Article of the Month
by William C. Nichols, taken from the book
Seeking God: Jonathan Edwards’ Evangelism Contrasted with Modern Methodologies
A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton is an intriguing and theologically invaluable treatise. It should not only be read, but studied carefully to glean as much as we can from it. It is the account of the powerful moving of God’s Spirit amongst the people of Northampton, Massachusetts, and several other surrounding communities in the years 1734-1735. At the time, Northampton consisted of about 200 families. The awakening touched nearly every family in town, so that Edwards could faithfully report, “There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world.” It affected all social classes and a large span of age groups, “The work in this town, and others about us, has been extraordinary on account of the universality of it, affecting all sorts, sober and vicious, high and low, rich and poor, wise and unwise.” It was Edwards’ estimation that “more than 300 souls were savingly brought home to Christ, in this town, in the space of half a year, and about the same number of males as females.” Edwards was sensitive in publishing the account that many people would accuse him of exaggeration and of calling people converts who were not and so added this word at the end of the first section: “I am very sensible, how apt many would be, if they should see the account I have here given, presently to think with themselves that I am very fond of making a great many converts, and of magnifying the matter; and to think that for want of judgment, I take every religious pang, and enthusiastic conceit, for saving conversion. I do not much wonder if they should be apt to think so; and, for this reason, I have forborne to publish an account of this great work of God, though I have often been solicited.”
One of the first things notable about Edwards’ account of the revival is the ages of the young people who were hopefully converted. Edwards was shocked that so many young people were seemingly wrought upon: “It has heretofore been looked on as a strange thing, when any have seemed to be savingly wrought upon and remarkably changed in their childhood.” How young were these children? The majority were between the ages of 10 and 14. “I suppose, near thirty were, to appearance, savingly wrought upon between ten and fourteen years of age; two between nine and ten, and one of about four years of age.” Note that only three persons out of three hundred were below the age of 10. And of the one who was under 5, Phebe Bartlet, Edwards adds, “because I suppose this last will be with most difficulty believed, I will hereafter give a particular account of it.”
Jonathan Edwards and those of his time thought it “a strange thing” that children under 15 should be savingly converted. Even amid the mighty outpouring of the Spirit of God, which affected the whole community, only one person under 9 years of age was saved; and the account of Phebe Bartlet is so unusual compared to modern day “conversions” of children, that I do not know of one modern case that could be compared to it. In light of this, don’t you think it strange that in our age so many adults profess to have been converted under 9 years of age? It is surprising to me to hear adult after adult in our present day churches say they were converted at 4, 5, or 6 years of age. Jonathan Edwards would put no faith in such supposed conversions, lacking as they nearly all are, any notable conviction of sin or radical change of life, as were evident in the life of Phebe Bartlet.
The awakening seemed to produce two effects in the persons who were affected: “one was, that they have brought them immediately to quit their sinful practices” and “The other effect was, that it put them on earnest application to the means of salvation, reading, prayer, meditation, the ordinances of God’s house, and private conference.” These effects were produced in the persons prior to their conversion, when they were first awakened by the Spirit of God. Other similarities between those persons who were awakened to their spiritual need were: 1. A sense of their miserable condition by nature; 2. The danger they were in of perishing eternally; and 3. The great importance to them that they must speedily escape from their current condition and get into a better state (that of being converted). Their response to a sight of their present danger and of the importance of their getting into a better state convinced them “that it is their best and wisest way to delay no longer, but to improve the present opportunity. They have accordingly set themselves seriously to meditate on those things that have the most awakening tendency, on purpose to obtain convictions; and so their awakenings have increased, till a sense of their misery, by God’s Holy Spirit setting in therewith, has had fast hold of them.” As I have said before, the meditation on sins past and present is a critical part of obtaining necessary conviction of sin. Those who were anxious for their souls purposely set out to meditate on their sins that their sense of their own depravity and misery might increase. Where do we hear of that being done today?
As the sense of their own corruption and depravity increased, “Persons are sometimes brought to the borders of despair, and it looks as black as midnight to them a little before the day dawns in their souls. Some few instances there have been, of persons who have had such a sense of God’s wrath for sin, that they have been overborne; and made to cry out under an astonishing sense of their guilt, wondering that God suffers such guilty wretches to live upon earth, and that he doth not immediately send them to hell.” One important thing noted by Edwards here is that persons’ convictions and the sense of their misery increased as they approached conversion: “The awful apprehensions persons have had of their misery, have for the most part been increasing, the nearer they have approached to deliverance.” Where is such conviction of sin to be found amongst our modern converts?
Apparently, it was not uncommon for those under convictions to be unable to sleep at night due to the fear they had of dwelling in an unconverted condition. Edwards tells us, “Some have had such a sense of the displeasure of God, and the great danger they were in of damnation, that they could not sleep at nights; and many have said that when they have laid down, the thoughts of sleeping in such a condition have been frightful to them; they have scarcely been free from terror while asleep, and they have awakened with fear, heaviness, and distress still abiding on their spirits.” How often have you heard a testimony similar to that? How many of those who “pray the prayer of salvation” have such a terror upon their souls beforehand?
How did the work of the Spirit of God progress in one who was awakened? The Spirit seemed to lead those awakened “more and more to a sense of their exceeding wickedness and guiltiness in His sight; their pollution, and the insufficiency of their own righteousness; that they can in no wise help themselves, and that God would be wholly just and righteous in rejecting them and all that they do, and in casting them off forever.” Edwards also noted a commonality among those whose awakenings seemed to issue in conversion: “commonly the first thing that appears after their legal troubles, is a conviction of the justice of God in their condemnation, appearing in a sense of their own exceeding sinfulness, and the vileness of all their performances. In giving an account of this, they expressed themselves very variously; some, that they saw God was sovereign, and might receive others and reject them; some, that they were convinced God might justly bestow mercy on every person in the town, in the world, and damn themselves to all eternity; some, that they see God may justly have no regard to all the pains they have taken, and all the prayers they have made; some, that if they should seek, and take the utmost pains all their lives, God might justly cast them into hell at last, because all their labors, prayers, and tears cannot make an atonement for the least sin, nor merit any blessing at the hands of God. Some have declared themselves to be in the hands of God, that He may dispose of them just as He pleases; some, that God may glorify Himself in their damnation, and they wonder that God has suffered them to live so long, and has not cast them into hell long ago.” When under initial awakenings, men seemed to be convicted most about individual sins and their wicked lifestyles, but as the work of the Spirit progressed in them, they became much more burdened with the corruption of their nature, the pride of their hearts, their rejection of Christ, and their enmity against God. Their evil hearts became their focus, more so than their evil actions. How often do those supposedly converted today ever verbally express that their very natures are corrupted and defiled? Edwards gives us this summary of the Spirit’s work: “He has so awakened and convinced persons’ consciences, and made them so sensible of their exceeding great vileness, and given them such a sense of His wrath against sin, as has quickly overcome all their vain self-confidence, and borne them down into the dust before a holy and righteous God.”
Jonathan Edwards considered one thing to be so critical in his work with those who were awakened that he thought if he had done things differently, he would have taken a direct course to utterly undo them. What was so critical? It was his insistence that God was under no obligation to show mercy to any natural man, no matter how many prayers he said, how long he had sought, or whatever else he had done. Consider carefully what Edwards says, “Whatever minister has a like occasion to deal with souls, in a flock under such circumstances, as this was in the last year, I cannot but think he will soon find himself under a necessity, greatly to insist upon it with them, that God is under no manner of obligation to show mercy to any natural man, whose heart is not turned to God: and that a man can challenge nothing either in absolute justice, or by free promise, from any thing he does before he has believed on Jesus Christ, or has true repentance begun in him. It appears to me, that if I had taught those who came to me under trouble any other doctrine, I should have taken a most direct course utterly to undo them. I should have directly crossed what was plainly the drift of the Spirit of God in His influences upon them; for if they had believed what I said, it would either have promoted self-flattery and carelessness, and so put an end to their awakenings; or cherished and established their contention and strife with God, concerning His dealings with them and others, and blocked up their way to that humiliation before the Sovereign Disposer of life and death, whereby God is wont to prepare them for His consolations.” To tell them anything other than God was not obligated to show them mercy would have promoted self-flattery and carelessness. Is not that what we have present with us today in great numbers? Men and women flatter themselves that conversion is in their own power-that they can choose to become a Christian at any time. Are not multitudes told that “God has done all He can do, the rest is up to you”? And isn’t that exactly what Edwards says is taking “a most direct course to utterly undo them” and “put an end to their awakenings”? The net result of such a practice is a multitude of professing Christians who have never been humbled, and frankly, never converted at all. As Edwards put it, such a practice has “blocked up their way to that humiliation before the Sovereign Disposer of life and death, whereby God is wont to prepare them for His consolations.”
One thing which Edwards observed when people first began to seek God, was how ignorant they were of themselves and how blind they were to spiritual things: “When they begin to seek salvation, they are commonly profoundly ignorant of themselves; they are not sensible how blind they are; and how little they can do towards bringing themselves to see spiritual things aright, and towards putting forth gracious exercises in their own souls. They are not sensible how remote they are from love to God, and other holy dispositions, and how dead they are in sin.” Notice he says they are “profoundly ignorant of themselves.” They are desperately wicked, and cannot see it. They are spiritually blind, and do not know it. They think they love God, but are insensible to their enmity towards Him. I sincerely believe, and at the same time greatly fear, that it is at this stage that most people “pray to receive Christ” when they are presented with a few “spiritual truths,” and yet they are still profoundly ignorant of their own sin, and are insensible how far they are from having any real love to God. Thus deceived, and being pronounced a child of God, they are seldom, if ever, truly awakened to their lost condition.
In contrast to this, those converted in Edwards’ time maintained an awful fear that perhaps they had embraced a false hope, and were not truly converted at all. “And when it has once come into their minds to inquire, whether or not this was not true grace, they have been much afraid lest they should be deceived with common illuminations and flashes of affection, and eternally undone with a false hope...And the people in general have manifested an extraordinary dread of being deceived; being exceeding fearful lest they should build wrong.” How different this is from today’s thoughtless, unconcerned “new converts” who are told immediately after they have repeated the words of a prescribed prayer, that they should never again doubt their salvation and to entertain such doubts would be a great sin, even calling God a liar. With such false assurance being given to millions in our day, it is no wonder our churches are filled with carnal people who never entertain any doubts about their salvation, even though their lives and practice much more closely resembles the devil than Jesus Christ. Thus, while most of today’s converts have no doubts about their salvation, the people in Jonathan Edwards’ church “generally have an awful apprehension of the dreadful nature of a false hope.” And while today’s converts are often told that it doesn’t matter how they live after they have “accepted Christ;” Jonathan Edwards did not do so: “ I have abundantly insisted, that a manifestation of sincerity in fruits brought forth, is better than any manifestation they can make of it in words alone: and that without this, all pretenses to spiritual experiences are vain.”
Edwards mentions in various places in the treatise various evidences of grace in those whom he believed had been genuinely converted. One of these which seemed to appear after the humiliation I have so frequently mentioned was what Edwards calls “the superlative excellency of divine things.” He describes it this way: “The way that grace seems sometimes first to appear, after legal humiliation, is in earnest longings of soul after God and Christ: to know God, to love Him, to be humble before Him, to have communion with Christ in His benefits; which longings, as they express them, seem evidently to be of such a nature as can arise from nothing but a sense of the superlative excellency of divine things, with a spiritual taste and relish of them, and an esteem of them as their highest happiness and best portion.”
A spirit of humility was also clearly evident among those who were considered to be converted. This is directly contrary to the self-confident, self-sufficient convert of today who has decided to give Jesus a try. Edwards says: “They are eminent for a spirit of meekness, modesty, self-diffidence, and a low opinion of themselves. No persons appear so sensible of their need of instruction and so eager to receive it, as some of them; nor so ready to think others better than themselves. Those that have been considered as converted amongst us, have generally manifested a longing to lie low and in the dust before God; withal complaining of their not being able to lie low enough...The unparalleled joy that many of them speak of, is what they find when they are lowest in the dust, emptied most of themselves, and as it were annihilating themselves before God; when they are nothing, and God is all; seeing their own unworthiness, depending not at all on themselves, but alone on Christ, and ascribing all glory to God.” How many of those supposedly converted today long to lie in the dust before God?
The doubts and fears previously spoken of seemed to arise out of a post-conversion assessment of their own depravity. The Spirit of God dwelling within them produced a greater sensitivity to sin, to pride, envy, etc., and they are shocked at themselves. “They complain of the hardness and wickedness of their hearts; and say there is so much corruption, that it seems to them impossible there should be any goodness there. Many of them seem to be much more sensible how corrupt their hearts are, than before they were converted; and some have been too ready to be impressed with fear, that instead of becoming better, they are grown much worse, and make it an argument against the goodness of their state. But the truth, the case seems plainly to be, that now they feel the pain of their own wound; they have a watchful eye upon their hearts, that they did not use to have. They take more notice of what sin is there, which is now more burdensome to them; they strive more against it, and feel more of its strength.” This does not mean they were actually worse than before, for Edwards says, “I know of no one young person in the town who has returned to former ways of looseness and extravagance in any respect; but we still remain a reformed people, and God has evidently made us a new people.”
Again, a definite contrast can be drawn between those in Edwards’ time of the supposed converts of today in their distinctively different perceptions of their state. Those genuinely converted in Edwards’ time who had experienced grace, at first had no realization at all that they had been converted. “They have thought nothing at the time that of their being converted...they have no imagination that they are now converted; it does not come into their minds.” Today’s supposed converted are certain that they have been saved and most arrogantly assume that God has gotten the better end of the deal in saving them and also have no doubts, because they have been told that to doubt would be sin.
That such boldness in declaring that a person had been saved was not practiced in past times is evident from the use in this treatise of expressions like, “hopeful evidences”; “hopefully converted”; and “seemed to have satisfying evidences” when referring to those who had apparently experienced grace. This was also the practice of Asahel Nettleton as well as many others who were not as presumptuous as today’s evangelists who boldly declare such things as, “twenty-five people got saved last night.” The Memoir of Nettleton is filled with such expressions as: “awakened and hopefully brought to repentance; hopefully converted; rejoicing in hope; hopeful subjects of divine grace; rejoices with fear and trembling lest his heart should deceive him.”1
Finally, it is quite eye-opening to look in detail at the experiences related by Edwards as representative of those who had been genuinely converted. This he does in two cases: that of Abigail Hutchinson, a young woman who died shortly after her conversion, and that of Phebe Bartlet, the youngest person apparently converted during the awakening.
In the case of Abigail Hutchinson, she was greatly affected by hearing of the conversion of a young woman who had been one of the greatest company-keepers in the town. Moved by the news of the conversion of one “whom she thought very unworthy of being distinguished from others by such a mercy,” she determined “in a firm resolution to do her utmost to obtain the same blessing.” She began to diligently seek God, resolving “thoroughly to search the Scriptures” and engaging “in reading, prayer, and other religious exercises.” It was in the process of seeking that “there was a sudden alteration, by a great increase of her concern in an extraordinary sense of her own sinfulness, particularly the sinfulness of her nature, and wickedness of her heart...Her great terror, she said, was, that she had sinned against God: her distress grew more and more for three days; until she saw nothing but blackness of darkness before her, and her very flesh trembled for fear of God’s wrath...it had been her opinion, till now, she was not guilty of Adam’s sin, nor any way concerned in it, because she was not active in it; but that now she saw she was guilty of that sin, and all over defiled by it; and the sin which she brought into the world with her, was alone sufficient to condemn her.” In the midst of her great distress, she awakened on Monday morning with an easiness and calmness of spirit and “a lively sense of the excellency of Christ,” which she described as “His sufficiency to satisfy for the sins of the whole world. She then thought of that expression, It is a pleasant thing for the eyes to behold the sun; which words then seemed to her to be very applicable to Jesus Christ. By these things her mind was led into such contemplations and views of Christ, as filled her exceeding full of joy...On Monday she felt all day a constant sweetness in her soul. She had a repetition of the same discoveries of Christ three mornings together, and much in the same manner, at each time, waking a little before day; but brighter and brighter every day.” Very soon after this “her soul was filled with distress for Christless persons, to consider what a miserable condition they were in. She felt a strong inclination immediately to go forth to warn sinners; and proposed it the next day to her brother to assist her in going from house to house.”
Her experience was also characterized by the deep humility previously noted by Edwards, and by a complete resignation of her life and circumstances into the hand of God. “She often used to express how good and sweet it was to lie low before God, and the lower (says she) the better! and that it was pleasant to think of lying in the dust, all the days of her life, mourning for sin. She was wont to manifest a great sense of her own meanness and dependence...she found herself disposed to say these words: I am quite willing to live, and quite willing to die; quite willing to be sick, and quite willing to be well; and quite willing for any thing that God will bring upon me!” The last week of her life, she was asked by neighbors who were visiting her, if she was willing to die. “She replied, that she was quite willing either to live or die; she was willing to be in pain; she was willing to be so always as she was then, if that was the will of God. She willed what God willed. They asked her whether she was willing to die that night. She answered, Yes, if it be God’s will. And seemed to speak all with that perfect composure of spirit, and with such a cheerful and pleasant countenance, that it filled them with admiration.”
The second example of one apparently converted contained in the Narrative was put in by Edwards because he did not think those who heard about someone four years old being converted would believe it. Today it is a common thing in churches to hear of the supposed conversions of children four, five, six, or seven years old on up. The sad thing today is that it is so normal to hear such testimonies that no one even seriously questions if such people have truly been converted, or asks why it is that they do not exhibit signs of a radically changed life. Today when children “pray the prayer of salvation” it is rare to notice any striking change of life which occurs after their supposed conversion. They are instructed that they are now a child of God and life continues along very much the same with the child still exhibiting just as much selfishness and self-centeredness as they did before. Such was not the case with Phebe Bartlet.
In late April or early May she was affected by the talk of her older brother. Following her brother’s talk with her, she began seeking God, privately retiring into a closet as many as five or six times a day: “She was observed very constantly to retire, several times in a day, as was concluded, for secret prayer. She grew more and more engaged in religion, and was more frequent in her closet; till at last she was wont to visit it five or six times a day: and was so engaged in it, that nothing would at any time divert her from her stated closet exercises.” This continued for more than two months, during which time she expressed that she could not find God. On one occasion her mother heard her speaking aloud in the closet, “And her voice seemed to be as of one exceedingly importunate and engaged; but her mother could distinctly hear only these words, spoken in a childish manner, but with extraordinary earnestness, and out of distress of soul, pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins! When the child had done prayer, she came out of the closet, sat down by her mother, and cried out aloud...Her mother then asked her, whether she was afraid that God would not give her salvation. She then answered, Yes, I am afraid I shall go to hell! Her mother then endeavored to quiet her, and told her she would not have her cry, she must be a good girl, and pray every day, and she hoped God would give her salvation.”
How strange this is compared to today’s childhood “conversions.” For a space of nearly three months straight, Phebe Bartlet retired to a closet as often as five or six times a day to beg God to save her soul. When her mother asks her if “she was afraid God would not give her salvation,” (how many parents would ask such a question today?), Phoebe responded by saying, “Yes, I am afraid I shall go to hell.” Today such distress and seeking would be completely short-circuited by her “praying to receive Christ.” The problem is that her salvation would be short-circuited as well. Remember the critical point Edwards makes in the Narrative, insisting that God was “under no manner of obligation to show mercy to any natural man, whose heart is not turned to God.” He insists that if he had not taught this, “I should have taken a most direct course utterly to undo them. I should have directly crossed what was plainly the drift of the Spirit of God in His influences upon them; for if they had believed what I said, it would either have promoted self-flattery and carelessness, and so put an end to their awakenings.” But isn’t that exactly what happens today when a child “asks Jesus into their heart”? Self-flattery (“Now I’m a Christian, I will go to heaven when I die”) and carelessness (Since I’m a Christian now, I don’t need to worry all that much about praying or studying the Bible or even how I live, because God forgives all my sin) are promoted in the life of the child who hasn’t been converted at all. The chances of awakening them to their unconverted condition after that are close to zero.
It is important also to contrast the notable change in Phebe Bartlet’s life with the almost complete lack of any change in the lives of little children who are proclaimed as converts today. Edwards observes: “She seems to love God’s house, and is very eager to go thither. Her mother once asked her, why she had such a mind to go? whether it was not to see fine folks? She said, No, it was to hear Mr. Edwards preach. When she is in the place of worship, she is very far from spending her time there as children at her age usually do, but appears with an attention that is very extraordinary for such a child. She also appears very desirous at all opportunities to go to private religious meetings; and is very still and attentive at home, during prayer, and has appeared affected in time of family-prayer. She seems to delight much in hearing religious conversation. When I once was there with some strangers, and talked to her something of religion, she seemed more than ordinarily attentive; and when we were gone, she looked out very wistfully after us, and said, I wish they would come again! Her mother asked her, Why? Says she, I love to hear `em talk.” She loved God’s house (not because she got to run around wildly and play games in it) and to hear Mr. Edwards preach. Children today counted as converts are generally bored to death by church, especially by the sermons, but Phebe was very desirous to go to private religious meetings. She delighted in hearing religious conversation, while supposed child converts today must be entertained by Veggie Tales to keep their attention.
There was a distinct fear of God before her eyes. She burst out into tears after learning that some plums she and the older children had taken out of a neighbor’s tree amounted to sin. “The other children did not seem to be much affected or concerned; but there was no pacifying Phebe.” She retained an aversion to plums for a considerable time after the incident, “under the remembrance of her former sin.”
She also exhibited a great deal of concern over the souls of her unsaved siblings and other children: “She has often manifested a great concern for the good of others’ souls: and has been wont many times affectionately to counsel the other children...At other times, the child took opportunities to talk to the other children about the great concern of their souls, so as much to affect them.” How often do supposedly saved adults in the church today do such things? I believe that we would make a mistake if this conversion account were viewed as extraordinary and unlikely to be repeated in the lives of others. The signs of the work of God in the life of Phebe Bartlet are not that different from the work of God in the lives of others hopefully converted which are summarized in A Faithful Narrative. The extraordinary thing about it is the age of the child converted. Phebe Bartlet sought salvation in the same way in which Edwards instructed others in his congregation to do. After months of seeking, she exhibited signs of a radically changed life: a genuine love for God; a strong desire to hear the word of God preached and taught; a hatred of sin because it was sin, not just because of the consequences; and a great concern for the souls of others who were lost. These are things which we would normally expect to see in the lives of those who are genuinely converted no matter what their age is.
I ask again, Do children who have “prayed to receive Christ” reflect such a change as this in their lives? If not, why not? Could the answer be any more obvious than that although they have asked Christ into their lives, they are not converted, their lives have not been changed, and they are still on their way to hell?
1. Bennet Tyler, D.D., Memoir of the Life and Character of Rev. Asahel Nettleton, D.D., (Hartford, CT: Robin & Smith, 1844), pp. 69, 76, 82, 96, & 112.
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