Review of God Sent Revival by John Thornbury

Review of God Sent Revival by John Thornbury

Thornbury, J. F., God Sent Revival, The Story of Asahel Nettleton and the Second Great Awakening, Welwyn, Herts, England: Evangelical Press, 1977, 238 pp. ($15.00)

John Thornbury was a pastor of a thriving church called Winfield Baptist in Winfield, Pennsylvania, but is now retired. He studied in Kentucky at the Lexington Baptist College with further studies at the University of Kentucky. He has authored several books, the latest of which is an excellent biography on David Brainerd. Thornbury was a frequently used conference speaker. I have the privilege of being a personal friend of the author and have preached in his church on various occasions. He is a prodigious learner of church history and excels in his understanding of the early American scene.

This is an intriguing portrayal of one of revival history’s most useful men, Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844). The survey covers his atypical life in typical fashion, beginning with his roots, through his death, and beyond to his legacy. His activity took place principally in New England and is more specifically to be associated with Connecticut. Interestingly, this activity was often in the smallest places.

The book reads better than most biographies of this sort, because of the proper sprinkling of illustration and precept drawn from Nettleton’s life. It becomes immediately significant because of the scarcity of material available.

Prior to the activity of Charles Grandison Finney, Nettleton was making his mark on the New England countryside. His particular bent was to work in the “waste places,” so called because of the spiritual dearth which the radical revivalist James Davenport had left behind at the end of the First Great Awakening. Davenport had insisted on insulting the people and on taking as the expected norm the more strange emotional and physical characteristics which were experienced occasionally in the earlier Awakening. He caused much havoc. He often offended the pastors and chose to ostracize them publicly if they did not join in with him in his unusual doctrine and practice.

This foolish behavior, later repented of, thankfully, brought about an end to the gracious effects of revival in certain cities and produced some enemies to the notion of visitations of God. On the opposite side, Nettleton, some years later, worked closely with the pastors and sought never to override their authority. His was a ministry with great respect and dignity.

He preached almost exclusively on the Lord’s day and did not hold protracted meetings during the weekdays. That is, he did not do so unless inquiry meetings were called for. In these meetings the seekers would gather at a home or other venue to hear a brief message and to receive private counseling. Nettleton excelled in this skill. He often labored over the text of John 10: 27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

He was considered by many the greatest preacher since Whitefield. Heman Humphrey, a contemporary, described his intensity of interaction with the auditors as he spoke:

But his eye, after all, was the master power in his delivery. Full and clear and sharp, its glances, in the most animated parts of his discourses, were quick and penetrating, beyond almost anything I recollect ever to have witnessed. He seemed to look every hearer in the face, or rather to look into his soul, almost at one and the same moment. 1

“In sheer elocutionary abilities, Nettleton was not in the same class as Whitefield. But in effectiveness, in his own way, and in the context in which he preached, he may have equaled or excelled him,” says Thornbury. “Nettleton’s arena was the small church, the school house, the private dwelling where every eye would fasten upon his own, and all listened in breathless silence as he brought forth out of the treasure of Scripture, ‘things old and new.'”2 Whitefield’s sphere of operation was much larger. “They were not cast in the same mold, but they were cut out of the same timber, and what a timber it was!”3

He spoke the Calvinistic way on sin and judgment and the sovereignty of God in electing. Salvation was entirely of God. The effects were powerful. According to the author he was the father to 25,000 souls. “Only a small fraction of these converts were spurious.”4

“The population of the country today is approximately two hundred and twenty million, or over twenty-four times as many as in 1820. An ingathering of new believers in modern times, proportionate to the success of Asahel Nettleton, would be over six hundred thousand.”5

Crucial to the understanding of Nettleton is his interplay with Finney, whom he considered a problem to the cause of revival. His concerns were for his “new measures,” which included the use of the “anxious bench,” forerunner to our modern altar call system. Nettleton was a veteran revivalist when he encountered Finney. Eventually the two came together in the New Lebanon Conference, arranged to settle the differences. But the legal skills of Finney dominated and Nettleton got nowhere. Nettleton was then a sick and somewhat nervous man, due to the illness. He was no match for the younger man’s wits. Their theology was very much different. Today we would call Finney a Pelagian, named after the man who was condemned by more church councils than any other man in history! Nettleton lost the day, in part, because he did not focus on Finney’s theology.

Thornbury has written a book notable for its clarity and its very important place on the bookshelf. There are simply very few works on this great man. At the time of Thornbury’s first publication of this work nothing was in print on Nettleton. Since that time there has been only one reprint of an earlier work by Bennet Tyler. But the later, while filling in some detail, suffers from too much affinity for its subject. Thankfully, Thornbury’s book has continued in publication for some years.

The book is a satisfying read and, in my estimation, provides almost a manual for evangelism and revival. Of particular interest is the way in which Nettleton works out his doctrinal premises in his preaching and leading. There is nothing of the bombastic or flamboyant in his style, but rather the pure, unadulterated use of the proper means of preaching, praying, and private counsel to the unsaved.

It is God-glorifying and self-deprecating style of leadership. On one occasion he simply left town when the people were making too much of him, as can be read in the chapter entitled, “The Case of the Missing Preacher.” He had one objective. He wished to deliver the most cogent messages for Christ that were possible, with as much dependence on God as could be found within him. Unlike Finney who believed that revival and the new birth were no miracles but simply the right exercise of the will, Nettleton turned to God alone and believed that nothing happened unless it were God-initiated and God-empowered.

Nettleton’s preaching was intentionally logical and weighty. He closed the gaps in people’s thinking and destroyed misconceptions. The result was that the sinner was left without any recourse to his former disbelief. He had to deal with God. Either he would repent or turn away. Nettleton left no middle ground. Such preaching is needed today.

I cannot help but think that more of Nettleton and less of Finney would make a considerable difference in our churches. This very day I heard a missionary speak of the work of God in other lands. Consistently I heard him illustrate that it was the bare proclamation of the Word which brought the results. Nettleton must become a contemporary model. Though his bones lie in Connecticut, his method must be exhumed to serve us again.

My personal leanings are in favor of Nettleton over Finney and this book is part of the rationale for that statement. I have had too much of the Finney styled revivalism in our churches and am greatly concerned that his shadow has cost us much. But in my estimation, the tide is turning toward something vastly different in our day. Polarization may be expected, but not cherished. All over the country I see men rising up with a Nettleton kind of intensity. They long to be evangelistic but are looking for a better model than what they have seen. They don’t want a manual, they want a man. I believe that Nettleton may provide such an example. But new Nettleton’s are desperately called for.

  1. Thornbury, J. F., God Sent Revival, The Story of Asahel Nettleton and the Second Great Awakening, Welwyn, Herts, England: Evangelical Press, 1977, p. 106. As quoted from Revival Sketches and Manual, Heman Humphrey, N.Y. 1859, p. 364
  2. ibid., p. 110
  3. ibid., p. 110
  4. ibid., p. 233
  5. ibid., p.233