Jonathan Edwards, Revival, and the Necessary Means of Prayer
Jonathan Edwards was part of an extraordinary revival in the 1730s and 1740s. Few Christians would argue that the First Great Awakening was the result of manufactured or manipulated revivalism. But what many have missed is that before revival visited Edwards’ church and nation, Edwards sought it. He longed for it and prayed for it, and when it came he urged others to fan its flames through the use of certain means.
My claim will come as a surprise to those who have seen the First Great Awakening as a series of revivals in which “the instruments are not apparent,” but “seemed to come directly from the presence of the Lord, unasked for, unexpected.”For decades, historians and pastors have contrasted the First and Second Great Awakenings in part by claiming that the leaders of 19th century revivalism used means to pursue revival, while Edwards and his 18th century colleagues did not. This common narrative obscures the fact that Edwards called for a vigorous use of what he saw as biblical means for the explicit purpose of seeing God send an extraordinary revival.
Edwards steadfastly believed that revival was a work of God, not man: “There is very much to convince us, that God alone can bestow it, and show our entire and absolute dependence on him for it. The insufficiency of human abilities to bring to pass any such happy change in the world . . . does now remarkably appear.” Nevertheless God also has ordained that his people use the means he has given to them to bring this great work about. Revival is not a gift of God apart from human instrumentality, Edwards argued, but a work “accomplished by means.” Therefore, it was the duty of all to do their “utmost in the place that God has set them in, to promote it.” Edwards did not wait passively while God sent a revival that came unexpectedly and unasked for. Edwards believed the Bible, and especially biblical prophecy, pointed to three specific means that would be a part of major revivals God would send: (1) spreading the news of God’s work, (2) the preaching of the truth, and (3) united prayer. This article will focus on Edwards’ call to united prayer, and some of the impact it had among those who heeded his call.
AN HUMBLE ATTEMPT
In 1743, as the Great Awakening was still sweeping through the colonies, Edwards wrote Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1743). In Part V, he encouraged ministers to get together and pray for the growth and spread of the revivals. Edwards’ proposal bore fruit in October 1744 when a group of Scottish pastors met to plan a quarterly concert of prayer. Edwards heard about it from his Scottish friends at the end of 1745 and was thrilled. He led his congregation to participate in the concert of prayer, and in 1747 he published An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer For the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, pursuant to Scripture-promises and Prophecies concerning the Last Time.
Edwards’ purpose in writing An Humble Attempt was to publicize the Scottish concert of prayer, and to urge readers to participate. The book offers a thoroughly biblical argument. He repeatedly makes the connection between the prayers of God’s people and the blessing of revival: “The prophets, in their prophecies of the restoration and advancement of the church, very often speak of it as what shall be done in answer to the prayers of God’s people.” And again: “The Scriptures give us great reason to think, that when once there comes to appear much of a spirit of prayer in the church of God for this mercy, then it will soon be accomplished.”
“THE EXTRAORDINARY PRAYERS OF HIS PEOPLE”
Edwards was convinced from Scripture that God would send revival as an answer to the prayers of his people. Therefore, he labored to promote a widespread movement of prayer. While Edwards published and organized, he did not think God had left it in human hands to work or program this prayer movement. Edwards explained, “From the representation made in the prophecy . . . it will be fulfilled something after this manner; first, that there shall be given much of a spirit of prayer to God's people, in many places disposing them to come into an express agreement, unitedly to pray to God in an extraordinary manner.” People were not first in the process, God was. Of course, he gave the desire to pray first, or the people would never possess it. The prayers would be extraordinary, but that’s because God would make it so. Edwards explained, “It is God’s will, through his wonderful grace, that the prayers of his saints should be one great and principal means of carrying on the designs of Christ’s kingdom in the world. When God has something very great to accomplish for his church, ‘tis his will that there should precede it the extraordinary prayers of his people.” In other words, the Bible says revival will follow “extraordinary prayers.” Therefore, people should gather and pray for revival.
Edwards’ An Humble Attempt did not receive wide circulation or lead to a widespread prayer movement in the late 1740s or 50s. But nearly forty years after its publication (1784), a Scottish pastor sent a copy of Edwards’ book to some Baptist leaders in England, including Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, and John Sutcliffe. They republished the book and urged churches to begin meeting the first Monday of each month to pray for revival. Within a few years, those particular Baptists would act on their prayers for worldwide revival by sending William Carey to India as a missionary and launching the modern missions movement.
On the American side, a close-knit group of Edwardsian, Congregational pastors republished An Humble Attempt in 1794. They also began to heed its call. Connecticut ministers called for a quarterly concert of prayer for revival. A group met in Lebanon, Connecticut in 1794 and committed to begin praying the first Tuesday of each quarter. These ministers also sent out circular letters and started a correspondence committee to promote prayer for revival. In October 1794, prompted by a letter from Walter King, of Norwich, Connecticut, the Hartford North Association committed to meet every other Wednesday for prayer. They sent letters urging larger denominational bodies to do the same. In June 1795, the General Association of Connecticut adopted a resolution on seasons of prayer for revival. Altogether, two thirds of Connecticut churches adopted the concert of prayer. For example, the Tolland County Association passed the following resolution in October 1795: “That this Association being anxiously impressed with the apparent decline of religion, unanimously agree to meet on the second Tuesday of each month, beginning with next November, for the purpose of special prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and for other religious exercises.”
New England Congregationalists weren’t the only Americans gathering to pray in the 1790s. In late 1794, Baptist ministers in New England, including Isaac Backus and Stephen Gano, sent a circular letter encouraging ministers and churches of all denominations to pray for revival. They borrowed directly from Edwards’ lengthy book title, exhorting believers to “carry into execution the humble attempt to promote explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people in extraordinary prayer for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth.” The letter suggested setting aside the first Tuesday in January of 1795 and once a quarter thereafter “until the good Providence of God prospering our endeavors, we shall obtain the blessing for which we pray.” Pastors and churches all over America, including Methodists and Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists, began meeting to pray for revival. Some quarterly, some monthly, and some weekly.
Those many prayer meetings were followed, in many cases, by revivals. Real, biblical, God-sent revival didn’t go away after the First Great Awakening. By 1800, Isaac Backus was rejoicing: “The revivals of religion in different parts of our land have been wonderful.” For example, the rapid growth of united prayer in Connecticut in the 1790s was followed by a remarkable revival among those same churches between 1798 and 1800. Members were convicted of sin, churches experienced God’s presence and power in extraordinary ways, and hundreds of new converts were added to the church. Those stories need to be recovered and retold. But for the purpose of this article, it’s enough to note that in nearly every case, the revivals in those local churches were preceded by and began with united prayer.
For example, Joseph Washburn reported that a revival began in Farmington in February 1799 “in a disposition to unite in prayer for the divine presence, and a revival of religion.” They soon agreed to meet “at least once a fortnight . . . for the purpose of special united prayer for a revival of religion.” Reverend William F. Miller of Windsor saw revival soon after he appointed a weekly meeting that was successful “in bringing many people together to unite in prayer to God, and in seeking the precious blessings of his grace.” Reverend Ammi Robbins reported that a revival began at Norfolk in January 1799, after five years of quarterly concerts of prayer. Through many revival accounts found in the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine, fervent and united prayer for revival is a common theme. A January 1802 article urged readers to continue to “form Concerts of prayer,” since they “are things highly becoming the church of a prayer-hearing God,” and “an all-important means in advancing the kingdom of the Redeemer.” The author wrote that the effectiveness of united prayer “is set in a clear point of light” in President Edwards’ Humble Attempt and declared, “Every Christian ought to read this book.”
APPLICATION FOR TODAY
Whether you read Edwards’ Humble Attempt or not, I hope you are encouraged to apply his main point. God can and does work in extraordinary ways, and the Bible teaches that God works in response to fervent, united prayer. Therefore, we should regularly meet together and pray for God to revive his people and save the lost. The history of real revival in America should encourage us to continue (or start) holding prayer meetings in our churches. It should also encourage pastors to gather with each other for united prayer. We know we cannot manufacture revival. But we should be just as convinced that God can send it.
So why not gather with a few other pastors in your area once a month or once per quarter to pray for God to send revival? He has answered those kinds of prayers before.
 Calvin Colton, History and Character of American Revivals of Religion (London: F. Westley and A.H. Davis, 1832), 5–6; qtd. affirmingly in David Kling, Field of Divine Wonders, 239.
 Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, ed. John F. Wilson, vol. 9 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 359.
 Ibid., 9:458-459.
 Jonathan Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings, ed. Stephen J. Stein, vol. 5 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 395-396, 383.
 “I have often thought it would be a thing very desirable, and very likely to be followed with a great blessing, if there could be some contrivance that there should be an agreement of all God's people in America, that are well affected to this work, to keep a day of fasting and prayer to God; wherein we should all unite on the same day in humbling ourselves before God for our past long continued lukewarmness and unprofitableness . . . and that he would continue and still carry on this work, and more abundantly and extensively pour out his Spirit; and particularly that he would pour out his Spirit upon ministers; and that he would bow the heavens and come down (II Sam. 22:10; Ps. 18:9), and erect his glorious kingdom through the earth. . . . Some considerable number of ministers might meet together and draw up the proposal, wherein a certain day should be pitched upon. . . . In such a way, perhaps, might be fulfilled in some measure such a general mourning and supplication of God's people as is spoken of, Zech. 12, at the latter end, with which the church's glorious day is to be introduced.” Edwards, The Great Awakening, 4:520-521.
 Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings, 5:308-437.
 Edwards, The Great Awakening, 4:350, 353.
 Edwards, The Great Awakening, 4:516.
 Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition & American Culture, 16.
 Kling, Field of Divine Wonders, 62-64.
 The Records of the General Association of Ye Colony of Connecticut: Begun June 20th, 1738; Ending June 19th, 1799 (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1888), 163.
 Charles Roy Keller, The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942), 50.
 Connecticut Evangelical Magazine 1 (April 1801): 379-380.
 Connecticut Evangelical Magazine 1 (January 1801): 269.
 Connecticut Evangelical Magazine 1 (February 1801): 312.
 Connecticut Evangelical Magazine 2 (January 1802): 269.