Review of The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton

Review of The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton

Book by Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar

Tyler, Bennet, and Bonar, Andrew, The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton, Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprint 1975, 454 pp. ($18.00)

The author, Bennet Tyler, was a pastor for many years at South Britain, Connecticut, where he knew Nettleton intimately. He eventually became the president of Dartmouth College. He is famous for his polemics against the liberal Nathaniel Taylor and the New Haven theology, a view which countered the Edwardsian and Augustinian view of depravity. This became known as the “Tyler-Taylor controversy.” The end result was the constituting of a new seminary first called the Theological Institute of Connecticut and later Hartford Theological Seminary, where he where he served as president until his death. Asahel Nettleton was also instrumental in beginning this new institution. 1

Andrew Bonar, was a Scottish minister (1810-1892) who “remodeled in some parts” this work. He is known for his association with the revival movement in Scotland and his association with the well-known Robert Murray McCheyne, whose memoir he wrote. 2

According to the author, Asahel Nettleton was instrumental in the conversion of 30,000 souls. What evangelistic leader would not want to know about such a man? Nettleton (1783-1844) first received his religious impressions at age eighteen in North Killingsworth, Connecticut. His agonizing bout with conviction lasted ten months. He was converted in the midst of revival. In fact, the then new publication called the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine recorded his conversion as part of its revival intelligence.

Though an average student, he maintained a good relationship at Yale with President Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who gave him warm approbation. He read nearly all of Edward’s works while in school, and those of his two most famous students, Bellamy and Hopkins.

Though his missionary intentions were thwarted due to debt, he eventually paid off that debt, and, through the providence of God, began itinerant work. He had studied the ill effects of James Davenport, gathering as much information as possible. Davenport had itinerated during the Great Awakening in the mid-seventeen hundreds and had caused much turmoil with his caustic manner. The result was that the influence of several pastor’s was marginalized, some churches split, and general confusion prevailed. Nettleton, much the wiser for this knowledge, was diligent to avoid such sophomoric behavior. He never came uninvited into another’s parish, and sought to build up the pastors, submitting entirely to their authority over their church. The end product was revival and recovery of trust in the very “waste places” which had been created by Davenport’s wake a half a century earlier.

Nettleton was a man of poor health, perhaps suffering from a recurring form of malarial fever. However, his preaching had a powerful effect. A Dr. Humphrey of the Religious Intelligencer described one message as “one continued flash of conviction.” 3 One observer said:

The chief excellence of his preaching seemed to consist in great plainness, and simplicity, and discrimination—in much solemnity and affectionate earnestness of manner in the application of the truth to the heart and conscience—in taking away the excuses of sinners, and leaving them without help and hope, except in the sovereign mercy of God. 4

Nettleton is noted for his use of “meetings of inquiry.” They were usually done in the following way:

After a short address, suited to produce solemnity, and to make all who were present feel that they were in the presence of a holy and heart-searching God, he would offer prayer. Then he would speak to each individual present in a low voice, unless the number was so large as to render it impossible. When that was the case, he would sometimes have one or two brethren in the ministry to assist him. He would converse with each one but a short time. The particular object of this conversation is to ascertain the state of each one’s mind. He would then make a solemn address, giving them such counsel as he perceived to be suited to their condition; after which he closed the meeting with prayer. He usually advised them to retire with stillness, and to go directly to their closets. 5

The great conflict of Nettleton’s life was with the revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, against whose denunciatory attitude and novel methods Nettleton chaffed. Finney was railing against time-honored doctrine and even the finest of pastors, if they took exception to him, when he was only three years old as a Christian. The veteran Nettleton did not appreciate this. His chagrin over “the new measures” of Finney was expressed in a long letter to a Mr. Aikin, which was eventually published for all to see. Much of it is reproduced in this book.

The book ends with a sampling of anecdotes demonstrating his effectiveness and wisdom as a counselor, spiritual logician, and preacher.

If this book suffers from any lack, the most glaring would be an overmuch affinity for Nettleton by the author. However, in biographical literature, one learns to see around this. Though the subject of Finney was addressed, I felt that the author dealt with the issues concerning Finney only slightly, out of proportion to the actual facts. For instance, there is virtually nothing on the New Lebanon conference which had been designed to resolve conflicts between the old school and the new thinking on revivals of religion. This meeting is strategic in the history of the Second Great Awakening. In my estimation, the author did not want to reduce the aura of Nettleton’s impact for his readers and therefore did not say much about it.

The author adds a delightful section of numerous anecdotes from Nettleton. These experiences of Nettleton are useful in understanding the man, and are, in some ways, what makes this particular work effective. I felt much closer to the man after reading them. To illustrate his emphasis on repentance and his understanding of the law, for instance, Tyler writes:

An Antinomian complained to him that ministers dwelt so much in their preaching on the demands of the law. “Believers,” said he, “are not under the law, but under grace.” “Is it not the duty of believers,” said Dr. Nettleton, “to repent?”—”Certainly,” he replied. “Of what is it their duty to repent?” said Dr. Nettleton. The man saw at once the precipice before him. If he said, ‘Of sin,’ he perceived that the next question would be: What is sin but a transgression of the law? And if believers are not under obligations to obey the law, what can there be for them to repent of? 6

I am always intrigued by the theology of revival. Consistently I see the greater, more lasting impact of reformed theology on revival. It underlies so much of what happened in the visitations of God in the past history, especially prior to Finney. Nettleton carried this theology forward. Tyler states:

It was the full conviction of Dr. Nettleton, that all genuine religious experience is based on correct views of the doctrines of grace; and, consequently, that the religious experience of those whose views of these doctrines are defective, or essentially erroneous, will be, in like degree, defective or spurious. 7(emphasis in original)

My research so far into the subject of revival yields the same conclusion. The vast difference in the longevity of converts, for instance, between Finney and Nettleton is enough alone to demonstrate the rationality of his argument. It has become apparent to me that otherwise good men who are wrongly informed in doctrinal areas may, unwittingly, find themselves working against the effective extension of the Kingdom of God. Our doctrine definitely plays in to the revival we experience. Some think that revival is always unifying, and, in some way, perfect as it works itself out in the life of the larger church and the community. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our doctrine makes all the difference. What we believe when revival comes will likely be exaggerated during revival. The ramifications of wrong doctrine at the outset are staggering, and in part explain the abuses which sometimes follow (consider Davenport). This is not to say that we do not need revival, but that we also need reformation. In some senses, we need the later first.

I was stimulated to try arranging for a new approach in some of my meetings in the future directly related to Nettleton’s inquiry room procedure. A deliberate meeting with those seeking answers at a special time could be an important tool, provided the apparent conviction of the people calls for it.

Finally, I have been again impressed with the humility of Nettleton. I hope that I can emulate it. Mr. Cobb of Taunton, Connecticut, said:

He was remarkably free from the love of applause. When anyone spoke to him of the good he was doing, he would sometimes reply: “We have no time to talk about that.” And frequently I have known him to turn pale and retire from the company, and prostrate himself before God as a great and unworthy sinner. 8

1Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry Stout, editors, Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), p. 1191-1192.

2J. D. Douglas, general editor, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974, 1978), p. 141.

3Tyler, Bennet, and Bonar, Andrew, The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton, Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprint 1975), p. 160.

4ibid., p. 282

5ibid., p. 309-310

6ibid., p. 401-402

7ibid., p. 394

8ibid., p. 421