The Great Awakening was a dramatic revival that began in New England in the mid-eighteenth century and swept the colonies before it finally subsided. Multitudes were converted in the Awakening, and the spiritual climate of colonial America was transformed. Even in secular history books, the Great Awakening is treated as one of the most significant events in early American history.
Signs of revival first appeared in New Jersey among Dutch Reformed congregations as early as 1726. A few years later a young but already well-known Massachusetts pastor named Jonathan Edwards began to see a remarkable increase in the number of conversions among his flock. In 1736 Edwards published his first work on the revival, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions. He could not have known then that the conversions he was witnessing in his own parish were the first stirrings of the greatest revival in American history. Moreover, Edwards himself, along with English evangelist and open-air preacher George Whitefield, would be the chief human instruments God used to bring the movement to full fruition in the 1740s. By the time it was over, virtually every community in the colonies had been touched by the revival. Everywhere the Awakening went, it was marked by strong preaching, a resurgence of sound doctrine, a distinct emphasis on justification by faith, powerful conviction of sin, immediate conversions, and dramatically changed lives.
But another significant mark of the revival was the potent emotional response it generated. Some people responded to the preaching with intense physical reactions—fainting, trembling, crying out, and shock. Those phenomena occasionally gave way to even more extraordinary manifestations—jumping, twitching, dancing, ecstasies, trances, visions, and even uncontrolled laughter.
Obviously there are some rather remarkable parallels between the phenomena that occurred in the Great Awakening and what has happened in the last few decades. And this fact did not escape advocates of the laughing revival birthed in Toronto in 1994. Gerald Coates, a British charismatic leader, wrote,
Those who have studied Whitefield and Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and other revivalists will know that it is precisely this phenomena [“laughter and tears and people’s strength failing them” as seen in the Toronto movement] which took place [during the Great Awakening] in worship, through testimonies and the preaching of the gospel. These things are not new and marked very many (though not every) [sic] revivals.  Gerald Coates, “An Open Letter to the Editor,” Evangelism Today (August, 1994).
Since Jonathan Edwards was the most outspoken defender of the Great Awakening, many modern charismatics hope to enlist Edwards as an apologist for their cause. William DeArteaga, for example, is convinced that “Edwards would have relished [the faith-cure] movement,”  William DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 1992), 115. and that “Edwards would rejoice in the way Jesus is unabashedly praised and worshiped within the charismatic community.”  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 249.
Edwards, who is arguably the greatest theologian and most profound thinker America has ever produced, would certainly serve as a formidable ally for the movement.
But would Edwards defend laughing revivals and modern charismatic manifestations as true works of God? He left several volumes that make his opinions on these matters quite clear. The historical facts actually suggest he would be appalled by the movement. He would almost certainly label it fanaticism. Why do so many promoters of mystical phenomena believe he would be sympathetic to their cause?
First of all, Edwards wrote to defend the Great Awakening as a true revival. And he wrote in response to a wave of severe attacks that focused largely on the movement’s emotional excesses. Edwards’s nemesis in the days of the Great Awakening was Charles Chauncy, pastor of Boston’s First Church. Chauncy became the most outspoken opponent of the Awakening, while Edwards was its most articulate defender.
DeArteaga’s thesis is that opposition killed the Great Awakening. He claims that “consensus orthodoxy”—the prevailing doctrinal opinions in New England—grieved the Holy Spirit because men like Chauncy could not tolerate the displays of emotion that went with the revival.
And, oddly, the chief theological villain of DeArteaga’s account is Calvinism—the belief that God is sovereign in the salvation of sinners. Arminianism—the teaching that the human will ultimately determines whether a person is saved or lost—is portrayed by DeArteaga as a benign but often misunderstood refinement of evangelical theology. In DeArteaga’s assessment, “pure Calvinist theology could not interpret the spiritual experiences that were to accompany the Great Awakening.”  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 32. And so, DeArteaga summarizes, “using the assumptions of Calvinist theology,” Charles Chauncy “ensured the defeat of the Awakening.”  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 52.
One or two rather significant historical details render that thesis altogether untenable. The facts are that Chauncy leaned toward Arminianism and ultimately helped found Unitarianism —while Jonathan Edwards remained a staunch Calvinist all his life. Moreover, the other towering figure in the Great Awakening, George Whitefield, was also a committed Calvinist.
The “consensus theology” of that day was, in fact, Arminian. In the thirty years before the Awakening, Calvinism was in serious decline. Edwards and Whitefield were perceived as theological dinosaurs by most of their contemporaries because they held to the old theology.  Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1987), 211–16. They brilliantly defended Calvinism against attacks from men like Chauncy. Their preaching of the Calvinist doctrines of human depravity and divine sovereignty were the very thing that sparked the Awakening. Edwards recorded this:
In some, even the view of the glory of God’s sovereignty, in the exercises of his grace, has surprised the soul with such sweetness, as to produce [weeping, joy, and crying out.] I remember an instance of one, who, reading something concerning God’s sovereign way of saving sinners, as being self-moved—having no regard to men’s own righteousness as the motive of his grace, but as magnifying himself and abasing man, or to that purpose—felt such a sudden rapture of joy and delight in the consideration of it. Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1984), 1–74.
Far from posing a threat to the Great Awakening, Calvinist doctrine was at the heart of the movement.
None of that matters to DeArteaga. Nowhere in his book does he even acknowledge that Edwards was a Calvinist or that the Awakening was prompted by the preaching of doctrines precious to Calvinists. He simply recounts the Great Awakening with his own revisionist slant. Throughout the book, Calvinist theology remains DeArteaga’s favorite bogeyman, the epitome of latter-day pharisaism. But the Calvinism he attacks is a caricature, exaggerated to make an easy target. He suggests, for example, that Calvin’s view of God “is closer to the concept of God depicted in the Koran, all sovereign yet ruling the universe capriciously”  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 241.—an altogether untrue and unfair way to represent the Calvinist conception of God’s sovereignty. Citing Catholic historian Haire Belloc as his authority, DeArteaga even blames Calvinism for Europe’s spiritual decline  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 89.—a view impartial historians would roundly reject.
And, of course, according to DeArteaga, Calvinist theology was responsible for the demise of the Great Awakening  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 52.—an assertion that utterly disregards the facts of history.
But if we want to get the real facts concerning the Great Awakening and what led to its eventual demise, our best source will always be an eyewitness account. And as we’ll see next week, Jonathan Edwards has already provided us with plenty of in-depth analysis.
(Adapted from Reckless Faith)