Revival in secular New England? Yes, even this is possible


Sporadically we hear rumors of religious revival on the college campuses of one of America’s most notoriously secular regions: New England. The Boston Globe published one such report of Ivy League revival in 2003 (as of today, Jan 29, 2010, the link still works, and the article is still fascinating). Shocking? Not really. It’s just the latest in a long line of campus revivals in the land of the Unitarian Brahmins. The Globe article gave me the excuse (like I really needed it) to look into the story of those revivals.

An exciting New England development today: the campus of D. L. Moody’s Northfield College has now been purchased for the C S Lewis Foundation–the group that owns Lewis’s home, the Kilns, in England, and runs a study center there. Soon, Moody’s old stomping grounds will host of a new “great books” college (check out the videos at that link) named after Lewis.

Can Anything Good Come Out of New England?
Evangelical revival in the land of the liberal Brahmins may not be as historically odd as we suppose.
Chris Armstrong

A recent article in the Boston Globe discerns a spiritual “New Day” in New England—a day in which evangelical Christianity has penetrated even the liberal fortress of Harvard and stands poised for a full-blown regional revival.

To some modern-day evangelicals this may seem a bizarre—if welcome—a piece of news. On a level with God’s bulletin to Jonah that Nineveh would at last be saved. New England, such skeptics would say, long ago slid into a spiritual funk that has got to have John Winthrop (of Puritan “City on a Hill” fame) rolling around in his grave.

Never mind the glory days of Jonathan Edwards and his Northampton, Massachusetts-based Great Awakening (see last week’s newsletter), the evangelical skeptic might say. In a time when Harvard Divinity School students eviscerate their Bibles and celebrate “Coming Out Day” to affirm their homosexual colleagues, this spiritual legacy is long buried. No, the Unitarians and other liberals have, the critic would say, definitively won the day in that erstwhile blessed region, and God has passed over the land of his chosen (Puritan) children, moving on to revive hearts where the prospects seem more promising.

As usual, it’s time for a history lesson. Not all has been bleak in the New England of these past two centuries. If space allowed, we could dwell on the nineteenth-century successes of the Adoniram Judson Gordons and D. L. Moodys.

Well, maybe we have a little space. We forget, for example, that Moody, the man whose name was synonymous with American revivalism during the last few decades of the nineteenth century, was closely tied to his birthplace of Northfield, Massachusetts. Though most famously associated with the Chicago college and related ministries that bear his name, Moody established a vital work in Northfield that did much to keep the revival fires burning in New England and around the world.

This work was the Northfield Conference series, held each summer under Moody’s sponsorship from 1880 through his death in 1899 (the conferences continued into the twentieth century, but their influence waned). The well-attended conferences focused on Bible teaching and spiritual renewal. Renewing countless Christians, the conferences majored on Moody’s favorite theme: the power of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life.

The most lasting impact of the Northfield conference came in 1886, when it spun off a student arm. At the students’ first meeting, 100 pledged their lives to foreign missions. From that nucleus grew the influential “Student Volunteer Movement,” with its missionary battle cry, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.”

From this turn-of-the-century peak, the church in New England did seem to enter a decades-long doldrums, as America descended from its Victorian heyday of Christian cooperation into the fundamentalist-modernist division. In the 1920s and 30s, it seemed conservative Christians were becoming too busy “fighting the fight” to work towards a general revival.

In New England the problem was made particularly acute by the continuing spread of Unitarianism. This Yankee denomination’s wide-open approach to the faith resulted (even in the opinion of the denomination’s own historians) in a significant falling-off of church attendance in the region through the whole of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth.

Enter a New Hampshire layman named J. Elwin Wright.

In 1897, concerned about these signs of morbidity in his beloved church, Wright’s father Joel, a holiness minister, had founded the “first Fruit Harvesters’ Association” from a headquarters in New Hampshire. This was a group of holiness and Pentecostal churches that worked together to build up the faith in the whole region of New England.

In 1929, Wright expanded the vision of his father’s association to include leaders from non-Pentecostal denominations and renamed the organization “the New England Fellowship.”

The vision of this new group was a grand one. In a 1930 article, Wright called members of the newborn association back to “a simplicity of faith in those great doctrines of the Christian church which have always caused her to conquer” and to “a unity of the Spirit” and “a spirit of humility and teachableness which will cause us to value all our brethren in Christ.” Once united, they could turn to the urgent task of evangelizing the unchurched and reviving the drifting and cold.

In 1931, Wright thought he saw signs of impending success. He declared, “There has never been a time in my memory when every condition seemed so favorable” for revival in that region.

Historian Joel Carpenter characterizes Wright as—unusually for his time in conservative Christian circles—one of a small cadre of evangelical leaders who eschewed fundamentalism’s characteristic pugnaciousness for a public and personal style marked by “kindness, humility, gentleness, and friendliness.” Others included Old Fashioned Revival Hour preacher Charles E. Fuller and Columbia Bible College founder Robert C. McQuilkin.

Wright exerted this rare irenic influence in founding and building up his New England Fellowship. His motto was Augustine’s: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Though he himself became Congregational, joining perhaps Boston’s most prominent evangelical church, Park Street Congregational, Wright refused, as Carpenter puts it, “to break off fellowship with his ‘disreputable’ holiness and pentecostal friends.” To understand how courageous and unusual this stance really was, you would need to read some of the virulent anti-pentecostal rhetoric that spewed from certain early twentieth-century fundamentalists (and some of the fair share of venom lobbed back by the Pentecostals)!

Wright’s NEF was unlike any other group in the nation in its blending of theologically conservatism with denominational diversity. Again, to appreciate this accomplishment, you would have to know just how much of a bugaboo “ecumenism” had become to the era’s fundamentalists. Liberal ecumenists—some of them bent on consolidating all Protestant denominations—seemed to be pursuing their course of unification by the simple expedient of emptying their theological pockets of all potentially offensive creedal assertions. In contrast, fundamentalist groups, bent (it sometimes seemed) on dividing the church—if need be to the last person—in the cause of truth, were splitting from their own denominations.

In part because of Wright’s efforts, by the mid-1930s New England did indeed seem on the verge of revival. Carpenter lays out the evidence in his survey of twentieth-century evangelicalism, Revive Us Again (Oxford University Press, 1997): By 1934, more than 1,000 congregations had joined Wright’s New England Fellowship, and a 1935 “Bible Demonstration Day” rally in Boston Garden attracted 16,000 attendees.

Wright rejoiced that this meeting gave many longsuffering New England evangelicals new strength, as they discovered their feeling that “only I am left” was mistaken. And he continued to pursue the vision, along with hundreds of like-minded evangelical leaders who held out as their inspirational precedent the glory days of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening.

Though the Great Awakening did not ultimately descend again on New England, the NEF left a deep imprint on the 30s and 40s. Members worked tirelessly and effectively in the areas of Christian radio, Christian education in public schools, Bible conferences, evangelism, lay ministry, and youth ministry. To take only one example, the NEF daily vacation Bible School reached, during one year, some 20,000 children, many of whom were unchurched.

In The Wright Vision: The Story of the New England Fellowship, by Elizabeth Evans, we read that the NEF “brought many to Christ, opened closed churches, and fostered fellowship and cooperation among evangelicals” both in New England and beyond.

Wright’s most lasting contribution began in 1941, when he toured 31 states, drumming up support for a new national fellowship. Leaders he contacted on this trip became, along with existing members of the NEF and others, the nucleus of two new evangelical umbrella groups: the National Association of Evangelicals (1942)—today’s largest and most influential organization of evangelical churches—and the World Evangelical Fellowship (1950).

Thus did Wright, along with Harold John Ockenga of Park Street Church (who also played key roles at Fuller Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Seminary) launch what amounted to a new, more cooperative and less fractious identity for many old fundamentalists. The “new evangelicalism” had been born. And their combined clout through the NAE allowed evangelicals to make significant strides in areas such as radio broadcasting.

This new “evangelical” identity has continued, against the earlier fundamentalist trend, to include Pentecostals—indeed, major Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God have historically contributed a majority of NAE members.

Can anything good come out of New England? As so often in the past, the answer in the first half of the twentieth century was a resounding “Yes.”

May it be so again today.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

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2 responses to “Revival in secular New England? Yes, even this is possible

  1. Magdalena, those are two very helpful distinctions. I probably came close to saying that God wasn’t around just because evangelical Protestants weren’t around in numbers. Not so, of course! And the strong Catholicism was particularly . . . as you say . . . strong–both in piety and in cohesive power within the immigrant communities.

  2. While Christian faith may have been moribund among the moneyed classes of Olde New England, it was very much alive among the working classes, including my mother’s family, Baptists since the time of John Knox, I think. And Catholicism remained strong with immigrant populations. The established Catholics would bypass Harvard and Yale and send their sons (and later daughters) off to Jesuit schools like Georgetown. Perhaps working class Protestantism hung on the longest in northern New England, where there were fewer communities with higher education.

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