New England, once the land of the Great Awakenings and Jonathan Edwards, is now best known for gay marriage and gospel ignorance. Vermont, my home state, was first to legalize civil unions and, according to a recent Gallup poll, is the least religious state in the nation. Massachusetts was first to legalize gay marriage, and three New England states have followed, making this the “nucleus” of the same-sex marriage movement, according to The New York Times.[1] New England has the highest percentage of “nones,” those claiming no religious affiliation. And roughly 2 percent of New Englanders attend evangelical churches, compared with 25 percent to 40 percent in the Bible Belt.[2]

When God’s Spirit Flowed

By sharp contrast, Jonathan Edwards chronicled the days of the Great Awakening, that mighty movement of God’s Spirit begun in the winter of 1734-35, in A Faithful Narrative of Surprising Conversions.[3] Edwards saw more than 300 souls savingly converted in his Northampton, Massachusetts, church. They were evenly divided between male and female, ranging from 70 years old to 4, with the most intense activity during six weeks beginning in March 1735 when at least four per day were converted, about 30 per week.

God’s Spirit flowed along the Connecticut River Valley, from New Haven through Massachusetts, leaving its mark on the New England landscape. Towns like Suffield, Sunderland, Deerfield, Northfield, and Springfield saw a work “not less remarkable” than the work in Northampton, resulting in “a great alteration” in each town.

In their preface to Edwards’s Faithful Narrative, John Guyse and Isaac Watts, who first solicited the account, reacted to it with this enlightened perspective:

There has been a great and just complaint for many years among the ministers and churches in Old England, and in New…, that the work of conversion goes on very slowly, that the Spirit of God in His saving influences is much withdrawn from the ministrations of his word, and there are few that receive the report of the gospel, with any eminent success upon their hearts. But as the gospel is the same divine instrument of grace still, as ever it was in the days of the apostles, so our ascended Saviour now and then takes a special occasion to manifest the divinity of this gospel by a plentiful effusion of the Spirit where it is preached: then sinners are turned into saints in numbers, and there is a new face of things spread over a town or a country.

Such was the face of old New England, of John Cotton and the Mathers, of Solomon Stoddard and Edwards, before it lost the gospel and found Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and Christian Science. Today few receive the preached word with any eminent success upon their hearts. Has God withdrawn his saving Spirit from the ministrations of the word? Has the gospel lost its power in New England?

The Same Divine Instrument of Grace

Twenty years ago, my wife, Sue, and I moved to Vermont with a simple belief in the power of the apostolic gospel to affect the miracle of conversion—even in New England. In 1992 I planted Christ Memorial Church near Burlington, Vermont’s largest city. For seven years we sowed gospel seed in parched soil with precious little harvest.

Then, in 1999, our ascended Savior began to manifest the divinity of the gospel through a string of conversions that continues today. One by one and one after another, God rescued souls from the domain of darkness—on average one every four weeks, more than 150 credible conversions in all. Hardly the Great Awakening, but a work of the Spirit nonetheless. And all powered through the gospel—through preaching and teaching and counseling and singing the gospel, and through living the gospel in vital community.

We’ve seen people from every background come to faith, millenials, moderns, and post-moderns, Catholics and Jews, the unchurched and preachers’ kids, atheists and professing believers who realized they weren’t. In the first wave, 1999 to 2004, God saved nearly 80 souls, mostly adults. From 2007 to2010 we saw some 60 conversions, many of them youth. We’ve seen dozens of marriages restored, families becoming centered on that divine instrument of grace, a community being built up in love for one another, a church-planting church eager to reach the lost.[4]

A ‘New’ New England?

God’s Spirit is still moving in New England. One by one, one after another, sinners are being saved, rebels transformed into worshipers whose lives are bearing gospel fruit. But there’s much to be done. New England needs a true awakening. It needs the gospel, the same divine instrument of grace as ever it was in the days of the apostles and Edwards. The gospel awakened this region once, and, Lord willing, it will do it again.

Pray for New England. Pray for us. Pray for a mighty movement of God’s Spirit.

[1]“A Push is On for Same-Sex Marriage Rights Across New England,” The New York Times, April 4, 2009.

[2] Statistics from “State of the States” (Gallup, 2009); “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population” (American Religious Identification Survey, 2009); and “2000 Religious Congregations and Membership Study” (Glenmary Research Center, 2000).

[3] The full title is A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls, in Northampton, and the Neighboring Towns and Villages of New Hampshire in New England, in a Letter to the Rev. Dr. Colman, of Boston.

[4] In 2000 Christ Memorial officially launched the The NETS Institute for Church Planting to equip men to plant solid gospel-driven churches in New England and abroad. Through it we’ve planted three healthy New England churches and one in Cameroon, with another African church on the way. We have two New England planters preparing to launch and four more arriving this summer to begin a two-year church planter residency program. By 2020 we hope to have flourishing churches eager to reproduce themselves near major college campuses and population centers in every New England state.

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