuit until he found an undeniable, unquenchable longing after the holiness of God.
“The heaven I desired was a heaven of holiness, to be with God, and to spend my eternity in divine love, and holy communion with Christ“5
The Great Awakening
These experiences led Edwards to confront the members of his congregation with the holiness of God, especially the young people of Northampton. The result of this preaching was a revival in Northampton in 1734, which was the first of a series of revivals, now known as the “Great Awakening,” which spread from Maine to Georgia, and did much to unite the colonies in spiritual fervor. This was the foundation of a new feeling of strength and unity among the colonies which resulted in the birth of a new nation in 1776.
The Northampton revival continued for about 15 years until Edwards once again began to confront sin in his congregation by naming backsliders from the pulpit and refusing communion and church membership to those who had not had a personal salvation experience. As a result of his renewed zeal, Edwards was ousted as minister on June 22, 1750.
Joseph Hawley, a man whose father had committed suicide during the early years of the revival, blamed Edwards for “religious hysteria.” In a noble farewell sermon, Edwards resolved, “Let God be judge.” Although the congregation had difficulty in naming a successor to Edwards, they preferred no sermons rather than let Edwards preach.
Joseph Hawley later repented of his part in the controversy and begged for the forgiveness of the slandered minister. Edwards simply removed himself from Northampton. Edwards spent the rest of his life as a missionary to the Indians at Stockbridge, Massachusetts and later as president of Princeton University.
It could be argued that if Edwards had been more easy-going and less intense he would never have had any problems with his flock – but then he wouldn’t have been Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards was a reasonable and intelligent man but he was also keenly aware of the holiness of God and would not allow compromise. He could not accommodate the intrusion of an increasingly secularized society into his church. He disdained the outward show of religion as wood, hay and stubble that would only be consumed by the fires of a holy God.
The townspeople were unwilling to put up with these standards and opted for a more comfortable faith. Thus Northampton, Massachusetts holds the distinction of having rejected the greatest social philosopher that America has ever produced.
To most of Northampton’s citizens today, Edwards is a shadowy figure of antiquity. Yet he remains her preeminent genius. The curious may see Edwards’ likeness in a bronze memorial tablet in the First Church on Main Street. His sermons and other writings are his true memorial; they belong to all who seek after seek after the heart of God and love His holiness.
It was John Wesley who said:
“Give me one hundred men who love only God with all their heart and hate only sin with all their heart, and we will shake the gates of hell and bring in the kingdom of God in one generation.”
John Wesley was one of the greatest men of God in modern history. Secular historians credit John Wesley, together with his brother Charles, for a great awakening which saved England from the same blood-bath which was experienced just a short distance away in Paris during the French Revolution in 1789. Wesley shook a backslidden nation bound by immorality and unbelief. When Wesley was born-again, England was born-again. The revival that began among Wesley’s Methodists preceded an awakening that swept through all England.
Wesley’s work also significantly affected the theology of American churches during the early 1800s. Many revival preachers, such as Charles G. Finney, taught a modified Weslyan doctrine of holiness which greatly impacted the early growth of American revivalism.
John Wesley was born in 1703, in Epworth, England He was raised by godly parents and was trained for the ministry at Oxford. During this time, Wesley, his brother Charles, and later George Whitefield, met with a group of young men at Oxford for the purpose of reading classic sermons three nights a week. Their purpose was to inquire how they could become more holy. One night a week they visited the poor and prisoners. Many at Oxford derided the “Holy Club” and felt they had gone “too far” in their pursuit of holiness. This reputation followed Wesley throughout his life. “More than a few,” Wesley later admitted, “took me to be a little crack-brained at Oxford.”
Soon after this, Wesley sailed to Georgia with his brother and the Reverend John Oglethorpe with the intent of preaching to the American Indians. On the voyage, Wesley was distressed by storms and related: “O how pure in heart he must be, who would rejoice to appear before God at a moment’s warning!”
On another occasion, he related that Reverend Oglethorpe asked him if he was saved:
“‘Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know he has saved you?’ I answered, ‘I hope he has died to save me.’ He only added, ‘Do you know yourself?’ I said, ‘I do.’ But I fear they were vain words.”
While in Georgia, Wesley desired to preach to the Indians. However, domestic disputes with his parishioners kept him from fulfilling his purpose. He was not released from Savannah by Oglethorpe because there was no other minister to tend to the people there. In the two years that Wesley was in Georgia, he was not successful in any of his endeavors and did not see a single soul converted.
On his return journey to England he began to doubt his salvation:
“I went to America, to convert the Indians; but O! who shall convert me? who, what is he that shall deliver me from this evil heart of mischief? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, ‘To die is gain.’”
Anyone who would have met Wesley at this time would have seen a Christian. He had given his life to preach the gospel; he was an ordained minister; he pursued the holiness of God; he loved all men; and he was zealous for souls. Yet he admitted he lacked saving faith.
“I who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God. ‘I am not mad,’ though I thus speak; ‘but I speak the words of truth and soberness.’”
In all this, Wesley’s preaching was already radical – “I was desired to preach at St. John the Evangelist’s. I did so on these strong words, ‘If any man is in Christ he is a new creature.’ I was soon afterwards informed many of the best in the parish were so offended, that I was not to preach there anymore.”
The Church of England in that day was so asleep that few were ready for a man like Wesley who preached, “You must be born-again.” His assertion that the “New Birth” was something that even baptized Church members needed to ensure salvation caused a great controversy. Wesley was barred from preaching in many churches because of this doctrine.
Although he preached powerfully, Wesley was uncertain of his own salvation. Wesley lacked this assurance because his strivings after holiness were legalistic. He was extremely zealous for God but his spiritual experience consisted mainly of making resolutions and feeling as though he could never live up to the standard of God’s holiness.
A Life Changing Experience with God
Wesley was convinced of his unbelief and finally resolved to leave preaching, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” He asked a friend of his, Peter Boehler, whether or not he thought he should leave preaching.
Boehler answered, “By no means.” Wesley then asked, “But what can I preach?” Boehler then gave him the advice that would change his life and affect the destiny of all England: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
On Monday, March 6, 1738, Wesley began to preach a new doctrine: JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH.
Two months later, Wesley very unwillingly went to a society in Aldersgate-street, where someone was reading Luther’s preface to 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 that an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death …
“And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”
Power and Anointing Comes through Faith
The revelation of faith was so strong in Wesley’s heart that not only was Wesley’s life changed, but he soon saw multitudes begin to stream into the kingdom of God with signs and wonders following.
Soon Wesley was preaching in the open fields to tens of thousands of sinners who never frequented a church building. Previously, he had been so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that he would have thought it was a sin to preach salvation outside the covering of the Church of England.
On many occasions God moved so powerfully at his open air meetings that thousands were saved at a time. At one such meeting he related the following scene:
“Four persons sunk down, almost in the same moment. One of them lay without either sense or motion. A second trembled exceedingly. The third had strong convulsions all over his body, but made no noise, unless by groans. The fourth, equally convulsed, called upon God, with strong cries and tears.”
Though shut out from the Church of England, Wesley preached like a great apostle, carefully laying out the foundations of the faith in the hearts of his hearers. Previously he had failed to reach a single soul in America, yet now he reaped a great harvest. Wesley’s revelation of the victory through faith in Christ Jesus became the force and impetus that changed a generation.
And what about you, dear reader? – Is there a victory of faith in your heart today? What are you basing your relationship with with God on? Have you fallen into a “works” mentality? Many see their past successes as evidence of God’s favor. Yet God is not even remotely interested in accepting you on the basis of the holiness which you have attained in the past. Others see their failures and have a distraught feeling that God could never use them because of sins that they have committed in the past. These people will always struggle with feelings of guilt and condemnation.
Yet this is justification by faith – Jesus Christ accepts you unconditionally and salvation is available through trusting in Him. This revelation can give you all power over all sin – a restful assurance that Jesus saved you, and is saving you, from the law of sin and death.
You Can Be a World Changer!
Are you like John Wesley who was intensely dissatisfied with his experience with God? Because of his hunger after God and his continual obedience, God used him to shake his nation. If you desire to be like John Wesley, know this – rather than living a mediocre life, you can be a world changer!
From the lives of Wesley, Edwards and others like them, we see a pattern emerging. These men were not anything special in natural terms – but God used them mightily because they loved to be intimate with Him. These men were world changers. They altered the course of history in the nations in which they preached, but their influence was felt far beyond their own lifetime, even to shaping the destinies of many generations.
Despite their greatness in the kingdom of God, these men were without exception opposed by the religious establishment of their day. They sought the heart of God and walked in the spirit at all times. They desired only to hear the voice of the Lord and obey him.
If you desire this type of life with God, then you must develop the same lifestyle of prayer. This goes beyond simply praying for revival but praying revival prayers.
Revival prayer can be seen in the ministry of Jesus. During the days when Jesus was a man, he agonized in prayer, sometimes with pained outcries and tears, pouring His heart out to His Father. Even though Jesus was God, He had to endure this type of discipline in order to become an inspiring example to those who seek maturity and spiritual freedom (see Hebrews 5:7-10).
The call to revival prayer is a call to the Priesthood of Melchisedec. Those who are called to this order pray the heart-cry of God. This is a lifestyle of total obedience in intercessory prayer. This action of pressing into God is always followed by a desperation for our own lives and for the lives of others.
Revival is essentially a spirit of prayer that rests on a person at all times. The Holy Spirit reveals the Father Heart of God – especially His great burden for lost souls. The spirit of prayer, or soul travail, begins to rest on a person with such magnitude and frequency that he can easily say, “I pray in the Spirit at all times.”
In such a state, God will sanctify the person entirely – body, soul and spirit – so that he comprehends and experiences the holiness of God. The fulness of Christ then begins to overflow the person; God, who is infinite, goes on to sanctify everything around Him, using the individual saint as a channel of His love.
I have spoken with only a few people who can claim to have experienced this type of revival. In most cases, these experiences lasted only for a short time – a few days, a few weeks, or at most a few months. There is little of the more powerful type of revival that shook our nation in past centuries. Often when a church experiences a revival, the duration is short and it seems easy to grieve the Holy Spirit. The Presence of God lifts as easily as it descends.
Even so, I am sure that the Body of Christ as a whole can obtain revival. It is God’s desire for his whole body to experience a revival that never needs to be revived – to fill the whole earth with His glory.
The Cost of Revival
When this type of revival comes, not only will it have cost something to obtain – it will cost something to keep. If you truly desire this type of experience, know that there is a price to pay.
To keep the revival fires burning you will have to adopt the lifestyle of the early church. According to Acts 2:42-46, the early Church met daily for prayer and praise, for the breaking of bread, and the teaching of the apostles – and they remained in the harmony of the Spirit at all times. This is what the early church did – they met daily – this is what you must do if you are to cultivate revival and keep it alive.
Finally, if your heart hungers and thirsts for more of Jesus, then go to Him and eat and drink as much as you possibly can. Then ask God to enlarge your heart so you can receive more. Don’t wait for church leaders to organize prayer meetings – start them yourself! Don’t wait for the rest of the Church to experience revival – go for it yourself! Be a leader in the next Great Awakening!
Seek a deeper relationship with Jesus than your brothers and sisters. Do not be discouraged if not everyone shares your new found devotion. Some may be unmoved by your zeal for prayer or even mock it. But know that Jesus has promised to fill all who hunger and thirst for His holiness.
See to it that you hear the word of the Lord and obey Him! God Himself has promised us, “As surely as I live, I am going to fill the whole earth with my glory.” Do you desire to be a part of that glory? Then go to Jesus’ feet and worship Him in reverence and awe.
1. Mason I. Lowance, Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Jonathan Edwards.”
2. John Fiske, A History of the United States, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.
3. Benjamin Trumbull, A Complete History of Connecticut.
4. Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative. 5. Ibid.