I’m being deeply enriched as I’m reading George Marsden’s landmark biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life. In one chapter Marsden describes a remarkable revival that took place in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1734-35, where Edwards was serving as pastor.
By 1734 (Edwards was 31 years old), the spiritual and social condition of the young adults of Northampton, Mass. was dismal. The prevalence of premarital sex had risen dramatically, even to the point that pregnancy out of wedlock lost much of its stigma so long as the couple married following conception. This was partly because the parents of these young people were distancing themselves from the strictness of their own upbringing. But it was also aided and abetted by economic forces. A land shortage—partly driven by property consolidations widening the gap between wealthy and less propserous landowners—prevented young people from starting families on new farms, so they were stuck living with their parents with no immediate economic prospects. The average marriage age rose considerably to 28 or 29 for men and 25 for women. With real adulthood postponed, these young adults were living without purpose; youth culture revolved around taking advantage of days off working for their parents to hit the party scene at local taverns instead of attending church activities scheduled on those days.
Then in April of that year one of the young men in a hamlet a few miles away from the town center died of a sudden illness. Edwards, who had nearly died of illness twice himself, preached a gripping funeral sermon about the precariousness of life and the pointlessness of the kind of lives the young people were living in light of death and the next life. The young adults there were deeply affected. Edwards returned and called a service just for that age-group soon after, and these young adults quickly began showing evidence of conversion—changed lives.
Soon this wave of conversion spread to young adults all over Northampton and from them to all generations, from children to the aged and everyone in between, men and women, high and low, rich and poor, free and slave. Virtually the entire town was converted. People of all kinds were meeting in homes to pray and encourage each other through Scripture and singing the new worship music being churned out by the likes of Isaac Watts. During the 14 months of the revival, physical and mental illness virtually disappeared from Northampton. The revival spread to other towns along the Connecticut River, and similar phenomena occurred in New York and New Jersey. This was an intense local precursor to the Great Awakening that swept all the colonies about five years later.
What amazes me perhaps even more than the miraculous work of God in this revival is where the revival started. It started among young adults whose social situation and culture are shockingly similar to those of young adults today. Just like in Northampton in 1734, premarital sex is commonplace, there is a widening wealth gap and bitterly difficult conditions for getting hired into a promising economic future, the marriage age is high (28.4 for men and 26.5 for women in 2009), young adults are living with their parents at high rates, the Jersey Shore ideal is in, and church attendance among young adults is not.
But it was among these very people, the group that the church was least successful in reaching, that the revival began. It began because of a sobering tragedy, a God-soaked pastor who cared deeply about them and loved them enough to tell them the hard truth, and a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. And once it caught, it transformed every segment of society.
The soil today among young adults may be even harder to till. Puritan Northampton’s young adults had a set of doctrinally sound basic beliefs that Edwards could refer and appeal to. But as Kenda Creasy Dean reports in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (which, by the way, you have to read), young people today regardless of religious self-identification are largely devotees of the parasitic religion of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and are virtually ignorant of the gospel. On the other hand, perhaps this is an advantage—perhaps today’s young people’s ignorance has kept them from being inoculated to the Christian message. But in either case, God has already proven that he can launch an incredible spiritual awakening from young adults just like the ones in America today. This drives me to prayer and gives me great hope.