Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen was born in 1691 in West Friesland and died in New Jersey in 1747. He received ordination in the Dutch Reformed Church at the age of twenty-six and served for two years in his native land. At twenty-eight he was approached by Classis Amsterdam to see if he was willing to take a church in Rarethans (Raritan). Frelinghuysen accepted, assuming Rarethans was in the Netherlands, but the Classis meant the Raritan Valley in New Jersey. Convicted by Psalm 15:4–“God honoureth them that fear the Lord. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not”–Frelinghuysen took the charge, misunderstanding and all, and moved to the New World.
From the beginning of his ministry in the Mid-Atlantics to his death, Frelinghuysen was controversial. He preached emotional sermons, prayed free prayers, practiced church discipline, and aimed squarely at the conversion of sinners. His messages were experiential, fruitful, and popular. He could also be an irascible fellow.
Three centuries later, he is remembered (if he is remembered at all) as the forerunner to the revivals that swept through America in the middle decades of the 18th century.
During the heyday of the Awakening, George Whitefield, the most celebrated preacher of his century, met Frelinghuysen and later wrote about the encounter in his Journals:
Among those who came to hear the Word were several ministers whom the Lord has been pleased to honour in making them instruments of bringing many sons to glory. One was a Dutch Calvinistic minister, named Freeling Housen, pastor of a congregation about four miles from New Brunswick. He is a worthy old soldier of Jesus Christ, and was the beginner of the great work which I trust the Lord is carrying on in these parts. He has been strongly opposed by his carnal brethren, but God has always appeared for him in a surprising manner, and made him more than conqueror, through his love. He has long since learnt to fear him only who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
Frelinghuysen’s influence was not confined to Whitefield. The Dutch preacher was instrumental in the ministry of Gilbert Tennent and highly respected by Jonathan Edwards as one who laid the evangelical groundwork for God’s blessing. Frelinghuysen was truly the “beginning of the great work.”
I’m no expert on Frelinghuysen, not even an amateur. But I’ve read just enough of his life and his sermons to spot several valuable lessons.
1. Dead orthodoxy is deadly. It can be hard for those who bemoan the atheological nature of today’s church (as I do) to admit it, but it’s true: orthodoxy can be dead, and when it dies it is deadly. Frelinghuysen encountered Reformed churches filled with self righteousness and empty formalism. They had the appearance of godliness, but knew not its power. His emphases on conversion and piety were not always welcome, but they were necessary. Let us not be so afraid of emtionalism and subjectivism that we mistake lifeless orthodoxy for faithfulness.
2. Tradition is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Frelinghuysen followed the Three Forms of Unity. He often preached from and referenced the Heidelberg Catechism. He was, gladly, a confessional Calvinist. He believed in harnessing the power of tradition.
But he was not a slave to traditionalism. In objecting to Frelinghuysen’s insistence on using free prayers and his collaborating with other evangelicals, Classis Amsterdam hurrumphed, “We must be careful to do things in a Dutch way in our churches.” The Dutch leaders did not like his deviation from the liturgy, nor did they appreciate his enthusiasm and the subjective nature of his preaching. They wanted a Dutch preacher who stuck with the Dutch ways.
Frelinghuysen did not reject his Dutch Calvinism, but he wanted to do more than carry on a tradition. He wanted to preach the new birth. As such, he was willing to partner with those who shared his theological convictions and ministry goals, regardless of denominational attachment, ethnic or linguistic background, or social distinctions.
3. God blesses preaching that is scriptural, personal, and evangelical. Some sermons don’t translate well to the printed page, but Frelinghuysen’s still burst with life. When they are not catechetical, his sermons invariably work from a single text and pulse with numerous biblical allusions and references. He knew his Bible, trusted it implicitly, and preached from it explicitly.
Besides being scriptural, Frelinghuysen’s sermons are evangelical in the best sense of the word. Nearly every sermon I read dealt with the sinfulness of man, the holiness of God, the reality of heaven and hell, and the necessity of receiving the gospel and experiencing the new birth. This is preaching God can use. And did. More than 300 were converted under Frelinghuysen’s ministry.
His sermons were also intensely personal. I don’t mean Frelinghuysen used personal illustrations or got “authentic.” He did something better. He spoke directly to his hearers. He wasn’t afraid to warn, plead, and cajole. For example:
Oh, that you could be aroused! Seek the Lord, I pray you, while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. For you cannot be assured of your life for a moment. Avail yourself, then, of the present moment. The Lord may be found right now, but you do not know how long that will last. Right now He invites you to come so that He may offer you His favor and grace. He stands with open arms and waits. Do not let this season of grace–the time in which He may be found–pass you by.
Does the preaching in your church (my church!) sound like this? Are we preaching the gospel to our people or merely explaining what the gospel is about? No amount of structural tinkering or missional activity can replace the personal, passionate, pleading of robust gospel preaching.
4. Do not neglect the third mark of the church. To the chagrin of nearly everyone, Frelinghuysen reintroduced the practice of church discipline. He set high standards for the Lord’s Table. The Supper was not a converting ordinance, but a meal for the truly regenerate. Following 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18, Domine Frelinghuysen put unrepentant sinners out of the church, a practice that encouraged holiness and outraged many of his people.
5. Fear God, not people. Many of his contemporaries deeply despised Frelinghuysen. “I am the man everyone talks about,” he wrote about himself, “beloved by many, hated by many more.” Despite the onslaught of criticism and opposition, he pressed on with courage. His motto: “I seek not praise. I fear not blame.”
6. Doctrinal fidelity and evangelistic fervor do not have to be at odds. Frelinghuysen did not accept that head and heart had to pull in opposite directions. He embraced traditional Calvinist theology, utilized zealous frontier-style preaching, accepted confessional standards, and labored earnestly for conversions. He held together diverse inclinations that don’t have to be apart.
7. Passion and courage are no excuses for a harsh spirit. Like all heroes (save one), Frelinghuysen had his weaknesses. In fact, he probably had more than most. He was a hothead and seldom irenic. He was harsh toward his opponents and judgmental at times toward his congregation. His demand for a heart-experience kept from the Table some Christians who made a solid profession and were not living in immorality, but could not live up to Frelinghuysen’s subjective standards. Later in life, he became more aware of his character flaws and realized that some of the “persecution” was owing to his own prophetic bullheadedness. Likewise, he was sorry he had labeled so many of his colleagues “unconverted.”
Frelinghuysen, with his gifts and guffaws, has something to teach all of us, the conservative formalist, the liberal traditionalist, the passionless preacher, and the professional pugilist. Most of all, we ought to give thanks for this man used by God to light a spark that the Spirit fanned into the flames of the Great Awakening. As a pastor in the same denomination as Frelinghuysen, I am especially grateful for his commitment to Calvinist doctrine and evangelical proclamation. I encourage all Christians, especially those in the Dutch Reformed tradition, to listen to the forgotten voice of this neglected forerunner.