When health challenges stopped Asahel Nettleton from becoming an overseas missionary, he took his ministry local. Today, Stephen Nichols recounts the life of a lesser-known yet influential 1800s evangelist.
Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. Last week we were talking about the 1827 New Lebanon Conference, and I mentioned Asahel Nettleton. So let’s take a look at this life of a somewhat forgotten figure of early 19th century. Nettleton was born in 1783, and that was the same year that America was born as an independent nation. The treaty was signed between Great Britain and her formerly rebellious Colonies, and America emerged. Nettleton was born in Connecticut into what 90% of the American population experienced at that time, a farming family. One biographer said of Nettleton’s early years that he learned three things. He learned morality and had a very upright moral character. He learned the catechism, meaning the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and he learned farming.
At the turn of the century, he was reading the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, and he attended revival meetings in Killingsworth, Connecticut. The result, well, he was converted in 1801, and a few years later, he went to Yale. He wanted to be a missionary. This is right at the beginnings of what we call the Second Great Awakening, and Nettleton is living it. When he gets to Yale, the president at that time is Jonathan Edward’s grandson, Timothy Dwight. He was president from 1795 to 1817, and in the years of the 18 zeros, through the preaching of Dwight and even debates he had with faculty, revival came to the campus there at Yale, and again, Nettleton was right in the middle of it all. He graduated from Yale in 1809. He had poor health, which would stay with him throughout his life, and so he was unable to travel overseas to fulfill his desire to be a missionary to foreign lands. Instead, he became a missionary to New England and to New York. He was ordained as a congregationalist minister and was set out as an evangelist and a revivalist.
He moved into a town for a long time, simply observing and learning, and oftentimes there would be an empty church in that town. Well, after several months, he would then start preaching in that empty church, and revivals would come. This happened throughout the 1810s in the 1820s. His biographer Bennett Tyler, an associate of Nettleton, estimates that 30,000 people converted to Christ through the preaching of Nettleton. His preaching was urgent and pleading but certainly not sensationalistic. It was doctrinal in content and not full of manipulation or opinion. One contemporary said of his preaching, “The chief excellence of his preaching seemed to consist in great plainness and simplicity and discrimination, and much solemnity and affectionate earnestness of manner and the application of truth to the heart and to the conscience in taking away the excuses of sinners and leaving them without help and hope, accept in the sovereign mercy of God.”
Well, he was a critic of other approaches to the revivals and to preaching, notably Charles Grandison Finney, whose methods stood in sharp contrast to those of Nettleton. Nettleton also devoted his energies to founding the Theological Institute of Connecticut. It was located at East Windsor Hill, and in 1865 it moved and became the Hartford Theological Seminary. Under Nettleton and others, it was designed to train ministers to stand against the new measures on the one hand and also the progressive tendencies that would eventually give way to the social gospel movements on the other. From 1833 to 1844, he devoted his time to the seminary. He also completed and edited a hymnal, the “Village Hymns for Social Worship,” and he wrote The tune Nettleton. Over the years, it has been used for many hymns, but you would recognize it when you sing the hymn “Come Thou Fount.” Nettleton suffered poor health much of his life, but he preached and soldiered on until the age of 61, where he died in East Windsor, Connecticut. That’s Asahel Nettleton. And I’m Steve Nichols and thanks for listening to 5 Minutes in Church History.