Asahel Nettleton — The Forgotten Evangelist
(This is the third of four columns on significant Christian leaders of the Second Great Awakening.)
In 1812, a 29-year-old pastor traveling to New York stopped to speak to a small congregation in South Britain, Connecticut. He was shy and unimpressive looking.
A recent graduate from Yale and newly ordained, he dressed humbly like the farmer’s son he was. Neither his appearance nor his deportment predicted the remarkable power that would overshadow his ministry over the next 20 years. At South Britain that potency first manifested itself. When he left the church one week later, it was profoundly changed by the many conversions that had taken place. Thus began the ministry of Asahel Nettleton (1783–1844), one of the great evangelists in American history.
Few have heard of Nettleton today, but he was the Billy Graham of the 1820s. His name was familiar in every New England household. It is estimated that more conversions occurred under his ministry than any other since Whitefield. He was responsible for at least 30,000 additions to the church, even though most of his work was confined to Connecticut, a small geographical area.
“In 1844, The New York Observer said that Nettleton was ‘one of the most extraordinary preachers of the gospel with whom God has ever blessed this country.’ The New York Evangelist agreed, ‘Few men, since the apostolic days, have been honored with such a signal success in preaching the word, and in the conversion of sinners as he.’ ”1
Who was Asahel Nettleton, and what can we learn from his life?
Nettleton’s life spanned a period of epochal change. It was the age of Lewis and Clark, Adoniram Judson and the emerging missionary movement, and the birth of the telegraph and railroad.
At Nettleton’s birth in 1783, the United States population was nearly 3 million and confined to the 13 original colonies. By his death in 1844, the citizenry numbered 20 million, had spilled over the Appalachian Mountains into the vast western forests that bordered the great Mississippi, and was even traveling rutted wagon trails to the far-flung Oregon Territory.
At the time of his birth, most Christians were Congregational, Presbyterian, or Baptist, and almost all embraced the reformed theology of their forefathers. But by 1844, Methodism was the predominant denomination, many new denominations had sprouted, and the Puritan New England theological consensus had collapsed.
Significant to our story, Nettleton’s life also spanned the Second Great Awakening (1792–1835),2 one of the most potent spiritual movements in American history. His life influenced and was influenced by many of these changes.
Nettleton was the son of a Connecticut farmer, Samuel Nettleton, a soldier who fought in George Washington’s army. At age 18 (1801), Asahel was converted when a revival swept the church he attended. His regeneration was the culmination of many months of agonized soul-searching.
Determined to be a foreign missionary, he decided to attend Yale. However, the untimely death of his father interrupted his plans, and he returned home to care for his family. After a 4-year hiatus, he entered Yale in 1805 at age 22.
The Yale student body in 1805 numbered less than 250. Timothy Dwight, the renowned grandson of Jonathan Edwards, was president. Yale was the citadel of New England orthodoxy that had dominated American thought and culture since the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. Under Dwight’s leadership, the college experienced revival in 1802 and again during Nettleton’s student days in 1808.
In 1808–09, Nettleton befriended Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786–1858), a fellow student who would figure prominently in the future history of the American church. Unknown to both, their lives would sum up the great convulsions that would tear and rend American Christianity for the next 40 years.
In 1810, at age 27, Nettleton received his b.a. In 1811, when he was ordained to preach, his settled intention was still foreign missions.
By the time Nettleton graduated, his theological convictions were settled. Convinced that man was dead in sin, he believed that conversion was the work of God, not man. To Nettleton, new birth was a radical change that produced repentance and a life of growing holiness. In his final analysis, this transformation was the ultimate proof of salvation. His evangelistic strategies reflected these assumptions.
Presuming that confidence in personal goodness, not guilt, keeps most people from the gospel, his aim in preaching was to convince his hearers of the reality and horror of sin. He skillfully addressed each listener’s inherent self-confidence in an attempt to expose it in the light of God’s pristine holiness. When by God’s power he was successful, great results followed.
Nettleton believed conversion usually begins with the conviction of sin, that God alone produces this, and that radical life transformation resulted. Of these techniques his biographer, Tyler Bennet, wrote, “Conversion was shown to be a ‘deep radical change of all the moral feelings’ and thus, when men came under conviction, ‘it became difficult for them to persuade themselves that they had become Christians ’till a real change had been wrought in them.’ For this reason these leaders were against treating anyone as a convert simply on profession of faith.”3
After his success at South Britain, Nettleton preached at the church of Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe) in New York where similar results accompanied his ministry. God converted many and church membership grew dramatically. Referring to this visit, Beecher wrote, “The power of his preaching included many things. It was highly intellectual. … It was discriminatingly doctrinal, giving a clear and strong exhibition of doctrines denominated Calvinistic, explained, defined, proved, and applied, and objections stated and answered. It was deeply experimental in the graphic development of the experience of saint and sinner. It was powerful beyond measure … and at times terrible and overwhelming in close, pungent, and direct application to the particular circumstances of sinners.”4
Invitations began to come from across New England, and the itinerant ministry that Nettleton had not sought was born. He settled into a pattern. He would visit a church and preach nightly for an extended period, sometimes several months. He was able to live this way because, in his twenties, he decided to forgo marriage for the sake of the gospel. He lived simply, accepting little money beyond his basic needs.
Conversions That Stuck
Nettleton’s conversions lasted and bore fruit. For example, of the 84 converts in an 1818 revival at Rocky Hill, Connecticut — according to their pastor’s report 26 years later — all 84 had remained faithful. Similarly, only three spurious conversions out of 82 professed commitments were noted by another pastor in his report on revival services held in Ashford, Connecticut.
What accounted for this success? Nettleton did not recognize a conversion just because a person said he had accepted the Lord. Instead, he watched for the fruit of repentance and the life transformation that always follows true conversion. Only after an extended period of fruitfulness would he and his coworkers consider that person truly converted.
This approach occasionally caused converts unneeded anxiety because it failed to recognize true conversions that started slow and consistently grew. But Nettleton believed the pluses outweighed the minuses. It reinforced two truths that Nettleton believed were foundational: God converts, and the sign of conversion is radical life transformation.
Conflict With Finney
In 1821, a young lawyer, Charles G. Finney (1792–1875), was converted in upstate New York. (Our next column will discuss Finney in more detail.)
Then in 1822, Nathaniel W. Taylor, whom Nettleton befriended at Yale, was appointed the first professor of the newly founded Yale School of Divinity. Taylor began to teach a radical interpretation of the Bible that was quickly labeled, “New Haven Theology.” In essence, Taylor rejected the New England orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards, which Nettleton and most of his peers assumed.
New Haven Theology rejected the doctrine of original sin. Taylor believed man does not become sinful until he commits a sinful act. Taylor’s position led him to assume that man saves and transforms himself by an act of will, and that all men are capable of such a decision.
Nettleton began correspondence with his old friend, deeply concerned by this new teaching and its potential effect on the church. At this time, Finney also read and embraced many of Taylor’s new ideas.
In 1825, the remarkable ministry of Charles Grandison Finney burst upon upstate New York. Influenced by Taylor, Finney was decidedly Pelagian.5 He rejected the doctrine of original sin. Referring to Finney’s struggle with orthodoxy, Nathan Hatch, quoting Finney’s Memoirs, writes, “I found myself unable to accept doctrine on the ground of authority. If I tried to accept those doctrines as mere dogmas, I could not do it. I could not be honest in doing it; I could not respect myself in doing it.”
Finney’s theology greatly impacted his evangelistic techniques. Since he was convinced that conversion depended on human decision and men had not fallen into sin, then a human decision rather than a supernatural work in the soul was all that was needed for conversion.
Based on these assumptions, Finney popularized an emotional approach to evangelism. He sought to influence the will through the emotions. He made altar calls popular, an innovation that concerned many adherents of the old theology.
By contrast, Nettleton sought to influence the will with the power of truth. The two men held opposite viewpoints. Nettleton preached doctrinally in subdued tones. His meetings were marked by “the death-like stillness, which were becoming the hallmark of his revivals.”6 Nettleton relied entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit by using biblical truth to bring conviction of sin and new birth.
Although Nettleton was a shy man who avoided conflict, in January 1827, at the urging of many friends, he sought out Finney to share his concerns. Finney was polite, went home and thought about Nettleton’s concerns, but then rejected the older man’s suggestions.
Later Years And Legacy
In 1822, after he had 10 years of fruitful ministry, Nettleton’s health failed. From this time until his death 22 years later, he struggled with continual physical problems that impeded his ability to maintain the pace of his previous ministry. He took fewer calls to evangelize, and he began to recede in the public eye just as Finney’s star was rising. The momentum switched to Finney and his new evangelism measures. Today, few people know of Nettleton or his conflict with Finney, whereas, the name Finney is recognized by most evangelicals.
With the decline of Nettleton and his New England Theology came a new approach to evangelism, championed by Finney, whose assumptions and methods have been considered orthodox by many Christians.
Unable to travel the last 10 years of his life, Nettleton invested himself in the divinity students at the newly formed Theological Institute of Connecticut. In 1839, still loved and honored for his great success, two colleges awarded him honorary doctorates. He died in 1844 at age 61.
Like many men of God, Nettleton lived during a time of tumultuous changes in society and church. Neither he nor his friends could foresee the end results.
Did Finney’s new evangelism measures, influenced by Taylor’s New Haven Theology, harm or help the church? Should the church return to the New England orthodoxy of Nettleton? Was Nettleton’s theology a relic of a bygone era that should remain buried in the archives of history? Each reader must form his own conclusions.7
Nettleton and his times teach us two valuable lessons. First, there will always be theological controversy, and we should correct doctrinal error. Second, as with Nettleton and Finney, our theological presuppositions influence our practice.
History is His Story.
2. The exact date the Second Great Awakening ended is controversial. It ebbed and waned during a period of years. I use the end of Finney’s ministry as an ending date.
3. Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 215.
4. Comments of Lyman Beecher quoted in Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 199.
5. Many readers may find this hard to believe, but Finney was open about these beliefs. For confirmation, read his Systematic Theology.
6. J.F. Thornbury, God Sent Revival (Darlington, United Kingdom: Evangelical Press, 1977), 71.
7. For more information read Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism; Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989); J.F. Thornbury, God Sent Revival; and Charles G. Finney and Helen S. Wessel, ed., The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1977).