For nearly three hundred years, New England had been a beacon of light to the nations. From the earliest days of the Puritanical devotion of the first settlers, to the heartfelt revival preaching of the Great Awakening, to the evangelistic and missionary zeal of nineteenth century believers, the Northeast had manifested a consistent witness to all nations of the world. But by the early twentieth century, New England began to grow cold. Today, the current landscape is but a shadow of the glory it once was. Like the apostate people of ancient Israel before the captivity, the people of New England have gone wayward and no longer call on the Lord their God.
How did this happen? There are at least four factors that have contributed to the downfall of biblical Christianity in New England.
First, the introduction of liberalism into colleges and universities. As early as the 1700s, Rationalism and Deism had swept across the Atlantic from Europe and embedded itself into the institutions of higher learning. Only sixteen years after the Plymouth landing, Harvard College was founded for the purpose of training “the English and Indian youth in knowledge and godliness”1 but by 1700, the school had grown cold under the chill of liberalism. By the early 1800s, men like Yale’s president Nathaniel Taylor “knew that modern liberal Christianity, especially Unitarianism, was changing the face of Christian education in New England”2, and vowed to rescue the schools. But all of the Ivy League giants—Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and Princeton—would eventually cave to liberalism and culture quickly followed.
Second, the propagation of Unitarianism and Universalism. It wouldn’t be long before the heresies being taught in the colleges and seminaries would make their way into the churches. Along with the rejection of Christian orthodoxy with regards to the Trinity, Unitarianism is built on Rationalism, stressing individualism and freedom of the human will. This idea became popular in mostly Anglican and Congregationalist circles in the Northeast.3 Made popular by the Methodists, such as John Murray (1741-1785), Universalism—the doctrine that all people will be saved regardless of their belief—made its way into New England as well. Both of these doctrines were a denial of orthodoxy and severely crippled the once-faithful mainline denominations.
Third, prosperity mixed with self-reliance. While the Boston economy had been booming since the beginning, the overall wealth of Americans in the late 1800s was increasing. The publishing of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) classified a whole generation of people who were being steered away from religion—trusting in God—to trusting in their own ability to earn wealth and succeed. This vein of staunch individualism has been carved in the stone granite of the hearts of New Englanders.
Last, the gutting of the gospel and biblical preaching from pulpits. As we will see, the gospel is the foundation of Christianity and the only means by which people can be saved, and the advent of liberal doctrines completely removed the preaching of the biblical gospel from many New England pulpits. Further, preachers began to move away from the faithful exposition of Bible texts—a nonnegotiable practice of the Puritans, as well as Edwards and Whitefield, but absent in later generations.
There can be no doubt that the theological perversion of biblical doctrine, the introduction of liberalism, sinful individualism, and the jettisoning of the gospel, all had a hand in plunging the region of New England into its present spiritual darkness.
Surveying the Landscape
At this point, we know that, spiritually speaking, things in New England are bad, but the question is: How bad is it? One way to answer this is to examine how many Christians there are living in New England. This is a more challenging undertaking than we might think. According to Pew Research Center, 65% of residents in the Northeast identify as “Christian”.4 But is it true that more than 6 out of 10 New Englanders are saved and headed for heaven? Well, naturally, we must then examine: What does it mean to be a “Christian”?
In his book The Great Evangelical Recession, John Dickerson assesses what it means to be a “Christian” in America. Laying aside the existence of cultural Christianity, he writes, “We’re talking about American Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, that it is without error, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation and to God.”5 In other words, we mean those who believe the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures. Albert Mohler explains that there are doctrines that are “most central and essential to the Christian faith… such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.”6 These are the gospel essentials; the fundamentals of Christianity that cannot be compromised. To deny these truths, whether corporately or individually, is to deny Christianity.
If we are to determine a “Christian” by an orthodox view of salvation and the Bible, then the picture changes drastically. Examining national trends, Dickerson cites four comprehensive studies and concludes: “At best, according to the most optimistic reports, we are two in ten Americans… [but] by multiple accounts, evangelical believers are between 7 and 9 percent of the United States population.”7 He astutely notes that while “a lot of Americans say they’re born again, when prodded, they do not believe what evangelical Christians believe.”8 If Dickerson’s research is correct, and the national Christian population is less than 10 percent, then how much smaller is Christian population in the Northeast?
When we re-examine the Pew Research Center’s data in light of Dickerson’s findings, we quickly note that of the 65% of Northeast “Christian”, 30% identify as Catholic, and 15% identify as Mainline Protestant. While some would balk at the idea of calling adherents to these groups non-Christian, it must be recognized that, generally, these two groups deny many of the tenets of the gospel and Scriptural authority. It has been witnessed over and over again that people in these two groups, while claiming to be “Christian”, do not consistently demonstrate that they hold to a biblical worldview, and certainly not an understanding of the salvation as spelled out in the Bible.9 When we examine the numbers of those who belong to Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches, the numbers drop dramatically.
In her article, “Re-evangelizing New England”, Ruth Graham notes that “less than 3 percent of the region’s population is evangelical Christians.”10 Missiologist J.D. Payne has surveyed individual cities and found New England cities to be the least in total evangelical percentage—Pittsfield, MA (1.5%), Barnstable-Yarmouth, MA (1.5%), Providence, RI (1.7%), Boston, MA (2.5%), Hartford, CT (2.7%), Burlington, VT (2.9%), and Bangor, ME (3.8%).11 These and other factors have caused many to consider New England an “unreached people group.”
It must be said that belonging to an Evangelical or Bible-believing denomination means nothing. Certainly there are unsaved people in good, Bible-teaching churches. Faith must be measured individually, not corporately. But even if we are optimistic, the number of Christian believers does not seem much higher than 2 or 3 percent. Further, to test this theory: Even if we were to ignore the statistics for a minute, this fact would become evident if we added up the average attendance of Bible churches in our neighborhoods and compared those numbers to the total population. The picture is very grim; we are a region full of lost people.
What we need is revival.
Note: This article has been written in preparation for the upcoming release of Reviving New England.
- S.M. Houghton, Sketches in Church History. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 172. ↩
- Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, eds. The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 187. ↩
- Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 320. ↩
- http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/region/northeast/ (accessed August 29, 2015) ↩
- John S. Dickerson, The Great Evangelical Recession. (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2013), 24. ↩
- R. Albert Mohler, Jr. The Disappearance of God: Dangerous Beliefs in the New Spiritual Openness. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 3. ↩
- John S. Dickerson, The Great Evangelical Recession. (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2013), 26. ↩
- John S. Dickerson, The Great Evangelical Recession. (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2013), 28. Italics original. ↩
- Rom. 3:28; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9 ↩
- http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2012/11/re_evangelizing_new_england_how_church_planting_and_music_festivals_are.html (accessed December 20, 2015) ↩
- http://www.jdpayne.org/2010/06/02/least-evangelical-u-s-metro-areas/ (accessed August 29, 2015) ↩