Thursday, September 23, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we discuss the fracturing of New England theology and Nathaniel Emmons.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 23rd of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Imagine the stress of both the American Revolution and the Great Awakening for the church. Were you for? Against? Kinda both? Whenever I hear that “these are the most we’ve ever been divided!” I might roll my eyes if no one is looking. The end of the 18th century would see an acceleration in the development of a particularly American church- and at the time and in that place, it was largely Congregational and Calvinist.

The congregational part is important, as it represented a kind of direct democracy at the local level. It was thought that association could lead to episcopacy (having Bishops) and episcopacy leads to the papacy.

The Calvinist part would get complicated. Would it be a facsimile of the thought of John Calvin? Would it be mediated, and if so, by whom?

If anything, the New England church was a facsimile of Jonathan Edwards's version of Calvinism. And it is fair to suggest that his focus was the sovereignty of God through his salvation of the elect in Jesus Christ. But after his death, this New England theology (sometimes called Edwardsianism) would splinter, and often the questions of election and predestination were at the heart of it.

Today I want to introduce you to a man who lived in this context as a pastor, teacher, and theologian. His name was Nathaniel Emmons and he would forever go down as one of the “New Lights” (as opposed to the “Old Lights”) who would try to refashion the doctrines of election and grace for his age. But before I take you to the beginning of his life, I’d like to go to his death.

It was on this, the 23rd of September in 1840 that Nathanial Emmons was on his deathbed and is reported to have said “if I am not saved, I shall be disappointed”.

Now, I tend to take “last words” and death bed stories with a grain of salt- but there is some real pathos in this quote. It reveals a man who believed in an eternal conscious hell and was resigned to God’s will, regardless of the outcome. He was a Calvinist, despite some controversy.

Emmons was born in Connecticut in 1745. He attended Yale and graduated in 1767. He was ordained in 1769 and in 1773 he took his first call to an abandoned church in Franklin Massachusetts. I hear those 70s were a little crazy up in New England, Revolution and all that, but Emmons would stay at the same congregation until he retired 54 years later.

Phillip Schaff described his home as a kind of theological seminary and wrote that he was constantly teaching young people and at least 9 of his students became professors or presidents of colleges and seminaries.

Emmons was well-liked by his congregation but would get into tiffs with other Calvinists in the region. Emmons held, along with Edwards and Calvin, in the absolute sovereignty of God and his eternal decrees. But these “New Lights” sought to develop their theology in a way that Edwards may have agreed with, they sought to keep their theology developing with important changes in our understanding of the world.

For Emmons, this meant dealing seriously with Enlightenment Humanism which argued against Calvin and Edwards. These philosophies and theologies would do more to center the human will and contingencies in the story of a sovereign God. But Emmons never left the New Lights or Edwardsians. He believed himself to be in Edwards tradition despite his emphasis on human actions. For Emmons, an altar call or demand to repent and believe was not incompatible with a sovereign God. To oversimplify with an old paraphrase of something a church father may or may not have said: the theology of Emmons was “pray like everything is up to God, Act like everything is up to you” (or the other way around… whatever). While many were critical of Emmons, his theology along with that of Samuel Hopkins would broaden Calvinism, or at least how American Calvinist ministers would talk in the context of revival, human will, and the need to repent and believe. Despite his own possible misgivings, he had repented and believed- and whatever that crazy combo of predestination and will is supposed to look like, the old preacher probably had a few questions when he went to glory on this day in 1840.

The reading for today comes from Romans 10:

if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who asks “can anything good come out of New England?” He is Christoper Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who responds to that question with “yes, but never their sports teams”. I am Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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