September 26, 2013
Students in the Revival and Reform: Renewing Congregational Life D.Min. track study the twin histories of spiritual revival and social reform in the United States and its colonial antecedents. We want to discover patterns of God’s renewing work in the past so that we can better dispose our ministries to renewal in the present.
Pursuing this aim is full of pitfalls. We must constantly remind ourselves that we cannot combine ingredients to re-create what God has done in the past because (a) we’re not God and (b) we cannot re-create the past: the settings of past revivals were complex, and we will never live in them again. Nevertheless, history can expand our view of present problems, which yields better solutions or at least better hope.
For example, in his monumental biography of Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden describes the dismal social and spiritual condition of young adults in Northampton, Massachusetts (where the 31-year-old Edwards was pastor) in 1734. In part because their parents were reacting against the strictness of their parents, the prevalence of premarital sex had risen dramatically, even to the point that pregnancy out of wedlock lost much of its stigma so long as the couple married following conception. This was aided and abetted by a land shortage that prevented young people from starting families on new farms and forced them to live with their parents with no immediate economic prospects. The average marriage age rose considerably. Youth were aimless, and youth culture revolved around taking advantage of days off working for their parents to hit the party scene at local taverns instead of attending scheduled church activities.
Then in April 1734 one of the young men in a hamlet a few miles away from the town center died of a sudden illness. Edwards, who himself had nearly died of illness twice, preached a gripping funeral sermon about the precariousness of life and the pointlessness of the young people’s lives in light of death and the next life. The young adults were deeply affected. Edwards returned and called a service for that age group soon after, and these young adults quickly began showing evidence of conversion: changed lives.
Soon this wave of conversion spread to young adults all over Northampton and from them to all generations, from children to the aged and everyone in between, men and women, high and low, rich and poor, free and slave. Almost the whole town appeared to be converted. People of all kinds were meeting in homes to pray and encourage each other through Scripture. During the 14 months of the revival, sickness virtually disappeared from Northampton. The revival spread to other towns along the Connecticut River, and similar phenomena appeared in New York and New Jersey. This was an intense local precursor to the Great Awakening that swept all the colonies about six years later.
Though so much of the social, cultural, economic, and technological setting of 1734 Northampton is alien to us, certain contours of young adulthood then—promiscuity, carousing, career stultification, delayed marriage, “failure to launch,” abandonment of religious institutions—are jarringly familiar to us today. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that contemporary American young adults are like them in all important respects. For example, one asset that Edwards possessed that we lack is sound theological knowledge shared by his hearers. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s must-read Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church for the modern contrast.)
Nevertheless, the 1734 revival does demonstrate the crucial, encouraging lesson that God can awaken young adults with the daunting troubles they have today, that he has, and that he may yet again—that that may spark transformation in a community and beyond—and that he may use a God-soaked, yearningly loving pastor to birth it.
Cory Hartman grew up in a suburb of Syracuse, New York, and serves as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg in the Pennsylvania county where his family has lived for generations. (Go Orange. Go Bucs. Go Steelers.) He is an M.Div. alumnus (’03), a current D.Min. student, and the author of On Freedom and Destiny: How God’s Will and Yours Intersect. Cory and his wife, Kelly, notch National Park sites visited with their four children.
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