by Richard M. Riss.
One of the most remarkable records left to us in the annals of history with respect to spiritual gifts is general is that of "prophets of the Cevennes," at the close of the seventeenth century. About one hundred years earlier, in 1598, King Henry IV of France had issued the Edict of Nantes granting the French Protestants freedom of private worship, civil rights, and the right to public worship in many places. In 1685, however, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, and there was a renewal of persecution of the Huguenots (French Protestants). More than half a million of them fled the country. Thousands of others suffered martyrdom, some renounced their faith, and a remnant of them fled to the Cevennes mountains. Among this remnant, miracles of healing, prophecy and tongues became manifest. These people became known as the Camisards after King Louis XIV sent heavily armed troops against them from 1701 until 1710 and they attempted to defend themselves. Many of the became refugees in England, where they became known as the French prophets, and were often the objects of ridicule. The Earl of Shaftesbury, in the CHARACTERISTICS, wrote of a puppet show at St. Bartholomew's Fair in 1708 at which these French Prophets were mocked. Some of them also became refugees in America, and Benjamin Franklin wrote that his first employer, Keimer, the printer of Philadelphia, "had been one of the French Prophets and could act their enthusiastic agitations" (Benjamin Franklin, WORKS, ed. J. Bigelow, vol. 1, p. 66).
Now what, exactly, were the agitations of the French Prophets? Here's one description, from Henry M. Baird's HISTORY OF THE HUGUENOTS, volume II, Chapter 14:
Respecting the physical manifestations, there is little discrepancy between the accounts of friend and foe. The persons affected were men and women, the old and the young. Very many were children, boys and girls of nine or ten years of age. They were sprung from the people--their enemies said, from the dregs of the people--ignorant and uncultured; for the most part unable to read or write, and speaking in everyday life the patois of the province with which alone they were conversant.
Such persons would suddenly fall backward, and while extended at full length on the ground, undergo strange and apparently involuntary contortions; their chest would seem to heave, their stomachs to inflate. On coming gradually out of this condition, they appeared instantly to regain the power of speech. . . . From the mouths of those that were little more than babes came texts of Scripture, and discourses in good and intelligible French, such as they never used in their conscious hours.
This was probably happening between 1702 and 1705. A few decades later some unusual manifestations became evident in New England under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. These phenomena became extensive enough to motivate him to write about them and offer advice as to exactly what, if anything, they might signify. Should a work of God be judged on the basis of such things? Edwards felt that the manifestations could neither prove nor disprove that a given work was the work of God. Rather, the test for a work of God was in the fruit. Does Godly character result from a given work? Then it is the work of God. In THE DISTINGUISHING MARKS OF A WORK OF THE SPIRIT OF GOD (1741), he wrote:
A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, load outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength. . . . It is no argument that a work is not of the Spirit of God that some who are the subjects of it have been in a kind of ecstasy, wherein they have been carried beyond themselves, and have had their minds transported into a train of strong and pleasing . . . visions, as though they were rapt up even to heaven, and there saw glorious sights. I have been acquainted with some such instances, and I see no need of bringing in the help of the devil into the account that we give of these things.
Jonathan Edwards was involved in a great debate that had been raging regarding whether or not what we now know as the "Great Awakening" was really of God. Edwards challenged his opponents to go to the scenes of revival and see for themselves whether what was happening was of God. Charles Chauncy, one of his fiercest opponents, took up this challenge and was an eyewitness of some of these things. In his SEASONABLE THOUGHTS ON THE STATE OF RELIGION (Boston, 1743), p. 239, Chauncy wrote of one meeting as follows:
The meeting was carried on with what appeared to me great confusion; some screaming out in distress and anguish; some praying; others singing; some again jumping up and down the house, while others were exhorting; some lying along on the floor, and others walking and talking: the whole with a very great noise, to be heard at a mile's distance, and continued almost the whole night.
Chauncy felt that this was proof that the Great Awakening was not of God. He put Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennent into the same category as James Davenport. These manifestations were evident at Davenport's meetings, as they were in those of the other revivalists. However, Davenport managed to bring the Great Awakening into considerable disrepute with his extravagant and outlandish behavior. He claimed to be able to distinguish infallibly the elect from the damned, and he publicly greeted the former as "brethren," and the latter only as "neighbors." Everywhere he went, he denounced the ministers of New England as unconverted men who were leading their flocks blindfolded to hell. He questioned many of them personally and condemned them as damned to their faces, insisting that bodily manifestations MUST accompany any true conversion to Christ.
The antics of James Davenport tended to discredit the Great Awakening as a whole, but Jonathan Edwards did what he could to repair the damage, trying to convince critics like Charles Chauncy that he did not hold to Davenport's extreme views. His contemporaries felt that he did not succeed in this, and Edwards seems largely to have made enemies on both sides of the debate. In his well-known biography of Edwards (1949), Perry Miller wrote, "by 1743 Edwards was beaten, an awesome but discredited figure. Harvard and Yale, infuriated by charges in Whitefield's journals, published testimonies that . . . they did not approve identifying the operations of the spirit with 'the swelling of their breasts and stomachs,' and condemned extravagance, which meant that they had no more to do with Edwards. When Whitefield returned in 1744, the opposition was organized and kept him out of most pulpits. . . . Chauncy was the great man; hundreds of churches were split, the people were exhausted, and the solidarity of New England society in the preceding century had been sundered as by a knife" (p. 176).
George Whitefield crossed the Atlantic many times during the Awakening, and seems to have received an impetus of courage from Howel Harris (1714-1773), the itinerant lay exhorter who helped to found Welsh Calvinistic Methodism. Concerning Harris, Whitefield wrote, "When I first saw him my heart was closely knit to him. I wanted to catch some of his fire, and give him the right hand of fellowship with my whole heart." It was from Harris that Whitefield got the courage to engage in open-air preaching; Whitefield later encouraged John Wesley to do the same thing. One of Whitefield's biographers, Albert D. Belden (p. 145), wrote:
It was from Harris' bold conduct at a country fair that Whitefiled received the inspiration to make similar attacks upon the pleasure-grounds of the people. The story is worth repeating. Being with Harris at such a place near Bristol, Whitefiled was much troubled in his preaching by the pranks of a merry-andrew who, possessed of unusual talent, actually succeeded in reducing the redoubtable George to silence by his mockery. Whitefield requested Harris to mount the platform and try what he could do. Taking for his text the words, "The great day of His wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?" he was answered by the poor buffoon, "I am able." Whereupon Harris exclaimed in a tremendous voice, looking at him with piercing eyes, "What! such a poor contemptible worm as thou art!" The words were no sooner uttered than the clown fell to the ground helpless, overcome by a peculiar tremor.
From this time onward, manifestations of this kind sometimes accompanied the ministry of George Whitefield. Here's one example, mentioned by James Paterson Gledstone in THE LIFE AND TRAVELS OF GEORGE WHITEFIELD, M.A. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1871), p. 215:
[In Derby, outside of Philadelphia,] he had not spoken long before he perceived numbers melting; as he proceeded the influence increased, till at last, both in the morning and afternoon, thousands cried out, so that they almost drowned his voice. 'Oh, what strong crying and tears,' he says, 'were shed and poured forth after the dear Lord Jesus! Some fainted, and when they had got a little strength, they would hear and faint again. Others cried out in a manner almost as if they were in the sharpest agonies of death. And after I had finished my last discourse, I myself was so overpowered with a sense of God's love, that it almost took away my life. . . .'
The next day, at Fog's Manor, where Blair was minister, the congregation was as large as that at Nottingham, and as great, Whitefield says, 'if not a greater, commotion was in the hearts of the people. Look where I would, most were drowned in tears. The word was sharper than a two-edged sword, and their bitter cries and groans were enough to pierce the hardest heart. Oh, what different visages were then to be seen! Some were struck pale as death, others were wringing their hands, others lying on the ground, others sinking into the arms of their friends, and most lifting up their eyes towards heaven, and crying out to God for mercy!'
Used with the permission of Richard M. Riss