Three Hundred Years Old? and Still Speaking!

The new year, 2003, marks the 300th birthday of Jonathan Edwards.

My relationship with Edwards began in January 1981?while I was in bed, recuperating from the flu. Looking for information about a concept called ?concert of prayer,? I dipped into an antique book I had picked up which had a 145-word title! Thankfully, the book is best known by its first 44 words: ?An Humble Attempt to promote an explicit agreement and visible union of God?s people through the world, in extraordinary prayer, for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ?s kingdom on earth, pursuant to the Scripture promises and prophecies concerning the last time.? Over the years, the title has been mercifully pared down to An Humble Attempt. No single book, outside the Bible, has so radically shaped the ministry of thousands for revival.

A Little History

Who was Jonathan Edwards? American church historian Perry Miller proclaimed him to be ?the greatest philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene.? Born on October 5, 1703, a graduate of Yale University, Edwards served as pastor of a congregational church in Northhampton, MA, from 1726-1750. The church was the largest and most influential New England church outside of Boston. During his tenure, Edwards had personal experience with revival on two occasions (for which his predecessors at Northhampton had sought God for decades): a community-wide revival from 1734-35, and the First Great Awakening in the Colonies, especially during the early 1740s.

On the eve of the Great Awakening, Edwards wrote a seminal theological discourse, based on a sermon series called ?A History of Redemption.? In it, he traced how, in Scripture and church history, times of extraordinary prayer were linked with advances in Christ?s kingdom and the work of redemption. This vision became his consuming passion.

Waning Momentum

Edwards wrote An Humble Attempt because, after two remarkable movements of God in revival, he noticed that the spiritual momentum was waning. He sensed rightly that the next wave of awakening would not surface until the saints reengaged in prayer and a new generation of leadership was in place. Unfortunately, he was not far off the mark. An Humble Attempt did not catch on (except in a few places, like Princeton in 1757) until the latter part of the 1700s, when it became fuel for the Second and Third Great Awakenings.

An Humble Attempt was also Edwards? response to a Scottish document called ?Memorial.? In 1744, a committee of Scottish ministers decided to try a two-year ?experiment? in uniting the many prayer groups and societies that had sprung up all over Scotland in a common prayer strategy. They called for focused, revival prayer every Saturday evening and Sunday morning, as well as on the first Tuesday of each quarter. By 1746, they were so gratified by the impact of their ?experiment? that they composed a call to prayer to the church worldwide, especially in the Colonies.

Five hundred copies of this memorial document were sent to Boston, and one fell into Edwards? hands. He was attracted to it because it was clear that none of the ministers was trying to promote himself in the effort. He was also taken with the methodology, its potential for mobilization, and its inherent value for holding Christians accountable to the work of prayer. But Edwards felt he could further the initiative by providing additional theological foundations.

Don’t Pray for Less

The strongest case in An Humble Attempt is on the subject of the hope we are praying toward. Edwards knew this to be the key for igniting and sustaining the work of prayer. ?It is natural and reasonable to suppose,? writes Edwards, ?that the whole world should finally be given to Christ as one whose right it is to reign.? Thus, he continues, Christians must not permit themselves to ever pray for less than this as the goal of every and all intercession.

Edwards argues that prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with all its biblical promises, is by far the highest prayer agenda Christians can wage in this present age, ?For, undoubtedly, that which God abundantly makes the subject of his promises, God?s people should abundantly make the subject of their prayers. It also affords them the strongest assurances that their prayers shall be successful.?

I wouldn?t wish the flu on anyone. But when I had it in 1981, it brought me one of the greatest blessings of my life. Happy Birthday, Jonathan Edwards, my mentor and friend!