Thursday, October 7, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we remember John Dickinson and his role in the Moderate Great Awakening in America.

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

It is the 7th of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

The other day on the Almanac we looked again at the life and legacy of Jonathan Edwards- one of the most important theologians for the American Protestant Great Awakening. We also mentioned him becoming the president of Princeton University- and we have seen that religious history in 18th century America goes through Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey). Jonathan Edwards tragically died shortly after becoming president, but he was only one on a list of seemingly cursed early Princeton Presidents. Today I want to introduce you to Jonathan Dickinson- the first President of Princeton who also died tragically upon assuming the office, but more importantly, Dickinson is perhaps the underrated figure in the history of the moderate Awakening.

Jonathan Dickinson was born in 1688. He is not Jonathan Dickinson the shipwrecked merchant in Florida, who was a contemporary nor is he John Dickinson, also a contemporary who would be a founding father. OK- this is the one who went to Yale, graduated in 1706, and made his way to Elizabethtown New Jersey. Here he moved to the Presbyterian Church but kept his New England Congregational connections. This would put him in a place of mediation between two churches with similar theology but different polities.

When revival struck New Jersey Dickinson would take his moderating skills to help take his congregation between the Scylla of Enthusiasm and the Charybdis of Old-Sider apathy. He has been called the great pacifier as well as an exemplary moderate. Dickinson was a Puritan at heart, but also believed that Enlightenment rationality was not inconsistent with Christianity. One historian has written that his Christianity was “the Puritan synthesis of piety and reason”. We can see this in his 1732 treatise “the Reasonableness of Christianity” (Locke had already written a book with the same title, but downplayed the supernatural elements of the faith- this is very different from the tact Dickinson took).

Dickinson was taken aback by the excesses of some revival practices. Opportunistic pastors with little training took to spectacle and others were accused of using their temporary fame for.. well… the ladies. We will leave that there. He was also afraid of what he believed to be a creeping Arminianism which he rightly saw as a threat to the Calvinist Puritan tradition.

We also know that he had a profligate and prodigal son with whom he would be estranged. In what little he wrote concerning his son we know that he believed a vital and vibrant Christianity would have served him better as a youth. It has been suggested that his pull towards to the New Siders was conditioned by his shame in having a son leave the church.

(Never underestimate, with regards to Church history, the pull of faithful Christian parents whose primary concern is the state of their children’s souls).

IN the aftermath of some of the excesses of the Awakening a number of men got together to propose opening a school for the training of ministers. The Log College, founded in 1727 had been an institution for training Presbyterian ministers, but some wanted to blend theological training (for any denomination as well as training in the Arts and Sciences). A new college would open in Elizabethtown where Dickinson lived- the College of New Jersey would call him as its first President on account of his intra-denominational connections and moderating spirit among other qualifications.

The first classes in the history of what would be called Princeton were held in Dickinson’s living room. He did not, however, see that first graduating class of 8 as he died from Small Pox just five months into his tenure as president on this, the 7th of October in 1747. Born in 1688 Jonathan Dickinson was 59 years old.

The last word for today comes from Luke 15:

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite famous Princeton students include Jimmy Stewart, Booth Tarkington, and F. Scott Fitzgerald Christoper Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man whose favorite fictional characters who claimed to be from Princeton include Sam Seaborn, Doogie Howser, and Batman 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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