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Nettleton Saves Salisbury Church

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Dr. Ed Eastman
Spiritual Heritage Series: Part Six of Seven, December 10, 2006

As one drives through the town of Salisbury, located in the extreme northwest corner of Connecticut, it is impossible to miss the classic New England white frame church on Main Street, with the whale weathervane on the steeple – a seafaring symbol designed to remind observers of the early efforts of missionaries, inspired in part by Henry Opukahaiah, discussed in last week’s article in this series, to take Christianity to the Pacific. The meetinghouse itself recalls a special movement of God in Salisbury, one associated with the strong spiritual currents that swept through the region in the early nineteenth century. Those currents are known to historians as the Second Great Awakening in America (1798 – 1830), a movement that began in northwestern Connecticut, bringing thousands of new converts into the churches of New England before spreading throughout the rest of the nation.

It is hard to imagine that the Salisbury Congregational Church’s stately meetinghouse was once home to a dying congregation at the onset of the War of 1812. The church had prospered for many years under two outstanding ministers, Rev. Jonathan Lee and Rev. Joseph Warren Crossman. But starting in 1812, the congregation was ravaged by the combined effects of three forces: the War of 1812 with Britain; the typhoid epidemic of 1812, which took over 150 lives including that of the church’s beloved pastor, Rev. Crossman; and a growing interest in European philosophies which challenged traditional Christian notions about morality, the integrity of the Bible, and the concept of a personal God. By 1815, the Salisbury Church’s male membership had dwindled to just 17.
In the summer of 1815, discouraged by its small numbers and its unsuccessful
efforts to find a pastor to replace Rev. Crossman, the Salisbury church sent a deacon to entreat Asahel Nettleton, a well-known Congregational evangelist, to come to Salisbury. The little congregation understood that without a special work of God, their church would die. Although Nettleton was initially reluctant, he ultimately agreed to the desperate congregation’s request.

Nettleton was a young man at the time, and a close friend of Samuel Mills, Jr. of Torringford, the subject of the third article in this series. Like Mills, Nettleton dreamed of serving as a foreign missionary, but also like Mills, he became instead a powerful advocate for foreign mission work carried out by others, while he ministered at home in America. His special gift was the visiting of churches that were in need of restoration and encouragement, and God consistently blessed his efforts with fresh waves of revival. Salisbury was no exception.

Nettleton began his work in Salisbury by countering the influence of a pseudo-revivalist, who had come to Salisbury and was attempting to exploit emotionalism as a means of converting the lost. Nettleton’s approach, in contrast, was to invest time conversing and reasoning with individuals, young people, and informal small groups about the condition of their souls, and to encourage prayer for humility and revival.

Nettleton did not fit the stereotype of the bible-thumping evangelist, and felt no need of sensationalism, emotionalism or manipulative gimmicks. He simply preached repentance from sin, and presented hope in Christ to his listeners. Meetings were characterized by “stillness and solemnity,” as his hearers were brought to conviction of conscience.
Nettleton’s results were extraordinary. By the end of 1816, when he left Salisbury after little more than a year of ministry there, over 300 people had made professions of faith, 200 of them joining the Congregational church and the others joining churches nearby. These were remarkable numbers for a town of only about 2,000 residents.

The impact of Nettleton’s ministry was also long-lasting. Jonathan Lee, grandson of Salisbury’s first pastor, observed 27 years later that although some of those who had been converted during Nettleton’s year in Salisbury were no longer living, those who were alive “still constitute the strength of the church; for although some other favored seasons of ingathering have been enjoyed, none have borne comparison with this, for permanent influence upon the state of the community, for enlightened piety, and steadfastness of Christian principle and character.” Indeed, the Salisbury revival is considered, in terms of its long-term fruit, one of the most significant of the many revivals with which Nettleton’s career is associated.

Next week we will conclude our series with the story of how God brought renewal and awakening to the Town of Canaan through the Methodists.

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