|Jonathan Edwards was a leading figure in the Great Awakening of the 1740s.|
by Rev. John Van Epps
HARTFORD (09/26/2012) -- The theme of our General Association gathering for ministers this month was “Revivals.” That may seem to be more appropriate for evangelicals or Pentecostals. Revivals, however, are part of our tradition. In our church histories are many references to revivals, outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and refreshings of the Spirit.
One of the first leaders of revivals in our state was the itinerant preacher George Whitefield in the 1740s. Jonathan Edwards is prominent as a leader of the “Great Awakening” in the 1740s, and especially his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Church leaders estimated that about a third of our clergy favored this new revivalism for their churches. Eventually this spirit waned, and even Edwards was dismissed from his church in Northampton.
Then in the 1790s came a revival of this spirit with the Second Awakening. Leaders in this movement were Jonathan Edwards, Jr., and Timothy Dwight, president of Yale. This saw a division among our churches between Old Lights and New Lights. Old Lights favored the more rational, academic approach of many of our churches. The New Lights advocated the evangelical approach of the revival spirit. This split churches and associations, many of whom trace their origins to this division. Another leader was the evangelist Ashahel Nettleton from Killingworth, who preached in Connecticut and New York.
|Touchstones with History -- a monthly series from the Connecticut Conference UCC.|
Another great evangelist was Charles Finney, called “the father of modern revivalism.” He began his ministry in the 1820s and preached throughout the Northeast. Initially he faced resistance from settled pastors. His contemporary Lyman Beecher was well known for his dramatic and emotional approach to preaching, yet Beecher said he would meet Finney at the border of New England and fight him all the way to Boston! However, the two men met in 1827, and by 1831 Lyman Beecher invited Finney to preach at his church in Boston.
There’s another intriguing aspect of this emphasis on evangelism and revivals. This emphasis did not lead to a withdrawal from the world or social concerns. Rather it was these New Light preachers who were at the forefront of the movements for social reform. This is exemplified by Lyman Beecher in Litchfield and Jonathan Edwards, Jr., at what is now United Church in New Haven, among many others. These New Light preachers became active in movements for social reform, temperance, and eventually the abolition of slavery. Their successors, like Washington Gladden, became active in the Social Gospel of the late 1800s.
So revivals and evangelism are part of our heritage.
The Rev. John Van Epps is Archivist of the Connecticut Conference.