Hearing a radio preacher recently, I took note of his prayer to God to send a revival to our land. It reminded me of what historians have labeled the “Great Awakening” in the New England states many years ago. It was sparked, humanly speaking, by the eloquent evangelist George Whitefield, from England, and others under whose spell men wept and fell as though shot, women fainted, and hundreds professed conversion to Christianity.
Among the most successful revival preachers then was Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the greatest theologian the United States ever produced. The “Great Awakening,” however, was short-lived. Beginning around 1740, plus or minus, it was over by the mid-1740s.
Today we speak of liberals and conservatives in the church. They were there too, in Edwards’s world. It led to a division into two “wings” among the Congregationalists: the orthodox and the liberals, or Unitarians. Analyzing that division brings lessons for today. For our church too! What were the harbingers in those times of things to come?
I am neither a historian nor a prophet with sufficient insights to analyze what brought New England from Calvinism to Universalism. With this admission, let me focus on a couple of trends in those days that we must, at all costs, avoid today.
The first is sometimes referred to as “The Halfway Covenant.” Children of professing members were baptized. But when a new generation arose among whom some were non-professing, their children, too, could be baptized if presented by the grandparents who were members of the church. The unfolding of this compromise, which Edwards opposed, had much to do with his losing his pulpit and even more to do with the devil getting his nose into the tent. We should ever be on guard against such leanings.
The other compromise was dedicating children to God in place of the sacrament of baptism. Before I was married I was a believer in what is called “infant baptism.” I argued the point at length with some friends who disagreed. In our discussions I would often, among other Bible references, point to Peter’s sermon in which he says, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). Citing those words, I felt I stood on solid ground.
But as noted, I was young and unmarried. As a result, my debates on this subject with others were somewhat academic. Then came the day I became a father for the first time.
Having been up most of the night with nervous anticipation, I was tired when, finally, I gazed into the face of my son. MY son!
I had to leave the next moment to drive 150 miles to be examined by Classis Grand Rapids East for ordination. I was wearied and sure that I would not shine very brightly for my examination. On the way I bought a box of cigars for all the delegates who would participate in dissecting me. A kind of bribe. But uppermost in my thoughts was not my important examination, which had taken me eight years to lead up to, but the thought that I was the father of a child—a son I loved dearly and in whose defense I would fight the whole world if necessary.
It was on that trip that the covenant and baptism—the sign of the covenant—changed in my mind from academic doctrine to real flesh and blood. God’s wonderful promise to me and Anne was for our baby too! To use today’s overused expression—Awesome! I stepped on the gas of my gas guzzler, which couldn’t break the speed limit if it tried. I sang a hymn. I grabbed a cigar. And choked.
Today I hear some rumblings among some of us about accepting, where circumstances warrant, baby dedication in place of baby baptism, and I think shades of the 1740s. Then I think, “Let’s not go there!”
I believe it is wonderful when parents dedicate their babies to God. Far more wonderful, however, is when God dedicates himself to our babies, which is what the covenant and baby baptism is all about.