OUR FOREFATHERS’ COVENANTS
March 27, 2020
We finished up last week talking about Roger Sherman and began talking about Jonathan Edwards. During the next two weeks, I’d like to talk about Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, probably the two men who played the greatest part in the move of God we’ve come to know and refer to as “The Great Awakening.” These two men were as opposite as can be from one another in their upbringing, yet the move of God in their lives was almost beyond imagination. In their years of ministry, they came to know each other and became great friends.
One of the men who greatly influenced Roger Sherman was a preacher by the name of Jonathan Edwards. Born October 5, 1703, Edwards came from a family and generations of ministers who taught holiness and relationship with Jesus Christ. His mother, also the daughter of a family of ministers (the former Esther Stoddard) was noted for her unusual sensitivities to the Holy Spirit, even exhibiting the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (along with speaking in other tongues) more than two centuries before the Azusa Street Revival.
Fifth in a family of eleven children, Jonathan Edwards grew up with a sense of the presence of the Lord rare for his times. A gifted writer with a natural proclivity for historical and scientific studies, he began writing at age ten, penning a rather humorous tract for distribution among churches titled, The Immateriality of the Soul.
Just before his thirteenth birthday, he enrolled in Yale University where he astounded his professors and instructors with his knowledge, not just of Scripture, but of God's grand plan and design for the human race (which his professors treated as "philosophy.") His discourses and "philosophical essays" quickly earned him status as a valedictorian and "head of the class."
Jonathan Edwards was more than a gifted writer, however. He had an obvious genius that extended into natural and engineering sciences and even postulated "atomic theory" before his 16th birthday.
Despite his in-depth knowledge of the Scriptures, there was a hunger after God and after personal relationship with Jesus Christ that drove him. At age nineteen, even before graduation from Yale, he was called to serve for eight months as the interim pastor of a small Presbyterian Church in New York City.
During that interim pastorate, he had an experience with the Lord that -- in the terminology of the day -- he only knew how to reference as "salvation;" and yet it clearly took him into a dimension of spiritual understanding of intimacy with Jesus Christ most of his peers couldn't relate to. It led him to write an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon, and expanded his understanding of "nature" such that he often wrote and taught with joy on the "beauties of nature" as part of God's handiwork.
It was in 1724 when Jonathan Edwards was 21 years old that he became one of two tutors at Yale to replace Timothy Cutler (Roger Sherman's mentor) and the other six whose resignations at Yale prompted a wholesale turning to the Lord Jesus Christ in search of answers.
Three years later, at age 24, he married his sweetheart of more than four years, Sarah Pierpont, who was then seventeen. At nineteen, and just prior to his 20th birthday, when he first met Sarah (then age thirteen), Edwards wrote in his diary that he was determined to marry her when she came of age because of her "deep spiritual enthusiasm," her manifest love for the Lord and her exemplary holiness.
The obvious bond of love that developed between Jonathan Edwards and Sarah Pierpont undoubtedly contributed to his unique interpretation of the Song of Solomon. Sarah Pierpont Edwards became the mother of their twelve children and serious contributor to his dissertations and sermons in the years that followed. Sarah's experiences of supernatural divine visitations became the subject of many of his writings, including TheReality of Spiritual Light as well as The Supernatural Divine Illumination of the Soul.
It was the year 1739 that the Great Awakening began to fully blossom throughout the American Colonies, and spread back across the Atlantic into England and Scotland under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards and his recent acquaintance and fellow-minister, George Whitfield.
Edwards began to hear of an unusual outpouring of the Holy Spirit in England and Scotland and in 1747 became part and parcel of a similar movement in America referred to as "A Concert in Prayer" in which prolonged prayer, fasting and intercession on behalf of those in the colonies became central.
There is no doubt that his involvement in the intercessory movement gave real impetus to the Great Awakening. The experiences that he and George Whitfield had -- along with those Edwards witnessed with his wife, Sarah -- led him to begin writing a series of pamphlets and articles addressing the need for spiritual input in earthly governments.
Although Edwards is almost universally equated with his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God firebrand preaching, his essays titled, Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, the Dissertation Concerning the End for which God created the World, along with An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Motions Respecting that Freedom of the Will which is supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, became the works to which many of our nation's founding fathers referred, inspiring them in their formation of the Articles of Association in 1774; the Declaration of Independence in 1776; the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and the United States Constitution in 1788.
In 1750, he became a pastor in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and missionary to various Indian tribes where he earned the wrath of many of his religious colleagues as well as those serving in official government positions for exposing the practices of many who were enriching themselves and building personal fortunes at the expense of the Housatonic Indians. His ministry among the Indians proved to be highly fruitful. His preaching also against slavery didn't set well with many who either couldn't or wouldn't see his reasoning from Scripture.
Edwards never lived to see the real fruit of his endeavors, nor the harvest that came from the seed of his life sown into the people to whom he preached, ministered and interceded for. A year after being installed as the President of Princeton University in 1757, he was inoculated for smallpox -- a disease that was raging throughout Princeton, New Jersey and its vicinity. He died on March 22, 1758, having been taken with smallpox as a result of the inoculation.
In the 55 short years of his life on this earth, Jonathan Edwards accomplished more than many of his peers put together. Within a span of 45 years, he penned more than 60,000 pages of treatises, discussions on spiritual issues, sermons and essays -- not counting his essays on science and nature. Those attracted to his message and that of the itinerant preachers who sprang up across the colonies called themselves the "New Lights," and those who were not were called the "Old Lights."
The Great Awakening was perhaps the first truly "American" event, and as such represented at least a small step towards the unification of the colonies. Thus, many historians point to the Great Awakening as one of a number of events which provided a basis for a truly "American" society, and increased the independent, self-determined spirit of colonists.
His son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., along with Samuel Hopkins and Joseph Bellamy were often referred to as his "New Light disciples." His son-in-law, Aaron Burr, had married Edwards' daughter, Esther. They became parents to Aaron Burr, Jr., (Jonathan Edwards' grandson) who became Vice-President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson.
Jonathan Edwards' cohort and companion during much of the Great Awakening, George Whitfield, came from extremely poor beginnings in England, but was no less a brilliant and articulate spokesman for the Gospel.
Wikipedia tells us that, "George Whitefield was the son of a widow (his father, a wine merchant, died when he was two years old) who kept an inn at Gloucester. At an early age, he found that he had a passion and talent for acting and the theatre, a passion that he would carry on through the very theatrical re-enactments of Bible stories that he told during his sermons.
He was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, and Pembroke College, Oxford. Because Whitefield came from a poor background, he did not have the means to pay for his tuition. He therefore entered Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of students at Oxford.
In return for free tuition, he was assigned as a servant to a number of higher ranked students. His duties would include waking them in the morning, polishing their shoes, carrying their books and even doing their coursework (see Dallimore). He was a part of the 'Holy Club' at Oxford University with the brothers, John Wesley and Charles Wesley. His genuine piety led the Bishop of Gloucester to ordain him before the canonical age."
Though much like John Wesley in his preaching and doctrine, Whitfield and Wesley disagreed over the doctrine of Predestination, and their disagreements led them to eventually go separate paths in ministry rather than come to a public show of disunity. Known for his powerful voice and his ability to reach into the very soul of his listeners, he was one of the first evangelists to preach to crowds of 20,000 and more people at a time.
The anointing of the Holy Spirit to his preaching was so powerful that signs, wonders and demonstrations of the supernatural became commonplace. With some people experiencing spontaneous deliverance from evil spirits with all the attendant manifestations, some of his less believing peers -- and even modern historians, ignorant of the supernatural -- referred to the demonstrations as "mass hysteria."
History tells us that George Whitfield preached an average of 500 sermons per year, and more than 18,000 in his lifetime. In England, he preached to several crowds numbering between 80,000 and 100,000 -- and even more -- and his voice was so powerful that at least on one occasion, some folks said they heard him as much as three miles away. More commonly reported, folks heard him from a mile distant, and the singing of the crowds was easily heard two miles away.
Perhaps the most widely-recognized figure in 18th century America prior to George Washington, (and easily the most traveled evangelist before our modern times) George Whitfield preached in every single American colony, and in every major city (along with many, many smaller cities and towns).
Benjamin Franklin had heard of Whitfield's preaching on many occasions, and in August of 1739 came to hear the evangelist while he was preaching on Society Hill in Philadelphia. Whitfield's preaching so galvanized Franklin that he soon became a frequent attendee and participant, often following the evangelist to other cities to hear him preach.
Benjamin Franklin often joked (and wrote in his diary) that "George Whitfield picked my pockets." It was a humorous reference to the fact that whenever an offering was taken up during the meetings, he couldn't resist emptying his pockets of all the money he had on hand to contribute to Whitfield's needs and expenses. Drawn by "an irresistible magnetic force that compels me," Benjamin Franklin found that he could not stay away from the evangelist's meetings.
On at least one (and perhaps two occasions), Franklin determined to empty his pockets of all monies before heading off to Whitfield's meetings. He thought it a way to avoid the strong urge to give to the evangelist when offerings were taken up. The practice was abandoned after he wound up borrowing money from others at the meetings in order to give.
He became a close friend to Whitfield, and although there is no evidence that he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, there is no question that Whitfield's preaching greatly influenced Franklin's life and decisions.
I don't really have time today to do justice to George Whitfield's story, nor the impact he made on our founding fathers, nor the effect his preaching had on their decisions as they argued for a unified nation. Rather than tell a half-story, we'll conclude the story of George Whitfield in next Friday’s Coffee Break.
Have a great weekend, everyone.
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Blessings on you!
Regner A. Capener
RIVER WORSHIP CENTER
Temple, Texas 76502
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