No one was in a better position to evaluate the Great Awakening than Jonathan Edwards. He watched it firsthand from beginning to end. He personally witnessed the remarkable emotional and physical responses in congregations where he preached. He defended the Awakening when critics denounced it as pure hysteria. And when it was over, he carefully analyzed the reasons it died out.
Edwards concluded that it was, in fact, the friends of the revival, not its enemies, who were responsible for its death. One biographer of Edwards has written,
He came to believe that there was one principal cause of the reversal, namely, the unwatchfulness of the friends of the Awakening who allowed genuine and pure religion to become so mixed with “wildfire” and carnal “enthusiasm,” that the Spirit of God was grieved and advantage given to Satan.  Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1987), 216.
Edwards, even while defending the Awakening against its critics, had long acknowledged that a strain of fanaticism was undermining the true work of God in the revival. In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, written in 1741 at the height of the revival, Edwards acknowledged that “imprudences, irregularities, and [a] mixture of delusion” had attached themselves to the movement. He attributed these things to “chiefly young persons . . . who have less steadiness and experience, [who] being in the heat of youth are much more ready to run to extremes.”  Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1984), 128–29. He saw runaway passions as the work of the devil, who tries to keep people apathetic as long as possible—then when he is no longer able to accomplish that, “endeavours to drive them to extremes, and so to dishonour God.”  Edwards, Jonathan Edwards on Revival, 128–29.
In the summer of 1741, soon after Edwards wrote those words, the first recorded outbreaks of faintings, shakings, and outcries began.  Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 217. The manifestations grew more pronounced as people began to associate the Spirit’s work with these bizarre sensations. Iain Murray writes that some observers
began to encourage the idea that the greater the outcries and commotion, the more glorious was the evidence of God’s power, and once this idea was accepted the door was open to all manner of excess. . . . Far from attempting to restrain themselves, people sometimes willfully gave way to sheer emotion.  Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 218.
At this point division crept into the revival. Many who were swept up in the emotion and excitement of the phenomena began to distrust any voice of caution. Pastors who warned that mere noise and excitement were no proof of the Spirit’s working often found themselves the targets of backlash. Wise words of friendly caution were discarded as if they were hostile criticism. Godly pastors who raised concerns were even labeled unconverted. A faction of fanatics began to commandeer the Awakening. One author noted “the rapid progress of a spurious religion, under the guidance of pride, ignorance, and spiritual quackery.”  W. B. Sprague cited in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 227.
Iain Murray concludes,
Without question, the rise of the fanatical element coincided with the decline of the spiritual power of the Awakening. Those who spoke most loudly of being led by the Spirit were the very persons responsible for quenching the Spirit’s work. . . . For Edwards the turning point in the revival came when men . . . failed to guard against excesses.  Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 227–28.
In his biography of David Brainerd, Edwards gave his own assessment of the revival’s failure:
An intemperate imprudent zeal, and a degree of [fleshly] enthusiasm soon crept in, and mingled itself with that revival of religion; and so great and general an awakening being quite a new thing in the land, at least as to all the living inhabitants of it; neither people nor ministers had learned thoroughly to distinguish between solid religion and its delusive counterfeits; even many ministers of the Gospel, of long standing and the best reputation, were for a time overpowered with the glaring appearances of the latter.  Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 154.
Clearly Jonathan Edwards believed the Great Awakening was quenched not by concerns for “theological correctness” but by spiritual extremism that was tolerated and even encouraged by the revival’s most enthusiastic supporters. The unbridled emotional excesses, far from being the supreme spiritual achievement of the revival, were the very thing that killed it. It was fanaticism, not pharisaism, that ended the Great Awakening.
William DeArteaga is aware of but refuses to accept Edwards’s conclusion. Against all the historical evidence, DeArteaga insists that “doctrinal correctness” led to the revival’s demise:
In spite of Edwards’s own theories, it seems that the Great Awakening was not quenched because of its extremists. It was quenched because of the condemnation of its opponents. This condemnation demoralized the supporters and marred the faith of the public to the point where they no longer welcomed the presence of the Spirit.  William DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 1992), 55.
Ironically enough, at this point in DeArteaga’s book he speaks of the need for discernment. He concludes that “Edwards was at a tremendous disadvantage [because] he had no readily available theology of discernment.” In fact, according to DeArteaga, “the Reformers rejected the need for discernment when they threw out the whole of Catholic mystical theology.”  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 55.
This astonishing interpretation of church history must not be allowed to go unchallenged. In the first place, Edwards did have a very clear-cut “theology of discernment.” This is evident in the clarity of his work The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. DeArteaga would do well to apply Edwards’s prescription for discernment to many of the ideas he defends in his book, including Word Faith theology, visualization techniques, and Catholic mysticism.
In the second place, what DeArteaga means when he speaks of “a theology of discernment” is not altogether clear. Apparently he is suggesting that objective criteria of truth—Scripture and sound theology—should be laid aside in favor of a purely mystical approach to discernment. “Discernment” in DeArteaga’s scheme seems to be nothing more than intuition—a sanctified gut reaction.
He writes, “Although discernment is principally a spiritual [DeArteaga equates this with mystical] function, it is based on certain biblical principles which must be taught publicly.”  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 55. What principles these are and how they differ from “theological correctness,” DeArteaga does not attempt to explain. He continues,
In its most basic form such a theology must accept that the Holy Spirit can operate in the current age and that the Holy Spirit’s operations can be discerned from the surrounding noise of psychic and demonic interference.  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 55.
I certainly believe that the Holy Spirit operates today and that His operations are distinguishable from psychic and demonic noise. Edwards believed that too. But in DeArteaga’s assessment, neither Edwards nor I have any “theology of discernment.”  Dearteaga’s book ends with a rather harsh and factually inaccurate assessment of my ministry. He concludes that “MacArthur’s theology becomes the perfect Pharisees’ theology” (DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 261). So what does DeArteaga mean by this statement?
What he actually seems to be saying (indeed, it is the main message of his book) is that objective truth cannot be the standard by which we discern between what is true and what is false spiritually. Discernment in DeArteaga’s scheme is a mystical ability. It begins when we “accept that the Holy Spirit can operate in the current age”  DeArteaga, Quenching the Spirit, 55.—and by this DeArteaga seems to mean that we must accept mystical phenomena as the work of the Spirit. Then the Spirit-filled individual is supposed to be able to tell instinctively whether unusual phenomena are truly the work of the Holy Spirit. Since “theological correctness” is a priori ruled out as a standard for discernment, we must assume that the criteria for discerning are predominately subjective. The front-to-back message of DeArteaga’s book affirms that this is in fact what he means.
But that isn’t a theology of discernment; it is a sure road to spiritual confusion. As we have seen repeatedly, discernment is related to wisdom. It is a function of the biblically informed and Spirit-taught intellect. It is not a feeling or a “sixth sense.” Discernment is utterly dependent on a right understanding of Scripture—“theological correctness” in William DeArteaga’s terminology. But having attacked all that as pharisaism, he has ruled out true discernment.
Ultimately, we ignore Edwards’s assessment of eighteenth century “emotional excesses” to our own modern peril today. DeArteaga’s convenient historical revisionism has given an air of academic credibility wherever emotion-based anarchy manifests itself in churches today. Any focus on the emotional aspects of the Great Awakening at the expense of its powerful theological preaching is a recipe for spiritual disaster. And we’ll consider the present-day fruit of that next time.
(Adapted from Reckless Faith)