Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Part IV of 2017 Lenten Series: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python
The inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life, or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

by Gary David Stratton 

Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her own children.
Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley.

If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”

The Inciting Event

Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero[1] pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator (2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.

Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.”[2] Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply.  Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted.[3] This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one.  Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.

Affections

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.

When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.”[4] They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.

Victory in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm, until Caesar's inciting event changes everything.
With victory for the empire in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm . . . until Caesar’s inciting event changes everything.

This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.

Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.

Awakening or Transformation?

This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”[5]

It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.

Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there.[6] In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well.[7]  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.

In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.

We Are What We Do

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…”[8] In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”[9]

Lenten Examination

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him..."
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him…”

This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between our professed faith and our lived belief, between our creed and our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we are passionate about and our true motivations revealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”[10] And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”[11]

The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love

Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

Next: The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.

[2] 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).

[3] This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”

[4] Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)

[6] This same alien transformation motif is also subtly evident in Spielberg’s more famous E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982).

[7] Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

[11] John 15:12, Mark 10:45

The First Great Awakening: From a British Revival to the American Revolution

By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, British evangelist George Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity

By Gary David Stratton, Professor, Johnson University (TN) and James L. Gorman, Assistant Professor, Johnson University 

1357700728-whitefieldThe Great Awakening is the common designation for a Protestant socio-spiritual movement in the American colonies that helped establish the groundwork for much of the nation’s spiritual and national identity. The awakening began among German, Dutch and Scot-Irish immigrants and was greatly influenced by British Methodists and New England Puritans. It culminated in enormous religious gatherings, mass professions of faith, controversial ecstatic experiences, and the overthrow of Old World hierarchies in church and society. While interpretations of the meaning of the Great Awakening divide into numerous schools of thought, “It seems evident that in one way or another, the Great Awakening helped to prepare American society and culture for the Revolution, but of course not in any direct, deliberate, or intentional manner” (Wood, p. 180-181). 

Initial stirrings

An upsurge in revivalist piety began in the middle colonies in the ministries of German-American Dutch-Reformed minister, Theodore Jacobus Frelinghuysen (c. 1691 – c. 1747), and Scots-Irish-American Presbyterian, Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), as well as among Congregationalist churches in the Connecticut River Valley (Crawford, p. 108).  When the Connecticut River Valley revival reached Northamption, MA in 1734, its effect was so dramatic, it prompted the town’s minister, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) to write what became a bestselling account, entitled, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton. Considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian, Edwards viewed this outpouring of the Spirit as an acceleration and intensification of the work of the normal Holy Spirit so that as much is “done in a day or two, as at ordinary times […] is done in a year.” (p. 21). Like all Puritans, Edwards held that such “outpourings of the Spirit” were God-granted events to be sought by ministers and their congregations as their only hope for advancing the gospel on earth. As the story of Northampton’s revival spread, ministers and congregations up and down the Atlantic seaboard began praying for similar visitation in their towns.

Divine Dramatist

British evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) entered this rarified spiritual atmosphere determined to seize the moment for God’s glory. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” coupled with his profound dramatic gifts connected him with his audiences in an unprecedented manner. His first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, thrust him into popular imagination such that Harry Stout declares him “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity” (1991, p. x). In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield fashioned a plan to build on this momentum. The evangelist and his publicist, William Seward, work tirelessly to promote Whitefield’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every printed work published in America in 1740.

By the time he reached Boston, all of New England was in a fever pitch of anticipation. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, virtually every New England inhabitant heard Whitefield preach face-to-face. Scores of professed conversions and great public interest in religion swept the colonies, from Harvard, where young Samuel Adams was deeply affected, to Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield became famous friends. In fact, Whitefield’s growing celebrity granted him unparalleled influence in Colonial society. He was able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African-American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day as the first in a long line of public figures whose claim to influence rested on celebrity rather than inherited social status (Stout).

Controversy and Excess

Gilbert Tennent fired what was perhaps the opening salvo of the disestablishment of a the Old World hierarchical view of society in his 1739 sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” arguing that only ministers who have experienced “the new birth of conversion” should be allowed to preach. While Tennent was immediately and nearly unanimously condemned by the established clergy, Whitefield picked up the theme and began to use it regularly in his 1740-1741 preaching tour, pushing the message deep into the Colonial psyche. Whitefield’s call for religious freedom from the hierarchical structure of denominational leadership and parish loyalties resonated with his colonial audiences.

His life and his message provided some measure of resolution to the growing colonial tensions between the leaders of mercantile economy rooted in individual enterprise versus inherited social power of the socio-political system. This was particularly true in New England, where community leadership was contingent upon denominational church leadership—often making the minister the most powerful leader in town, but also resonated in more religiously tolerant communities such as the Delaware River Valley.

The tension only grew as a growing band of itinerant and uncredentialed Whitefield imitators began “invading” staid parishes preaching Whitefield’s emotional and theatrical revival message. The wildest of these, such as Yale graduate James Davenport (1716–1757), began to give the leaders of the Awakening, known as “New Lights,” more trouble than their enemies. No sooner had Whitefield sailed for England than the enemies of the Awakening (and defenders of the old social order), known as “Old Lights,” launched a counter-offensive to restore the status quo.  The faculties of Harvard and Yale denounced both the Awakening in general and Whitefield in particular. Charles Chauncy, Boston’s most influential clergyman (and later president of Harvard), published his Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against (1742) as a treatise against the excessive emotional displays of revivals.

Eventually, even Edwards had to speak out against the excesses of the revival. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1742), Edwards declared Satan the winner of the Awakening due to the New England clergy’s inability to lead their flocks out of wildfire and into love of God and sacrificial love of others.  This was perhaps Edwards’ most enduring legacy. While, Faithful Narrative would define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion and firmly establish Edwards as the revival expert with broad readership for his future publications, it was his 1746 publication of Religious Affections (and his 1749 popularization of his views on his more balanced view of revivalism in The Life of David Brainerd) that would lay the groundwork for a profoundly influential evangelical protestant movement in America. Noll (2003) asserts that the Great Awakening “marked the beginning of a distinctly evangelical history” marked by a “consistent pattern of convictions and attitudes that have been maintained over the centuries since” (p. 80, 18-19).

Lasting Influence

It is not obvious if the exact term, “Great Awakening,” was used before Joseph Tracy in 1842, causing some (Butler, 1982; Lambert, 1999) to assert that the Great Awakening itself was merely the invention of historians. Even those who accept the event at face value often grapple with the meaning of those few short years of American history. Kidd (2007) argues that the division of the dynamic evangelical movement into two distinguishable parts may only “obscure the fact that the evangelical movement continued to develop after 1743 and before 1800” (p. xix).  Stout (1977, 1991) argues what while the Awakening itself was more than a historical invention, clearly there was an inventive sense to Whitefield and Seward’s promotional approach (and to some degree Edwards’ rush to publicize the short-lived work of God in Northampton).

Beyond their religious significance, Whitefield’s radical innovations in communication and publicity provided the rhetoric through which republican ideas could be conveyed to an unlettered audience. This style endured, even if the Awakening did not, and became a growing influence in the mode of persuasion of the American Revolution and modern mass communication (Woods, Stout). One school of thought (Heimert, 1966; Mahaffey 2007, 2011) holds that the Awakening’s impact upon the Revolution extended far beyond communication and into the foundational ideas of democracy and nation building, and “provided pre-Revolutionary America with a radical, even democratic, social and political ideology, and evangelical religion embodied, and inspired, a thrust toward American nationalism” (Heimert, viii). By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity. “Without George Whitefield […] American independence would have come much later, if at all” (Mahaffey, 2011, xi).

Gary David Stratton (Ph.D. Biola University) is University Professor of Cultural and Spiritual Formation and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johnson University (TN). James L. Gorman (Ph.D. Baylor University) is Assistant Professor of History at Johnson University. Based upon Stratton and Gorman’s “The Great Awakening [1730s to 1740s]” in the forthcoming “Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

See also

The Second Great Awakening: From Rural Revival to National Social Movement Revival and Moral Philosophy:  A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’? What does the University of Tennessee have to do with Prayer?

References

Butler, Jon. 1982. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fictions” Journal of American History: 305-325 Crawford Michael J. 1991. Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Edwards, Jonathan, and C C. Goen. 1972. The Great Awakening: A Faithful Narrative. the Distinguishing Marks. Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Letters Relating to the Revival. New Haven: Yale University Press. Heimert, Alan. 1996. Religion and the American Mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Kidd, Thomas S. 2007. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press. Lambert, Frank. 1999. Inventing the “Great Awakening”. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Mahaffey, Jerome D. 2007. Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation. Waco: Baylor University Press. ________________ 2011. The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press. Marsden, George M. 2003. Jonathan Edwards: a Life. New Haven: Yale University Press. Noll, Mark A. 2003. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. Stout, Harry S. 1977.  “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 34: 519-41; reprinted in Butler and Stout, Religion in American History: A Reader 89-108. ___________ .1991. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Wood, Gordon. 1997. “Religion and the American Revolution,” in Stout, Harry S., and D. G. Hart. Eds. New Directions in American Religious History. New York: Oxford University Press.  

Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

Part of ongoing series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts

In these ‘revival colleges’ the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, and literature, art and the sciences found a home in the academic curriculum, resulting in a profound spiritual/intellectual synthesis throughout American society.  

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

While most Christian traditions look to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as the historical birth of the church [1], seventeenth and eighteenth-century Puritans in England and colonial America emphasized the outpouring of the Spirit as God’s ongoing means for awakening unbelievers to seek the Lord and reviving the spiritual life of believers.[2] The Puritans believed in religious education and the personal catechizing of every family in every parish every year,[3] however their pastoral experience warned them that such efforts would eventually fall upon deaf ears and hard hearts if not for the continual renewing work of the Spirit.[4] They developed an ecclesiology that all but demanded outpourings of the Spirit recur periodically for ongoing reformation of the church and society.[5]

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan_Edwards-240x240
“America’s Theologian” and Princeton College president, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

No one did more to help set Old World revivalism on its feet in the new world, than Northampton, MA Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). A “towering intellectual figure”[6] often described as “America’s greatest theologian,”[7] Edwards viewed the outpouring of the Spirit as an acceleration or intensification[viii] of the Holy Spirit’s normal activity so that much is “done in a day or two, as at ordinary times … is done in a year.”[9] Like all Puritans he held that such outpourings were God-granted events to be sought by ministers and their congregations as their only hope for advancing the gospel on the earth: “(F)rom the fall of man to this day wherein we live the Work of Redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.”[10]  (See, Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?)

Edwards wasn’t talking in mere theoretical language. In 1734 over 300 men and women—nearly a quarter of Northampton’s population—professed conversion to Christ in a single six-month period. “There was scarcely in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner… and the number of true saints multiplied… (until) the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”[11] Edwards’ popular account of Northampton’s revival, Faithful Narrative (1737), caused churches across the colonies to pray for similar outpourings. It wasn’t long before the answer came.

The First Great Evangelical Awakening

The First Great Awakening was a broad religious awakening felt throughout much of the British Isles and American colonies from roughly 1734 to 1742. Early movements included field preaching revivals in the United Kingdom under the leadership of Methodist leaders John and Charles Wesley,  a revival in the Connecticut River valley that eventually spread to Jonathan Edwards’ church, as well as revivals among Dutch Pietist immigrants in New Jersey under the leadership of Theodore Freylinguysen, and New Jersey Presbyterians under the leadership of Gilbert Tennent.[12] The awakening reached its zenith in the theatrical preaching of British Methodist George Whitefield, whose evangelistic tour of the colonies in 1740-1741 became the first genuinely “national” event in American history.[13]

In ten weeks Whitefield spoke to audiences whose total attendance equaled at least half the population of the colonies he visited,[14] including “virtually every New England inhabitant.”[15] By the time the awakening subsided as much as twenty-percent of the total population of the American colonies had professed faith in Christ.[16] Due to the tremendous evangelistic impact of these revivals, leaders became known as evangelicals and the movement first became known the Evangelical Awakening. As Noll concludes, The Great Awakening, “marked the beginning of a distinctly evangelical history . . . (and) a consistent pattern of convictions and attitudes that have been maintained over the centuries since.”[17]  (See, The Great Awakening & the Birth of American Celebrity Culture)

Religious Affections and Religious Education

Despite the apparent victory of revivalism, Edwards was convinced that the weakness of the First Great Awakening rested in ministers’ uncritical acceptance of revival experiences and mere professions of faith as signs of genuine conversion. Like his Old World forebears, he sought a thorough reformation of both the individual and society. He penned A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1743) to challenge ministers to guide those who professed faith away from short-lived counterfeit conversions and towards genuine faith. [18] Edwards believed that only an encounter with the “divine and supernatural light” provided by Holy Spirit was capable of transforming human affections out of the sinful lowlands of self-interest and into love of God for God’s sake.[19]  This meant that the only uncounterfeitable fruits of genuine repentance were neither emotional experiences nor ecstatic visions, but rather a sacrificial love of others and passion to grow in the knowledge of Christ for no other reward than knowing his love. Parents and ministers were charged with catechizing the next generation, as well as reminding them of the glory of heaven and the ever-present threat of hell, so that by rigorous discipline they might experience genuine conversion.[20] Edwards exhorted his congregation, “The religious education of children is one of the principle means of grace that God has appointed in his church.”[21] (See, Jonathan Edwards Goes to the Movies: Religious Affections and Story Structure.)

The Second Great Awakening

Revival Colleges

This quest to educate and revive an entire generation toward genuine faith and experiential knowledge of God drove Edwards’ spiritual descendants in the development of perhaps the most influential educational movement in American history—the revival college. When the faculties at Harvard and Yale rejected the First Great Awakening, friends of the revival (known as “New Lights”) founded of a flurry of liberal arts colleges with a revival bent. Some, like Dartmouth,[22] Amherst,[23] and Mount Holyoke[24] were founded directly on Edwardsean principles. Others, like Williams,[25] Princeton,[26] Rutgers and the University of Georgia[27] were later captured by followers of Edwards’ educational vision. In the end, nearly all colleges of the era were eventually influenced by the Edwardsean project. As noted higher education historian and Edwards biographer George. M. Marsden notes, “Much of the antebellum collegiate education was shaped by New Englanders with an Edwardsean heritage, (who) controlled most of the nations leading colleges, including the state universities.”[28]

Timothy Dwight and Yale College

The power of the revival college movement was made possible in no small degree due to the influence of Edwards’ grandson, Timothy Dwight (1753-1817).   Dwight was appointed president of Yale College in 1795 in a striking pro-awakening takeover of what had once been an anti-awakening institution.[29] Yale experienced four revivals under Dwight and these outpourings of the Spirit were clearly a welcomed and promoted aspect of the president’s educational program.[30] Yet Dwight was so committed to the life of the Spirit flowing through the normal day-to-day life of the college he refused to cancel classes during seasons of spiritual awakening, even when petitioned by the student body to do so.  Dwight instead carefully guided them his students to a more holistic approach to the Spirit’s work in the life of college, an approach which eventually spread to many if not most of America’s colleges. [31] Under Dwight’s presidency Yale grew into the largest and most influential college in the Americas and the educational center of what came to be known as the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790-1840)—a society-wide transformation of much greater duration and depth than the more short-lived First Great Awakening.[32] (See, The College Chapel: Puritan Relic or Campus Hot Spot.)

Revival Colleges and Social Reform

The best of these revival colleges formed the intellectual backbone of a transatlantic revivalism that became a dominant theme in America from 1800 to 1860, and a “central mode of our search for national identity.”[33] In these colleges, literature, art and the sciences moved into the academic curriculum for the first time, the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, a vision for universal public education found a champion, women and African-American students matriculated for the first time,[34], a resilient ethic of moral citizenship found a remarkable incubator [35], and a generation of national leaders marked by both the knowledge of learning and the knowledge of God was born. (See, Higher Education and the Knowledge of God.)

Mark A. Noll notes that the leaders of these colleges were key to a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of revival and common-sense moral philosophy that dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and which led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society.[36] Dramatic church growth among all revival-oriented denominations—particularly Baptists and Methodists led to the formation of nearly 500 new revival colleges across the Western frontier. These educators were revivalists first and foremost [37] Their effectiveness as educators came, not in spite of their commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit in higher education, but rather because of it. (See, The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts)

Revivalism Ruined and Renewed

Sadly, the success of revivalism eventually led its undoing as churches and colleges began to rely upon periodic seasons of awakening to produce spiritual maturity in their members rather than ongoing religious education and discipleship. Highly volunteeristic conceptions of conversion and high-pressure tactics to secure decisions gradually eroded Edwardsean concerns regarding counterfeit conversions and safeguards to encourage the genuine fruit of Spirit-created repentance.[38] The publication of Christian Nurture (1847) by Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell (1802- 1876) began an intellectual and practical backlash against revivalism’s over-emphasis upon public professions of faith, and birthed the modern religious education movement.[39]

While educational leaders such as A. B. Simpson (Nyack College), A. J. Gordon (Gordon), and V. Raymond Edmond (Wheaton), as well as Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Charismatic renewal movements preserved concern for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and even sparked modest revivals in many churches and colleges,  modern evangelicalism has yet to produce a synthesis of revival and Christian education capable of effecting a society-wide movements on the level of the First and Second Great Awakenings.

Adapted from, Gary David Stratton. 2015. “Revivalism,” in George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport, eds. Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littleton Academic Press of America.

See also:

The College Chapel and American Higher Education: Puritan Relic or Future Hope 

Notes

[1] Joel 2:28-32; Ezekiel 39:29; Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-21; 4:24-31.

[2] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 2; Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 18. Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life: an Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 121.

[3] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002), 67-122. See also, Perry Miller and Thomas Herbert Johnson, The Puritans (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). J.I. Packer, The Redemption & Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter: a Study in Puritan Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2003).

[4] Donald G. Bloesch, The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 106-110. See also, Geoffrey F. Nuttall and Peter Lake. The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 15ff.

[5] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: a Life New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 152. See also, Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 53-60.

[6] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228. See also, Noll, Evangelicalism, 44.

[7] Gerald R. McDermott, Understanding Jonathan Edwards: an Introduction to America’s Theologian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: a Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[8] Samuel C. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: an Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 25.

[9] Jonathan Edwards, “A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England (1737),” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1972), p. 21.

[10] Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption (1755) (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1989), 138.

[11] Ibid, 13-14.

[12] Noll, Evangelicalism, 71-99.

[13] Harry S. Stout,The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991).

[14] Noll, Evangelicalism, 13. See also, Gary David Stratton, “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture,” The Other Journal (Fall, 2010), 23-35.

[15] Stout,Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.

[16] For further exploration into the realities versus myths of the Great Awakening see, Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977), 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of grace: colonial New England’s revival tradition in its British context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 13ff.

[17] Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism, 18-19.

[18] Jonathan Edwards, A treatise concerning religious affections, in three parts (1746), in The Works of President Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John E. Smith and H. S. Stout(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959).

[19] Jonathan Edwards, “A divine and supernatural light (Matthew 16:17).” In Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 17, ed. M. Valeri and H. S. Stout (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 405-426.

[20] Marsden, Edwards, 28-29.

[21] Jonathan Edwards, In Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 25, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008), 723.

[22] Leon. B. Richardson, History of Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications, 1932), 239-40.

[23] Claude M. Fuess, Amherst, the Story of a New England College (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935), 30.

[24] Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 69-89.

[25] David W. Kling, “The New Divinity and Williams College, 1793-1836(Religion and American Culture, 1996): 195-223.

[26] Frederick Rudolph and John R. Thelin, The American College and University: a History (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1990).

[27] Ian H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: the Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 132.

[28] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 499. George M. Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield (Eds.), The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 8-9.

[29] Brooks Mather Kelley, Yale: a History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

[30] Revivals were noted in 1802, 1808, 1812-1813, 1815 by Chauncey Goodrich, “Narrative of revivals of religion at Yale College from its commencement to the present time.” Journal of the American Education Society X, 1838, p. 295-302. See also, Charles E. Cunningham, Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817: a Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 300-334.

[31] John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: the Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).

[32] Noll, Evangelicalism, 200.

[33] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 222. See also, Richard Carwardine, Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1978)

[34] William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 85-96.

[35] Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 74-77.

[36] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9.

[37] Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform, 5. Author’s italics.

[38] Allen C. Guelzo, “An Heir or a Rebel? Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology,” Journal of the Early Republic, 17 (1997): 61-94. See also, Allen C. Guelzo, “Oberlin perfectionism and its Edwardsean Origins, 1835-1970,” In Jonathan Edwards’ writings: text, context, interpretation, ed. S. J. Stein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996) and Allen C. Guelzo and Douglas A., Sweeney, The New England theology: from Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

[39] Horace Bushnell, Views of Christian Nurture, and of Subjects Adjacent Thereto (1847) (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975). See also, Conrad Cherry, Nature and religious imagination: from Edwards to Bushnell. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), Robert Bruce Mullin, The Puritan as Yankee: a Life of Horace Bushnell (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002).Harold William Burgess, Models of Religious Education: Theory and Practice in Historical and Contemporary Perspective. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 81-83. Ironically, Bushnell and Charles G. Finney, perhaps the most famous revivalist of the era were great friends and admirers of each other’s work. See, Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996), 253, 274-275,298.

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Adapted from Gary’s article, “Revivalism and Higher Education,” in The Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Scarecrow Press, 2014.