Dr. Ed Eastman
Spiritual Heritage Series: Part Two of Seven, November 12, 2006
In a letter dated January 20, 1832, Edward Dorr Griffin, then President of Williams College, reflected back on his first pastorate in New Hartford, Connecticut. It had been a pastorate of only six years, but he remembered the tidal wave of spiritual renewal that had swept northwestern Connecticut in 1798-1799, adding many new converts to his church in New Hartford and altering the course of his own life. He wrote, “I saw a continued succession of heavenly sprinklings at New Salem, Farmington, Middlebury, and New Hartford . . . until, in 1799, I could stand at my door in New Hartford, Litchfield County, and number fifty or sixty contiguous congregations laid down in one field of divine wonders, and as many more in different parts of New England.” Then Griffin added, “By 1802 revivals had spread themselves through most of the western and southern States; and since that time they have been familiar to the whole American people.”
Edward Dorr Griffin was the second minister of the Town Hill Church in New Hartford, serving from 1795 until 1801. His was a short but significant pastorate, impacting revival not only in northwestern Connecticut, but throughout the northeast from New Jersey to Maine. He later served pastorates in Newark, New Jersey, and at the famous Park Street Church in Boston, and held teaching and administrative posts at Andover and Williams College, serving as President of Williams from 1821 to 1836. He was, by the reckoning of his friend and biographer William B. Sprague, a consummate preacher and evangelist. As Sprague said of Griffin, “The history of his life seems little less than the history of one unbroken revival; and it would perhaps be difficult to name the individual in our country since the days of [George] Whitefield, who has been instrumental of an equal number of hopeful conversions.”
The years following the American Revolution, before Griffin came to New Hartford, proved a serious challenge to Connecticut’s clergy. America as a nation was experiencing alarming increases in drunkenness, crime and immorality, while religious interest and commitment were plummeting. John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, wrote to a prominent cleric of the day, “The church is too far gone ever to be redeemed.” One historian has said, “It seemed as if Christianity was to be ushered out of the affairs of men.”
Griffin’s response to this challenge was to meet with older pastors such as Jeremiah Hallock of Canton Center and Samuel Mills of Torringford to pray for God’s intervention in the hearts and minds of the people. Revival was, however, slow in coming. Reports of occasional “sprinklings” circulated around New England from 1792 until 1797. Then in 1798 such reports began to snowball, particularly in northwestern Connecticut. Prayer for regional awakening was being answered. New Hartford, however, had not yet been touched.
Reports of revivals in nearby Canton Center and Torringford in October of 1798 brought young Griffin to his knees. As he later wrote, “It seemed as though Providence, by avoiding us, designed to bring to remembrance our past abuses of his grace.” So Griffin, together with a small group of equally concerned people in his New Hartford church, “agreed to institute a secret meeting for the express purpose of praying for effusions of the Spirit.” These secret prayer meetings sometimes involved just one or two believers, who met to pray with Griffin in his study.
The breakthrough came on Sunday morning, November 4, 1798. As Griffin walked to the meetinghouse, he found himself speaking aloud the words of Psalm 62:5 over and over. Their significance penetrated deep within him as he repeated: “My soul, wait thou only, only, only upon God, for my expectation is from him.”
As he began to preach, Griffin felt himself almost detached from the congregation before him. As he later described the experience, “I cared not whether they were asleep or awake, feeling that the question of a revival did not lie between me and them, but was to be settled in heaven.” He was powerfully conscious of the precious opportunity that could so easily be lost: “Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, and we were left, and could hardly hope for another visit so soon.” Consider, he urged his listeners, “the awful prospects of sinners in the middle of life if another revival should not come in twelve or fifteen years.” He was almost undone by the thought of eternal separation from men who might miss this chance to claim Christ as Savior: “I seemed to take an eternal leave of heads of families out of Christ; I came near falling; I thought I should be obligated to stop; but I was carried through.”
Following the service, 40 men followed Griffin to his home in tears, asking, “What must we do to be saved?” Lives were significantly changed, and Griffin noted in 1832 that 40 to 50 of those still active in the New Hartford church had been converted on that one Sunday in 1798! By the end of Griffin’s brief tenure in New Hartford, some 138 new converts had been added to the church, and in six revivals that followed under his two successors between 1806 and 1843, over 434 more were added. This was a remarkable number in a town with well under 2000 residents!
Edward Dorr Griffin’s humility, devotion to prayer, and powerful preaching influenced the ministries not only of his Connecticut peers, but of an entire generation of American pastors.
Rev. Greg Dawson has written a most helpful history of the Town Hill Church and Griffin, at http://www.rockvillemama.com/nhchurch1.htm . Next week we will explore the progression of spiritual awakening and revival in nearby Torringford.