CHAPTER II. CONVERSION.
Declension of Religion Previous to the Great Awakening.- Revival at Northampton under the Preaching of Edwards.- First Labors of Whitefield in New England.- Extent of the Great Awakening.- Kind of Preaching Blessed.- Genuineness of the Work Notwithstanding Imprudences.- Mr. Backus's Account of His Own Conviction and Conversion
MR. Backus refers the most important event of his life to a very interesting period in the history of New England, the time of the Great Awakening. Previous to this Awakening there had been a sad declension. Many persons had been educated for the ministry and had undertaken to perform its sacred duties while strangers to renewing grace, and therefore in many places the peculiar and efficacious truths of Christianity had been imperfectly taught or entirely overlooked. "We have long," says Jonathan Edwards, "been in a strange stupor; the influences of the Spirit of God upon the heart have been but little felt, and the nature of them but little taught." "No serious Christian," writes another, "could behold it without a heavy heart, and scarce without a weeping eye,--to see the solid, substantial piety, for which our ancestors were justly renowned, having long languished under sore decays, brought so low, and seemingly just ready to expire and give up the ghost."
It must, however, be remarked, as an evidence of remaining life, that Christians were deeply conscious of the stupor and coldness complained of. There were, moreover, during this period, several local revivals which served to awaken a general desire in the hearts of believers for a "time of refreshing from the presence of the Lord." The "Narrative of Surprising Conversions," prepared by Jonathan Edwards, and giving an account of the glorious work of God at Northampton, in 1734, did much to spread and strengthen this desire. In the spring of 1735, before the publication of this narrative, two ministers of Connecticut, namely, Mr. Lord of Norwich, and Mr. Owen of Groton, had visited that place, "that they might see, and hear, and form a judgment for themselves. They conversed with Mr. Edwards, and with many of the people, to their great satisfaction. They declared that the work exceeded all which had been told, or that could be told. On their return, they reported what they had heard and seen, to their own people, on whom it had a great effect. It appeared to be a means of beginning a similar work in Norwich, which in a short time became general."1 In many other places the people of God were refreshed by his presence, and throughout New England there seems to have been a growing desire on the part of Christians for a genuine revival.
It is not therefore strange that good men in Boston, "where religion was at a very low ebb," heard with peculiar interest of Whitefield's success as a preacher of the Gospel in the southern colonies and in his native land, and sent him earnest invitations to visit New England. Sailing from Charleston, South Carolina, in answer to their call, he landed at Newport, Rhode Island, on the fourteenth day of September, 1740, and at once began his labors. Thousands hung upon his words; and these words were accompanied by "the demonstration of the Spirit and of power." From Newport he proceeded to Boston, where he remained about ten days, and preached the truth to multitudes with astonishing effect. From that city he extended his journey eastward to York, Maine, finding everywhere on his way eager listeners to the word of life. Retracing his steps, he labored once more a short time in Boston, and then directing his course toward the west, he visited Edwards in Northampton. Passing thence through Connecticut, he preached in a large number of towns, and the power of God was signally manifested in turning sinners unto Himself. Meanwhile, revivals commenced in many places which he was unable to visit. Religion became the principal topic of conversation. Faithful pastors redoubled their efforts and urged upon the attention of their hearers with unwonted zeal the most affecting and pungent truths of revelation. Godly persons were encouraged by the remarkable success of the Gospel, to pray with more confidence for the outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon themselves and their friends. Many, too, of the ungodly were led to believe that the present was their only day of grace.
Trumbull, in his history of Connecticut, after describing at length the peculiarities of this religious awakening, thus proceeds: "Notwithstanding the unreasonable and powerful opposition made to the work of God at this time, and all the clamor which was made about errors and disorders, it was the most glorious and extensive revival of religion, and reformation of manners, which this country ever experienced. It is estimated that in the term of two or three years thirty or forty thousand souls were born into the family of heaven in New England."2 There has never, probably, been a time since the settlement of New England, when the minds of her people were so generally and so intensely directed to the characteristic doctrines of Christianity. The preaching of such men as Edwards and Bellamy and Whitefield and Tennant and Wheelock and Pomeroy, was in the main Calvinistic and highly discriminating. It led to self-examination and deep conviction of sin. The law was exhibited in all its breadth and spirituality, until the unconverted hearer felt himself to be a guilty "sinner in the hands of an angry God." Salvation was declared to be a free gift, an effect of sovereign, electing, infinite love.
These doctrines are very repugnant to the natural heart, and can be received by those only who understand the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Yet they take strong hold of the awakened mind, and when applied by the Holy Spirit, lead it into the presence of God and fill it with peace and strength indescribable. Under the influence of such preaching the transition from death to life was often strongly marked. "As their convictions were powerful, and their distress, in some instances, almost intolerable; so their light and joys, on a change of heart, were unusually great. They appeared to rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.''3 Sometimes the overpowering emotions of the soul produced strange agitations in the body. Yet these bodily changes were not regarded as proofs of inward grace; they were deprecated rather than desired. Still, by the friends of the revival they were neither ascribed to Satanic agency nor thought to be inconsistent with the gracious operations of God's Spirit. Jonathan Edwards refers to imprudences and sinful irregularities, to transports and ecstasies, to errors in judgment and indiscreet zeal, to outcries and faintings and agitations of body, but he ncvertheless finds the clearest indications of a work of God, even in the hearts of some who were thus carried away by the strength of their emotions. And after a careful examination of the evidence, few will dissent from his opinion.
In the great awakening which we have briefly noticed, Backus was brought to a saving knowledge of the truth. He had no opportunity to hear either Whitefield or Tennent, but the revival which attended their labors, "reached Norwich in 1741, under the preaching of Dr. Wheelock and others." "This work," says Mr. Backus, "was so powerful, and people in general were so ignorant, that they had little government of their passions. Many cried out and fell down in meetings. But I had so much doctrinal knowledge, that I never was overcome in that manner. Neither could I put off my concern, as I had done before, for a more convenient season. No, though I was in good health, I saw that life was forfeited by sin, and that God had a right to take it away in a moment. I saw also that lie had now given me an opportunity to repent and turn to Him, and that, if it was neglected, I was lost for eternity. Time was then taken out of the way, and a vast eternity was directly before me, without any hope of ever having another day of grace, should this be neglected. This moved me to the earnest use of all the means, public or private, within my reach, that I might get a good heart to come to Christ with. For all the sound teaching with which I had been favored had given me no higher ideas than that a good disposition of mind was necessary in order to come to Christ for salvation. But all the awakening preaching that I now heard, and all the books which I read, were so far from producing any such disposition, that my heart seemed to grow worse and worse daily; and I saw seeds of all the evils of the world in me. While others were crying out and falling down in distress, I felt like a stupid beast before God; and nothing was more terrible to me than the fear of losing my convictions and being left of God to a hard heart and reprobate mind; for I fully believed that now was my only time to obtain salvation, that I should never have another day of grace. Neither could I bear to be deceived with a false hope. When a minister once stated a ease like mine, and then said to his hearers: "If this be your case, be not discouraged, but see if God does not appear speedily for your help," I was powerfully tempted to cast off my concern and to hope for help hereafter. But this appeared plainly to come from the adversary, and it increased my distress. Again, one morning these words came into my mind like an audible voice, "Thou art not far from the kingdom of heaven." But my soul was alarmed thereby, through fear of being settled down in something short of a union with Christ, and this alarm made me cry out to Him for help.
"In the beginning of August, Mr. James Davenport came to Norwich, where he was met by Doctors Wheelock and Pomeroy, and meetings were held incessantly for three days. People were greatly affected and many hopefully converted, while I grew worse and worse in my own view. Powerful preaching, and the sight of many in distress or joy, while I remained a hardened sinner, caused such anguish as words cannot express. Yet hereby God laid open to me the plague of my own heart and the folly of seeking life by my own doings. My tears were dried up, and I could find no good in me. Instead of this I felt inclined to quarrel with the sovereignty and justice of God, and the freeness of his grace, a grace so free that he was not obliged to have mercy upon me after all my doings. A sight of these corruptions increased my distress and filled me with confusion before God. And as I believed this to be my last opportunity, and my convictions seemed to be going off, and the work of God to be abating among us, how awful did my case appear! But God's thoughts are as high above our thoughts as the heavens are above the earth; for He thus drew me off from all trust in myself or any creature, and led me to embrace salvation in His own way.
"As I was mowing alone in the field, August 24th, 1741, all my past life was opened plainly before me, and I saw clearly that it had been filled up with sin. I went and sat down in the shade of a tree, where my prayers and tears, my hearing the Word of God and striving for a better heart, with all my other doings, were set before me in such a light that I perceived I could never make myself better, should I live ever so long. Divine justice appeared clear in my condemnation, and I saw that God had a right to do with me as he would. My soul yielded all into His hands, fell at His feet, and was silent and calm before Him. And while I sat there, I was enabled by divine light to see the perfect righteousness of Christ and the freeness and riches of His grace, with such clearness, that my soul was drawn forth to trust in Him for salvation. And I wondered that others did not also come to Him who had enough for all. The Word of God and the promises of His grace appeared firmer than a rock, and I was astonished at my previous unbelief. My heavy burden was gone, tormenting fears were fled, and my joy was unspeakable.
"Yet this change was so different from my former ideas of conversion, that for above two days I had no thought of having experienced it. Then I heard a sermon read which gave the characters of the children of God, and I had an inward witness that those characters were wrought in me; such as a spirit of prayer, a hatred of sin, an overcoming of the world, love to the brethren, and love to enemies; and I conclude that I then had the sealings of the Spirit of God, that I was a child of His. New ideas and dispositions were given me; the worship and service of God and obedience to His will were the delight of my soul. I found such happiness therein as I never bad in all the vanities of the world; and this I have often experienced since."
Mr. Backus then proceeds to speak of those alternations of spiritual joy and despondency, to which every Christian is peculiarly subject in the beginning of his course, tie observes, that although darkness at times overspread his mind, he was unable to revive his former terrors; although doubts in respect to his piety were experienced, be sought in vain to recover his previous state of conviction, tie attributes his depression and distress to a want of watchfulness and to a neglect of known duty.