Thursday, February 14, 2013

People You’ve Probably Never Heard Of But Should: Asahel Nettleton

If the Lord tarries for one hundred years and some chap like myself decides to start a series of blog articles on people you’ve probably never heard of, do you think that Billy Graham would be one of those forgotten leaders? That seems shocking doesn’t it? How could a man that has been influential in seeing thousands come to Christ be forgotten when we talk about church history? Impossible, right?

It is estimated that 30,000 people were converted to Christ due to the ministry of Asahel Nettleton. Yet, most of us have not heard of this man of God.

Little Asahel was born to a Connecticut farming family in 1783. He was converted during a season of revival in the early 1800s. His heart was soon stirred to follow Christ in missions. To this end, and with much difficulty, he attended Yale. At the time Yale was a sturdy evangelical school led by Timothy Dwight (the grandson of Jonathan Edwards).

By 1811 Nettleton was preaching. His intention was still foreign missions but the Lord would have him to be an itinerant preacher instead. Almost from the beginning the Lord blessed Nettleton’s preaching and ministry. By the time of his death in 1844 he was instrumental in seeing some 30,000 people come to know Christ.

Why You Should Know Him:

If you have any familiarity with revivals/revivalism you are probably asking yourself how many of those 30,000 decisions for Christ actually stuck. Consider this: “of the 84 converts in an 1818 revival at Rocky Hill, Connecticut — according to their pastor’s report 26 years later — all 84 had remained faithful. Similarly, only three spurious conversions out of 82 professed commitments were noted by another pastor in his report on revival services held in Ashford, Connecticut.” (Source)

There were two prominent contemporaries of Nettleton. One such man was Nathaniel Taylor. Taylor and Nettleton were actually friends at Yale. The two went separate ways. Taylor embraced what has come to be known as New Haven Theology.

Taylor denied original sin. He believed that Adam’s sin was not imputed to any man but that men were guilty when they have sinned themselves. All men are able to choose the right path but none do. Taylor further denied the doctrine of election. The New England Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Calvinism) was “in” during this time. Taylor and one of his disciples, Charles Finney, were instrumental in changing that tide. Taylor did not view the death of Christ as actually saving any man but only introducing a system whereby men might be saved.

Nettleton rejected this. He also rejected the “dangerous methods” of Charles Finney. Finney, a Pelagian, adopted a more emotional approach to evangelism. He hoped to influence the free will of men through their emotions. This led to an influx of such things as the altar call. Men like Nettleton rejected this and hoped to appeal to the will with the power of truth.

To contrast the ministry of Nettleton with Finney/Taylor is telling and instructive for our generation. By some accounts Finney had produced over 500,00 converts. “Produced” is probably the correct term. Finney’s contemporary supporters (and later even Finney himself) believed that a good number of these had not remained in the faith.

Nettleton serves as a great example of faithfully plodding in gospel ministry.


Nettleton had a deep and abiding confidence in the power of God and His Word to convert sinners. That is evident in his various writings:

We have no new Gospel, no other terms of salvation than those that have always been held out for acceptance. The sinner has been taught invariably that he must not look for comfort without submission. And such has been the faithfulness of our spiritual teachers, that, in most cases, those who have been slain by the law, and brought to despair of climbing up some other way, have been led directly to the Saviour, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and who has always been ready and willing to receive them.

Though he strongly opposed the work of Finney he was always cordial and loving in his discussions with him. He embodied what he said here:

We may talk of the best means of doing good; but, after all, the greatest difficulty lies in doing it in a proper spirit. Speak- the truth in love, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves — with the meekness and gentleness of Christ.

Lastly, it is helpful in a day when Calvinism is equated with a lack of evangelism or passion for the lost, to read the words of Nettleton’s appeals to sinners:

A certain individual said to him: "I cannot get along with the doctrine of election."

"Then," said Nettleton, "get along without it. You are at liberty to get to heaven the easiest way you can. Whether the doctrine of election is true or not, it is true that you must repent, and believe, and love God. Now, what we tell you is, that such is the wickedness of your heart, that you never will do these things unless God has determined to renew your heart. If you do not believe that your heart is so wicked, make it manifest by complying with the terms of salvation. Why do you stand cavilling with the doctrine of election? Suppose you should prove it to be false, what have you gained? You must repent and believe in Christ after all. Why do you not immediately comply with these terms of the gospel? When you have done this, without the aids of the divine grace, it will be soon enough to oppose the doctrine of election . Until you shall have done this, we shall still believe that the doctrine of election lies at the foundation of all hope in your case."

Further Reading:

This is a nice short biographical sketch of Nettleton, The Forgotten Evangelist.

There is a book by Bennet Tyler on the Life and Labors of Asahel Nettleton. You can purchase it here. Or you can try to piece it together for free at Google Books (and also here). Honestly, if you are really interested I’d just spend the 15 bucks and get the book.

Iain Murray has done a ton of work on this period. Much is said of Nettleton, Taylor, and Finney in his work Revival and Revivalism.

Finding whole sermons of Nettleton’s is difficult. You’ll find most of the existing ones and a few other resources here.

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