My latest reading of George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life concerned Edwards' dispute with Charles Chauncy about the Great Awakening, as well as Edwards' attempts to exercise church discipline over some men who were behaving inappropriately.
was a big fan of the Great Awakening because he viewed it as a great
work of God. Numerous people were becoming passionate about spiritual
things, and they were turning their lives over to Christ. Prayers were
being answered. During one period of time in which a revival was taking
place, no one got sick.
And yet, according to some, the Great
Awakening had downsides. People were becoming proud on account of their
visions. People were challenging their spiritual authorities, accusing
them of not being spiritual enough. There was a feeling that anyone
(including women, gasp!) could preach. A growing interest in religion
brought one depressed man to suicide, as he obsessed about hell and
despaired that God would save him. And, in the eyes of Charles Chauncy,
there was an emphasis on emotionalism at the expense of rationality,
and Chauncy did not see anything holy about exciting base passions.
Edwards shared a number of these concerns, for he supported humility and respect for authority. Edwards wrote a book, Religious Affections,
that argued that what was truly important was a changed life, not
visions. But Edwards differed from Chauncy in that Edwards believed
that the Great Awakening truly was a work of God that was bringing about
conversions, that its problems were marginal, and that the affections
were an important aspect of spirituality----that God touched people's
emotions. How could Edwards think this, when he himself was quite reserved----he was the type you would expect not
to support hysterical outbursts of emotion? Moreover, as Chauncy
himself pointed out, Edwards extensively drew from philosophy and
rationality. Why would this guy support the Great Awakening?
I think that the answer is that Edwards himself valued a deep emotional connection with God,
and he had this at times when he took his solitary trips into nature.
His initial experience of this, for him, helped to seal his conversion.
Edwards still recognized that he was not the most joyful and
demonstrative person in the world, which was why he admired his wife.
But he still valued the emotional aspect of religion, and, of
course, he thought that Christians should be excited by a movement that
entailed so many people converting to Christ, whatever the movement's
On church discipline, essentially, there were
people who were making sexual jokes and were sexually harassing young
women, plus they disdained authority. Edwards sought to hold them
accountable publicly. He was criticized for this because many believed
that he was making a mountain out of a molehill, and also that he should
have confronted them privately at first, in accordance with Matthew
18. But Edwards' response was that these men were having a
pernicious influence on the public level, and so he had to deal with
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