Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 8. Thoughts on the Revival of Religion; Marks of a Work of the True Spirit

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IV. Edwards

§ 8. Thoughts on the Revival of Religion; Marks of a Work of the True Spirit

It was an old tale, told in New England with peculiar fury. The saddest thing in the whole affair is the part played by Edwards. Other leaders saw the danger from the first, or were soon awakened to it; but Edwards never, either at this time or later, wavered in his belief that the Awakening, though marred by the devil, was in itself the work of the Divine Spirit. His Thoughts on the Revival of Religion and his Marks of a Work of the True Spirit are both a thoroughgoing apology for the movement, as they are also an important document in his own psychology. The jangling and confusion he admits; he recognizes the elements of hysteria that were almost inextricably mixed up with the moral exaltation of conversion; but his defence is based frankly on the avowal that these things are the universal accompaniments of inspiration—they attended the founding of the church in the Apostolic age, they were to be expected at the instauration of religion. Often the reader of these treatises is struck by a curious, and by no means accidental, resemblance between the position of Edwards and the position of the apologists of the romantic movement in literature. There is the same directness of appeal to the emotions; the same laudation of sheer expansiveness, at the cost, if need be, of judgement or measure or any other restraint. Prudence and regularity may be desirable in the service of God, yet it is still true that “the cry of irregularity and imprudence” has been mainly in the mouths of those who are enemies to the main work of redemption. Perturbation, in truth, is not properly so called when it is the means of rousing the cold and indifferent from their lethargy; we are bound to suppose that not even the man “of the strongest reason and greatest learning” can remain master of himself if “strongly impressed with a sense of divine and eternal things.” It comes in the end to this, that, notwithstanding his verbal reservations, Edwards had no critical canon to distinguish between the order and harmony governed by a power higher than either the imagination or the emotions, and the order and harmony that are merely stagnation.

One factor in his confidence was a belief that the discovery of America, coinciding as it did with the beginning of the Reformation, came by Providence for “the glorious renovation of the world”; nay more, that the humble town in which he was preaching might be the cradle of the new dispensation, from whence it should spread over the whole earth. His language may even seem to betray a touch of spiritual pride over the part he himself should be called upon to play as the instrument of Grace in this marvellous regeneration. That vice of the saints was indeed a subject much in his meditations, and one of the finest pieces of religious psychology in his works is the passage of the Revival in which he tracks it through the labyrinthine deceits of the human heart. It was a sin against which he had probably to keep particular ward in these years, but we should not say that he ever, in any proper sense of the word, lapsed from the virtue of Christian humility. If he seemed to set himself above other men as an exigent judge, this was rather due to a faulty sympathy, an inability to measure others except by the standard of his own great faculties. Thus, for all his emotionalism, he lived under the control of an iron will, and he could not comprehend how the over-stimulation of terror and joy in a weaker disposition would work moral havoc. Nor from his own constant height could he understand how brief and fitful any mood of exaltation must be among ordinary men in their ordinary condition. Hence he not only failed to see the gravity of the actual evils at the time of the Awakening, but failed also, with more grievous results for himself, to recognize the impossibility of flogging the dead emotion into new life.