Dissent and the Great Awakening

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, pdf

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, audio

The church in New Haven seems to have been fairly cohesive at first, but as the colony grew and as time went on, problems became evident.  Evangelical fervor died down quickly.  Church members had the right to baptize their children, and it was assumed that when the children became old enough to understand church doctrine, that they would own the covenant, and have a regeneration experience—a change of heart—that they could relate to the membership who could then vote them into full membership. But so many of them didn’t bother, that the church leaders became concerned about losing their influence; non-members were ineligible to vote or to hold civil office. And there were, more and more, “strangers”; that is, those who were not members. At first, they were few, mostly servants and those who had emigrated primarily for the opportunity to enrich themselves. But now, newcomers to the colony, as well as the unregenerate third generation--the grandchildren of the first church members--swelled the ranks of the strangers.

            By the 1660’s, only ten percent of New Haven’s population were church members. The response by the standing church was the “half-way covenant”  of 1662, which gave those baptized at birth the right to have their own children baptized, on condition that they “own” the covenant, which meant that they profess belief in the evangelical creed, and solemnly promise to formally observe their religious duties. This opened the door to those who had no birthright claim; all those of upright conduct who owned the covenant could be eligible to have their children baptized. However, the halfway members could not sit at the communion table or vote on church affairs. The church leaders hoped that the halfway members would take the steps to become full members, but apparently the majority were content with their halfway status. John Davenport objected to the half-way covenant; at that time, the majority of the original New Haven settlers were gone, either dead or had migrated elsewhere, and Davenport, discouraged, left New Haven in 1668 to be the pastor of the Second Church in Boston.

            Solomon Stoddard (September 27, 1643--February 11, 1729), pastor of the church in Northampton Massachusetts, came up with his own solution: just invite everyone, with no conditions, to become a member, and sit at the communion table. Stoddard said that the sacrament of the Lord’s supper would promote regeneration, and church membership swelled in his parish. Stoddard’s practices were adopted widely in the Connecticut Valley, and were especially popular with young people concerned for their souls. So much for the purity of the church.

            Another problem was dissent. As the population grew and new parishes sprang up, some of them didn’t conform to orthodox New Haven practice. The Saybrook Platform of 1708 attempted to impose a quasi-presbyterianism on the churches by setting up advisory councils of local ministers to mediate disputes and approve ministers for ordination. However, a basic Congregational principle was the independence of each church, and they were not bound by the decisions of these associations or consociations. The Saybrook Platform allowed for dissenting churches, but they were still required to pay taxes to the standing church, in addition to supporting their own church.

             Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758), was a Connecticut native and grandson of Solomon Stoddard.  Edwards took over his grandfather’s parish in Northampton. Rejecting Stoddard’s practices, he launched a fundamentalist revival to return to strict Calvinism in 1735. Edwards rejected Arminianism, and preached the sovereignty of God, who chose the Elect, and maintained the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He revived the old Calvinist belief in the approaching Millenium and the Second Coming of Christ, and told his congregations to prepare now, before it’s too late. Edwards shook up his hearers with sermons, such as the famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” telling them that they, and all people, deserve damnation, that no one has a claim on God’s mercy, and that salvation can be acquired by faith alone, not by any human actions. Edwards himself was surprised at the results; conversions multiplied, and religious fervor spread through the Connecticut River valley, from Massachusetts into Connecticut.

            George Whitefield (16 December 1714 – 30 September 1770), an Anglican priest from Britain (and one of the founders of Methodism along with John Wesley), came to America in 1740 and lit the fire that became known as the Great Awakening. Edwards had already paved the way: people were primed and ready, imploring their pastors to show them the way to salvation, and to increase their sermons and lectures. Whitefield, a Calvinist, made a whirlwind, six-week tour of New England that resulted in an estimated 20-50,000 new church members, and the establishment of at least 150 new churches over the next couple of decades. He visited New Haven among other places in Connecticut, and made a big impression there.

            As a result of the Great Awakening, the church divided into two camps: the Old Lights and the New Lights. The Old Lights, representing the standing church, clung to the Saybrook Platform and the Half-way covenant, while the New Lights represented the fundamentalist return to strict Calvinism. The experience of rebirth, also called regeneration or conversion, once more became paramount. The Great Awakening created near-chaos for a while, with lay preachers traveling from town to town exhorting sinners to repent, and leading dramatic, emotional meetings marked by outbursts of sobbing, crying, wild convulsions, speaking in tongues, faintings, and other emotional demonstrations that were attributed to the working of the Holy Spirit. Complacent Old Light preachers were called out, just as Whitefield had done, with accusations of Arminianism, and claims that they were unconverted. The Old Lights, seeing their power slipping away, reacted with alarm, and quickly passed a new law against itinerant preaching.

            Schism resulted, with new, separatist churches sprouting up everywhere, threatening to undermine the standing church. In New Haven, separatists split off from the old First Church, establishing a New Light congregation, known as the White Haven Church, nearby. The pastor of the First Church, Joseph Noyes, was typical of the complacent Old Light preachers, delivering uninspired sermons, and was suspected of Arminian leanings. The Old Light establishment, which controlled the General Assembly, blocked efforts by the separatist churches to be exempted from paying taxes to the standing church, until 1757, when the New Lights achieved a majority in the Assembly, and took control of the Standing Church


For further information see:

M. Louise Greene. The Development of Religious Liberty in Connecticut. Boston and New York: Houghton-Mifflin & Company, 1905. Accessed May 1, 2021,      https://archive.org/details/developmentofrel01gree.

Sidney Earl Mead. Nathaniel William Taylor 1786-1858: A Connecticut Liberal. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1942. Reissued by the Shoe String Press, Inc. and published by Archon   Books, 1967.

Dissent and the Great Awakening