Jonathan Edwards’ classic work, The Religious Affections, is likely the greatest book ever written on the nature of the Holy Spirit’s work in the heart of a true believer or the essence of the true Christian life. Thoughtful reflection in its pages reaps the enormous dividends of greater understanding and appreciation of the infinite excellence of God and His work in us. The first in a series of articles summarizing important and helpful portions of this marvelous book, we begin with the background and context of its writing.
Many New England churches in the early years of the eighteenth century were apathetic and declining. “Sainthood became more synonymous with respectability,” while Congregationalism, the largest denomination “became more like the world in which it lived, less like a pure fellowship of saints called out from society.” Moreover, “God became less respected as man became more respectable,” while “the decline of the Puritan piety was marked by a rise of ‘many and great Impieties,’ a fall in ‘the power of godliness,’ and a ‘time of extraordinary dullness in religion.’”  Then came the “Awakening.”
Smaller awakenings preceded and followed what has come to be called “The First Great Awakening” of 1740-42—the greatest revival in the history of America. At its onset, faithful pastors were doing what they had always done, carefully preaching the Word of God and serving their flocks. No pastor or human technique created the revival, and it often arrived in churches without contact with other churches or outside influences to promote it. In New England, “It was a rushing flood that swept over all the land, recognizing no boundaries, whether social, civil, or ecclesiastical, leaving no inhabited area untouched, and receding as suddenly as it had come.” 
Many welcomed the Awakening as a great work of God as people came to Christ, professing Christians were “revived,” interest in Scripture flourished (even among the youth), and churches filled to overflowing. “Religion is now much more the Subject of Conversation at Friends’ Houses, than ever I knew it. The Doctrines of Grace are espoused and relished. Private religions Meetings are greatly multiplied…. There is indeed an extraordinary Appetite after the sincere Milk of the Word.” 
Much more numerous and more frequently mentioned than the conversions were the signs of repentance and concern. William Cooper of Brattle Street Church remarked that in one week, at the height of the revival, more persons came to him in anxiety and concern than in the preceding twenty-four years of his ministry.” 
While times have changed, a contemporary equivalent would include widespread traffic jams on Sunday as people flock to hear the Word of God, bars and theatres closing for lack of customers, crowds of public and private high school students voluntarily meeting after classes to pray and study Scripture, pastors inundated by people concerned about sin and condemnation, and previously empty churches bursting at the seams with people deeply concerned for their souls and the souls of others—all with great interest in the doctrines of Scripture and the Gospel. Entire cities and states would be transformed.
Many, however, opposed the Awakening, perhaps none more vigorously and skillfully as Charles Chauncy, pastor of First Church in Boston and later president of Harvard (1654-1672).
There never was such a Spirit of Superstition and Enthusiasm reigning in the Land before; never such gross Disorders and barefaced Affronts to common Decency; never such scandalous Reproaches on the Blessed Spirit, making him the Author of the greatest Irregularities and Confusions.” 
No greater mischief has arisen from any quarter. It is indeed the genuine force of infinite evil. Popery it self han’t been the mother of more and greater blasphemies and abominations. It has made strong attempts to destroy all property, to make all things common, wives as well as goods. —It has promoted faction and contention; filled the church oftentimes with confusion, and the state sometimes with general disorder. —It has, by its pretended spiritual interpretations made void the most undoubted laws of God. It has laid aside the gospel sacraments as weak and carnal things; yea, this superior light within has, in the opinion of thousands, render’d the bible a useless dead letter. —It has made men fancy themselves to be prophets and apostles; yea, some have taken themselves to be Christ Jesus; yea, the blessed God himself. It has, in one word, been a pest to the church in all ages, as great an enemy to real and solid religion as perhaps the greatest infidelity.” 
Between the opposite poles of an “entirely glorious work” and a work of “infinite evil” lay more moderate opinions. At the same time, many of its strongest supporters recognized dubious elements attending the revival, including:
- a lack of order in worship services, with outbursts of fainting, screaming, and shaking;
- zealous but contentious, untrained, and theologically illiterate itinerant preachers;
- presumptuous and destructive defamation of established ministers by itinerant preachers creating dissention and division within existing churches (imagine a newly “converted” preacher interrupting your worship service claiming revelation from God that your faithful pastor is unconverted and that all should leave the church, sometimes merely because the pastor would not let the itinerant preach);
- claims of immediate revelation from God apart from Scripture; and,
- loud and ostentatious displays of “spiritual boldness” that appeared to many as irreverent, inconsiderate, disorderly, and inappropriate (imagine a crowd shouting “glory to God!” and singing hymns in the street outside your house at midnight while you are trying to sleep).
Though relatively rare at the onset of the Awakening, their frequency and intensity increased as emotional excesses and extraordinary experiences were deemed marks of God’s favor and a higher spiritual experience.
In general, people interpreted the revival according to their view of religious affections. The more people exalted the intellect over experience and rejected affections as central to the Christian life, the more they opposed the Awakening. The more people elevated experience over the intellect and accepted affections as central to the Christian life, the more likely they accepted all of the phenomena of the Awakening as God’s work. In other words, views of Christianity as all head and no heart versus all heart and no head drove the rejection or acceptance of the Awakening with its elevated affections. Many stood somewhere in between.
Edwards defended the Awakening, but rejected both the uncritical acceptance of every display of religious affections as divine, and the opposite error of dismissing all displays of religious affections as satanic delusion, depravity, weakness of disposition, or foolishness.
Edwards sought a balanced appraisal that affirmed the good and opposed the bad. He rejected unbalanced views of the intellect and affections behind extreme responses to the Awakening, and affirmed the importance and necessity of religious affections as the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the believer.
Next, we’ll examine Edwards’ motives for writing The Religious Affections, followed by an explanation of the nature of affections and their importance to the Christian life.
 Edwin S. Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (Harper & Brothers: New York, 1957), 15.
 Edwin S. Gaustad, “The Theological Effects of the Great Awakening in New England,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 40 (March 1954): 683; quoted in D. A. Sweeney, Nathaniel Taylor, New Haven Theology, and the Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 25.
 William Cooper in Distinguishing Marks; quoted in Gaustad, The Great Awakening, 105.
 Thomas Prince, An Account, 18; quoted in Gaustad, The Great Awakening, 104.
 Charles Chauncy in letter to Ezra Stiles; quoted in Gaustad, The Great Awakening, 88.
 Charles Chauncy, Enthusiasm described and cautioned against… With a Letter to the Reverend Mr. James Davenport; quoted in Gaustad, The Great Awakening, 87-88.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, © Copyright The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1988, 1995. Used by permission.
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