In this post, I offer two more historic examples of religious experience, namely, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is a central figure of what is called the Great Awakening, a revival that extended from Maine to Georgia from c. 1739 onwards. The awakening, shortly after its beginning involved its main figure, English and Methodist George Whitefield (1714-1770), through his extensive field preaching. As controversy grew regarding the nature of the revivals, Edwards penned a number of articles to answer the critics. The most famous of these is his ‘mature analysis of religious experience’, called A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, and ‘published in 1746, several years after the revival was spent’.[i] What follows is a brief selection of Edward’s descriptions and comments of participants’ experiences he witnessed during these revivals.
Commenting on 1 Peter 1:18, Edwards wrote:
We see that the apostle, in remarking the operations and exercises of religion in these Christians, when it had its greatest trial by persecution, as gold is tried in the fire … he singles out the religious affections of love and joy, as those exercises, wherein their religion did thus appear true, pure, and glorious.
Qualities that we might describe as character traits produced through the indwelling Spirit, Edwards further describes as affections. By this term he meant qualities that are tangible; they are felt, experienced and observable. Further to this, Edwards said that true religion consists of these affections and without them, is cold and dead. Let’s examine an example from his A Faithful Narrative.[ii] There he relates the conversion story of Abigail Hutchinson:
By these things her mind was led into such contemplations and views of Christ, as filled her exceeding full of joy. She told her brother, in the morning, that she had seen (i. e. in realizing views by faith) Christ the last night, and that she had really thought that she had not knowledge enough, to be converted; but, says she, God can make it quite easy! On Monday she felt all day a constant sweetness in her soul. She had a repetition of the same discoveries of Christ three mornings together, and much in the same manner, at each time, waking a little before day; but brighter and brighter every day.
Abigail’s conversion had come after days of searching and longing for Christ which included great distress over her unconverted situation. Edwards thus describes the nature of religious affections, which form the essence of true religion, with phrases like ‘filled her exceeding full of joy’ and ‘constant sweetness of soul’. These are expressions reminiscent of Christian mysticism noted above, demonstrating a common source; namely, the Spirit. Edwards provided an extensive view of Abigail’s newly converted state, one that sounds very much like the so-called ‘erotic mysticism’ noted earlier. For instance, he wrote:
She had several days together a sweet sense of the excellency and loveliness of Christ in his meekness, which disposed her continually to be repeating over these words, which were sweet to her, meek and lowly in heart, meek and lowly in heart. She once expressed herself to one of her sisters to this purpose, that she had continued whole days and whole nights, in a constant ravishing view of the glory of God and Christ, having enjoyed as much as her life could bear. Once, as her brother was speaking of the dying love of Christ, she told him, she had such a sense of it, that the mere mentioning of it was ready to overcome her.
In summarising the account of Abigail’s conversion, Edwards said,
She was looked upon amongst us, as a very eminent instance of Christian experience; but this is but a very broken and imperfect account I have given of her: her eminency would much more appear, if her experiences were fully related, as she was wont to express, and manifest them, while living. I once read this account to some of her pious neighbours, who were acquainted with her, who said, to this purpose, that the picture fell much short of the life; and particularly that it much failed of duly representing her humility, and that admirable lowliness of heart, that at all times appeared in her. But there are, blessed be God! many living instances, of much the like nature, and in some things no less extraordinary.
While calling this case extraordinary, Edwards implies that not all believers will have Abigail’s experiences or the same intensity of them. However, he does not mean that believers in Christ will not have any ‘religious affections’. On the contrary, these affections or experiences should be integral to genuine Christianity, especially those mentioned earlier from 1 Peter 2:18, viz. love and joy. It was unthinkable to Edwards that believers should not feel their love for Christ and consequent concern for the unconverted; and that they should experience the ‘peace that passes understanding’ (Phil 4:7). In a final comment before passing to our next historical figure, Edwards’s plea from his Religious Affections is pertinent:
The Spirit of God, in those who have sound and solid religion, is a Spirit of powerful holy affection; and therefore, God is said “to have given them the Spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind,” (2Ti 1:7.) And such, when they receive the Spirit of God in his sanctifying and saving influences, are said to be “baptized with the Holy Ghost, and with fire;’’ by reason of the power and fervour of those exercises which the Spirit of God excites in them, and whereby their hearts, when grace is in exercise, may be said to burn within them. (Lu 24:32.)
In saying these words, Edwards warns against lifeless religion that contains no Spirit-energised affections that motivate Christian action to life, holiness and service. Holding a form or practice of godliness without the power was unthinkable to Edwards as it was to the Apostles (2 Tim 3:5). May it be so to us. The century following Edwards, another prominent figure appeared on the American scene; his name, Charles Grandison Finney.
In the nineteenth century revival movement, sometimes called ‘The Second Great Awakening’, Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) is prominent. He was also an early contributor to the Holiness movement from which Pentecostalism sprung.[iii] He is regarded as a pioneer of modern evangelism, especially the ‘altar call’ where people are called to the front of an evangelistic meeting to receive Christ, part of his ‘new measures’.[iv] This is important because it relates to the nature of the conversion experience which Finney described as an instantaneous event, a significant religious experience.[v] His conversion theology has had considerable influence on the modern Evangelical church including Pentecostalism.[vi] Finney’s theology was obviously influenced by his own conversion experience described, in part, below:
The repose of my mind was unspeakably great. I never can describe it in words. The thought of God was sweet to my mind, and the most profound spiritual tranquillity had taken full possession of me.[vii]
The awareness of God and the deep peace Finney mentioned are typical experiences known in conversion as will be noted later in instances of early Pentecostal experiences and in the introduction where contemporary stories were reviewed. Finney’s conversion experience significantly changed his life; he quit his lawyer’s practice to become a preacher of the gospel.[viii]
The same day in which Finney experienced conversion, he also experienced Spirit-baptism. This is best explained in his own words:
But as I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without any expectation of it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings.[ix]
His description of a ‘wave of electricity’ is similar to my account of Spirit-baptism in the introduction. Finney’s reference to ‘waves and waves of liquid love’ is not unlike a number of accounts and in examples of early Pentecostals shown later. The powerful nature of religious experience in Finney’s Spirit-filling may be seen as a forerunner to what Pentecostals came to expect. His experience would have been well known by early Pentecostals and is referred to by contemporary Pentecostals.[x] However, Finney’s theology of instantaneous conversion accompanied by religious experience, as Dayton says, is really Wesleyan in its nature.[xi]
What is the sum of all this? I believe there is something to be recovered of the power of the Spirit working deeply in people’s lives. It is not my intention to call into question what people have received or to judge their spiritual state.[xii] However, I am sure that it is obvious to any serious observer that we have lost something of the vitality and the depth of our forebears’ Christianity, what Wesley called, ‘experimental Christianity’.[xiii] When a comparison is made between now and then, as shown above, reasons for this loss come clearly to the fore. These reasons provide us with a very real challenge to reach out to God for pristine and authentic experiences of the Spirit, the kind for which the writer of Ephesians prayed (3:16-20), namely, continuing experiences of Jesus’ presence and infillings of the Spirit beyond conversion and so-called Spirit-baptism.
[i] Chris Mitchell, ‘Johnathan Edwards’, in Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1992)l; Jonathan Edwards, ‘A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections’, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), i: 236-343.
[ii] Jonathan Edwards, ‘A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God’, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974). i: 344-364.
[iii] Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 63-84; Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. 2nd rev. edn. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1997), 14-15.
[iv] Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography on CD ROM (Albany, NY: Sage, 1996), 266; Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 63-84; Keith J. Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney 1792-1875: Revivalist and Reformer (Darlington, DUR: Evangelical Press, 1990), 84-85, 134-148.
[v] Charles G. Finney, Finney’s Lectures on Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 290.
[vi] Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 40-42.
[vii] Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography on CD ROM (Albany, NY: Sage, 1996), 31.
[viii] Ibid., 37ff.
[ix] Ibid., 33.
[x] Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 40-42.
[xi] Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 63-84.
[xiii] Fee, Paul, 183-192.
[xiii] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd Edn. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), iv: 138.