Do America’s Colleges Need Revival?

Part 6 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

In trying to reach his students, Jon ended up transforming his culture and the future of American higher education

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“(A) strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives. Their worldview is little more than moralistic, therapeutic, deism, or more specifically, ‘whatever.'”

– Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers.

Jon’s students broke his heart. As recently appointed pastor of his church and headmaster of their school, he strove to provide his students with the best biblical instruction and ‘spiritual formation’ programming available. Yet despite his every effort they were completely apathetic about their faith.

Sure, most attended church each Sunday, but it didn’t impact their daily lives one wit. Everything was one giant ‘whatever,’ as they wasted their vast potential in partying and public drunkenness. His youth group was literally the laughing stock of the town. Slowly Jon came to the sobering conclusion that ‘business as usual’ was failing his students. Something had to be done.

However, Jon was not your typical youth pastor. His three-fold strategy to win his students to Christ was not for the faint of heart. First, to make sure they clearly understood what it meant to follow Christ, he began preaching a Sunday evening hour-long sermon series on “Justification by Faith.” Second, to make sure his students understood the concepts, he and his wife invited them to evening discussions in their home. Third, because he didn’t trust in the power of his own persuasiveness and programming, Jon began to pray for each student by name, often spending hours each day asking God to ‘pour out’ his Spirit upon his teaching and ‘awaken’ the hearts of his listeners. After a year and a half of intense efforts… nothing changed.

Then suddenly it seemed to Jon as if “the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and to wonder­fully work among us.” Several students began to follow Christ. One was a young woman who had been the ringleader of the party crowd. Word of her conversion went “like a flash of lightning” into the heart of virtually every youth in town. They came to Christ in a flood and would talk of nothing but Jesus and eternal things for hours on end. The change in the young people was so dramatic that soon the work of God spread to their parents and then to the entire town.

Within six months nearly a quarter of the town’s population professed faith in Christ. Jon later wrote:

“There was scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner… and the number of true saints multiplied… (until) the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.” [1]

As word of the ‘revival’ among Jon’s students spread, churches and schools across America began to seek a similar work in their own towns. Churches began to passionately preach the truth and create small groups where people could connect with one another and the word of God. But Jon’s model had convinced that that great teaching and educational programs were not enough to reach the next generation. They began to unite in prayer asking God to pour out his Spirit upon their efforts and awaken the hearts of those farthest from God.

Within seven years, the First “Great Awakening” had swept the eastern seaboard resulting in as much as 15% of the total population of America professing conversion to Christ. Jon’s approach to student ministry not only transformed the church, it also became the underlying educational philosophy for three generations of “revival colleges,” such as Dartmouth,  Brown, and Princeton, who lated appointed Jon their college president.

Of course by then Jonathan Edwards, had become a household name.

Do American Colleges Need Revival?

Do twenty-first century schools and churches need such ‘revival’? The question seems laughable to those who equate ‘revival’ with slick televangelists, emotional appeals and high-pressure altar calls resulting in little long-term fruitfulness, or periods of religious excitement when undergrads neglect their studies to immerse themselves in dualistic expressions of spirituality.

Yet to Jonathan Edwards and most early American cultural and educational leaders, ‘revival’ meant something altogether different. For them revival was a descriptive term for the aftermath of a season of ‘spiritual awakening’ caused by ‘an outpouring’ of God’s Spirit. The outpouring of the Spirit resulted in the same kind of knowledge of God’s Presence, sense of awe, conviction of sin, and sacrificially loving community that was evoked in the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47). As J.I. Packer boldly articulates, “Revival is a repeat of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.[2]

To Edwards, a spiritual awakening was a season of an “extraordinary effusion of the Spirit of God” that resulted in “accelerating and intensifying” the normal ministries of the Holy Spirit.[3] Edwards described such seasons as times when:

“God seems to have gone out of his usual way, in the quickness of his work, and the swift progress his Spirit has made in his operations on the hearts of many. (M)uch was done in a day or two, as at ordinary times … is done in a year.”[4]

Like most early American schools, Princeton was established as a “revival college” and later named Edwards their president. (Photo: Nassua Hall, princeton.edu)

To Edwards, spiritual awakening was key to the mission of the church and academy.These seasons of the “outpouring” of the Spirit resulted an intensified conviction of sin, sanctification of character, illumination of intellect, and impact upon culture so that Christians became more earnest in their pursuit of God, more Christ-like in their love and service, and more committed to their vocation in the world.

Edwards’ experience in the Great Awakening coupled with a lifetime of scholarship on the subject led him to the conclusion that: “(F)rom the fall of man to this day wherein we live the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.”[5]

Could he be right?What might such a movement look like in American churches, youth groups, colleges, and cities?

A Third Great Awakening?

While much has been lost in American excesses over the past century, Edwards’ older idea of revival being the result of a spiritual awakening is central to historic evangelical higher education. The quest for society-wide spiritual awakening drove much of the educational vision of nineteenth-century Evangelical leaders in their attempts to develop America’s first genuinely Christian colleges. As George M. Marsden, noted historian of higher education and Edwards’ leading biographer explains:

“Much of the antebellum collegiate education was shaped by New Englanders with an Edwardsean heritage, (who) controlled most of the nations leading colleges, including the state ‘universities.”[6]

The best of these colleges formed the intellectual backbone of a transatlantic revivalism” that became “the dominant theme in America from 1800 to 1860” and a “central mode of our search for national identity.” In these colleges, literature, art and the sciences moved into the academic curriculum for the first time, the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, a vision for universal public education found a champion, and a resilient ethic of moral citizenship found a remarkable incubator. [7]

The spiritual-intellectual synthesis of ‘revival colleges’ dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and led to the remarkable “Christianization” of society. Could it happen again?

Noll notes that the leaders of these colleges were key to a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of evangelicalism and common-sense moral reasoning that dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and which led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society.[8] As legendary historian Timothy Smith asserts, these educators first and foremost “were revivalists” and we ignore their effectiveness to our peril (author’s italics). [9] Their effectiveness as educators came, not in spite of their commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit in higher education, but rather because of it.

 

Edwards and the Humility to Learn from History 

All this is to say that Jonathan Edwards certainly appears to be a promising starting point for educators and ministers seeking to reach a new generation marked by spiritual apathy and what researchers Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton have labeled “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  Accordingly, this series will exploring Jonathan Edwards’ theology of spiritual formation and awakening in 19th century American higher education in order to connect it to our 21st century educational philosophy and practices.

However, before we can learn anything from Edwards, we first need to humble ourselves as he did on that fateful day in 1734, when he finally admitted that “business as usual” was failing his students. Then and only then can we look into the genius of this man who’s “revival thinking” shaped virtually all American higher education for over 150 years. As Marsden expressed so eloquently in his biography of Edwards:

“We will never learn anything from the sages of the past unless we get over our naïve assumption that the most recently popular modes of thought are best… We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from the great figures in the past—both their brilliance and shortcomings. Otherwise we are stuck only with the wisdom of the present.”[10]

In future posts I will explore key moments in the history of the Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts in relation to Smith and Denton’s generational research and then tackle Edwards’ unique approach to genuinely Christian higher education that proved so influential in early American colleges.

Next: Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

.

Other posts in the series:

NOTES

[1] Jonathan Edwards (1737), A Faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. C. C. Goen (Ed.). In H. S. Stout, (General Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening. (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1972). (Originally written as an unpublished letter, dated May 30, 1735, to Boston clergyman, Benjamin Colman, who had requested an account of the Connecticut River Valley revival of 1734-5. It was first published in London in 1737. Normally referred to as Faithful Narrative.)

[2] Keep in step with the Spirit. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), p. 256. See also, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Joy unspeakable: the baptism of the Holy Spirit. (Eastborne, UK: Kingsway, 1985), p. 280. For a similar assessment of Pentecost being the “prototypical revival” see also other Reformed theologians such as, Kuyper (1900), Packer (1984), and Lloyd-Jones (1985). This viewpoint is also held by most Wesleyan (e.g. Stokes, 1975; Dayton, 1987), and Pentecostal/Charismatic thinkers (e.g. Williams, 1999; Keener, 1999). See also, Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit: contours of Christian theology. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), p. 84.

[3] Edwards, J. (1733ms/2005). Persons ought to do what they can for their salvation (Ecclesiastes 9:10). In H. S. Stout, K. P. Minkema, C. J. D. Maskell (Eds.), Works of Jonathan Edwards Online. Retrieved March 30, 2008, from http://edwards.yale.edu/ref/6168/e/p/8 (Originally preached December 9, 1733.  Privately published in Boston 1734.) See, Samuel Storms, Signs of the spirit: an interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious affections. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p. 25.

[4] Edwards, Faithful narrative, p. 21.

[5] Jonathan Edwards (1774), A History of the work of redemption. Wilson (Ed.). In H. S. Stout, (General Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards, 9. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 138. (Originally a series of sermons preached in 1739 that were later expanded and published posthumously in 1774.),

[6] Edwards, A Life, p. 8-9.

[7] R. Carwardine, 1978; P. Miller, 1965, p. 3,6; Marsden, 1980, p. 222.  See also, J. R. Fitzmier, 1998; Smith, 195; Ringenberg, 1987, 2006, 2007; and Reuben, 1996.

[8] America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 9.

[9] Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. New York:  Abingdon Press.

[10] Edwards, A Life, p. 8-9, 499, 502-3