The Second Great Awakening, the second major period of widespread revival in America, started in the 1790s and continued through the opening decades of the 1800s. From the intellectual Northeast to the wild and wooly western frontier (Kentucky and Tennessee at the time), the entire nation was hugely impacted by the revival. As a result, the Northeast was delivered from the godless, humanistic philosophy then threatening to engulf it while the frontier was rescued from the lawlessness and immorality sweeping across it. In all parts of the country Christ’s kingdom work was mightily advanced rather than diminished.
In this Perspective I will focus more narrowly on the first season of revival that came to Yale College during the Second Great Awakening. The college’s president at that time was Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards. When Dwight assumed the reins of leadership at Yale in 1795 the college “was in a most ungodly state,” and only about ten percent of its 125 students publicly professed to be Christians.
Lyman Beecher, who went on to become a famous New England minister, was a junior when Dwight arrived as Yale’s president. Beecher reported of spiritual conditions at the school: “The college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling and licentiousness were common. That was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school. Boys that dressed flax in the barn read Tom Paine and believed him … [M]ost of the class before me were infidels and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert, etc.”
Under the influence of the Enlightenment’s anti-Christian philosophy, the students had come to doubt the reliability of Scripture. Shortly after Dwight’s arrival at Yale, he accepted the seniors’ challenge to debate the question, “Are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament the Word of God?” Dwight invited the students to mount the strongest case they could against the Bible, promising not to assume they personally believed everything about the arguments they set forth for the purposes of debate. After hearing them out, he then proceeded to systematically and meticulously demolish their case and to capably construct “a well-reasoned defense of the Bible’s accuracy.” For six solid months Dwight preached a series of weekly sermons on the issue of biblical authority and accuracy. “From that moment Infidelity was not only without a stronghold, but without a lurking place,” Dwight’s son Sereno afterward related.
A little over a year later twenty-five students founded the Moral Society of Yale College, pledging to hold each other spiritually accountable in small groups similar to the Wesleys’ Holy Clubs at Oxford. Just one year earlier only ten students were willing to publicly profess their Christian faith, and eight of those were seniors who had since graduated.
Then in 1802 full-fledged revival swept across the campus. For several months a small group of students met weekly to pray that God would bring spiritual awakening to Yale as He had been to the country’s western frontier. After a well-known senior professed newfound devotion to Christ, the campus revival spread rapidly. That year one-third of the Yale student body, which then numbered 230, professed saving faith in Jesus Christ, and fifty-eight students joined the college church.
A student later reported: “The whole college was shaken. It seemed for a time as if the whole mass of the students would press into the kingdom. It was the Lord’s doing, and marvelous in all eyes. Oh, what a blessed change! It was a glorious reformation.”
Dwight testified: “Such triumphs of grace, none whose privilege it was to witness them, had ever before seen. So sudden and so great was the change in individuals, and in the general aspect of the college, that those who had been waiting for it were filled with wonder as well as joy. And those who knew not what it meant were awe-struck and amazed. Wherever students were found in their rooms, in the chapel, in the hall, in the college-yard, in their walks about the city, the reigning impression was, “Surely God is in this place.” The salvation of the soul was the great subject of thought, of conversation, of absorbing interest; the convictions of many were pungent and overwhelming; the “peace in believing” which succeeded, was not less strongly marked.”
Thirty students, half the revived senior class, entered pastoral ministry. While only thirteen graduates had become ministers in the four years preceding the revival, in the four years that followed the awakening, sixty-nine graduates went on to pastor local churches.
Subsequent periods of revival came to Yale in 1808, 1812-1813, 1815 and 1831. New Haven, CT, where Yale was located, shared in the awakenings. In the 1831 revival, 104 students became members of the college church while 900 others in New Haven were converted.
For further inspiring information on the revivals that took place at Yale during the Second Great Awakening, see chapter 3 (“God and Men at Yale”) in Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge’s excellent book A God-Sized Vision, Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. May the Lord use accounts such as these (1) to help us believe that bona fide spiritual revival is possible in our own day as it was in the past and (2) to earnestly seek it from Him.
Copyright 2015 by Vance E. Christie