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Was Jonathan Edwards
the Founding Father of the Toronto Blessing?

Part 3: Practical Inferences

by Nick Needham, Welling, Kent

In Edwards' final section, he drew out three practical lessons to be learned from his previous discussion. There is much wisdom here. In particular, there are passages to which Toronto apologists have wrongly appealed, whose real meaning needs to be explored. And there is Edwards' all-important treatment of gifts of the Spirit, usually ignored by Toronto blessing advocates who have claimed Edwards as their ally.

1st Practical Inference: The Great Awakening is a true work of the Holy Spirit

Applying his five positive signs from 1 John 4, Edwards concluded that the Awakening was (broadly speaking) a genuine work of God. We need not follow him through his lengthy arguments to this effect. But we will look at one of the objections to the Awakening made by its critics, because Toronto apologists have seized on Edwards' response as providing justification for the Toronto blessing:

Some object against it as a great confusion, when there is a number together in such circumstances [a religious assembly] making a noise; and say, God cannot be the author of it; because he is the God of order, not of confusion. But let it be considered, what is the proper notion of confusion, but the breaking that order of things, whereby they are properly disposed, and duly directed to their end so that the order and due connexion of means being broken, they fail of their end. [63]

In other words, the "confusion" that Scripture condemns (1 Corinthians 14:33 & 40) is the disruption of a religious gathering which prevents it from attaining to its desired end. But what is the desired end? Edwards continued:

Now the conviction of sinners for their conversion is the obtaining of the end of religious means. Not but that I think the persons thus extraordinarily moved, should endeavor to refrain from such outward manifestations, what they well can, and should refrain to their utmost, at the time of their solemn worship. But if God is pleased to convince the consciences of persons, so that they cannot avoid great outward manifestations, even to interrupting and breaking off those public means they were attending, I do not think this is confusion, or an unhappy interruption, any more than if a company should meet on the field to pray for rain, and should be broken off from their exercise by a plentiful shower. Would to God that all the public assemblies in the land were broken off from their public exercises with such confusion as this the next sabbath day!.... He who is going to fetch a treasure need not be sorry that he is stopped, by meeting the treasure in the midst of his journey. [64]

Some Toronto blessing advocates have used this passage to justify the interruption and disruption of worship services by outbreaks of hysterical laughter or other bizarre physical manifestations among believers. But any reasonable person reading the passage must see that this is not even remotely what Edwards was talking about. For a start, Edwards' whole concern here is quite explicitly with the conversion of unbelievers. This,he says, is the great desired end of our religious gatherings. If therefore sinners are converted during a service, in such a way that it "interrupts" the service and brings it to an unexpected end, we should rejoice. This is not confusion. It is the very thing we were hoping and praying and preaching for.

The conversion of an unbeliever from sin and hell to Christ and heaven is worlds away from the emotional self-indulgence and exhibitionism of professing Christians who writhe with hysterical laughter and cavort about like various animals. Are these experiences the great desired end of a religious gathering? Perhaps they are, for Toronto blessing advocates. But they were certainly not, for Jonathan Edwards. And if Toronto apologists try to point away from the bizarre outward manifestations to the inner experience which induces it, claiming that this is the desired end of our gatherings, one must again dissent Edwards said that the experience of conversion was the desired end. Toronto apologists say that an experience of inner euphoria for those already converted is the desired end The two things are utterly different. It should be clear enough by now, from what we have seen of Edwards' teaching, that he did not in any case approve of such self-exalting feelings of joy, devoid as they are of the self-annihilating conviction of sin and prostration before God's awesome holiness which Edwards thought absolutely essential to any true rejoicing in God. We recall how he condemned laughter as an expression of spiritual joy. Immediately after the passage quoted above, Edwards went on to say that even true Christians have had their bodily strength taken away with a sense of the glorious excellency of the Redeemer, and the wonders of his dying love; with a very uncommon sense of their own littleness and exceeding vileness attending it, with all expressions and appearances of the greatest abasement and abhorrence of themselves. Not only new converts, but many who were, as we hpe, formerly converted, have had their love and joy attended with a flood of tears, and a great appearance of contrition and humiliation, especially for their having lived no more to God's glory since their conversion. These have had a far greater sight of their vileness, and the evil of their hearts, than they ever had; with an exceeding earnestness of desire to live better for the time to come, but attended with greater self-diffidence than ever. [65]

The phrases I have italicized show how far away the "renewal" experiences of believers in the Great Awakening were from the great "fun party" that Toronto blessing people are getting drunk on today.

We have looked at it before, but it is worth noticing again in the passage on "interruptions" of a religious assembly, that Edwards positively exhorts people not to give way to any outward expression of inner experience, liable to disrupt the meeting, if they can possibly help it. The jarring contrast between this and the modern pursuit and glorification of these outward manifestations is too obvious to require any comment.

2nd Practical Inference: We must take sides.

Edwards was convinced that the Great Awakening was truly a mighty work of God the Holy Spirit. He thought there was enough evidence of this to persuade any reasonable, fair-minded Christian who would take Scripture alone as his guide. Therefore Edwards exhorted the Church of his day:

Let us all be hence ..warned by no means to oppose, or do anything in the least to clog or hinder; the work; but, on the contrary, do our utmost to promote it. [66]

Toronto blessing advocates issue the same exhortation to the Church today. The difference, of course, is that the Toronto blessing is not the Great Awakening. The two movements are vastly distinct in their origins, their spiritual ethos, and in the doctrines they promote. We must also say that Edwards never tried to bully or pressurize people into supporting (or not criticizing) the Great Awakening. His warning came at the end of a highly rational, lucidly argued presentation of Scriptural teaching about the nature of the Holy Spirit's work, and a careful, discerning examination of what was happening in the Awakening. And we should recollect that in the course of this argument, Edwards himself criticized much that was going on under the banner of revival. His Treatise concerning Religious Affections rejects many beliefs and experiences which were popular during revival then, and are still popular today. Only at this point, in the light of such a calm appeal to reason and Scripture, did Edwards finally put it to his readers that they would be guilty of great sin in opposing this movement of the Spirit:

We had better speak against God the Father, or the Son, than to speak against the Holy Spirit in his gracious operations on the hearts of men. Nothing will so much tend for ever to prevent our having any benefit of his operations on our own souls....If there be any who still resolutely go on to speak contemptibly of these things, I would beg of them to take heed that they be not guilty of the unpardonable sin. [67]

Wise and sober words for unbelievers who persist in opposing true works of the Spirit, although one assumes that Edwards, as a sound Calvinist, did not believe that a true Christian could commit the unpardonable sin. (Christ's warning about the unpardonable sin was addressed to unbelieving Pharisees - see Matthew 12:22-37). However, it leaves unanswered our present-day question, whether the Toronto blessing really is the work of the Holy Spirit. And we have seen many excellent reasons from Edwards himself to believe that it is not. Still, on one point both Edwards and Toronto apologists are agreed and are surely right: we must take sides. Neutrality is a dead option. Edwards had some harsh words to say about those who tried to sit on the fence regarding the Great Awakening.

This pretended prudence, in persons waiting so long before they acknowledged this work, will probably in the end prove the greatest imprudence. Hereby they will fail of any share of so great a blessing, and will miss the most precious opportunity of obtaining divine light, grace, and comfort, heavenly and eternal benefits, that God ever gave in New England. [68]

We could apply the same Edwardian reasoning to those evangelical leaders and ministers who adopt the "sit on the fence, wait and see" posture towards the Toronto blessing. If this movement is a true work of God, Edwards would say, these men are excluding themselves (and by their example, others) from a precious opportunity of obtaining divine light, grace and comfort. But if it is not of God, their neutrality could act as an encouragement to others to try out a destructive counterfeit experience - because after all, their pastor did not say it was harmful. Such are the perils of fence-sitting. Edwards expressed his amazement at the 18th century fence-sitters who were content to remain in a no-man's land of neutrality towards the Awakening, without taking thorough pains to inform themselves, by going where such things have been to be seen, narrowly observing and diligently inquiring into them; not contenting themselves with observing two or three instances, nor resting till they were fully informed by their own observation. [69]

This point is plainly valid for us today. Let no-one accept the Toronto blessing, and let no-one reject it, unless they have thoroughly informed themselves first, and know what they are accepting or rejecting, and why.

3rd Practical Inference: the sins and follies of the revived can quench a true revival.

Edwards' final practical inference was in some ways the most relevant to our modern situation. He warned that the Great Awakening, although a true work of the Holy Spirit, was in, danger of being spoilt and undermined by the sins and follies of believers. One of the gravest perils, he felt, was the temptation to spiritual pride. He admonished converts and renewed believers against self-exalting reflections upon what we have received, and high thoughts of ourselves, as being now some of the most eminent saints and peculiar favorites of heaven, and that the secret of the Lord is especially with us. Let us not presume, that we above all are fit to be advanced as the great instructors and censors of this evil generation; and, in a high conceit of our own wisdom and discerning, assume to ourselves the airs of prophets, or extraordinary ambassadors of heaven. When we have great discoveries of God made to our souls, we should not shine bright in our own eyes. [70]

The elitism Edwards warned against is always a danger to those who have (or think they have) been specially blessed or favored by God. Non-charismatic Calvinists who glory in their orthodoxy are just as prone to it as the most spiritually drunk neo-pentecostals. But Edwards' warning about not assuming "the airs of prophets" has a particular application to charismatics, some of whose leaders not only assume the airs, but boldly claim the office of prophet and of apostle. And this brings us to the broadest and deepest dividing line that separates Edwards from the modern charismatics who have tried to shelter beneath his wing. Edwards did not believe in the continuing validity of any of those spiritual gifts which are so precious to Toronto advocates and central to their theology, church life and movements of renewal or revival.

Edwards warned the awakened Church of his own day against accepting charismatic teaching. There were no Pentecostal denominations in the 18th century, but intelligent Christians were aware of the appearance of charismatic manifestations among sectarian groupings on the outer limits of the Church. In his Some Thoughts on the Present Revival, Edwards mentioned the Camisards, or "French prophets", a group that sprang up among the persecuted Protestants of southern France in the early 18th century.


The phenomenon of "holy laughter" is nothing new It has occurred in genuine revivals, and also outside any Christian context. e g. through hypnotism and mesmerism. The difference from the Toronto experience is that it was generally recognized in previous times that there was nothing spiritual or desirable about this phenomenon. John Wesley has some very full remarks on the subject in his Journal, which we here transcribe.

Friday 9th May 1740 "I was a little surprised at some. who were buffeted of Satan in an unusual manner, by such a spirit of laughter as they could in no wise resist, though it was pain and grief unto them. I could scarce have believed the account they gave me, had I not known the same thing ten or eleven years ago. Part of Sunday my brother and I then used to spend in walking in the meadows and singing psalms. But one day, just as we were beginning to sing, he burst out into a loud laughter. I asked him, if he was distracted; and began to be very angry, and presently after to laugh as loud as he. Nor could he possibly refrain, though we were ready to tear ourselves in pieces, but we were forced to go home without singing another line."

Wednesday 21st May 1740 "In the evening such a spirit of laughter was among us, that many were much offended. But the attention of all was fixed on poor L---a S---, whom we all knew to be no dissembler. One so violently and variously torn of the evil one did I never see before. Sometimes she laughed till almost strangled; then broke out into cursing and blaspheming; then stamped and struggled with incredible strength, so that four or five could scarce hold her: Then cried out, "O eternity, eternity! O that I had no soul! O that I had never been born!" At last she faintly called on Christ to help her. And the violence of her pangs ceased."Most of our brethren and sisters were now fully convinced, that those who were under this strange temptation could not help it. Only E---th B--- and Anne H--- were of another mind; being still sure, anyone might help laughing if she would. This they declared to many on Thursday: but on Friday, 23 God suffered Satan to teach them better. Both of them were suddenly seized in the same manner as the rest, and laughed whether they would or no, almost without ceasing. Thus they continued for two days, a spectacle to all; and were then, upon prayer made for them, delivered in a moment."

Wesley's observations reveal several points of interest:

  • Clearly Wesley regarded the phenomenon as unspiritual and undesirable2E He refers three times to the devil as its source.
  • The laughter was quite irrational. Its victims were not laughing at anything. They were simply swept away by an uncontrollable spirit of laughter.
  • It was quite possible for the holy laughter suddenly to be changed into equally uncontrollable cursing, blaspheming and bodily convulsions, as in the case of L--a S--.
  • It could afflict believers and unbelievers alike. Wesley's description of how he and Charles experienced the phenomenon is dated ten or eleven years prior to the journal entry, i.e. in 1729 or 1730, eight years before John's famous conversion in 1738. John and Charles were as yet strangers to the true gospel when they were seized with the holy laughter. The same applies today, as we can see from the well-known experience of the non-Christian journalist Mick Brown of the Daily Telegraph, who welt to Toronto to report on proceedings and accidentally found himself among a group of people having hands laid on them by John Arnott. Brown too was hurled to the ground and smitten with hysterics without the slightest repentance towards God or faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We can only conclude with Wesley that "holy laughter" is not holy at all. It is an irrational, nonspiritual and degrading experience, which has the sanction neither of Scripture, nor the great (Christian thinkers of Church history, nor sanctified reason. It is not the work of the Holy Spirit, and is no evidence that the person experiencing it is a true Christian.

Endnotes for Part Three:

  1. "Distinguishing Marks"., p. 271, col. 1.
  2. Ibid., p. 271, col. 1.
  3. Ibid., p. 271, cols. 1 & 2.
  4. Ibid., p. 271, col. 1. Emphasis in the original.
  5. Ibid., p. 273, col. 2.
  6. Ibid., p. 273, col. 1.
  7. Ibid., p. 273, col. 1.
  8. Ibid., p. 274, col. 1.
  9. Some Thoughts on the Present Revival, p.371, col. 1.
  10. Distinguishing Marks, p.262, col. 2.
  11. Ibid., p. 274, col. 1.
  12. Ibid., p. 274, col. 1.
  13. Ibid., p. 274, col. 1.
  14. Ibid., p. 275, col. 1.
  15. Ibid., p. 274, col. 2.
  16. Ibid., p. 275, col. 1.
  17. Ibid., p. 275, col. 1.
  18. Ibid., p. 275, col. 1.
  19. Ibid., p. 273, col. 2.