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Half-Way Christianity

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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September 28, 2022 12:01 am

Half-Way Christianity

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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September 28, 2022 12:01 am

Despite its vibrant Puritan roots, the church in early America gradually fell into spiritual decline. What happened? Today, Stephen Nichols examines the factors that led to this decline and the need for revival.

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In the mid-1600s, New England Puritans found themselves in the middle of a theological compromise. The Church began to say this.

You don't need to be regenerate. You don't need to be a member of the pure Church, hence Puritanism, in order to have your child baptized. It is one step towards nominalism, and it is a step away from a faithful Church. When the Puritans first arrived in America, they had a deep evangelical zeal.

They set about translating the Scriptures for the native Algonquin people, and their churches were strong. But over the years, genuine Christianity began to slide. Today on Renewing Your Mind, Dr. Stephen Nichols continues our look at the history of Christianity in America with a message titled, Halfway Christianity. Well, welcome back. Last time we were talking about Puritanism, and it had a lot going for it.

It was so great. And I think as we think about what Puritanism was all about, and we think, well, the next thing on the scene for American Christianity is the first great awakening, well, that naturally brings up the question, why do we need an awakening? If Puritanism has this kind of a theology that's part of it, then why are we talking about the first great awakening? Well, we've got to look at what happens from roughly the 1690s to 1740s when the great awakening comes onto the scene. And what we see in that time period is a decline.

This is going to be the story. It's going to be the story again and again of American Christianity, of a founding of an institution, and then you see decline and drift and eventually apostasy. And you're going to see it happen to institutions, you're going to see it happen to denominations, you're going to see it happen to particular churches.

And so, this is what happens. Well, I want to focus on three things in particular that happened as part of this decline. One of them is that truly unfortunate episode of New England Puritanism, and that would be the Salem Witch Trials. So, this is 1692, 1693. Now, before the Salem Witch Trials, and we have to set this in a context, you have witchcraft and witch trials in Europe. It was part of the Inquisition, and historians estimate that anywhere between 30,000 to 60,000 people were killed as witches across Europe. So, when we talk about the Salem Witch Trials, these didn't happen in a vacuum.

They were part of this larger context. When you talk about witchcraft in New England, there was writing against it. In fact, Increase Mather is going to say, this is the father of Cotton Mather, Increase Mather is going to write about how there's a judgment that could be coming upon the New England colonies because of their tolerating of witchcraft. And so, what happens at Salem? Well, there's a minister's family, and they have a servant in the house.

She is Haitian, her name is Tituba, and she likely is practicing witchcraft. And she involves two of the young daughters, well, one of his young daughters and one of her friends, and they have this experience of convulsions. And so, as this happens and as this comes before the church, it begins the investigation, and it begins the trials. By the time it is over, there are about 19 that are condemned as witches and are put to death there in Salem. One of the judges of this and one of the key figures in this is Samuel Sewell. And Samuel Sewell oversaw the witchcraft trials, but very quickly saw that this was becoming hysteria and getting out of hand. And very quickly after they were over, he had a significant moment of repentance for this and published his Apology. It's a very famous text from the colonial era, Samuel Sewell's Apology.

But as one of those things, it was a little bit late and not enough. And so, much of the damage was done to New England Puritanism through the Salem witch trials. But another thing that contributed another factor here in the declension and really much more significant in terms of the theology of New England is what was called the halfway covenant. Now, to understand this, we have to understand how infant baptism works. So, the way infant baptism works, and I'll take time to explain this again for our Baptist friends so they don't have this challenge to deal with this. This is specifically a Congregationalist and Presbyterian issue that we need to deal with.

But here's what was happening. So, you have this first generation of Puritans. They are baptized as infants, and then they are converted and regenerate. And in the language of Puritanism, they own the covenant, and at their conversion, then they are admitted as full members to the church, and they can have entrance to the Lord's table and participate in communion and the Lord's Supper. But what was happening was, as these people were having children and they were getting baptized as infants, they would grow up and then they would not get converted, and they would remain unregenerate.

But then they would marry, and they'd have kids. And what do the grandparents want to do, right? The grandparents want that grandchild baptized, but there is a significant theological problem. It doesn't skip generations.

It doesn't work that way. It's the children of converts, the children of the regenerate that are baptized, that are part of the covenant community of the church. Well, as you can imagine, as these grandparents were aging and as they were growing in numbers, they had significant influence and significant power.

And they don't want to be told by the church officials that their sweet little grandson or their beautiful little granddaughter could not be baptized. And so, a lot of pressure was applied, and coming out of that is the halfway covenant. And the halfway covenant was a negotiation, a compromise, so that as long as a grandparent was regenerate and a parent was baptized, could be unregenerate, that child could be baptized.

So, they were baptizing infants of unconverted parents. Now, to grasp what's happening here, I want to go back to that expression we used of nominalism. Remember, cultural accommodation leads to nominalism, leads to cultural Christianity. Confessional affirmation leads to conviction, leads to the true church, a countercultural church. What was happening in the halfway covenant was literally a selling of the birthright of Puritan identity. It was a move to nominalism.

It was saying, you don't need to be regenerate. You don't need to be a member of the pure church, hence Puritanism, in order to have your child baptized. As long as you're baptized, that counts, your child can be baptized.

It is one step towards nominalism, and it is a step away from a faithful church. But then, there's this figure Solomon Stoddard. Now, Solomon Stoddard is a huge figure in colonial New England.

He is the minister at First Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. If you want to think of the settlements in colonial New England, you've got the Atlantic Sea Coast as it comes down, and of course, the major city is Boston, and the major church in Boston is First Church, Boston. But then, the second area of settlement was inland, and it was the Connecticut River Valley. So, as that Connecticut River makes its way through Massachusetts, pretty much dissecting it in half, and then coming down into Connecticut, and then veering off towards the Atlantic, along that valley, the river, of course, deposited this beautiful sort of flat land on either side. It was a source of water.

It was a great source of farming, and it was an easy place to settle. So, you've got the Atlantic Coast and the Connecticut River Valley. These are the two main areas, and just as Boston was key over on the Atlantic seaboard, so Northampton, pretty much right smack in the middle of the state, is key for the Connecticut River Valley. And Solomon Stoddard was pastor there for 60 years.

His house was up on the hill, and it sort of blocked the sun as it would shine down upon the town square. And it's almost like a symbol, right, of Stoddard's shadow extending over the town. He was called the Pope of the Connecticut River Valley, and these are Congregationalists. Like, they're the opposite of Roman Catholics, but it just shows Stoddard's stature. And Northampton is the second largest church in the New England colonies, which is to say it's the second largest church in America.

First church Boston, Stoddard. What Stoddard did was Stoddard applied the logic of the halfway covenant, applied to baptism, to the other sacrament that the church is to administer, and that is the Lord's Supper. And Solomon Stoddard called the Lord's Supper a converting ordinance. So, he admitted non-church members, unregenerate, to the Lord's Table, in the belief that they perhaps could be converted by this exposure to this means of grace that is the Lord's Supper.

Now, you see what we're doing. We've negotiated away one sacrament, baptism, with the halfway covenant. Now, we're negotiating the other sacrament, the Lord's Supper, and we are moving again a step more towards nominalism. Now, Stoddard may have had the best of intentions, and in fact, Stoddard was quite the revival preacher. Under his sixty-year tenure, there were no fewer than five specific, what he called, seasons of harvest, where there were many converts coming forward and a remarkable moving of the Spirit of God. So, while that was all happening, he's promoting this vision of the Lord's Supper.

Now, the other thing about Stoddard is we'll hold this and we'll come back to it. He is the maternal grandfather of none other than Jonathan Edwards. And of course, this is the pulpit that Edwards is going to step into as Stoddard's assistant for two brief years before Stoddard dies. And then young Jonathan Edwards, twenty-six years old, steps into the pulpit of the second largest church in the American colonies. Following a guy who had been there for sixty years and following a guy whose house cast a shadow over the church and over Edwards' house, so that Edwards never even saw the sun unless he had to step out of the way of the shadow.

So, we'll come back to that in a moment. But so far, we've got the Salem witch trials, which certainly do not help Puritanism. We've got the halfway covenant and Stoddard's, it was actually called Stoddardianism, his particular view of the Lord's Supper. But there's a third thing, and it's just good old-fashioned materialism.

It is the lore of this world, that jewel, right, that draws our attention away from the things of God. You know, we talk about the Puritans, one of the things we talk about is a Puritan work ethic. They were industrious.

They were inventive. They saw themselves as being gifted by God, and they saw their worship to God as cultivating those gifts and being good stewards of those gifts. And they saw their Christian duty to work, to work as unto the Lord. And if you work as unto the Lord, you're going to be a good worker. And what happened to these Puritans? They got prosperous.

Now, when you start looking into these sermons, Edwards' sermons, where he's chastising his congregation, he's not chastising them for their prosperity. Edwards kind of liked the finer things in life. He had a, in his will, he's going to identify his fine wig that he had. Now, everyone had the ordinary wig that, you know, you would use for everyday experiences. But to have a fine wig, right, that was something. Sarah, she loved a fine china, and so she was always trying to find china pieces. Edwards loved cheese from Boston, and he loved chocolate.

Don't you like this guy even more now? But it's not the prosperity, it's the way the prosperity eclipses a love for God and a desire to worship God. And that's what was happening. And they were becoming so consumed with the things of the world that they were forgetting their first love, and they were growing very lackluster in their devotion to God and very lackadaisical about their commitment to their church. So, we've got Salem Witch Trials, we've got what I'm calling Halfway Christianity, and we've got good old-fashioned materialism robbing our devotion and our attention. This is the decline.

So, what happens? Well, let's first look at some precursors that get us up to 1739. So, some precursors before the Great Awakening. One of them is a Dutchman. Now, so far we haven't been talking about the Dutch that much because, well, here we tend to leave that to Dr. Godfrey. He talks enough about the Dutch.

But they are an important part of the story. And a significant figure in the Great Awakening is the Dutch minister, Theodore Frelinghuysen. Now, Frelinghuysen comes to the Raritan Valley of New Jersey and the Hudson Valley of New York. And he finds that these Dutch ministers that are there, well, in his words, he calls them unconverted. He says the problem here is the Dutch church is full of unconverted ministers. And in the 1720s, he starts preaching with an intense evangelical fervor.

One of the things that was the markers of the Puritans was a gospel warmth, a desire for the gospel, a desire for the awakening. And you see that in Frelinghuysen. So, here's Frelinghuysen in the Raritan Valley, New Jersey, Hudson River Valley, New York.

These are beautiful places, right? That's where he's ministering. We also have to go to Neshamini, Pennsylvania. And there we have Gilbert Tennant and William Tennant. So, the William Tennant, the father was born in Ireland, was a Church of England minister. When he came to America, he converted to Presbyterianism and settled there in Neshamini, Pennsylvania, right up against the Delaware River bordering New Jersey. And he forms what he called the log college. It was a simple structure built of logs to train ministers because he was suspicious of Harvard, and he was even slightly suspicious of Yale that they didn't have the religious fervor and the religious zeal. And so, he set up the log college to train ministers.

Now, what's going to happen to the log college? Well, it's going to move across the river from Neshamini, Pennsylvania, and go to what was essentially a carriage stop, strategically located halfway between New York City and Philadelphia. And that carriage stop came to be known as Princeton, New Jersey. And it was basically cow pastures and a carriage station.

And that's where log college was moved to, changed its name to the College of New Jersey, and then changed its name to Princeton. But back in the 1720s, now William's son Gilbert, who was trained at the log college, and this is one of those cases where the son is, you know, more zealous than the father, and Gilbert Tennant becomes a very significant preacher in the Great Awakening. When Whitefield gets to Philadelphia, he seeks out Gilbert Tennant. Gilbert Tennant published a sermon entitled, The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry, just like Frelinghuysen is saying here the Dutch church is full of all these unconverted ministers. Now, Tennant is saying the congregational churches and the Presbyterian churches are full of unconverted ministers. So, this is happening in the 1720s, early 1730s, and then we throw into the mix Jonathan Edwards.

Now, we'll talk more about Edwards in our next time together. But at this point, all I want to say is he's at Northampton. He goes there in 1727 as an assistant minister to Solomon Stoddard. That's sort of how they did it in those days. About seven years out from when a pastor was going to die, they would go to the colleges. They would go to Harvard or they would go to Princeton or to Yale to get a young minister to come along as an assistant. And okay, I got to tell you this, so just as an aside, they had to compete sometimes for these graduates. First of all, there weren't many of them.

Sometimes they're only graduating six or eight. And so, sometimes towns would actually go and sort of solicit these young ministers at their graduation. And one of the ways that they would try to attract them to their town was to tell them how many eligible young ladies there are in the town. So, I sort of pictured towns with, you know, holding up signs. Forty-two, and then another town holds up a sign.

Sixty-five, right? So, you get the young minister. He'd come.

They would exchange, you know, share duties. And then as the senior minister got older, the young man would take over more of the ministry. Then he would die, and then the young man would step into the pulpit as the full minister, sort of how it worked.

You had your training at seminary, and you had your practical theology sort of on the job in almost an internship or an apprenticeship arrangement. Stoddard forgot that he was supposed to live for seven years, and two years into this arrangement, he dies. So, 1729, Jonathan Edwards, twenty-six years old, married for two years. They've already had their first kid.

Sarah's going to have a kid pretty much every year for the next eleven years. He's minister of the second largest church in America. And what does he do? He starts preaching Calvinism. He starts preaching that salvation is a work of God. He starts preaching that God is glorified in man's dependence. He starts preaching that the work of regeneration is a divine and supernatural work.

And something starts to happen. In 1734, 1735, we have what are called the Connecticut River Valley Revivals. So, up and down that Connecticut River Valley, there were revivals in 1734 and 1735. Edwards wrote it up. He wrote it up for the Boston paper and published it under the title, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. That article made its way across the Atlantic to Old England, and it made its way into the hands of the recent hymn writer, the father of English hymnody, Isaac Watts. And as Watts read that, he thought, this is exactly what we need to hear in Old England. So, he got a message back to Jonathan Edwards saying, if you expand this, I'll publish it as a book.

And Edwards did. And his first book is published in Old England under the guidance of Isaac Watts. Same title, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Makes its way back into Jonathan Edwards' hands, and like most authors, he thinks, oh, the editor really messed up my book. And Edwards' copy, which is up in the Beinecke Rare Book Museum or Book Room up at Yale University, is full of all these little cross outs and marginal notes. The actual book that Edwards wrote. And he very quickly published a second edition, corrected edition, in the colonies. But the point is, it's stirring.

It is getting attention. And meanwhile, across the Atlantic, back in Old England, there are the brothers Wesley and there's George Whitefield. They found themselves getting kicked out of Anglican pulpits. It might have to do with the sermon they both preached, John Wesley, George Whitefield, entitled The Almost Christian. And do you know who the almost Christian is? Well, it's you, you Anglicans. And an almost Christian is, guess what? Not a Christian at all.

Just like a halfway Christianity is not a Christianity at all. And so there's a revival occurring in Old England. And then in 1739, George Whitefield makes the first of his seven transatlantic voyages, lands in Delaware, realizes that that's too small.

That's a joke. And then he goes to Philadelphia and we have the beginning of the first great awakening, 1739. So we'll pick up the story in our next time together with the first great awakening. Martin Lloyd-Jones once asserted that every Christian should learn from history. It's his duty to do so. That's precisely why Dr. Stephen Nichols is guiding us through the history of the American Church this week here on Renewing Your Mind.

We're glad you could be with us today. This is Dr. Nichols' latest series. It's titled Christianity in America. In 12 messages, he takes us through every era of the American Church from the 1500s all the way up through the 20th century. And we'd be happy to send you the two-DVD set. Just contact us today with a donation of any amount when you call us at 800-435-4343.

You can also make your request and give your gift online at You'll find more resources on church history when you subscribe to Table Talk magazine. For example, I found an article by Reverend John Payne at, and he said this, The study of church history is meant to provide more than just inspiration. Serious reflection on the past protects us from error, reminds us of God's faithfulness, and motivates us to persevere. Let me encourage you to subscribe.

You can do that online at Well, tomorrow we're going to change gears a bit, but we will still have our focus on church history. Dr. R.C. Sproul will take us to a document written in the 17th century on the other side of the Atlantic, The Westminster Confession of Faith, and he'll explain what those who wrote it meant when they said, Let God be God. I hope you'll join us for that tomorrow here on Redoing Your Mind. you
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-01 16:44:47 / 2023-01-01 16:54:04 / 9

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