Missiological Implications of the Optimism in Jonathan Edwards’s Humble Attempt

It is well known that Humble Attempt helped spark the missionary movement when John Ryland Jr. received a parcel of books from John Erskine in 1784. Ryland, fully aware of the esteem in which Fuller and Sutcliff held Edwards, swiftly send them the books and thereby changed missions history. The secondary literatures have recognized the influence of Humble Attempt on the Prayer Call of 1784, but few have seen the role that Edwards’s eschatological optimism played in driving the British missionary enterprise. Edwards’s thinking about the end of the world depended on his interpretation of the slaying of the witnesses in Revelation 11. Some thought this implied a coming catastrophe for the church, but Edwards argued for the exact opposite in order to promote the Concert of Prayer. Edwards feared that if the slaying of the witnesses were a future event yet to be fulfilled, it would be a great “hindrance” for the Concert. Instead Edwards argued for an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit of God, and a time when the whole world would embrace the light of the gospel, with Christ’s kingdom victorious against the dark world. Fuller also saw the ransacked days of the church as a thing of the past, for he interpreted the French Revolution as a crucial sign that that shook the “papal world to its centre.” The fact that Humble Attempt was reprinted in 1789, when the Revolution began, seemed to confirm the optimistic Edwardsean eschatology which Fuller adopted. Although Fuller did not stress immediacy in the way Edwards did, both believed the latter days would be publicly discernible, and that the current ascendancy of Protestantism, coupled with diminishing papal authority in Europe and America, were evidence of fulfillment of apocalyptic forecasts in the Book of Revelation. This optimistic eschatological outlook encouraged Fuller and motivated those in Northamptonshire to pray more fervently. It became the groundwork for courage to engage in rigorous foreign missions. In describing the 1789 edition of the Humble Attempt, Fuller speaks about “how much this publication contributed to that tone of feeling” and gave the confidence to “venture,” and face their “fear” in taking on a missionary task of “such magnitude.” He adds, “I cannot say; but it doubtless had a very considerable influence on [BMS].” In such a setting, it is not surprising that William Carey was able to find confident expectation in propagating the success of the Great Commissions to the church, and thus coined his famous phrase, “Attempt great things for God; Expect great things from God.” It could therefore be reckoned that while Edwards and Fuller may have been mistaken about their interpretations of the apocalyptic particulars in the history of the world, but there is no doubt behind the formation of BMS in general, and Fuller’s view in particular that this was the worldview that fuelled the global missions. For good or ill, it is in this eschatological climate, that BMS and the Modern Missionary Movement was born. 


– Chris Chun –

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Filed under Andrew Fuller, Jonathan Edwards, Missions

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