At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Christianity in America was waning and the world sat helplessly in the clutches of The Enlightenment—a radical movement away from faith and religion, towards science, culture, and philosophy. There were many who questioned how Christianity would fare through these years, and hope seemed dim. But a spark would be ignited in New England that would set America ablaze and shine the light of the gospel to the farthest reaches of the unknown world. This would be an age of missions, and it would all find its origin in a relatively small piece of American territory.
The event known as the Second Great Awakening was the single largest religious movement in our nation’s history. Generally, it is believed to have spanned thirty years, from 1800-1830. The undisputed star of the Second Awakening was native New Englander Charles G. Finney, a high-powered evangelist who used various tactics to incite seekers into making professions of faith. He is credited with popularizing the “altar call” and the “anxious bench”.
While most believe Finney to have been the driving force behind the Second Great Awakening, historian Iain Murray notes that the first leaders of the movement were, in fact, faithful small-town preachers in the Northeast
“whose ‘preaching was not in man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and with power’—is of men whose names are unknown today. They were preachers who ‘would quote chapter and verse from all parts of both Testaments, without turning over a single leaf’…”1
Of the many New England ministers, Murray notes the dynamic ministries of Edward Dorr Griffin, Asahel Nettleton, Lyman Beecher, Edward Payson, and Gardiner Spring. In evaluating the fruit of the Second Great Awakening, he notes the superficiality of overzealous revivalist preachers’ tactics versus the lasting fruit produced in the Northeast at the hands of more mature pastors—those devoted to faithful Bible preaching and teaching to nourish their churches. In fact, “revivals did not occur in conjunction with any special efforts. They were not worked up, but were witnessed in the course of the ordinary services of the churches.”2 Not only had revival fires been stirred up because of their years of faithful ministry, but the movement was also sustained through their tireless efforts. When Finney himself lamented the steady decline of revivalism on a national scale,3 there were many in New England towns who were still on-fire for Jesus Christ.
While revivalism produced many flash-in-the-pan converts, it also helped create a fertile seed bed in which gospel fruit would produce a crop thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold! It was during this time—the early nineteenth century—that America would establish itself as a light to the nations, and the source of that light emanated from New England. Earlier in 1795, Timothy Dwight—the grandson of Jonathan Edwards—became president of Yale College in Connecticut. In his early years at the school, he preached sermons and lectures on the dangers of false gospel. In the wake of his lectures, revival broke out at the school and one-third of the students were converted.4 The revival soon spread to other colleges, and by 1802, Dartmouth, Amherst, Williams, and the College of New Jersey were ignited by the gospel.5 Suddenly, eager young students were being stirred up and desired to bring the good news of salvation to all nations. To meet the increased number of ministry volunteers, denominations began to form various missionary societies, publish magazines, and found Christian colleges and seminaries. In 1810, the Congregationalists formed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which would send 694 missionaries over the next thirty years.6 To meet the need for Bibles and evangelistic literature, the American Bible Society (1816) and the American Tract Society (1825) were founded.
The Baptists, while dormant during the eighteenth century, erupted in the early 1800s, planting churches all through the United States, and founding Brown University (1804) which would train and send out missionaries worldwide, such as New Englanders Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice. Later, in 1889, Baptist A.J. Gordon would found the Boston Missionary Training Institute, which would eventually become Gordon College. Although not technically in New England, Princeton Theological Seminary would be founded in New Jersey (1812) and would remain a conservative stalwart for the next hundred years.
There can be no question: the work done in the Northeast in the early 1800s served to expand the kingdom of God in a way not seen since the early first-century church. In 1831, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”7
Sadly, the worldwide influence of New England Christianity would not soon last.
Note: This article has been written in preparation for the upcoming release of Reviving New England.
- Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 193. ↩
- Ibid., 208. ↩
- Ibid., 286. ↩
- B.K. Kuiper, The Church in History. (reprinted; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 356. ↩
- Ibid., 356. ↩
- Ibid., 359. ↩
- Murray, Revival and Revivalism, 117. ↩