In the Ice Box of Connecticut

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Dr. Ed Eastman
Spiritual Heritage Series: Part Four of Seven, November 26, 2006

While climatologists are sounding increasingly urgent warnings about global warming, recent religious demographic studies suggest that the spiritual climate, at least
in our part of the country, is becoming distinctly cooler. With some exceptions, membership in main line and evangelical denominations is either stagnant or falling, even
though the overall population of the region continues to grow.

This is, however, nothing new. Two hundred years ago, churches in Litchfield County were similarly concerned about lack of growth and diminishing influence in their communities. Their fortunes changed dramatically, however, in the years 1798-1799, as God brought deep spiritual warming to many pastors and churches.

No town experienced greater warming than Norfolk, the so-called “ice box of Connecticut.” Then, in part because a new monthly journal, The Connecticut Evangelical Magazine, began reporting what was occurring in communities like Norfolk, revival spread rapidly throughout much of New England and eventually the nation, in a movement that came to be known as the Second Great Awakening in America. The story of what happened in Norfolk deserves to be better known.

The Congregational church that stands in the center of Norfolk today is the second meetinghouse to stand on the village green, and is located on the exact site of the original meetinghouse in which the founding minister, Rev. Ammi Ruhamah Robbins, preached. Although the town had a population of well under 2,000 in the 1790’s, the church in Norfolk witnessed the greatest number of converts of any church in northwestern Connecticut during the village revivals of 1798-1799. Looking back in his “Half-Century Sermon,” preached some years later, Robbins reported with obvious wonder that after 37 years of faithful but unspectacular ministry, nearly 160 new converts were added to the Norfolk church during that brief two-year period.

In the February 1801 issue of the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine, Robbins outlined the circumstances he believed God had used to precipitate revival in Norfolk. His observations are both interesting and instructive, providing useful insight into how genuine revivals of religion take place.

First, Robbins pointed to the participation of church members and pastors in quarterly concerts of prayer. One day each quarter, for a period of five years prior to the onset of revival, the church in Norfolk had been praying and fasting for revival. Robbins once remarked “that if God’s people really desire he should grant them a gracious visit, they must humbly ask for it.”

Second, Robbins mentions reports of revival in the surrounding towns. These reports encouraged Christians in Norfolk to pray even more earnestly for God’s favor in bringing revival. Robbins understood that revival is catching, or, as another commentator has observed of such reports, that “revivals took on the characteristics of an epidemic, a fact of which ministers were not unaware.”

The third precipitating factor described by Robbins were the weekly Thursday night public lectures (presumably at the meetinghouse) and weekly conferences held in four or five homes throughout the town. Guest pastors from area churches were invited to speak, and to instruct or disciple converts. It was assumed that unbelievers as well as church members would be present, and the teaching was addressed to them as well.

Once revival was under way, Robbins believed, the most important factors in sustaining it were the preaching of the Bible, religious conferences (small groups for teaching, discussing and applying biblical principles), and prayer meetings. Robbins reminded those who longed for spiritual renewal that the preaching of doctrine, particularly the doctrine of God’s grace and mercy toward sinners, is essential. Revival is not possible without it. Robbins put it this way: “Those doctrines [of saving grace] which the world call[s] hard sayings, are the most powerful means in the hands of the blessed Spirit to pull down and destroy Satan’s strong-holds in the hearts of sinners.”

In addition to his role in encouraging revival in Norfolk, Ammi Robbins was also a mentor pastor, with a deep interest in missions. As a mentor or teacher, he prepared more than 100 young men for college, many of whom later entered the ministry. As a corporate trustee of Williams College, Robbins urged young men, including three of his own sons, to study at Williams because of the missionary interest that was developing among the college’s students. Possessing a heart for missions himself, he set an example by visiting settlements in northern New York and Vermont. It should also be noted that his son, Francis Robbins, was one of the five young men who in 1806 met during a violent thunderstorm in the Haystack Prayer Meeting described in last week’s article in this series.

Though highly regarded by his peers, Ammi Robbins was a humble and unassuming man. Prior to the 1798-1799 revival, Robbins had experienced two smaller revivals in Norfolk, one in 1767 which added a dozen new converts to his church, and another in 1783 which added fifty new converts. Then came 111 in 1799, 45 in 1800 and 18 in 1801. Robbins could easily have proclaimed himself an authority on church growth and health, but his report to the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine was offered in a letter beginning with these words: “Gentlemen, If you judge it conducive to the interests of the Redeemer’s Kingdom, to insert any, or all, of the following communications in the Magazine . . . they are cheerfully submitted to your wisdom and discretion.”

The epitaph on Robbins’ grave in Norfolk’s Center Cemetery reveals something of his character, and may suggest the kind of person God seeks and uses in renewal movements: “He was humble, yet zealous: peaceable, yet bold in his Master’s cause. In all the duties of his office he was sincere, tender and affectionate. His doctrine and his life reflected credit on each other, and in his death he strikingly exemplified that resignation to the divine will which he steadily preached to others. When called for he said, ‘Let me go and receive mercy.’”

Next week we will briefly explore the role played by Cornwall in the Second

Great Awakening, and learn more about the connection between the currents of spiritual renewal that swept our region at the end of the 18th century and the movement to take Christianity to other nations.