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August 23, 2022 12:01 am
Many in Puritan New England were confident that the future of the church was one of increasing glory and success. All the while, few were concerned about dangerous ideas infiltrating the church. Today, W. Robert Godfrey examines this tension.
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With the church faces challenging times it responds in different ways. Take for example the early 19th century, so we may look back at the Puritan times in New England and say will look at the internal tensions look at the difficulties look at the struggles that's not what they were focused on. They were focused on their confidence that they would overcome these problems and the church would become ever more glorious and successful on earth. Sometimes the people living through a period in history. Commencing the significance of the careful, we can look back and see how the tumult of an arrow shape the world. That's why Dr. W.
Robert Godfrey taught the series American Presbyterians and revival with the advantage of hindsight we hope to see our own time more clearly. Dr. Godfrey end of our last time together. I noted that at the time of the American Revolution, 1776 probably 90% of the American colonial population that had any religious commitment were committed to a vision of Protestantism that was basically Calvinistic.
That would include the Anglicans we need to remember that in the 18 century Anglicans had 39 articles that were their confession of faith. That was a Calvinistic statement.
They had a liturgy written by Thomas Cranmer had been a Calvinist, and it was a basically Calvinist liturgy and all the although the Puritans had criticisms of Anglicanism to improve it and make it better. It surely ranks as one of the reformed communities of faith, and I when you have been to the Anglicans in the Dutch reformed and others with the Puritans. You have 90% of the religious life in America in 1776, dominated by Calvinism. So what happened, how did things change so much from this broad consensus of Calvinism and to a broad consensus that the church ought to be established and supported by the state to quite a new world. By the time of the writing of the Constitution and the formation of the American Republic.
That's what we want to begin to look out part of what changed. As I said last time was the influence of Enlightenment thought about to have particularly manifested itself in some of the founding fathers in America as we call them of the of the American Constitution, who had moved away from Christianity to a form of religion called deism they believed in God. They believed that God had created the world, but they tended to believe that God had then left the world to run itself and we were significantly on our own as human beings that God didn't intervene.
He didn't intervene miraculously, he didn't intervene by the work of Christ or the Holy Spirit to make us different and they tried to sound as Christian as they could.
So we would praise Jesus as a great moral teacher, but they had moved away from plaster, Christianity, and of that enlightenment.
Emphasis was becoming an increasing influence on thinking in various parts of American life in the 18 century of the church that the Calvinistic churches, particularly the churches in New England. The Puritan churches were not overly alarmed at this development it. It's always interesting what people in any given moment see as the important things going on in their own time and very often we miss the really important things going on in our time and focus on other things that are not as important part of the reason that the Puritans were not greatly alarmed is that they were all committed to an eschatology that we call post-millennial post-millennial eschatology says that over time things will get better and better in the life of the church that over time the church will be more and more successful and more and more influential, and therefore if we hit bumps in the road if we have difficult times, we don't need to overly worry about that because the future belongs to us as Christians, not just in terms of the return of Christ to make all things new.
But in history itself.
Christ will be building his church in a way that the church will succeed. Wasn't the promise to Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in him and that continued to be the expectation for the apostles set out to make disciples of all nations, so there was this sense that Christ would be building his church in and through nations and that the future would be good. This came to classic expression in the what is known as the Savoy declaration of 1658. You will remember it well. This was the Puritan Congregationalist revision of the Westminster confession of faith and in this revision, they changed what the Westminster confession had said about the church and the future to express more clearly there post-millennial expectation. So this is the Savoy declaration that many of the Puritans in New England would've embraced and this is what it says, as the Lord is in care and love towards his church hath in his infinite wise providence exercised it with great variety in all ages for the good of them that love him and his own glory.
So, according to his promise. We expect that in the latter days antichrist being destroyed, which meant the Pope when the Pope was destroyed when the Jews are called there was an expectation of a large conversion of Jews in the future when the adversaries of the kingdom of his dear son are broken.
The churches of Christ being enlarged and edified through our free and plentiful communication of light and grace shall enjoy in this world a more quiet, peaceable and glorious condition, then they have enjoyed. So this is their confidence that the future for the church in history will be more glorious than it's been things are going to get better so we may look back at the Puritan times in New England and say will look at the internal tensions look at the difficulties look at the struggles look at the changing world that surrounds them. That's not what they were focused on.
They were focused on their confidence that they would overcome these problems and the church would become ever more glorious and successful and influential on earth, so that confidence actually will stay with the church right into the 19th century will come back talk about that later, but this confidence then seemed to be for many powerfully reinforced in the middle of the 18th century by the coming of what was known as the great awakening the great awakening was one of the most profound and influential moments in the history of America and it to largely took place in the 1740s and the two most famous names associated with great awakening are Jonathan Edwards who was a a a pastor and a preacher and a theologian. She his preaching was used in the great awakening to lead many to renewed interest in Christ and he became the great theologian of the great awakening, talking about what was happening and in how it should be understood that even greater preacher of the great awakening was George Whitfield George Whitfield and Englishman and Calvinist.
So here you have this this great spiritual awakening taking place many people coming to hear preaching many people feeling they were regenerated by the preaching many people coming to to think more seriously about religious matters and seemingly the awakening being very much what was expected in terms of a post-millennial view of the future.
The other maybe these problems yes the churches seem to be weakening in their influence in a variety of ways. And now comes this great revival. Look at all the people interested in religion. Awakening was a technical Puritan term. Speaking of people who had been asleep and I'm interested in religious matters, and now been awakened to interest in religious matters. It didn't necessarily mean they were regenerated, but it meant that they had interest, suddenly religion where they never had it before and and this happened throughout the colonies in the South as well as in New England and this shook the whole fabric, intellectually, religiously, culturally, in America it it it dominated life in the 1740s. For many, many people and many Puritans including Jonathan Edwards thought that this was, if not the beginning of the glory days of the church, at least in anticipation that these glory days were coming and I think we can say that although the great awakening itself only lasted six or seven years. It remained for decades thereafter, certainly well into the 19th century in it remained the model of what people hope for what people prayed for what people expected the whole idea of longing for revival was very much reinforced by the great awakening and continued in America through the 19th and 20th century. You can really say a lot of ways. Billy Graham was an expression of this kind of expectation. How will God work in America while healed often work through a powerful preacher that will gather the attention of the whole country and the anticipation as it may be that God will use him to completely revive the country now. By the time the Billy Graham. There wasn't so much post-millennial expectation anymore, but there was still a notion that God works through revivals and through special events and special preachers and special moments and that was all very much modeled for four American Christians by the great awakening, and it enabled many Puritans to think our basic outlook is right were we don't face any fundamental changes taking place in society because Christ is going to build his church and glorify his church in history and were at the center of so they didn't see that, in point of fact, Imperial Christianity in America was coming to an end. It was coming to an end and the great awakening.
In some ways, marked the transition of many of the people living at the time didn't see that Jonathan Edwards still lived in a world where the Congregational church in New England was established there was still the legal church. It was still the government supported church that would continue into the 19th century. We as Americans usually forget that because the Constitution says the Congress shall make no laws establishing religion and that was to stop the Congress from interfering with Episcopalians in Virginia and Congregationalists in Massachusetts establishment in states continued sometimes for a decade or two.
End of the 19th century and eventually all ended but the Constitution didn't and it in the states themselves made those decisions. So, still in the 18 century many Puritans could believe nothing fundamental was changing, but great changes were taking place and the greatest change that the, the, the great awakening marked was a shift from religion being dominated in America by the clergy to religion being dominated in America by the laity and again that wasn't a shift that was broadly as observed immediately, and it was not immediately recognized, although some of the Puritan critics of the great awakening. There were some Puritans in New England who didn't like the awakening they thought it was too emotional. They thought it wasn't rational enough it was. It was dangerous and hits explosive emotional dimensions and part of what they were concerned about.
They said it's going to undermine the old standing order of the influence of ministers and turns out, although on a lot of religious matters, they won't write these critics.
They were right about that, up until the great awakening in America. And of course the signal shift overnight. But up until the great awakening in America.
If you are a layperson you would be inclined to say when religious questions came up while the ministers will know that the ministers will lead us in what we ought to believe what we ought to do, how we ought to practice religion. There was a confidence in the ministry there was a hesitancy to criticize the ministers and you know this discontinued, perhaps longer, and in the Dutch Reformed Church is in my background than was true and Presbyterian churches which are more Americanized early, but many Dutch reformed people go to churches.
I will, the minister must know about that. I'm I got supposed to criticize the minister.
My partner remember back in the 70s still a preacher in a Dutch Reformed Church would sometimes hear.
I've really like that sermon. I know I shouldn't say that. And sometimes just preachers and say why shouldn't you say that will if I can tell you it's a good sermon this week. I could tell you it's a bad sermon next week and that's not my place no see that's on the American attitude dollars and nothing is more likely that a layperson who look, a minister in the eye and say that's a bad sermon. What's the matter with you. That shift of attitude really can be traced very much for the great awakening and can always be traced to one single document the danger of an unconverted ministry which said to laypeople. You have to figure out if your minister is converted there ministers out there who are not converted there like caterpillars. They go around looking for every green thing to devour it wherever there's life they're opposed to, we see that the dramatic shift before the great awakening. Most American Christians are very content to go to their neighboring church, think, think. What church you go to if you went to the church nearest to where you live, you might be alarmed at the thought. After the great awakening laypeople were told they had the responsibility to figure out where should they go to church will if some of the ministers are unconverted. You can't just go to your minister escorting a church you have to have a whole new responsibility placed on you responsibility. That's an individual responsibility suddenly religion becomes much more individual in its focus and responsibility that is focused on the laity in a way that had never been true before and note this is a shift taking place that is very much in harmony with the spirit of the age generally in the coming of the American Revolution the American Constitution does end Imperial Christianity in America, and it reflects a growing reliance upon individuals who will vote now. It's not radically modern because not everybody in America could vote according to the Constitution. Women can vote. Children can vote. Slaves couldn't vote. Only men of a certain age could vote, who were not slaves, and so it isn't a completely radical democratization in the individualization of American life, but associate shift.
It's a huge shift away from the world in which Europeans lived now. I raise the question why does Calvinism seem to lose so much of its influence if if 90% of Americans were in some broad sense Calvinistic at the time of the revolution 1776, what happened you may have noticed 90% of Americans today are not Calvinists, I'd want to shock you or disillusion you but is true. It's only maybe 85 will know what what happened well. Part of what happened is that after the excitement of the great awakening in the 1740s. The attention of lots of Americans was colonists them was drawn away from religion to politics in the decades after the 1740s more and more political issues were being raised leading up to the American Revolution, so Americans were distracted we could say and in fact churches were weakened.
Church attendance was weakened in America because so much energy and time and consideration was being given to the matter of the revolution. After the revolution. It was a new world not radically new world, but a new world, a world now that didn't look primarily to England for for life for direction for news for what was important but now a new country had been formed a new sense of connection had taken place. The great awakening contributed to that because when the great awakening was taking place people in Massachusetts asked what's going on in Virginia, religiously what's going on in the Carolinas religiously in the Virginia so what's going on in New York is somebody actually believing in New York that was questionable but up in Massachusetts and New England there was there was a great stirring and so suddenly people were not just looking back to England for news they're looking north and south for news in the colonies and help create a sense of connection and identity before that you are first of all, a Virginian and then an Englishman or your first of all, a Massachusetts site whenever they are and an Englishman, but now suddenly you're an American you're part of a public colonial connection and that led the way to revolution led the way to a new world, and it led the way to a sense of a whole new experiment.
A whole new experiment and while Imperial Christianity had come to an end in the country as a whole. The country as a whole remained decidedly Christian in its culture in its orientation in its thought and what happens in America is significantly different from what happened in Europe at the same. Late 18th century on, into the 19th century in Europe in many places the church remained established the maintained its wealth it maintained its institutional life. It maintained the very visible presence of its buildings. It maintained a clergy that was educated and well supported by the state, but it was an institution cut off from the people in many ways increased increasingly in Europe. Christianity wasn't really popular.
It wasn't grounded in the convictions and the life and the belief of the people in America, it became clear by the end of the 18 century that the church needed to be connected to the people and the church didn't become connected to the people because of this shift from the great awakening towards laypeople feeling they needed to be involved to make decisions to be active in directing the whole life of the church. Many churches in Europe and we could see the result of that today even more clearly many churches in Europe could continue to flourish in the sense of having buildings and clergy, with nobody attending because all the bills were paid by the state in America.
The state was going to pay many church bills. If you're going to survive. You had to have people coming to make voluntary contributions to support the life of the church.
This is the new world.
This is the new world of post-Imperial Christianity in America and we want to, next time start to look at what that is really like and how it influences the reformed were the Puritans overconfident.
They certainly didn't seem to be overly alarmed by the Enlightenment thinkers who were having so much influence, should they refuted their ideas more soundly. These are the kinds of questions we begin to ask when we study church history, and they help us evaluate our own churches today Dr. Robert Godfrey series American Presbyterians and revival is our focus this week on Renewing Your Mind in 11 messages we learn how reformed churches of the 19th century thought through theological controversies, cultural tensions and even Civil War. We will send you the two DVDs when you contact us with a donation of any amount today. You can call us at 800-435-4343 or you can make a request firstname.lastname@example.org and when you make your request, we will add a digital copy of the study guide to your online learning library just request American Presbyterians and revival by Dr. Robert Godfrey enters a preview of tomorrow's lesson, almost from the beginning of the growth of Presbyterianism in 18th century America. The Presbyterians had to face the fact they were not going to be in charge and they were not going to want the civil government then to enforce what the civil government would be inclined to enforce as true religion. American Christians were quite different from what these Scottish immigrants were used to.
Dr. Godfrey will show is how they dealt with those differences tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind.
I hope you'll join us