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One of the features of the personal letters of Jonathan Edwards (especially in the 1740’s, it seems to me) was an interest in revivals happening in his region and beyond. The Great Awakening had largely faded by 1743, but Edwards held out hope that God would again pour out the Spirit on his people with a new work of grace. He urged his fellow ministers to pray with his “Concert for Prayer.” And when he wrote his friends in Scotland and elsewhere, he would ask for new reports of new awakenings and share the current revivals of religion in his own region. His interest in this subject was not only sourced in his desire to see God glorified, but his postmillennial eschatology.
In a 1749 Edwards wrote to James Robe (1688-1753), a Scottish minister sympathetic to the Great Awakening who published The Christian Monthly History, a periodical dedicated to revival news in Scotland and beyond.* Therein Edwards shares some possible awakenings in the New World, and, among those instances, cites a New England ministerial covenant that a friend had sent him.
Edwards writes to Robe that “An association of ministers between this and Boston, seem of late to have applied themselves something earnestly to invent means for the promoting religion.”**
The answer here is interesting, especially when placed against the backdrop of contemporary American Christianity. Today, what do people do to promote religion? Movies? Christian night clubs? Sermon series? Trailers? Family fairs? VBS?
As the Association of ministers put it, the question was, “What things shall be done by us for preventing the awful threatening degeneracy and backsliding in religion, in the present day?” They broke their answer down in three parts, what they themselves can do as ministers, what the association can do, and what the people in the churches can do. Quoted below is what the Association believed they could do as ministers.
This really is gold, and worth your reading. I found nos. 4, 6, and 8 quite good.
- We ought surely to get a deep and affecting sense of this, whether there is not in ourselves defection and great danger of further degeneracy; for otherwise we shall with little heartiness undertake, or earnestness endeavor, reformation.
- We are not to think it amiss that we ourselves be excited to look, with a proper attention and concern, into our own state, into our own experiences in the divine life, and into what little proficiency we make, or declension we fall into, ourselves.
- We must by all means see to it that we be sound and clear in the great doctrines of the gospel, which are the life of our holy religion (we here intend those doctrines which are exhibited in our excellent Westminster Catechism and Confession of Faith); and that we all boldly and impartially appear in the defense thereof. At the same time, we must take heed and beware of the dangerous errors which many have run into; particularly the Arminian and neonomian on the one hand, and the antinomian and enthusiastical on the other.
- We must be very faithful in every part of our ministerial works, and make conscience to magnify our office. In a particular manner, we must take good heed to our preaching; that it be not only sound, but instructive, savory, spiritual, very awakening and searching, well adapted to the times and seasons which pass over us; laboring earnestly herein. We must therefore dwell much upon the doctrine of repentance and conversion; the nature, necessity and evidence thereof; and much urge the duty of self-examination, and open the deceits of the heart: bringing the unconverted under the work of the law, that they may be prepared to embrace the offer of the gospel. Moral duties must be treated of in an evangelical strain; and we must give unto everyone his portion, and not shrink from it, under the notion of prudence; in special, in the important duty of reproving sinners of all sorts, be they who they will. Again, we must not be flighty in our private conference with souls, and examining candidates for the communion, or other special privileges; and we must carefully and wisely suit our endeavors to the several ages and conditions of persons, the elder and younger. And in a very particular manner, we must set ourselves to promote religion among our young people. And in a word, we must see whether we are animated to all these things by the grace of God in us.
- We are impartially to see what evils are to be found among ourselves, and remove ’em. Let us be seriously thoughtful whether (among our defects) we have not been, in some respect or other, the blamable means of discouragement to those who have been under religious concern; or whether we have not given strength and boldness to the ungodly, when we have been testifying against extravagancies and disorders of the late times.
- We must conscientiously be exemplary in our whole behavior and conversation. ‘Tis necessary that we be serious and grave, as what highly becomes gospel-bishops. And especially, we must be very watchful over our frame and conduct on the Lord’s day. We must therefore look well to our sabbatizing, both at home and abroad, both before our own and other people. Our example is of vast consequence in magnifying our office, before recommended.
- We ought to stir up the gifts which are in us, and to grow more and more, according to the sacred injunction, II Tim. 1:6.
- We should follow all our endeavors with fervent prayer to God; especially our labors in preaching and teaching: the seed of the Word is to be steeped in tears.***
*James Robe himself, like Edwards, was attacked by other clergy for his belief that the revivals happening in his homeland were genuine works of the Spirit.
**Jonathan Edwards to Reverend James Robe, Northampton, May 20, 1749, in Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn, vol. 16 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 276.