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The dungeon flamed with light

August 2003 | by Michael Haykin

When Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) recounted the story of God’s remarkable work in his town of Northampton in 1734-1735, he noted that it was not an isolated occurrence.

At the very time revival was bursting forth in Northampton, the glory of God was also being displayed in the salvation of sinners in other towns in the Connecticut River Valley.

But, Edwards went on, ‘this shower of divine blessing has been yet more extensive: there was no small degree of it in some parts of the Jerseys, as I was informed when I was at New York…

‘Especially the Rev. William Tennent … told me … of a very considerable revival of religion … under the ministry of a very pious gentleman, a Dutch minister, whose name as I remember was Freelinghousa.’

The Dutch minister in question was none other than Theodore Jacob Frelinghuysen, whose early life and ministry we considered last month. We left him shortly after his arrival in the New World in 1720.

Unwilling to believe

Frelinghuysen soon realised that many of the Dutch Reformed congregations in the New World were Christian in name only. In fact, only twenty people partook of the Lord’s Supper in the churches to which he had been called.

To rectify matters, he began to address the unconverted men and women under his preaching, as needing the vital experience of salvation.

For Frelinghuysen, the heart of Reformed theology was the new birth. While only God could bring an individual – through spiritual awakening and anxiety about his soul – to true repentance and actual conversion, this did not relieve men of their responsibility to respond to the gospel.

As he told his hearers: ‘For many years now you have been invited and called. Please tell me once, what has prevented you. Is it not your own unwillingness? Or do you think that the decree of God is the reason for it?

‘Heedless men will accuse God of injustice, as the reason for their unregeneracy and destruction … You have not remained unbelieving and unconverted because you thought that God prevented you, but because you had no inclination or desire thereto.’1

Pastoral duty

Such responsibility, of course, also implied that ministers of the gospel must faithfully discharge their calling, urging the lost to look to Christ. A note of tender pleading runs through many of Frelinghuysen’s sermons as he called sinners to see the error of their ways and turn to Christ.

Here, for example, is how he finished one sermon, preached in 1745 near the end of his life:

‘Where will you flee to on that day when heaven and earth go up in flames? What wings will cover you from the face of God and the wrath of the Lamb?

‘There will be no place of refuge offered to you then; only a fearful expectation of the fiery wrath that will destroy all of God’s enemies (Hebrews 10).

‘I therefore beg you to arise and come to Jesus. Realise the danger that is all around you and threatens you. Acknowledge the necessity of coming to Jesus so you may have life.’2

Or consider these words that come at the close of a sermon entitled ‘The miserable end of the ungodly’:

‘The Lord Jesus … possesses a fullness that adapts to all the needs of a sinner. He is exceedingly gracious and willing to communicate that grace to penitent sinners.

‘Jesus stands before us with extended arms, inviting sinners and the ungodly to repentance. Oh, let him who senses his sins and his state of condemnation before God surrender himself to the Lord Jesus!’3

Opposition

Such a message, though, was like smoke to the eyes of some office-bearers in his congregation and also to many of Frelinghuysen’s fellow Dutch Reformed ministers.

The latter had been deeply swayed by the confidence in human reason typical of the epoch. In their perspective, for a person to experience God, he first had to grasp him with his reason.

Once this had taken place, a person could then understand his own sinfulness. The means to accomplish this were literate sermons, adhering closely to the liturgy of the church; catechising the young; and administering the sacraments.

Little wonder that many of the Dutch Reformed ministers reacted negatively to Frelinghuysen’s heart-religion and emphasis on the necessity of the Spirit’s work in conversion – as well as his enforcement of a stricter church discipline.

Enthusiasm

They derided his teaching as ‘fanaticism and enthusiasm’ – the latter a moniker in the 18th century for unbridled irrationality. For his defence of a biblical mode of church discipline, he was attacked as being proud and censorious.

When Frelinghuysen refused to admit to the Lord’s Supper one he regarded as unconverted, opposition to his ministry began to accelerate, both within and outside of his congregation.

For a good ten years, from 1723 to 1733, controversy raged. Frelinghuysen was accused of preaching false doctrine. At one point he was even locked out of two of the churches under his pastoral charge!

The cost and the blessing

He persevered through these attacks, but not without a heavy cost. During the early 1730s there were numerous occasions when he experienced debilitating emotional breakdowns. But, in time, God honoured his teaching and more than 300 were solidly converted under his preaching.

When the Lord brought about what we call the Great Awakening in the 1740s – in which the preaching of George Whitefield (1714-1770) was so prominent – the English itinerant acknowledged that Frelinghuysen had been ‘the beginner of the great work [of revival] in New Jersey’.

James Tanis has written the best study of Freling-huysen’s life and theology. He notes that in one of the books in his library, the Dutch minister had written a prayer:

‘O that thou wouldst give me the wings of a dove. I would fly over the wide world – to bring all the earth to Christ’s power’.4

As Tanis goes on to note, Frelinghuysen sought to do just that within the context of his settled ministry in New Jersey and the other Middle Colonies. By God’s grace, his ministry had not been in vain.

Note

Of the thousands of sermons that Frelinghuysen preached, only twenty-two (which were published during his lifetime) seem to have survived. It appears that there are no manuscript copies of any of his sermons.

An excellent edition of these sermons is Forerunner of the Great Awakening, edited by Joel R. Beeke, available from Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids.

References

1. James Tanis, Dutch Calvinistic Pietism in the Middle Colonies, Martinus Nijhoff, 1967, p.122.
2. Joel R. Beeke, ed., Forerunner of the Great Awakening, Eerdmans, 2000, p.298.
3. Beeke, loc. cit., p.104.
4. Tanis,loc. cit., p.86.

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