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Nettleton on Revival

April 12, 2008

Two weeks ago I posted a brief bio of Asahel Nettleton with a promise of more to come. This post is thus a follow-up to the previous one. Perhaps the most significant lesson to learn from the life of Asahel Nettleton is that revival is a sovereign work of God. Nettleton believed that he, as an evangelist, was responsible to preach the word of God and to pray, but that only God could truly bring revival. Revival was thus nothing more than a heightened form of the same work that God was always performing. Sometimes God chose to bless the efforts of men with greater fruitfulness than at other times. Nettleton’s own experience confirms this. Prior to his first revival in Bennett Tyler’s church, Nettleton’s preaching had been attending with no unusual effects. Furthermore, later in his life, Nettleton’s revivals did not generally result in as many converts as the decade or so of amazing fruitfulness that he experienced in his prime years.

Nettleton’s understanding of revival stands in sharp relief when compared with the alternate understanding of Charles Finney. Finney was younger than Nettleton, but quickly became the most iconic preacher of the age. Naturally gifted as a leader and possessing a commanding presence, Finney came to trust in his own efforts to produce revivals. In fact, Finney guaranteed that he could produce revival in a church. In his influential work Revivals of Religion, Finney stated that revival is “a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means – as much as any other effect produced by the application of means.” The means that Finney employed were the so-called new measures. Because Finney denied the innate depravity of man he believed that regeneration was merely an act of the will to choose God. Accordingly, the new measures were calculated to put a high degree of emotional stress upon a person so as to produce a response. The new measures included such practices as exhorting those under conviction to come forward before all the congregation to a mourner’s bench where they received further exhortation. Moreover, revival meetings would be protracted, again in order to put great pressure upon the audience to “change their heart” and “choose for God.”

Finney’s theology and methods have been adequately critiqued elsewhere and the purpose of the present post is not to give a detailed response to the famed revivalist. I would simply like to point out a difference in results between Nettleton and Finney. One of the most remarkable aspects of Nettleton’s revivals, surely flowing out of his understanding of revivals as a sovereign work of God, was the consistency of his converts. Spurious converts, that is, those who eventually fell away from the faith, were the exception, rather than the rule. In one revival in Rocky Hill, CT eighty-four converts were made who all remained faithful according to a report by their pastor twenty-six years later. At another revival in Ashford, CT only three out of eighty-two professed conversions proved to be spurious. In contrast, Finney himself admitted that a large number of his supposedly 500,000 converts were not genuine.

In order that Nettleton isn’t misunderstood, I should point out that he firmly believed in the responsibility of preachers to preach the gospel to all, and the responsibility of all men and women to repent and believe. Far from a dispassionate intellectual, Nettleton implored sinners to come to Christ. But he also knew that only a work of God was sufficient to make a dead sinner alive. Only the Spirit of God could give someone a new heart. Only God could produce revival. Surely in our day the emphasis has fallen too much upon ability of man and not enough upon the sovereign working of God in conversion. Nettleton reminds us that we should not trust in our own abilities to produce results, but rather that we should always trust in the sovereign hand of God to accomplish his purposes through the foolish preaching of the cross.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 14, 2008 12:45 pm

    I am really enjoying these Matt! Its interesting that true revival isn’t always what is recorded in bold in the history books. This post reminded me of something J.I. Packer once said when asked who the greatest preacher who ever lived was. Packer replied “You don’t know him because he is probably preaching out in a third world country or a jungle somewhere.” I suppose Nettleton wasn’t preaching for recognition but for the glory of God, thus he didn’t get the former.

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