Colonial America and How (Not) to Pray Against Cultural Decline

Article
10.31.2014

There is an overwhelming sense among Christians in the West that we are not only in a time of cultural decline, but that it is gaining pace. If that’s true, how should Christians pray?

There may in fact be a lesson to learn about praying from our colonial forbears: perhaps God cares less about our efforts at moral reform than he cares about hearts that belong to him.

CULTURAL DECLENSION IN EARLY NEW ENGLAND

The New England Puritans were masters of the “declension narrative,” or the idea that things were getting worse all the time. The Puritans created—or refashioned—a kind of sermon, the “jeremiad,” to bewail the people’s roster of sins. They warned of God’s impending judgment, in the mode of the Old Testament prophets. By the late 1600s (Massachusetts was founded in 1630), the recitation of the people’s failings, and the ways they had fallen from their first love, became staples of Puritan preaching.

The original Puritan settlers had come with a unified vision of a society and church built around godly, biblical principles. They hoped that they could escape the corruption and violence of England and carve out a Bible commonwealth in New England’s forests. But as the decades passed, some of New England’s children grew less interested in the first founders’ commitments. In the 1660s, so many New Englanders no longer qualified for full church membership that pastors had to create a “halfway” covenant, in which unregenerate parents could still have their children baptized.

As the century wore on, there were signs of declension everywhere. People seemed more attracted to business and entertainment than piety (this problem started early in American history!). Liberal (or at least anti-Calvinist) theology was charming teachers at Harvard College, the training school for Puritan pastors. King Philip’s War in the 1670s proved to be one of the most devastating in colonial American history. Beginning in the 1690s, New Englanders fought a series of brutal wars with the French in Canada, and with France’s Native American allies. Then in 1692 came the tragic Salem witchcraft episode, which was a shameful legal embarrassment as well as another sign to many that Satan was up to his devouring ways in Massachusetts.

PRAYERS FOR MORAL REFORM

Decline initially led pastors to call for reform. Michael Wigglesworth’s poem “God’s Controversy with New England” (1662) perfectly illustrated the Puritans’ sense of impending judgment and the need for repentance. He warned New Englanders (speaking from God’s perspective) that

Your sins me press as sheaves do load a cart,
And therefore I will plague you for this gear
Except you seriously, and soon repent,
I’ll not delay your pain and heavy punishment.

But calls for repentance and moral reform did not seem to do much good. Perhaps these admonitions were too focused on what the Puritans themselves could do about the decline.

PRAYER FOR GOD’S REDEMPTIVE POWER

By the 1670s, a cadre of new Puritan ministers—perhaps America’s first “evangelical” pastors—made a subtle but critical shift. For these pastors, the emphasis was no longer so much on reform, but on revival; not on people’s moral effort, but on God’s redemptive power.

Samuel Torrey, minister of Weymouth, Massachusetts, began to point New Englanders beyond efforts to reform themselves, and toward the work of the Holy Spirit in fostering conversion, which would necessarily produce lives of holiness. Shortly after King Philip’s War, Torrey told people that in light of the devastating conflict, it was clear that “all ordinary means” of moral reform had not worked. “It is high time,” Torrey insisted, for all people, “by faith in prayer, to seek the Lord until he come and rain righteousness upon us.” To the extent that believers had a proactive role to play in bringing about a great work of God, it was in submissive prayer, acknowledging that they could not reform or save themselves, or their society.

THE BEGINNINGS OF A HARVEST

This theology of God-centered revival crystallized in the family of Jonathan Edwards.

First came Edwards’ grandfather and pastoral predecessor at Northampton, Massachusetts, Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard was one of the first ministers to lead congregation-level revivals, or “harvests,” in his church prior to the First Great Awakening. He reminded others that such harvests, when great numbers of people would experience conversions around the same time, came only by the power of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit of the Lord must be poured out upon the people, else religion will not revive,” Stoddard preached.

Timothy Edwards, Jonathan’s father, likewise saw four or five significant church-based revivals prior to the Great Awakening, some of which profoundly influenced Jonathan Edwards himself.

Evidence would suggest that in the 1720s and 1730s, many pastors and laypeople took up the call to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Declension, to them, was not inevitable. Only God, however, could reverse it.

Finally, in 1734-1735 came Edwards’ Northampton awakening. “All seemed to be seized with a deep concern about their eternal salvation,” Edwards wrote. Edwards’ account of the revival, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, found an audience in England as well as America, offering a hint that something much larger than a local church harvest was beginning to emerge.

THE NEW BIRTH AND THE WORK OF GOD

Then from England came word of the spectacular successes of a young Calvinist Anglican preacher, George Whitefield. Whitefield knew about the Northampton revival long before he met Edwards personally, and his gifted preaching and focus on the “new birth” of salvation drew audiences in the tens of thousands in London. Then in 1739, Whitefield arrived for his first American tour. Untold thousands in Britain and America would convert under his preaching, in which he insisted that salvation was all a work of God, not of man.

The most fruitful season of Whitefield’s American tour came in New England in the fall of 1740. There, in October, he fulfilled a longtime wish when he met Edwards and preached at the Northampton meetinghouse. He came at Edwards’ invitation, who hoped that the evangelist might “revive the flame again, even in the darkest times.” Edwards thought that the new revivals in Britain and America might signal “the dawning of a day of God’s might power and glorious grace.”

Edwards noted that the congregation was “extraordinarily melted” during Whitefield’s preaching, and almost everyone there wept. Among those deeply moved was Edwards himself. “Dear Mr. Edwards wept during the whole time of exercise,” Whitefield noted. It was a remarkable meeting of the two greatest leaders of the Great Awakening, and a focal point of a massive revival for which many had been praying for years.

FROM MAN-CENTERED REFORM TO GOD-CENTERED REVIVAL

The shift from man-centered reform to God-centered revival had broken the old Puritan cycle of declension and despair. Whitefield, Edwards, and legions of new evangelical pastors concluded that the Holy Spirit could turn the hearts of the Anglo-American people back to God, however bleak the era might look from a human perspective.

Editor’s note: Click here for John Piper’s companion article “Contemporary America and A Call to Prayer.”

By:
Thomas S. Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University, and Associate Director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is a member of Highland Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. You can find him on Twitter at @ThomasSKidd.