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Asahel Nettleton, the Forgotten Evangelist

March 29, 2008

One of the forgotten heroes of the American church is Asahel Nettleton. Nettleton was one of the foremost preachers of the Second Great Awakening, was widely respected in his time, and was greatly used by God to bring revival to the church. There is much to learn from this faithful preacher, and I hope to point out some of these things in a series of forthcoming posts. In order to introduce the series, I thought it would be helpful to give a brief overview of Nettleton’s life.

Asahel Nettleton was born in 1783 in North Killingworth, CT, as the inconspicuous son of parents who were not exceptionally religious. Nettleton showed no significant amount of spiritual interest until he was 18 years old. After attending a jovial dance on the occasion of Thanksgiving, Nettleton was troubled by thoughts of his own death and the judgment of God. What ensued was ten months of intense spiritual struggle during which time Nettleton experienced depression and despair and questioned whether he could ever be converted. His spiritual angst was finally relieved during a revival in his home town, one of many revivals occurring at the time throughout New England as a part of the Second Great Awakening. Nettleton described his conversion experience thus,

“All self-righteousness failed me; and, having no confidence in God, I was left in deep despondency. . . . After awhile, a surprising tremor seized all my limbs, and death appeared to have taken hold upon me. Eternity – the word Eternity – sounded louder than any voice I ever heard; and every moment of time seemed more valuable than all the wealth of the world. Not long after this, an unusual calmness pervaded my soul, which I thought little of at first, except that I was freed from my awful convictions. . . . The character of God, and the doctrines of the Bible, which I could not meditate upon before without hatred, especially those of election and grace, now appear delightful and the only means by which, though grace, dead sinners can be made the living sons of God.”

Almost immediately upon his conversion, Nettleton expressed a desire to become a foreign missionary, expressing his hope that “If I might be the means of saving one soul, I should prefer it to all the riches and honours of this world.” He knew that he needed training in order to preach the gospel overseas, so Nettleton set his sights on Yale, a premier training ground for young ministers at that time. However, he faced the obstacle of finances and family obligations which prevented him from entering his studies for 3 years. Once Nettleton started his studies at Yale, he was not an exceptional student, but his fellow classmates noticed his love for the Bible. Nettleton graduated 4 years later, but was prevented from going overseas by debt he had incurred while a student at Yale. As a result, he settled down as a pastor in a small church, waiting for the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Adoniram Judson and join the nascent American missions movement.

In 1812, while Nettleton was on his way to preach at a church in New York state, he stopped at another church in Connecticut whose pastor, Bennett Tyler, had heard of Nettleton’s great love for the word. Prior to this time Nettleton’s ministry had been visited with no remarkable degree of success, but the sovereign Lord decided to bring extraordinary blessing to this church through Nettleton’s preaching. A revival began at Tyler’s church, and when Nettleton finally made it to his destination in New York, revival again came under Nettleton’s ministry. These revivals were the beginning of a very fruitful period of Nettleton’s life during which time he saw one revival after another. For example, in one revival in New Haven, CT, Nettleton’s ministry resulted in somewhere between 1,500-2,000 converts. The following year God sent revival again through Nettleton’s preaching, this time in Litchfield, CT, and some 1,300 people were converted. Scholars estimate that the total number of converts made through revivals sparked by Nettleton’s preaching is somewhere around 25,000.

I could certainly say more about Nettleton’s life, especially the period of his life when he was engaged in so many revivals, but I hope to bring out some of these points in future posts. If you want to do some investigation on your own, I recommend John Thornbury’s God Sent Revival (Evangelical Press, 1993), the only modern biography written on Nettleton. Also available is Bennett Tyler’s biography of Nettleton, originally written shortly after the great evangelist died, but recently reprinted by Banner of Truth. Tyler’s entire biography is available as a PDF download here. Another free download is Village Hymns, a hymnal that Nettleton put together to be used in churches experiencing revival. I hope that I have whetted your appetite for more. I believe that Nettleton’s life is instructive for us at many points.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2008 11:33 pm

    How many people in our churches today have a testimony like that? “All self-righteousness failed me . . . the character of God, and the doctrines of the Bible, which I could not meditate upon before without hatred, especially those of election and grace, now appear delightful and the only means by which, though grace, dead sinners can be made the living sons of God.”

    How different that account of conversion sounds compared to accounts we hear today! We speak of our conversion to Jesus in such boring terms sometimes I think, but if we have really been freed from slavery to sin, we really ought to relish the joy of knowing God through Jesus Christ! This post reminded me of that.

    Thanks for posting this Matt. Nettleton’s shoulders are worth standing on.

  2. kschaub permalink
    April 1, 2008 8:53 pm

    After studying the biblical assault on preaching that Charles Finney brought to evangelism and revival, I am so glad to see a few bloggers out there who have not forgotten Nettleton. Excellent post. I would give this 11 stars if I could.

  3. Jean Nettleton Nebelung permalink
    June 28, 2009 3:47 pm

    I am a descendent of this man. I have, in my possession, his leather-bound memoir written by Bennet Tyler, DD. It was published in 1844 and has been in my family since Nov. 27th of that year.

    • Matthew Crawford permalink
      June 28, 2009 4:00 pm

      Jean,

      Wow. What a surprise to hear from someone descended from Nettleton! To have that memoir from Tyler is quite an honor. I’m curious to know – has Nettleton’s faith lived on at all in his family?

      Warm regards,

      Matt

Trackbacks

  1. Doctor Fundamentalis, J. Gresham Machen « Standing on Shoulders
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