Chapter IV a

The State of Religion Before the Revival In the Presbyterian Church

That there had been a lamentable declension in religion both in Great Britain and in this country, is universally acknowledged by the writers of this period. The Rev. Samuel Blair, speaking of the state of religion in Pennsylvania at that time, says : “I doubt not but there were some sincerely religious persons up and down: and there were, I believe, a considerable number in several congre­gations pretty exact, according to their education, in the observance of the external forms of religion, not only as to attendance upon public ordinances on the Sabbath, but also as to the practice of family worship, and perhaps secret prayer too; but with those things, the most part seemed, to all appearance, to rest contented, and to satisfy their conscience with a dead formality in religion. A very lamentable ignorance of the essentials of true practical reli­gion, and of the doctrines relating thereto, very generally prevailed. The nature and necessity of the new‑birth were little known or thought of; the necessity of a conviction of sin and misery, by the holy Spirit opening and applying the law to the conscience, in order to a saving closure with Christ, was hardly known at all to most. The necessity of being first in Christ by a vital union and in a justified state, before our religious services can be well pleasing or acceptable to God, was very little understood or thought of; but the common notion seemed to be, that if people were aiming to be in the way of duty as well as they could, as they imagined, there was no reason to be much afraid.” In consequence of this igno­rance of the nature of practical religion, there were, he adds, great carelessness and indifference about the things of eternity ; great coldness and unconcern in public worship; a disregard of the Sabbath, and prevalence of worldly amusements and follies.

In 1734, the Synod of Philadelphia found it necessary to issue a serious admonition to the presbyteries to examine candidates for the ministry and for admission to the Lord’s supper, “as to their experience of a work of sanctifying grace in their hearts ; and to inquire regularly into the life, conversation, and ministerial dili­gence of their members, especially as to whether they preached in an evangelical and fervent manner ?” This admonition shows that there was a defect as to all these points, on the part of at least some of the members of the Synod.

In 1740, Messrs. Gilbert Tennent and Samuel Blair presented two representations, complaining of “many defects in our ministry,” that are, say the Synod, “matter of the greatest lamentation, if chargeable upon our members. The Synod do therefore solemnly admonish all the ministers within our bounds, seriously to consider the weight of their charge, and, as they will answer it at the great day of Christ, to take care to approve themselves to God, in the instances complained of. And the Synod do recommend it to the several presbyteries to take came of their several members in these particulars.

In these papers, which will be noticed more at length in the fol­lowing chapter, complaint is made of the want of fidelity and zeal in preaching the gospel, and in the discharge of other ministerial duties; and the strong conviction is expressed that many of the members of the Synod were in an unconverted state. It is true indeed that such general complaints might be uttered now, or at almost any period of the church, and that of themselves they give us but little definite information of the character of the clergy. When or where might it not be said, that many of the preachers of the Gospel were too worldly in their conversation, too little urgent, discriminating, and faithful in their preaching? That these faults, however, prevailed at the period under consideration, to a greater extent than usual, there is little reason to doubt. Mr. Thompson, in his answer to these charges, says, with respect to the complaint, ” concerning the low state of religion and experimental godliness, and the influence which the negligence and remissness of ministers in the duties of their office have upon the same, I acknowledge that I believe there is too much ground for it, and that it is just, matter of mourning and lamentation to all who have the welfare of Zion and the prosperity of souls at heart; yea., I am firmly persuaded that our barrenness and fruitlessness under the means of grace, the decay of vital godliness in both ministers and people, our too great contentedness with a lifeless lukewarm orthodoxy of profession, is one principal evil whereby our God hath been provoked against us, to suffer us to fall into such divisions and confusions as we are visibly involved in.” He makes the same acknowledgment with regard to some of the more specific charges. In reference to that respecting their talking to the people more about secular matters than about religion, he says: ” I may charge myself in particular with being guilty of misimproving many a precious opportunity that might have been improved to much better purpose for edifica­tion of myself and others. Yet I hope the generality of us are not degenerate to that desperate degree in this matter as to prove us altogether graceless; or to give our hearers just ground to be­lieve that we do not desire them to be deeply and heartily concerned about their eternal estate.” As to the more serious charge of “endeavouring to prejudice people against the work of God’s power and grace in the conviction and conversion of sinners,” he pro­nounces it to be, as far as he knows, “a downright calumny.” “It is true,” he adds, ” there are some things in our brethren’s conduct which we cannot but condemn, and have condemned and spoken against both in public and private; and some things also which are the frequent effects of their preaching on many of their hearers which we cannot esteem so highly of, as both they and their admirers do.” He then refers to their censoriousness, to their endeavours to prejudice their people against them as unconverted, their intruding into other men’s congregations against their will, and the extravagances which they allowed and encouraged in public worship. He also denies the charge, that they insisted on external duties to the “neglect of vital religion and the necessity of regene­ration ;” and the assertion that they “seldom or never preached on the nature and necessity of conversion,” he declares to be another slander taken up from prejudiced persons.

It is worthy of remark that neither Mr. Tennent nor Mr. Blair, when professedly bringing forward grounds of complaint against their brethren, mentions either the denial of any of the leading doctrines of the Bible, or open immorality. It is not to be doubted, that had error or immoral conduct prevailed, or been tolerated among the clergy, it would have been prominently presented. We know, however, from other sources, that there was no prevalent defection from the truth among the ministers of our church. The complaint against the old‑side was, that they adhered too rigidly to the Westminster Confession ; and the theology of every leading man on the new‑side, is known from his writings, to have been thoroughly Calvinistic. There is not a single minister of that age in connection with our church, whose name has come down to us under the suspicion of Arminianism. False doctrine, therefore, was not the evil under which the church then suffered. It was rather a coldness and sluggishness with regard to religion. There was, undoubtedly, before the revival, a general indifference and lukewarmness among the clergy and people; and there is too much reason to fear, that in some cases the ministers, though orthodox, knew nothing of experimental religion. These cases were indeed not so numerous as the representations of Tennent would lead us to expect, as he himself afterwards freely acknowledged.

The State of Religion Before the Revival in New England, Scotland, and England

As far, then, as the Presbyterian Church is concerned, the state of religion was very low before the commencement of the great revival. As that work extended over the whole country, and was perhaps more general and powerful in New England than any where else, in order to have any just idea of its character, our attention mint be directed to the congregational churches, as well as to those of our own denomination. After the first generation of Puritans had passed away, religion seems to have declined very rapidly, so that the writings of those who had seen what the churches in New England were at the beginning, are filled with lamentations over their subsequent condition, and with gloomy prognostications as to the future. As early as 1678, Dr. Increase blather says, ” The body of the rising generation is a poor, perishing, unconverted, and (unless the Lord pour down his Spirit) an undone generation. Many are profane, drunkards, swearers, lascivious, scoffers at the power of godliness, despisers of those that are good, disobedient. Others are only civil and outwardly conformed to good order by reason of their education, but never knew what the new birth means.” In 1721, he writes thus: “I am now in the eighty­third year of my age ; and having had an opportunity to converse with the first planters of this country, and having been for sixty­five years a preacher of the Gospel, I cannot but be in the dispo­sition of those ancient men, who had seen the foundation of the first house, and wept to see the change the work of the temple had upon it. I wish it were no other than the weakness of Horace’s old man, the laudator temporis acti, when I complain there is a grievous decay of piety in the land, and a leaving of her first love ; and that the beauties of holiness are not to be seen as once they were ; a fruitful Christian grown too rare a spectacle ; yea, too many are given to change, and leave that order of the Gospel to set up and uphold which, was the very design of these colonies; and the very interest of New England seems to be changed from a religious to a worldly one. “We must, however, be on our guard against drawing false conclusions from such statements. We should remember how high was the standard of piety which such writers had in view, and how peculiarly flourishing was the original condi­tion of those churches whose declension is here spoken of. There may have been, and doubtless was much even in that age, over which we, in these less religious days, would heartily rejoice. What was decay to them, would be revival to us. The declension, how­ever, did not stop at this stage. The generation which succeeded that over which Increase blather mourned, departed still further from the doctrines and spirit of their pious ancestors. “The third and fourth generations,” says Trumbull, “became still more gene­rally inattentive to their spiritual concerns, and manifested a greater declension from the purity and zeal of their ancestors. Though the preaching of the Gospel was not altogether without success, and though there were tolerable peace and order in the churches; yet there was too generally a great decay as to the life and power of godliness. There was a general ease and security in sin. Abun­dant were the lamentations of pious ministers and good people poured out before God, on this account.” As a single example of such lamentations, we may quote the account of the state of religion in Taunton, in 1740, as given by the Rev. Mr. Crocker. “The church was but small, considering the number of inhabitants; and deadness, dullness, formality, and security prevailed among them. Any who were wise virgins (and I trust there were a few such) appeared to be slumbering and sleeping with the foolish ; and sin­ners appeared to be at ease in Zion. In a word, it is to be feared there was but little of the life or power of godliness among them, and irreligion and immorality of one kind or another seemed awfully to increase.”

The defection from sound doctrine was also very extensive at this period; an evil which the revival but partially arrested, and that only for a few years. Edwards speaks of Arminianism as making a great noise in the land in 1734, and his biographer says, there was a prevailing tendency to that system, at that time, not only in the county of Hampshire, but throughout the province. This tendency was not confined to Massachusetts ; it was as great, if not greater, in Connecticut. President Clapp, though himself a Calvinist, was elected to the presidency of Vale College in 1739, “by a board of trustees exclusively Arminian, and all his asso­ciates in office held the same tenets.” We know not on what authority this specific statement rests, but it is rendered credible by other facts ; such, for example, as the ordination of Mr. Whittle­sey at Milford, notwithstanding the strenuous opposition of a large majority of people, founded on the belief “that he was not sound in the faith, but had imbibed the opinions of Arminius ;” in which matter the ordaining council were fully sustained by the Associa­tion of New Haven.

In Scotland there had been a general decay in the power of re­ligion from the revolution in 1688 to the time of which we are now speaking. In 1712 Halyburton complained, upon his death‑bed, of the indifference to the peculiarities of the gospel and to the power of godliness which prevailed among a great portion of the clergy. There had indeed been no general defection from the truth; though the lenity with which the Assembly treated the errors of Professor Simson of Glasgow, and Professor Campbell of Aberdeen, is appealed to by the Seceders, in their Act and Testimony of 1736, with too much reason, in proof of a criminal indifference to the doctrines of the church. Though there had been extensive revivals in the West of Scotland in 1725, and a most remarkable effusion of the Spirit at the kirk of Shotts in 1730, as well as in other parts of the kingdom, the general state of religion was low, and upon the decline.

In England the case was far worse. From the accession of Charles II. in 1660 and the exclusion of the non‑conformists, true religion seems to have declined rapidly in the established church. Bishop Butler says, in his Introduction to his Analogy, that in his day Christianity itself seemed to be regarded as a fable “among all persons of discernment;” and in his first charge to the clergy

of the diocess of Durham he laments over “the general decay of religion in the nation,” the influence of which, he says, seems to be wearing out the minds of men. Before the rise of the Me­thodists, says John Newton, ” the doctrines of grace were seldom heard from the pulpit, and the life and power of religion were little known.”