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  • Daniel Klassen

The Surprising Work of God in the Life of Phoebe Bartlett

The First Great Awakening (1730-1755) began with a man by the name of Jonathan Edwards. It started in Northampton, Massachusetts at the church where Edwards was a pastor. He was intent on correcting the incorrect views of salvation and conversion. This awakening was mainly for the people already in church, and it stressed the sovereignty of God in salvation. In 1737 Edwards published his first book called, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, which was written to clarify biblical conversion.

During this time, conversion was seen as an interest in Christianity in which an attempt was made to live righteously by doing good works, and studying scripture to avoid sin and damnation. This they were to do in order to earn their salvation. Edwards saw this as wrong and contrary to scripture, so he challenged it in his writing. Edwards described conversion as an ‘awakening’ to God wherein by faith in the atoning work of Christ one found forgiveness. This salvation was not through the works of faith, but through the work of Christ received by faith, and in this salvation, one would receive the Holy Spirit so that they leave sin behind and spread this message of the gospel.

Throughout this book, there are mini-narratives telling of different conversions which Edwards came across. There is one particularly fascinating story which has become of great interest and intrigue to me. That is the conversion of four year old Phoebe Bartlett.

Jonathan Edwards writes, “She was born in March, 1731. About the latter end of April, or beginning of May, 1735, she was greatly affected by the talk of her brother, who had been hopefully converted a little before, at about eleven years of age, and then seriously talked to her about the great things of religion. Her parents did not know of it at that time, and were not wont, in the counsels they gave to their children, particularly to direct themselves to her, being so young, and, as they supposed, not capable of understanding. But after her brother had talked to her, they observed her very earnestly listen to the advice they gave to the other children; and she was observed very constantly to retire, several times in a day, as was concluded, for secret prayer. She grew more and more engaged in religion, and was more frequent in her closet; till at last she was wont to visit it five or six times a day: and was so engaged in it, that nothing would at any time divert her from her stated closet exercises.”

She spoke once of how she could not find God, but that was the extent of her religious conversation. One day around noon, her mother overheard her as she was praying in her closet. Edwards records, speaking of this occasion, that it “was unusual, and never had been observed before. And her voice seemed to be as of one exceedingly importunate and engaged; but her mother could distinctly hear only these words, spoken in a childish manner, but with extraordinary earnestness, and out of distress of soul, ‘pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray beg, pardon all my sins!’ When the child had done prayer, she came out of the closet, sat down by her mother, and cried out aloud.” This crying then continued for some time after, for she was afraid that she might go to hell.

Her mother tried to console her, telling young Phoebe that all she needed to do was be a good girl, pray every day, and she hoped God would give her salvation. “But this did not quiet her at all; she continued thus earnestly crying, and taking on for some time, till at length she suddenly ceased crying, and began to smile, and presently said with a smiling countenance, ‘Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me!'”

Salvation had come to Phoebe Bartlett. She would return to her closet, but this time as she came out, she was smiling and exclaimed to her mother, “I can find God now!” She was asked many validating questions that evening from her family members as to the legitimacy of this conversion, and she responded positively to each one. As she was in bed that evening, she called out to one of her little cousins only to tell him that heaven was better than earth, meaning that to spend time with God was better than anything on earth. The next day her mother asked her, “Phoebe, what has God made you for?” She answered, “To serve him,” and added, “Everybody should serve God, and get an interest in Christ.” Phoebe had truly been affected by Christ; her heart had been changed.

She loved to attend church, but not for reasons you might expect. She loved to sit and hear Jonathan Edwards preach. Throughout the church service, and during prayers at home, she would be attentive to what was going on, listening intently and participating where she could. She loved to hear people talk about religion. Edwards writes about a time he visited their place, “When I once was there with some strangers, and talked to her something of religion, she seemed more than ordinarily attentive; and when we were gone, she looked out very wistfully after us, and said, ‘I wish they would come again!’ Her mother asked her, ‘Why?’ Says she, ‘I love to hear ’em talk.'” Edwards continues, “She seems to have very much of the fear of God before her eyes, and an extraordinary dread of sinning against Him.”

Edwards also tells of an instance where this fear of God in her life was observed. It was during the month of August, Phoebe was out with some older children and they started picking plums in the neighbor’s yard. When she brought some home, her mother kindly reprimanded her actions explaining that it was wrong to take without asking; stealing was a sin. She immediately burst into tears and cried out, “I won’t have these plums!” and then spoke to her sister Eunice with sincerity in her voice, “Why did you ask me to go to that plum tree? I wouldn’t have gone if you hadn’t asked me.” One of the children ran back to the neighbor’s place to ask for forgiveness, and also to ask if they might eat the plums they already picked. The neighbor did not have a problem with the children eating the fruit. This seemed to stop the crying, but soon Phoebe began to cry again. Edwards writes, “Her mother asked her, ‘What made her cry again? Why she cried now, since they had asked leave? What it was that troubled her now?’ And asked her several times very earnestly, before she made any answer; but at last said, ‘It was because, because it was sin.’ She continued a considerable time crying; and said she would not go again if Eunice asked her an hundred times; and she retained her aversion to that fruit for a considerable time, under the remembrance of her former sin.”

Many more great works of the Holy Spirit manifested during this time of awakening in the church. Jonathan Edwards writes of many occasions where it was clear to see that God was working mightily and Satan was “unusually restrained.” In the midst of this, the First Great Awakening, God’s grace came to Phoebe Bartlett, and through her life came a most fascinating story. I pray this story will inspire parents to not underestimate the spiritual capabilities of their children, and faithfully and diligently teach them the Christian faith.

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