Sarah Edwards’ Encounters With The Divine (Or Neglected Aspects Of The First Great Awakening)

The “extraordinary affairs” at at home referred to the beginnings of what was among the most revealing episodes in the whole Edwards saga. On Wednesday morning, January 20, 1742, Sarah Edwards was enraptured by a spiritual ecstasy that continued for more than two weeks. Repeatedly she was physically overwhelmed by her spiritual raptures, sometimes leaping involuntarily to praise God and more often so overcome by joys and transports that she collapsed physically.

… On his return, Jonathan was elated to learn of his beloved’s transfixing encounters with the divine. They far surpassed his own raptures, yet they fit the same patterns. Always the eighteenth-century philosopher and collector of evidence, he wrote down her account of the entire episode as she dictated it. Her memory was good. She could recall the day and even the hour of most of her experiences and could detail the notions that brought on her ineffable feelings.

… Here was conclusive evidence that conspicuous physical effects, which were common in the awakening, could not be taken in themselves as evidence of deplorable “enthusiasm” or of spiritual immaturity. After pages of recounting her experiences and the evidence of her state of true grace, he concluded, rhapsodically: “now if such things are enthusiasm, and the fruits of a distempered brain, let my brain be evermore possessed of that happy distemper! If this be distraction, I pray God that the world of mankind may be all seized with this benign, meek, beneficent, beatifical, glorious distraction!”

…When [Samuel] Buell began his preaching Wednesday afternoon, Sarah not only overcame her jealously, [sic] but she became one of the chief instruments of his spectacular success. After the service, seeing that several people were spiritually moved, Sara was so overcome by a vision of heaven that she lost her bodily strength. She and others stayed in the meeting house for three hours, until well after dark, as she felt led “to converse with those who were near me, in a very earnest manner.” Likely she was exhorting men as well as women in this group—in such cases of witnessing to an extraordinary experience, Jonathan allowed exceptions to the rule that women should not teach men.

… The next morning in a similar setting she was even more overcome, first falling down in a swoon and later “unconsciously” leaping from her chair when especially moved by the words of some of the “melting hymns” of Isaac Watts, which Buell was reading. Buell was a great proponent of the new hymnody, using hymns not only in private meetings, as Edwards had but also introducing them for the first time into the regular Northampton church services. Even in ordinary times, Sarah was often singing. On this Thursday morning Sarah felt herself “entirely swallowed up in God” and was totally overcome with “a ravishing sense of the unspeakable joys of the upper world.”

… Edwards rejoiced in what he believed God had done through the younger man, especially in what he learned from Sarah, but he also soon became concerned about the effects on the less mature. Many, especially among those already converted, were following Sarah’s example into higher states of religious intensity, staying long after meetings and being overcome with religious visions and delights. Some were in trances for up to twenty-four hours. Some were led to such heights that, in Edwards’ later judgment, “Satan took the advantage.”

George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 240, 241, 244, 244–45, 247.


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  1. Charismatics love this anecdote about Sarah Edwards. As I read it, I try to tell those who love Edwards, you really can’t affirm what happened to Sarah as good and criticize those charismatics who get “slain in the spirit.” This looks like an early version of being slain in the spirit.

  2. I may be on the wrong side of history here, but this account worries me. I don’t doubt the Lord can and does do unusual things among His people for His purposes. But this seems a bit too carnal. Particularly when you consider they were not being impressed by God’s word, but by hymns, hymns written by a man (while largely orthodox) seems to have slipped toward Unitarianism in his later life (cf Rev 6:9-11 lauds the martyrs for their deaths for the Word of God, not for being fans for great christian poetry. So I remain a skeptic on Mrs. Edwards’ apparent mystical experiences. Let the Edwardian Arrows commence flying!

  3. I come from a previous background of anabaptism, and then some years spent in charismatic circles, before coming to a more reformed informed view. In what way is Sarah’s experience different? I fail to see the difference between what she experienced and the ‘enthusiasms’ that were so spoken against. I also don’t understand the last paragraph in the article – if the experiences were good (presumably from God), how then does Satan take an advantage? I’m not arguing for these kinds of experience, as I’ve seen so much damage result in the seeking after of them. I’m just trying to see their proper place in the life of the believer, if there is one.

    • Ed,

      Your confusion is understandable.

      Take a look at Recovering the Reformed Confession. I spend a fair bit of time exploring this phenomenon and comparing it to the older Reformed tradition and to the Reformed confession.

  4. QIRE loves a choir. I already struggle enough with mortification—I don’t need to engage in something that will leave the door open for Satan. Signed, Boring but Gratefully Dutch, Satisfied with the Cross.

    • Mike R,

      I love this:

      “Signed, Boring but Gratefully Dutch, Satisfied with the Cross.”

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