Chapter IV d

The State of Religion After the Revival

That the state of religion did rapidly decline after the revival, we have abundant and melancholy evidence. Even as early as 1744, President Edwards says, “the present state of things in New England is, on many accounts, very melancholy. There is a vast alteration within two years.” God, he adds, was provoked at the spiritual pride and self‑confidence of the people, and withdrew from them, and “the enemy has come in like a flood in various respects, until the deluge has overwhelmed the whole land. There had been from the beginning a great mixture, especially in some places, of false experiences and false religion with true; but from this time the mixture became much greater, and many were led away into sad delusions.” In another letter, dated May 23, 1749, he says, “as to the state of religion in these parts of the world, it is, in general, very dark and melancholy.” In the preceding October, when writing to Mr. Erskine of Edinburgh, he communicates to him an extract from a letter to himself, from Governor Belcher of New Jersey, who says, “The accounts which I receive from time to time, give me too much reason to fear that Arminianism, Arian­ism, and even Socinianism, in destruction to the doctrines of grace, are daily propagated in the New England colleges.” In 1750, he writes to Mr. McCulloch in the following melancholy strain: “It is indeed now a sorrowful time on this side of the ocean. Iniquity abounds, and the love of many waxes cold. Multitudes of fair and high professors, in one place or another, have sadly backslidden, sinners are desperately hardened; experimental religion is more than ever out of credit with far the greater part ; and the doc­trines of grace and those principles in religion which do chiefly concern the power of godliness, are far more than ever discarded. Arminianism and Pelagianism have made a strange progress within a few years. The Church of England in New England, is, I sup­pose, treble what it was seven years ago. Many professors are gone off to great lengths in enthusiasm and extravagance in their notions and practices. Great contentions, separations, and con­fusions in our religious state prevail in many parts of the land.” In 1752, in a letter to Mr. Gillespie, relating to his difficulties with his congregation, he says, “It is to be considered that these things have happened when God is greatly withdrawn, and religion was very low, not only in Northampton, but all over New England.” The church in Stonington, Connecticut, was torn to pieces by fanaticism, and a separate congregation erected. The excellent pastor of that place, the Rev. Mr. Fish, a warm friend of the revival, exerted himself hi vain to stem the torrent ; “and other ministers,” he says, “that came to our help carried on the same design of cor­recting the false notions which new converts had embraced about religion; particularly the late judicious and excellent Mr. David Brainerd, who, in this desk, exposed and remonstrated against the same errors, and told me that such false religion as prevailed among my people, had spread almost all the land over.”

That false doctrines increasingly prevailed after the revival, is strongly asserted in the letter of Edwards already quoted. Other proofs of the fact might easily be adduced. The Rev. John Gra­ham, in a sermon preached in 1745, complains that many had gone forth who preached not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who denied the doctrines of personal election, of original sin, of justi­fication by the perfect righteousness of Christ, imputed by an act of sovereign grace; instantaneous regeneration by the divine energy of special irresistible grace ; and of the final perseverance of the saints. “The Pelagian and Arminian errors,” he adds, “can­not but be exceedingly pleasing to the devil; and such as preach them most successfully, are the greatest instruments of supporting his kingdom in the world, and his dominion in the hearts of men. What necessity is then laid upon ministers of the gospel, who see what danger precious souls are in by the spread and prevalence of such pernicious errors, which are like a fog or smoke, sent from the bottomless pit on purpose to prevent the shining of the gospel sun into the hearts of men, to be very close and strict in searching into the principles of such as are candidates for the sacred minis­try.”

Somewhat later, President Clap found it necessary, on account of the increasing prevalence of error, to write a formal defence of the doctrines of the New England churches. The leading features of the new divinity, of which he complained, were, 1. That the happiness of the creature is the great end of creation. 2. That self‑love is the ultimate foundation of all moral obligation. 3. That God cannot control the acts of free agents. 4. That he can­not certainly foreknow, much less decree such acts. 5. That all sin consists in the voluntary transgression of known law; that Adam was not created in a state of holiness, but only had a power to act virtuously; and every man is now born into the world in as perfect a state of rectitude as that in which Adam was created. 6. The actions of moral agents are not free, and consequently have no moral character, unless such agents have plenary ability and full power to the contrary. Hence it is absurd to suppose that God should implant grace or holiness in any man, or keep him from sin. 7. Christ did not die to make satisfaction for sin, and hence there is no need to suppose him to be essentially God, but only a perfect and glorious creature. No great weight ought to be laid upon men’s believing Christ’s divinity, or any of those spe­culative points which have been generally received as the peculiar and fundamental doctrines of the gospel; but we ought to have charity for all men, let their speculative principles be what they may, provided they lead moral lives. These doctrines were a great advance on the Arminian or even Pelagian errors over which President Edwards lamented, and show what might indeed be ex­pected, that the churches had gone from bad to worse.

This is certainly a gloomy picture of the state of religion so soon after a revival, regarded as the most extensive the country had ever known. It is drawn not by the enemies, but in a great measure by the best and wisest friends of religion. The preceding account, it is true, relates principally to New England. In the Presbyterian Church the same rapid decline of religion does not appear to have taken place. In 1752, President Edwards, in a letter to Mr. McCulloch, says, “As to the state of religion in America, I have little to write that is comfortable, but there seem to be better appearances in some of the other colonies than in New England.” He specifies particularly New Jersey and Virginia. And we know from other sources that, while the cause of truth and piety was declining in the Eastern States, the Presbyterian Church, especially that portion of it in connection with the Synod of New York, was increasing and flourishing. With regard to orthodoxy, at least, there was little cause of complaint. The only instance on record, during this whole period, of the avowal of Arminian sentiments by a Presbyterian minister, was that of the Rev. Mr. Harker, of the Presbytery of New Brunswick; and he was sus­pended from the ministry as soon as convicted.

This low state of religion, and extensive departure from the truth, in that part of the country where the revival had been most extensive, is certainly prima facie proof that there must have been something very wrong in the revival itself. It may, however, be said, that the decay of religion through the land generally, is perfectly consistent with the purity of the revival and the flourishing state of those particular churches which had experienced its influence. The facts of the case, unfortunately, do not allow us the benefit of this assumption. It is no doubt true, that in some congregations, as in that of Hebron, mentioned by Trumbull, religion was in a very desirable state, in the midst of the general decline; but it is no less certain, that in many instances, in the very places where the revival was the most remarkable, the declension was the most serious. Northampton itself may be taken as an illustration. “That church was pre‑eminently a city set upon a hill. Mr. Stoddard, during a remarkably successful ministry, had drawn the at­tention of American Christians for fifty‑seven years. He had also been advantageously known in the mother country. Mr. Edwards had been their minister for twenty‑three years. In the respect paid to him as a profound theological writer, he had no competitor from the first establishment of the colonies, and even then, could scarcely find one in England or Scotland. He had also as high a reputation for elevated and fervent piety as for superiority of talents. During the preceding eighty years, that church had been favoured with more numerous and powerful revivals than any church in Christendom.” This account, though given in the characteristically large style of Edwards’s biographer, is no doubt in the main correct. Here then, if any where, we might look for the most favourable results of the revival. During the religious excitement in the years 1734 and 1735, within six months, more than three hundred persons, whom Edwards regarded as true converts, were received into the church. In 1736, the whole number of communicants was six hundred and twenty, including almost the whole adult population of the town. The revival of 1740-2, was considered still more pure and wonderful. What was the state of religion in this highly favoured place, soon after all these revivals? In the judgment of Edwards himself it was deplorably low, both as to Christian temper and adherence to sound doctrine. In 1744, when an attempt was made to administer discipline somewhat inju­diciously, it is true, as to the manner of doing it, it was strenuously resisted. The whole town was thrown into a blaze. Some of the accused “refused to appear; others, who did appear, behaved with a great degree of insolence, and contempt for the au­thority of the church, and little or nothing could be done further in the affair.” From 1744 to 1748, not a single application was made for admission to the church. In 1749, when it became known that Edwards had adopted the opinion that none ought to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper but such as gave satisfactory evidence of conversion, “the town was put into a great ferment ; and before he was heard in his own defence, or it was known by many what his principles were, the general cry was to have him dismissed.” That diversity of opinion between a pastor and his people on such a practical point, should lead to a desire for a separation, might not be very discreditable to either party. But when it is known that on this occasion the church treated such a man as Edwards, who not only was an object of veneration to the Christian public, but who behaved in the most Christian manner through the whole controversy, with the greatest injustice and malignity, it must be regarded as proof positive of the low state of religion among them. They refused to allow him to preach on the subject in dispute; they pertinaciously resisted the calling of a fair council to decide the matter ; they insisted on his dismission without making any provision for his expensive family; and when his dismission had taken place, they shut their pulpit against him, even when they had no one else to occupy it. On the unfounded suspicion that he intended to form a new church in the town, they presented a remonstrance containing direct, grievous, and criminal charges against him, which were really gross slanders. This was not the offence of a few individuals. Almost the whole church took part against Edwards. Such treatment of such a man certainly proves a lamentable state of religion, as far as Christian temper is concerned. With regard to orthodoxy the case was not much better. Edwards in a letter to Erskine, in 1750, says, there seemed to be the utmost danger that the younger generation in Northampton would be carried away with Arminianism as with a flood ; that it was not likely that the church would choose a Cal­vinist as his successor, and that the older people were never so in­different to things of this nature.

The explanation which has been proposed of these extraordinary facts, is altogether unsatisfactory. It is said that the custom which had long prevailed in Northampton, of admitting those to the Lord’s Supper who gave no sufficient evidence of conversion, sufficiently accounts for all this ill conduct on the part of the church. But where were the three hundred members whom Edwards regarded as “savingly brought home to Christ,” within six months, during the revival of 1734-5 ? Where were all the fruits of the still more powerful revival of 1740-42? The vast majority of the members of the church had been brought in by Edwards him­self, and of their conversion he considered himself as having sufficient evidence. The habit of free admission to the Lord’s table, therefore, by no means accounts for the painful facts above referred to. After all that had been published to the world of the power of religion in Northampton, the Christian public were entitled to expect to see the people established in the truth, and an example in holiness to other churches. Instead of this, we find them resisting the ad­ministration of discipline in less than eighteen months after the revival; alienated from their pastor; indifferent to the truth, and soon driving from among them the first minister of his age, with every aggravating circumstance of ingratitude and injustice. It is all in vain to talk of the religion of such a people. This fact demonstrates that there must have been something wrong in these revivals, even under the eye and guidance of Edwards, from the beginning. There must have been many spurious conversion:, and much false religion which at the time were regarded as genuine. This assumption is nothing more than the facts demand, nor more than Edwards himself frequently acknowledged. There is the most marked difference between those of his writings which were published during the revival, and those which appeared after the excitement had subsided. In the account which he wrote in 1736, of the revival of the two preceding years, there is scarcely an intimation of any dissatisfaction with its character. Yet, in 1743, he speaks of it as having been very far from pure ; and in 1751, he lamented his not having had boldness to testify against some glar­ing false appearances, and counterfeits of religion, which became a dreadful source of spiritual pride, and of other things exceedingly contrary to true Christianity. In like manner, in the contempo­raneous account of the revival of 1740‑42, he complains of no­thing but of some disorders introduced towards the close of the year 1742, from other congregations; whereas, in his letters writ­ten a few years later, he acknowledges that many things were wrong from the first. This is, indeed, very natural. While in the midst of the excitement, seeing and feeling much that he could not but regard as the result of divine influence, he was led to encour­age many things which soon brought forth the bitter fruits of dis­order and corruption. His correspondence affords abundant evi­dence how fully sensible he became of the extent to which this revival was corrupted with false religion. When his Scottish friends had informed him of the religious excitement then prevailing in some parts of Holland, he wrote to Mr. Erskine, June 28, 1751, expressing his anxiety that the people might be led to “distinguish between true and false religion ; between those experiences which are from the saving influence of the Spirit of God, and those which are from Satan transformed into an angel of light.” He wished that they had the experience of the church of God in America, on this subject, as they would need all the warning that could be given them. “The temptation,” he adds, “to religious people in such a state to countenance the glaring, shining counter­feits of religion, without distinguishing them from the reality,” is so strong that they can hardly be restrained from committing the mistake. In reference to the wish of the Dutch ministers to have attestations of the permanently good effects of the revivals in Scot­land and America, he says, “I think it fit they should know the very truth in the case, and that things should be represented neither better nor worse than they are. If they should be represented worse, it would give encouragement to unreasonable opposers ; if better, it might prevent a most necessary caution among the true friends of the awakening. There are, undoubtedly, very many in­stances in New England, in the whole, of the perseverance of such as were thought to have received the saving benefit of the late revivals of religion, and of their continuing to walk in newness of life as becometh saints ; instances which are incontestable. But I believe the proportion here is not so great as in Scotland. I can­not say that the greater portion of the supposed converts give rea­son to suppose, by their conversation, that they are true converts. The proportion may, perhaps, be more truly represented by the proportion of the blossoms on a tree which abide and come to ma­ture fruit, to the whole number of blossoms in the spring.” In another letter, dated Nov. 23, 1752, he expresses his conviction that there was a greater mixture of evil with good in the revival in Holland, than the ministers there supposed ; that the consequences of not distinguishing between true and false religion would prove worse than they had any conception of. He then refers to the history of the revival here, and adds that it is not to be expected that “the divines of Europe would lay very much weight on the admonitions which they received from such an obscure part of the world. Other parts of the church of God must be taught as we have been, and when they see and feel, then they will be­lieve. Not that I apprehend there is in any measure so much en­thusiasm and disorder mixed with the work in Holland, as was in many parts of America, in the time of the last revival of religion here.”