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.
Edwards 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 flaws.
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 them publicly.