Mentors on My Journey in Mission: Jonathan Edwards

by Jeff Ritchie

Mentors on My Journey in Mission: Jonathan Edwards
and the Relationship between Spiritual Renewal and Mission

Mention the name of Jonathan Edwards, 18th century pastor and theologian, and many people think of his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon preached during the First Great Awakening, a revival movement in the American Colonies and Great Britain in the 1730s and 1740s. Scholars of American religion view him as a profound philosopher and thinker and refer to such works as Freedom of the Will and the Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World as they speak and write about him. 

While I have read both Edwards’ revival sermons and his philosophical treatises, I have encountered another side of this amazing servant of God. For me Jonathan Edwards was a mission theologian, a missionary, and a mobilizer of missionary endeavors. His thinking on mission has impacted me for over thirty years.

This past summer an experience in Brazil drew me back to consider again the legacy of Jonathan Edwards for mission. I was invited to speak at a mission conference in a Presbyterian Church in Campinas, Brazil. The text chosen for the mission conference was Acts 13:1-3, and the pastor wanted the conference attendees to reflect on the subject, “The Spirituality That Leads to Mission.” In my reflections on the passage, I began to see that not only did the Holy Spirit use a time of prayer and fasting to call Saul and Barnabas to the first missionary journey, but that in every era of mission advance the Spirit has renewed the church before sending it into mission.

For example, the monastic movement began as a movement for spiritual renewal in Egypt and Syria. It became missionary in orientation as it expanded into Ireland in the west and in what is now Iraq and Persia in the East. Irish monks evangelized much of central Europe, while Assyrian monks were the first to reach China with the Gospel.

In the Protestant world, a small, beleaguered community of Moravian Protestants sought the Lord in prayer in 1727, and the Holy Spirit revived them and sent them into mission as far as India. A more general Protestant spiritual renewal at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, called the Second Great Awakening, launched the Protestant missionary movement in earnest. What was significant about this awakening is the role that Jonathan Edwards played in it – more than thirty years after his death! Let us turn back to the middle 1700s for the story.

The First Great Awakening and the Concert for Prayer

Jonathan Edwards preached and wrote during the First Great Evangelical Awakening that renewed the Church in Europe and the American Colonies. At the height of the awakening a number of Christian leaders on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean issued a call for united prayer asking Christians of all denominations to meet quarterly to pray for God to continue to pour out his Spirit on the Church to revive it and lead it to the nations who did not yet know the Savior of the world. 

After a couple of years of this concerted prayer movement, it was time to renew the call to prayer. As a participant and advocate for the movement, Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise published in 1748 which he called 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. The title is quite a mouthful, but it accurately describes the purpose of the work.

In this and other related works, Edwards discerned that God had a “grand design” to redeem the world. As a Calvinist, Edwards stressed the primacy of God’s action in the salvation of the world, and he always lifted up the ultimate purpose of God, namely to fill the earth with his glory. But he maintained that God has sovereignly appointed “means” by which human beings could advance the kingdom of Christ on earth. One of the chief means available to all Christians is prayer. In particular, he saw a scriptural pattern for the people of God to come together in a visible union to pray for that which Jesus encouraged them to pray: the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). It is the Holy Spirit who revives the church, makes its members more passionate about Christ, and instills in them a greater commitment to do Christ’s will. The same Holy Spirit calls forth laborers into the harvest, for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission. 

The quarterly prayer meetings were not exclusively devoted to prayer. Participants also took time to exchange news about the ways God was working around the world, including testimonies of missionaries engaged in cross-cultural missions. Hearing the missionary news fueled the prayers offered  in these “Concerts.”

The Second Great Awakening and Beyond

Over time, the fervor for prayer and revival subsided. However, towards the end of the 1700s some British Evangelical Protestants reissued Edwards’ Humble Attempt, and a new movement of prayer and mission resulted, again on both sides of the Atlantic. The spiritual renewal component of the movement was called the Second Great Awakening, while the missionary movement that ensued was in fact the beginning of the great century of Protestant missions. One of those people involved in the new expression of the Concert for Prayer was William Carey, often called the father of the Protestant missionary movement. Throughout the next century united prayer for spiritual renewal was linked inextricably to the missionary movement of the church.

Jonathan Edwards’ impact on the missionary movement was not limited to his writings on revival. He promoted missions through a biography of an early American missionary to Native Americans, David Brainerd. In this case, Edwards was trying to show the impact of a disciple who took delight in God and committed himself to the purposes of God for the world that the glory of God might be manifest. R. Pierce Beaver, a mission historian, wrote of Edwards’ biography of Brainerd, “Probably more men and women were led to volunteer for missionary services by the life and examples of Brainerd and of Henry Martyn of India through the reading of their memoirs than by any other literature down through the nineteenth century.” (Pioneers in Mission, 1966:105).

Experiencing the Rhythm of Renewal and Mission Personally

Reading Edwards early in my missionary career in Korea, I saw first-hand the connection between renewal or revival and evangelism and mission. The Korean Church experienced its own revival in 1907. The revival had the effect of internalizing the gospel into the soul of the Korean people. Korean Christians became people of fervent prayer and enthusiastic witness. The Church in Korea doubled in each decade of the 20th century until the 1990s, and the Church now is the second largest missionary-sending country in the world.

The Church in Ethiopia with which The Outreach Foundation works, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, also illustrates  a direct correlation between spiritual renewal and mission. A revival in that church began in a school for boys and girls in Gore (shown at right) in western Ethiopia in 1970. At the time the church numbered less than 100,000 members. The result of a continuous revival, now forty-five years in duration, is a church of 6.5 million members with its own international missionary society.

Currently, the Rev. José Carlos Pezini, one of our Outreach staff serving in Brazil, reflects the same lessons of Jonathan Edwards in the retreat ministry he leads among Brazilian pastors. He calls them to recover their “first love” by making time for God daily and seeking the Lord in prayer not as professional ministers but as persons who desperately need God. Further, he challenges them to rethink their approach to ministry and see it not as something they do for God as much as it is what God wants to do through them as his servants.

As I conclude this tribute to a “mentor” I never met, let me summarize the contribution of Jonathan Edwards for my understanding of God’s mission.

1.    It is all about God: Edwards saw the big picture. God intends to fill the earth with his glory and to unite all things in a “supreme harmony” with Christ has the head. 
2.    We are on a journey inward and a journey outward: Human beings are called by the sovereign God to delight in him and to make themselves available to him for his purposes. 
3.    When Christians unite in prayer for God’s presence and in intercession for his mission, their prayers contribute to the accomplishment of God’s mission, and their union in prayer exhibits a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
4.    Telling the stories of exemplars of faith and faithfulness can stimulate the rest of us to deeper dedication to God. 

These lessons in mission are not unique to Jonathan Edwards. He just happened to be the first to drive them home in my life, for which I am grateful. 

Jeff Ritchie
Associate Director for Mission


The Outreach Foundation