Asahel Nettleton’s Conflict With Finneyism -- By: John F. Thornbury

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 08:2 (Spring 1999)
Article: Asahel Nettleton’s Conflict With Finneyism
Author: John F. Thornbury

Asahel Nettleton’s Conflict With Finneyism

John F. Thornbury

The two most widely known evangelists of the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States were Asahel Nettleton (1783–1844) and Charles G. Finney (1792–1875). In some ways these two men were very similar. Both were powerful public speakers. Both were endowed with good voices and piercing eyes, and could hold audiences spellbound when absorbed in the fervor of preaching. Both saw great religious upheavals as a direct result of their preaching, and in each case thousands made professions of faith.

But here the comparison ends. Nettleton and Finney represent two entirely different forces in American religion, and were participants in a division that has not been healed to this day. These two men had vastly different views on how evangelism and revivals should be conducted, and they personally debated various issues in head-to-head encounters, written discussions, and through articles written in contemporary religious magazines.

The year of 1997 marked the 170th anniversary of an epochal conference held at New Lebanon, New York, where these two men and their coadjutors confronted each other in what has proved to be a watershed for American evangelism.

There is a stream in the Canadian Rockies known as Kicking Horse Creek, which flows out of the mountains and divides at a certain point. The water flowing west ends

up in the Pacific Ocean, and the water flowing east winds its course toward the Atlantic. A great division took place in American evangelism in the third decade of the nineteenth century and since then the streams have flowed farther and farther apart. In this article I shall attempt to give the background of this division.

Who Was Asahel Nettleton?

Asahel Nettleton’s life encompassed an exceedingly eventful period in American church history. He was born near the beginning of a great spiritual revival known as the Second Great Awakening, and died just a few years after it was over. Technically, this designation is usually applied to the period between 1792 and 1808 when there was a tremendous surge of evangelical fervor in New England, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. But the afterglow of this brilliant light was seen one-third of the way through the nineteenth century. It was not until the 1830s that one could say that the Awakening was truly over.

Nettleton grew up on a farm and intended to follow that trade, but God had other plans for him. He was converted in his hometown of Killingworth, Connecticut, when the Awakening struck that little community in 1801. Shortly after his conversion he started making plans ...

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