A Dawning in the New World

Solomon Stoddard in New England

Solomon Stoddard, the popular Puritan minister of Northampton, Massachusetts, like most other colonial New England ministers, served in one church for his lifetime. He pastored the First Church of Northampton for 60 years, from 1669 until his death in 1729. Northampton, situated on the Connecticut River, was on what was then the western frontier—the very outpost of colonial civilization. It was here, through Stoddard’s ministry, that American religious awakenings began.

A Voice in the Wilderness

The idea of spiritual awakenings in colonial New England began almost entirely with this capable and devoted minister. Stoddard was an evangelical, a “soul winner,” and had an intense desire to reach the unconverted.

Stoddard, and the other Puritan leaders were concerned because the spiritual life of New England had greatly eroded since the time of the founding fathers. In 1679 a “Reforming Synod” was held to address the situation, which they considered desperate. In 1683, the Rev. Samuel Torrey of Weymouth lamented:

. . . there hath been a vital Decay, a Decay upon the very Vitals of Religion, by a deep Declension in the Life, & Power of it; that there is already a great Death upon Religion, little more left than a name to live; that the things which remain are ready to die; and that we are in great Danger of dying together with it . . .

This presents something of a puzzle to us today: Since awakenings among God’s people were nothing new, why didn’t the devout Puritans of New England remember this and seek revival? Awakenings were mighty actions of the Lord that had occurred over the centuries, great movings of the Holy Spirit, breathing new life into the Church. Had the New England faithful forgotten? No doubt many had not forgotten, but there was little unity among them in a call, or in prayer, for awakening.

The Puritans were some of the finest Bible students ever to study the Word of God. Yet Solomon Stoddard was almost alone when he insisted that an awakening was the only answer to the spiritual problems of his day. It is difficult to understand, in light of their knowledge of Scripture, how they could have overlooked those places in the Bible where awakening is presented as God’s answer to a backslidden Church.

In addition, the Church had undergone periods of awakening over the centuries—the Reformation being the greatest example—and the New England pastors prided themselves on their devotion to the teaching of the Reformation, especially to the ideas of John Calvin, whom they honored as the greatest teacher of the Reformation.

Also, their homeland in the British Isles had seen previous awakenings. In 1596 an awakening had begun in Edinburgh, and from 1625 through 1630 other parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland had seen major awakenings. All this had been widely reported.

Like Trees in Winter

Yet when Stoddard urged the need for spiritual awakening upon his fellow ministers, he received only a lukewarm response. However, that did not stop him. In his writings and sermons he carefully explained what revival meant, and he almost single-handedly began the first era of active evangelism in American Christianity. He insisted upon biblical preaching that stressed the absolute necessity of conversion to Christ:

When Men don’t preach much about the Danger of Damnation, there is want of good Preaching. Some Preachers preach much about Moral Duties and the blessed estate of Godly Men, but don’t seek to awaken Sinners and make them sensible of their Danger. . . . These Things are very needful in their places to be spoken unto; but if Sinners don’t often hear of Judgment and Damnation, few will be converted. Many Men are in a Deep Sleep and flatter themselves as if there were no Hell, or at least that God will not deal so harshly with them as to Damn them. Psalm 36:2. Ministers must give them no Rest in such a Condition. They must pull them as Brands out of the Burnings. . . . Ministers are faulty when they speak to them with Gentleness, as Eli rebuked his Sons. Christ Jesus often warned them of the Danger of Damnation. Matthew 5:29, 30

Stoddard felt that many preachers in his day were overly proud of their preaching abilities, and not interested enough in the content of their messages. “We are not sent into the pulpit to shew our wit and eloquence, but to set the consciences of men on fire . . . ”

According to Stoddard, we must not expect constant revival; God does not work that way. Yet, though there may be long periods when God allows his people to backslide into sin, there may also be periods of great spiritual refreshing:

There are some special Seasons wherein God doth in a remarkable Manner revive Religion among his People. God doth not always carry on his Work in the Church in the same Proportion. As it is in Nature, there be great [variations]. . . . So there be times wherein there is a plentiful Effusion of the Spirit of God, and Religion is in a more flourishing Condition.

This rule, he believed, operated not only in the Church, but also in the lives of individual Christians. Therefore, he did not find anything unusual in the spiritual conditions then prevailing in New England. What Stoddard saw was a “valley” period, a spiritual low point.

However, he felt that if biblical principles were applied, and if there was a proper understanding of the ways of God’s working, a resurgence of God’s power might be expected. In other words, he felt that if the religious leaders thought that the future spiritual course was downward, then they were simply ignorant of spiritual laws:

Learn from hence, that the Church of God is subject to great Changes. Sometimes Religion flourishes, and sometimes it languishes. It is indeed so with particular Souls; sometimes they go on from Strength to Strength, and their Hearts are lifted up in the Ways of God. . . . And at other Times they are in a slumbering Condition; they are like sick Men that are unfit for Service, like Trees in Winter. So it is with the Church of God; there is but little of the Presence of God among them; there is a great scarcity of Godly Men; Iniquity abounds, and the Love of many waxes Cold. At other Times, Religion is the great thing that is minded.

Practicing What He Preached

Stoddard was known as a powerful preacher, and followed his own advice completely. In response to his strong preaching and pastoral methods, five awakenings, or harvests as he called them, came upon his church and the area of Northampton: in 1679, 1683, 1696,1712, and 1718. More souls were turned to Christ than at any other time in New England before the Great Awakening.

While most of New England continued in the old ways, and pastors gazed with awe and envy upon the new members flocking into Stoddard’s church, he had the satisfaction of feeling that he was working out God’s methods of awakening His people.

As decline continued elsewhere, some pastors did turn their ministries to more evangelical concerns, and preached for revival. Not far from Northampton, at Hatfield, the Rev. William Williams echoed similar doctrine. In Connecticut, Rev. Eliphalet Adams of New London was an ardent advocate of the revival spirit. In his printed sermons, Adams’ arguments were very similar to Stoddard’s, urging prayer and preaching for revival.

Solomon Stoddard completed an amazing pastorale of sixty years. Due to his failing health, the church, in 1727, called for an assistant to aid him. They selected Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards. This was a momentous decision. Edwards became the leading colonial advocate of awakenings, and America’s greatest theologian.

Meanwhile, around New England outpourings of the Spirit were occurring in other towns during the 1720s. In 1721 Eliphalet Adams traveled to Windham, Connecticut, and started an awakening there. He told the throng gathered to hear him that revivals, although still widely scattered, were no longer a rarity, and that a Great Awakening seemed to be at the threshold.

Theodore Jacob Frelinghuysen in the Middle Colonies

In September 1719 a gifted young minister sailed from Holland to the New World on board the ship King George. He came to serve four churches that had been established for the scattered Dutch immigrants who had settled in the Raritan Valley of New Jersey. Not long after his arrival in New Jersey, this bold and zealous young pastor would spark controversies and spiritual fires; his persistent evangelism would eventually prepare the ground for the Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies.

Theodore Jacob Frelinghuysen, then 27, was born in Germany and was the son of a minister. After his education in Holland, he was ordained and served as the pastor of a small Dutch church. Frelinghuysen was devoted to the teachings of Pietism—the evangelical movement in the Lutheran and Reformed churches that stressed personal conversion, and a life of obedient faith and love.

After arriving in New Jersey the new pastor was greeted with joy by his parishioners. But he was soon dismayed, for he found—in the words of a man who translated his sermons—that

great laxity of manners prevailed throughout his charge, . . . that while horseracing, gambling, dissipation, and rudeness of various kinds were common, the [church] was attended at convenience, and religion consisted of the mere formal pursuit of the routine of duty.

In short, Frelinghuysen found that, in his opinion, much of his new congregation was unconverted.

A Rude Awakening

The Dutch farmers must have been stunned when their new pastor immediately called on them to repent and be converted to Christ. In some of his first New Jersey sermons Frelinghuysen set the tone for his evangelistic preaching for years to come. He portrayed the beginning of the conversion experience as a great “conviction” of one’s lost condition, as in his sermon on Isaiah 66:2 entitled The Poor and Contrite [are] God’s Temple:

In a contrite spirit are found: a deep sense and clear perception of sin. . . . Heart—felt disquietude and sadness. . . . An open and free confession of sin. By reason of a sense of the greatness of his sins, he knows not whither to look or turn: but, notwithstanding, places his dependence upon the grace which God can exercise through his Son. Hence, the contrite in spirit flees from the curse of the law to the Gospel. . . . Thus he is driven out of himself, to the sovereign grace of God in Christ, for reconciliation, pardon, sanctification, and salvation.

Frelinghuysen declared that only those who have undergone such a conversion have salvation, and that no one else, even the most upright and moral, may entertain hope for heaven. The proper Dutch members of his congregations did not find such doctrine unacceptable in itself, but their new pastor seemed to regard many of them as unregenerate, as self-righteous, as hypocrites. He addressed them:

Much loved hearers, who have so often been at the Lord’s table, do you know that the unconverted may not approach? Have you, with the utmost care examined, whether you be born again? . . . Reflect, therefore, upon, and bear in mind this truth; and remember, that though morally and outwardly religious, if you still be unregenerate and destitute of spiritual life, you have no warrant for an approach to the table of grace.

Conversion was used by Frelinghuysen as the basis for admission to communion, and therefore, in his judgment, most of his parishioners should be excluded from the Lord’s Supper. Many in the congregation were denied communion, and they became outraged that their young pastor had accused them of being lost in sin. They complained to certain influential Dutch ministers in New York, and started a controversy that would finally split the Dutch Reformed Church in the New World in 1721. Frelinghuysen was not alone in his beliefs, however. Other pastors in his denomination supported his views, though they warned him about being too harsh.

Kindred Spirits

In 1726, Gilbert Tennent, a passionate young Presbyterian minister, came to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to minister to the English-speaking colonists there. Tennent’s enthusiastic dedication won him Frelinghuysen’s friendship. Young Tennent saw the effects of Frelinghuysen’s powerful preaching, and the barrenness of his own ministry, and became quite impressed.

Tennent later described his beginning in the ministry:

. . . When I came there . . . I had the Pleasure of seeing much of the Fruits of [Frelinhuysen’s Ministry. . . . This together with a kind Letter which he sent me respecting the Necessity of dividing the Word aright . . . excited me to great Earnestness in ministerial Labours. I began to be very much distress’d about my want of Success. . . . I did then preach much upon Original Sin, Repentance, the Nature and Necessity of Conversion . . . labouring in the mean Time to sound the Trumpet of God’s Judgments . . . While I lived in the place aforesaid, I don’t remember that there was any great ingathering of Souls at any one Time; but thro’ Mercy there were pretty frequent Gleanings of a few here and there, which in the whole were a considerable Number. . . .

"The Beginner of the Great Work”

Frelinghuysen’s labors are an important source of the Great Awakening. The great English evangelist George Whitefield (pronounced “Wit—field”), who preached in New Brunswick, was pleased to mention Frelinghuysen and others who had prepared the way for his own efforts and the great response he found:

Among those who came to hear the Word, were several ministers, whom the Lord has been pleased to honour, in making them instruments of bringing many sons to Glory. One was a Dutch Calvinistic minister, named Freeling Housen, pastor of a congregation about four miles from New Brunswick. He is a worthy old soldier of Jesus Christ, and was the beginner of the great work which I trust the Lord is carrying on in these parts. He has been strongly opposed by his carnal brethren. . . .

Unfortunately, we actually know little of Frelinghuysen’s work. Yet, he made several important contributions, and was among the first to give answers to problems that confronted the colonial churches. Through his demand for a conversion experience, and through his strict church discipline, he strengthened the authority of the clergy and thereby the influence of the churches on the American frontier. Although it took him many years to do so, Frelinghuysen, by his strict discipline, developed a responsible church membership that did not fall prey to spiritual indifference.

To strengthen the faith of the converted, he developed private devotional meetings. These meetings were originally organized as private meetings, open only to his converts, but in 1745 they were opened to the public. He made church laymen into lay preachers; during his frequent absences from his congregations, he appointed one or two elders to conduct the services, and this grew into having them preach.

The awakening that took place under Frelinghuysen’s ministry was not large in numbers, but his numerous contributions in shaping a ministry concerned with religious renewal give him an important place in American history among the promoters of spiritual awakenings. He was a herald of the great work of God that lit up New Jersey and the other Middle and New England colonies in 1740. He lived to see the day, and died eight years later in 1748. CH

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #23 in 1989]

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