The Extremes of New England Church History

By Alan McElroy

New England’s history appears to be one of extremes. What struck me is that what some might consider a slow drift, was really a quick shift on the timeline of history. There is also apparent hypocrisy in the lives of some of our greatest colonial churchmen.

On the one hand, you have land settled by people searching for a place to worship God freely, the brilliant theologian Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening, and the formation of robust institutions to train clergy for the church. On the other, the same institutions that were formed to train clergy now do not allow Christian organizations on campus, a stained history of slave ownership by Edwards and George Whitefield, the Salem witch trials, and the current spiritually deprave land where less than three percent of its residents claim faith in Christ. In this paper, I will reflect on some of the extremes that I have noticed in New England’s history. 

            While touring New England we visited Plymouth Rock. Stamped into the rock, which was much smaller than I had anticipated, was the year 1620. Seeking the freedom to worship God as they saw in Scripture, the pilgrims left Europe to settle in the new world. From the very beginning, the pilgrims realized the need for an institution to train pastors. A mere sixteen years after landing at Plymouth, Harvard University was formed in 1636. On one of the gates leading onto campus, there is a stone plaque revealing the founder’s intention. It states that God had carried them safely to New England and now that they were settled and had built homes that they did not desire to, “leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when [their] present ministers shall lie in the dust.” Many of the founding members of the university were graduates of England’s Cambridge University and the town that would hold the new school would be named Cambridge.

            Ironically, a mere 65 years later, in 1701, Yale University was founded to train pastors because Harvard had slipped into liberalism. While God used Yale to produce many exceptional pastors and theologians, forty-five years after its founding, the local churches felt the need to start yet another school. Princeton University was founded in 1745. Fighting off the rise of Unitarianism, Andover Seminary followed in 1806. This trend continued into the twentieth century when John Gresham Machen broke away from Princeton taking many with him to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. In the span of three hundred years, we see a tendency to establish an institution for the training of clergy on a biblical and orthodox foundation, only to soon slip into liberalism and the need to start over elsewhere.

The history of New England’s colleges and universities display to us the need for a robust confessional statement and system to maintain the reason the institution was founded. Whether an educational institution or the local church, we can learn from New England that Paul’s words to Timothy when he said, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers,” still ring true. The history of New England’s colleges was more than likely on Machen’s mind when he and the other founders decided the motto of Westminster would be, “The whole counsel of God.”

            The second negative extreme that was evident from the trip was the hypocrisy of those whom we hold so dear as heroes of the faith. George Whitfield a man whom God mightily gifted as a preacher, the man whom even a deist like Benjamin Franklin respected, spent himself for the advancement of the gospel, crossed the Atlantic Ocean seven times to preach in America, and who is buried under the pulpit of the Old South Presbyterian Church, actually owned slaves. The same guy who defied the Church of England and preached in open fields so that poor miners could hear the gospel owned men and women of another race. Even Edwards, whose writing so often moves us to worship the Creator, who told us so eloquently about the mercy of God, denied humanity to other image-bearers by owning them as property.

The part of us that wants to vindicate our heroes wants to shrug and say, “That is just the way it was back then.” However, we should not dust their shortcomings under the rug to make them into some sort of spit-shined supermen, but without making excuses, realize that they, like us, are fallen creatures in need of mercy. Their example also drives me to examine our culture and look for areas we may be found outside of biblical principles. Not to merely be found on the “right side of history” by future generations, but to honor God as much as I can with the time he has given and provide an example for those who might examine our lives.

            On the positive side of the tour, one cannot help but marvel at the extreme faith and tenacity of our older brothers in Christ. How a small band of persecuted believers set out in a little ship, to cross a vast ocean, bound for an unseen world. How they made a home in a dark and unforgiving country that many in our 21st-century context do not wish to move to for the sake of the gospel. Not only did they make a home, but created colleges to train clergy and engaged the Native Americans. David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, and others all took the gospel to the fringes of the Colonies. Dartmouth College was founded with an emphasis on Native American’s. Edwards edited and produced Brainerd’s journal that continues to inspire missionaries.

Some of the men Brainerd’s journal would later inspire were Samuel J. Mills, James Richards, Francis L. Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green. These men know as the Haystack Prayer Group, covenanted together to take the gospel to those who had never heard it. Their peculiar name was applied because the group, encouraged by the lives of Brainerd and William Carey in India, decided to meet and discuss and pray about missions in the fields behind Williams College. A thunderstorm arose, and they were forced to take refuge under a haystack. Later Adoniram Judson would join the five while studying at Andover Seminary.

Judson would become the first Baptist missionary to travel overseas and would lose three wives and several children while proclaiming the good news abroad. Ultimately dying himself aboard ship and buried at sea. The mission God gave these men led to the creation of the International Mission Board that continues to engage the unreached with the gospel. A statue behind Williams College and a modest plaque in the woods behind the former Andover Seminary remind us of these men and their mission. 

Not only do we have a record of the New England Churches bold and great deeds, but also we have inherited a rich heritage of their written word. As already noted, David Brainerd’s journal continues to inspire the next generation of missionaries. Along with his published diary, we have transcripts of many of George Whitefield’s sermons that continue to be read in our day. Finally, one can hardly weight the importance of Edwards’ work and the impact it has had on not just the American church, but also the universal Church.  

Edwards steeped in rich Calvinistic doctrine is often referred to as the last puritan. He is hands down America’s greatest theologian. Even modern philosophers will tip their hats to this intellectual giant. John Gerstner states, “Living in an era when Enlightenment rationalism was beginning to eat away at Christian doctrine, Edwards wrote and preached on almost every aspect of the faith, defending it with Scripture and the church’s tradition.” So great is Edwards’ work that it would be imposable to find a student of theology in the western world who has not been impacted either directly or indirectly by his work. What makes his work all the more humbling is the mode in which he wrote. At the Edwards Center at Yale, we beheld some of his most priceless thoughts on scrap paper from old books. Many of us with access to some of the most elegant leather bound notebooks produced, and high ends fountain pens will never come close to touching the thoughts he scratched out on fan remnants from his wife and daughters’ arts and craft time! If only one could spend an afternoon with the “Blank Bible,” his expository notes on Scripture. Even Edwards’ notes had indexes. We cannot consider a positive extreme on the spectrum of the New England church without reflecting on the massive written intellectual and theological heritage passed down to us from Edwards.    

In contrast to other areas of the United States, New England has inherited a rich and notable church history. Unlike some regions, New England has legendary stalwarts of the faith, beautiful meetinghouses full of church and American history, grand universities, and the legacy of how God poured out his Spirit on the Church. Unfortunately, it also has some of the darkest moments. I think that in a way, the people who live there today illustrate this point. Where I grew up in the southeast, even the most pagan will claim to have some sort of relationship with Christ. The churches are often filled with people who do not look much different from their unbelieving neighbors. However, in New England, people find no reason to pretend to be Christian. While in a local retail store, you might find a large display honoring same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community. Depravity can be celebrated free and open, and those who do not conform should be ignored, if not ridiculed. On the other hand, there are those New Englanders who are true believers and are fully committed to the cause of Christ and are boldly holding the gospel up in front of blind eyes knowing that the Spirit will open some.


Don't lose any sleep over it! We have a delayed start on Sunday, March 10, 2024

EH/MK 10:30-11:20
Worship: 11:30-1:00