Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Spiritual Friendship –  The Evangelical Brotherhood in Colonial America

On October 22, 1746, Acting Governor John Hamilton of New Jersey granted a charter for the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) to seven petitioners: four Presbyterian clergy: Jonathan Dickinson, Aaron Burr, Ebenezer Pemberton, and John Pierson, and three laymen, William Smith, Peter Van Brugh Livingston, and William Peartree Smith.[1] The following spring, those seven, under the terms of the charter, elected five other clergy, Gilbert Tennent, William Tennent, Samuel Blair, Richard Treat, and Samuel Finley, to the Board of Trustees of the college.[2] Later that year, Jonathan Belcher, former governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and a committed Reformed evangelical, was named governor of New Jersey.[3] Belcher, in order to further the interests of the school, granted a new charter, creating a larger and more diverse board, while preserving the theological center of the institution.[4] Responding to a letter he had received from Jonathan Edwards, minister in Northampton, Massachusetts, and chief theologian of the eighteenth-century awakening, Belcher assured Edwards that he had adopted the college “for a daughter” and thanked Edwards for advice in the management of the infant academy.[5]

Princeton was a child of the religious revivals that had been exercising the colonies since the 1730s and especially since the arrival of renowned Anglican revivalist George Whitefield in 1739. The clergy who organized the infant school essentially composed a list of the “Who’s Who” of the evangelical wing of the Presbyterian Church. They were all supporters of the revivals and solidly committed to Reformed Christianity.  Many of them were friends. Close friends. 

The history of Reformed Christianity in eighteenth-century America has been told through many lenses over the years. One way into this discussion has been through denominational history such as Leonard Trinterud’s classic The Forming of an American Tradition. [6] Even so, and despite the energy invested in denominational struggles in the era, significant eighteenth-century revivalists, most notably George Whitefield, discounted the import of denominations, and many historians have followed suit, emphasizing the import of the Great Awakening as a religious movement.[7] One important way this has been investigated is through the lens of geography, such as Harry Stout’s The New England Soul and Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia: 1740-1790.[8]This geographic lens expanded in the late-twentieth century, crossing the Atlantic, giving birth to works such as Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism and Michael Crawford’s Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context.[9]

Consideration of the Great Awakening as a trans-geographical, trans-denominational movement has had its supporters and detractors as of late. Until the 1980s, the historical consensus clearly assumed the reality of a “Great Awakening.” However, in a 1982 essay, Jon Butler argued that historians needed “to abandon the term ‘Great Awakening’ because it distort[ed] the character of eighteenth-century religious life.”[10] Frank Lambert’s Inventing the Great Awakening took a slightly different tack on this claim and contended “that colonial revivalists themselves constructed … the idea of a coherent, intercolonial revival.”[11] Many historians have been mostly unconvinced and Thomas Kidd, in 2007, published The Great Awakening to offer a fresh, synthetic account of this religious movement in America.[12]

Biographies have also provided significant and engaging insight into eighteenth-century Reformed evangelical life and thought. The Anglican revivalist George Whitefield has received enormous attention, most recently in Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield.[13]George Marsden has provided the definitive biography of Jonathan Edwards with his magisterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life.[14] Other recent biographies of eighteenth-century Reformed evangelicals include studies of Jonathan Dickinson, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies, Jonathan Belcher, Joseph Bellamy, and Sarah Osborn.[15]

In the midst of all of this, significant attention has been paid to the “publishing networks” and the role of letters for Reformed evangelicals in this era. Susan O’Brien, for example, has argued that “Calvinist revivalists of the mid-eighteenth century built a ‘community of saints’”[16]  and George Whitefield has long been seen as a lynchpin in this community given his prominence on both sides of the Atlantic.[17] 

Just about everyone in recent scholarship notes the important local, intercolonial, or international network of evangelicals in the mid-eighteenth century, but, for the most part, consideration of this network is subsumed under some larger interpretive umbrella and loyalty to others in this network as friends, that is affective versus merely instrumental relationships, loyalty to a person or persons as distinct (though not removed) from loyalty to a movement or denomination, is rarely explored.[18] That is, many of these folks were not simply “friends of revival,” though they were that, but also friends of each other, spiritual friends, deeply concerned for each other for years and across geography.[19]

While these lenses––denomination, movement, geography, network––are obviously helpful ways of understanding the lives of eighteenth-century provincials, they can also tend to obscure. For example, those who have written through a denominational lens about Presbyterians, while often nodding at the blurred boundaries between Congregationalists and Presbyterians in this era, will then proceed as if the categories themselves were essentially watertight. So while the Saybrook Platform, adopted by the Reformed churches in Connecticut in 1709, was, historian Williston Walker claimed, closer to “the Presbyterianism of the Middle Colonies, rather than with the more independent Congregationalism of Massachusetts,” churches in Connecticut are almost uniformly described as Congregationalist.[20] Likewise, Solomon Stoddard, grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, and pastor of the Northampton, Massachusetts, church, led the way in founding the Hampshire Association of clergy (1714) to oversee ecclesial business in the region.[21] For his trouble, he was accused of being a Presbyterian. But almost all the historical literature understands the churches in the area as Congregationalist.[22]

As these “Congregationalists” were adopting presbyterian-like structures, Presbyterians in New Jersey were figuring out how “congregational” Presbyterianism was to be in the new world. As Richard Warch, historian of Yale, has summarized, “Twenty-five [Yale] ministers were or became Presbyterian, most of them serving churches in the Middle Colonies. For a Congregationalist, this switch involved little change in ecclesiastical belief, and some moved freely between the two denominations.”[23] But denominational histories and many biographies operate, for the most part, as if there were distinct boundaries between polities in this era.   While immigrants surely brought notions of the most fitting form of church polity from the old country, the boundaries of what made for authentic Presbyterianism or Congregationalism as denominations were still in significant motion in New England and the middle colonies making a strict “denominational” analysis of the era, at the least, suspect.[24]

The fluidity of boundaries between polities in the era is also reflected in porous geographical boundaries.[25]  There are good religious, political, and cultural reasons for taking New England as a unit for historical study, but the boundaries between New England, New York, and New Jersey were quite permeable and focusing on geography can also obscure more than it clarifies.  Jonathan Dickinson, for example, pastor of the Elizabeth Town, New Jersey, church, was born in Hatfield, Massachusetts, graduated from Yale, and kept in very close touch with colleagues in New England throughout his career. In 1742, for example, he met with Benjamin Colman, Thomas Foxcroft, and Jonathan Edwards, leading Reformed evangelicals in Massachusetts, to seek counsel on divisions in the Synod of Philadelphia.[26]  Many among those mentioned above involved in the founding of Princeton, were connected to Connecticut and/or Massachusetts. Of course, there were differences between Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, and geography matters, but while geography is influential it is not necessarily determinative.

While this has been suggested by the more recent concern with trans-geographic clerical networks, I would like to suggest that a focus on friendship might be even more revealing. Trans-geographic friendships, loyalties among and between Reformed evangelicals in this era, could well help to explain loyalties, or lack thereof, toward denominations and loyalty to the movement of the religious awakening. Or, to put the issue as a question, how and how much did friendships among Reformed evangelicals in this era contribute to or detract from allegiance to denomination and allegiance to the awakening?

The answer to that question would take a lengthy study. In this essay, I simply want to consider the nature and scope of these friendships as a preface to considerations of the relationships between friendship, denomination, and religious movement. In particular, I would like to briefly explore relationships between thirteen individuals: Jonathan Dickinson, Gilbert Tennent, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Prince, Jonathan Belcher, David Brainerd, Benjamin Colman, Samuel Davies, Ebenezer Pemberton, Thomas Foxcroft, Joseph Bellamy, and Aaron Burr. These were (in a fluid way) Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and an Anglican, Reformed in commitment, who spanned the eastern seaboard from Massachusetts to Virginia (and England).

“Friendship,” historian Anne Lombard has claimed, “was the buzzword of the eighteenth century.” Obituaries increasingly mentioned the friendships of the deceased, poems and essays lauded the value of friends, and friendship “was celebrated as a helpful adjunct to commercial relationships.”[27] Indeed, Ray Pahl contends that “it was precisely the spread of market exchange in the eighteenth century that led to the development of [the] new benevolent bonds” of friendship.[28] Clubs for mutual self-improvement (such as Benjamin Franklin’s famous Junto) became more popular, and ministers encouraged men’s fellowship groups.[29] All of this, Lombard claims, “gave a new legitimacy to the idea of friendship among young men.”[30]

In a similar vein, Randolph Trumbach, considering kinship in eighteenth-century England, contends that “Friendship and kinship were not … easily distinguished in the eighteenth century,” and continues, “the difficulty in distinguishing friendship from kinship in eighteenth-century society ought not  . . . to be taken as an indication of the importance of kinship ties but rather the contrary:  the truly significant institution was friendship.”[31] In the mid-eighteenth century a friend was defined by Samuel Johnson as “one who supports you and comforts you while others do not,” or one “with whom to compare minds and cherish private virtues.”[32]

Of course, eighteenth-century evangelicals, as heirs of Puritanism, did not have to look far to find examples of the import of friendship in the Christian life. William Haller, in his classic study The Rise of Puritanism, posits the formation of a “spiritual brotherhood” in the seventeenth century, a “kind of Puritan order of preaching brothers.”[33] He continues:

The brotherhood of spiritual preachers never, let us make plain, entered upon anything like formal, corporate organization. It was at no time anything more than an association of ministers of the church united by personal ties and common purpose. Starting from Cambridge among Cartwright’s sympathizers, it spread along lines of personal relationship and friendship.[34]

This brotherhood in England crossed the Atlantic to New England in what historian Francis Bremer calls “Congregational Communion.” Bremer argues that:

Friendship among the Puritans was given a depth many non-Puritans could not relate to because it was a spiritual as well as a social relationship. … Friendship was a bond valued by all Englishmen, but for the Puritan it was also a duty. For some Puritans it went even further and was one of the defining characteristics of their religious life.[35]

John Winthrop, who would be longtime governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, well expressed this friendship to William Spring as Winthrop was about to depart for the new world. “The apprehension of your love and worth together has overcome my heart,” he wrote, “and removed the veil of modesty, that I must needs tell you, my soule is knit to you, as the soule of Jonathan to David.”[36]

Evangelicals in eighteenth-century America echoed these sentiments, frequently used the biblical friendship of David and Jonathan “as an inspiring example of man’s capacity for loving and virtuous friendship,” and “accorded such friendships a central place in their vision for the creation and sustenance of godly community.”[37] Friendships nurtured at Harvard and Yale emphasized the connection between love of God and love of friend.  Moreover, friendships were seen as a key instrument in the nurture of virtue and faithfulness.[38]

As Richard Godbeer has argued, eighteenth-century revivalists, like their seventeenth-century Puritan forebears, “venerated love between men as a sanctified expression of membership in a transcendent spiritual family.”[39] Christian friends understood themselves as part of the elected family of God, so “friendship and family membership overlapped as categories of association.”[40] Male friends often called each other brother, or, if one were older, father.[41]

In the mid-eighteenth-century, young male friends were forthright in their feelings of love for each other, and letters served as a frequent vehicle for expressing these sentiments.[42] Among the evangelical brotherhood under consideration here, George Whitefield addressed allies as “my dear friend and brother” and wrote of the union of souls in the Spirit.[43] In 1743, Joseph Bellamy (Yale ’35), pastor in Bethlehem, Connecticut, wrote to his friend David Brainerd after Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale for claiming his tutor “had no more grace than this chair.”  Bellamy wrote, “Dearest Brother, I read yours of February [and] loved you . . . It was not for want of love I did not come to see you [in Saybrook]; nor is it from want of love I do not now set for New York to meet you there.”[44] Remembering others in the fellowship, Bellamy closed, “Give my love and duty to Mr. Pemberton [Harvard ’21] and madam, Mr. Dickinson [Yale ’06], and Mr. Burr [Yale ’35].”[45]

In addition to expressing love and support, letters were instrumental in rendering counsel on church matters. Benjamin Colman, Harvard graduate (class of ’92) and Presbyterian-ordained pastor of Brattle Street Church in Boston, wrote many letters to friends in New York and New Jersey to give advice on “healing divisions, and quenching fires kindling and flaming among parties, pastors, and brethren.”[46]

Though these friendships varied in their intensity, all pursued what historian Mark Valeri has called “spiritual fraternalism.”[47] Such fraternalism, of course, was often rooted in a deep devotion to the common cause of the awakening, but it was not simply instrumental.[48] Often, these friends wrote to give words of personal encouragement. In November 1739, Ebenezer Pemberton, Pastor of Wall Street Presbyterian Church in New York, wrote to Whitefield, “I mention these things to strengthen you in the blessed cause you are engaged in, and support you in your abundant labors.”[49] And later that year Whitefield wrote to Gilbert Tennent (Yale MA ’25), “Be not angry because you have not heard from me.  Indeed, I love and honor you in the bowels of Jesus Christ. You are seldom out of my thoughts.”[50] Likewise Aaron Burr wrote to Joseph Bellamy in 1742, “I bless the Lord he has taught you to rejoice always; that he feeds you with the heavenly manna. … The Lord has given you such clear discoveries of his love, I hope you will appear open and bold for him against all opposers.”[51] 

This concern could take the form of reproof or counsel as when Aaron Burr, in 1742, wrote from his church in New Jersey to Joseph Bellamy in Connecticut, encouraging Bellamy to “distance himself” from radical revivalist James Davenport because Davenport’s preaching was not “well calculated to do good to mankind in general.”[52]  Likewise, Jonathan Edwards (Yale ’20), during Whitefield’s visit to Northampton in 1740, took Whitefield to task for “judging other people to be unconverted”[53] and Gilbert Tennent did not mince words with Whitefield in 1742, writing, “Your high opinion of the Moravians and attempts to join with them shocks me exceedingly and opens up a scene of terror and distress.  O my dear brother! I believe in my soul you never did anything in all your life of such dreadful tendency to the church of God.”[54]

Conversely, this “spiritual fraternity” provided a forum for confession and forgiveness. In 1739, Whitefield wrote to Ebenezer Pemberton in New York to apologize for his behavior, “I have been much concerned since I saw you, lest I behaved not with that humility towards you which is due from a babe to a father in Christ … pity me, and pray to the Lord to heal my pride.”[55] In 1742, Gilbert Tennent wrote to Jonathan Dickinson about his sorrow for his contribution to the division of the Synod of Philadelphia in 1741. He wrote:

I have had many afflicting Thoughts about the Debates which have subsisted for some Time in our Synod; I would to God, the Breach were healed, if it was the Will of the Almighty. As for my own Part, wherein I have mismanaged in doing what I did;––I do look upon it to be my Duty, and should be willing to acknowledge it in the openest Manner.––I cannot justify the excessive heat of Temper, which has sometimes appeared in my Conduct.[56]

Repentance and forgiveness inspired these two to work together until Dickinson’s death five years later.

Members of this fraternity were concerned about each other as Christian brothers and friendship often took the form of personal care. Joseph Bellamy, friend and protégé of Edwards, shared living quarters with David Brainerd for a summer after Brainerd had been expelled from Yale.[57] Jonathan Dickinson served as Brainerd’s advocate and mentor, often opening his home to Brainerd, and Brainerd performed the marriage of Jonathan Dickinson after the death of Dickinson’s first wife.[58] This care often extended to presiding over friend’s funerals, such as Aaron Burr at the funeral of Jonathan Belcher in 1757 and Ebenezer Pemberton delivering the eulogy for George Whitefield at the Thursday lecture in Boston.[59]

The fraternity crossed generations and developed a clear mentoring and intellectual pedigree. For example, as Thomas Kidd claims, “for a time, [Gilbert] Tennent became … the mentor for whom Whitefield longed. … Tennent helped Whitefield see that they had to preach the gospel in its stark, offensive fullness.”[60] Likewise, Samuel Davies, pastor in Virginia, was converted under the preaching of Tennent and Davies understood Tennent to be his “spiritual father.”[61] In 1741, Ebenezer Pemberton preached at Yale where the publication of his sermon was underwritten by generous subscriptions of approving undergraduates, most notably David Brainerd.[62] Joseph Bellamy, after graduating from Yale, studied with Edwards and became “one of Edwards’s most valued friends and allies.” Similarly, David Brainerd was the first student to study under Dickinson at the College of New Jersey.[63]

Members of this brotherhood recommended or supplied sermons, treatises, and pamphlets to further their study and writing and endorsed each other’s work. In 1741, Dickinson published The True Scripture Doctrine with a commendatory preface written by Thomas Foxcroft of Boston, and in 1742, Jonathan Dickinson anonymously published a defense of the revivals titled A Display of God’s Special Grace with an endorsement signed by leaders of the evangelical front in Boston including Benjamin Colman, Thomas Foxcroft (Harvard ’14), and Thomas Prince (Harvard ’07).[64] This would be Dickin-son’s most popular work and, in 1743, Dickinson put his name on the title page and had Gilbert Tennent and five others write a new preface.[65] While on voyage to England, Samuel Davies read Dickinson’s Defense of a Sermon (1737), Vindication of Sovereign Grace (1746), and A Second Vindication of God’s Sovereign Free Grace (1748), as well as the work of Thomas Prince.[66]

Meanwhile, Joseph Bellamy sent a copy of Jonathan Dickinson’s A Vindication of God’s Sovereign Free Grace (Boston, 1746) to Jonathan Edwards to assist Edwards with his anti-Arminian writing.[67] Edwards, returning the favor, shared VanMastricht and Turretin with Bellamy to assist in the preparation of True Religion Delineated (1750).[68] In 1756, Joseph Bellamy traveled to Edwards’s home to listen to Edwards read a draft of End for which God Created the World and provide input.[69]  Finally, Edwards benefitted from the work of Benjamin Colman in Boston, and Colman was instrumental in the publication of Edwards’s Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.[70] 

These brothers also worked to secure callings for each other and offer support in the midst of those callings. When Brainerd was expelled from Yale, Pemberton secured a missionary calling for him and preached his ordination sermon.[71] Jonathan Dickinson played an even greater role in Brainerd’s life. Historian Norman Pettit claimed that, “No other man, apart from Edwards, showed such an interest in Brainerd’s plight.”[72] On a different level, when Edwards was fired from his pastorate in Northampton, Samuel Davies wrote to Bellamy seeking his assistance in either convincing Edwards to move to Virginia or coming himself. Davies wrote, “I assure myself, my dear sir, of your zealous concurrence to persuade him [Edwards] to Virginia. Do not send him a cold paper message but go to him yourself in person. .,. If Mr. Edwards fails, shall I prevail with you to come yourself? O, how it would rejoice my soul to see you!” [73] Edwards did not go to Virginia, but was, in 1757, called to the presidency of Princeton.[74]

Friends open doors for friends, and members of this brotherhood assisted each other in extending their networks to further the evangelical cause. Before Tennent left for his New England preaching tour in 1740 to follow up on Whitefield’s recent evangelistic successes, Whitefield wrote a letter of recommendation for Tennent to Governor Jonathan Belcher in Boston to smooth the way. Tennent was, Whitefield claimed, “a solid, judicious, and zealous minister of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[75] Whitefield, as the grand itinerant, served as a major thread running throughout the brotherhood. Dickinson in New Jersey, Pemberton, in New York, and Colman and Edwards in Massachusetts all opened their pulpits to him.[76] When Gilbert Tennent, now of Philadelphia, and Samuel Davies visited Great Britain to raise funds for the infant College of New Jersey in 1753, George Whitfield connected the two visitors with wealthy patrons.[77] That said, these allegiances, as is sometimes the case, could be seen as a detriment in the eyes of the wider public. Whitefield offered his home to Tennent and Davies upon their visit to England, but they concluded that Whitefield’s strained relations among some would damage their fundraising mission, and they met with him privately rather than in public.[78]

Extending the network often meant joining in travel, which deepened these relationships. The longest of such journeys was, no doubt, the joint fourteen-month venture of Gilbert Tennent and Samuel Davies to Great Britain just mentioned.[79] Tennent was twenty years Davies’s senior, and, prior to this trip, they had been no more than acquaintances. But in the month they spent together preparing for the journey, Davies confided to his diary that he was “much pleased with the pious Simplicity of my Spiritual Father, Mr. Tennent.”[80] Tennent’s presence on the journey alleviated some of Davies’s anxieties, and Tennent’s “unbounded freedoms of friendship” were deeply appreciated by the younger traveler.[81] Others in this fellowship who bonded while traveling together included Gilbert Tennent and George Whitefield,[82]  Brainerd, Dickinson and Burr,[83] and Burr and Whitefield (whereupon Burr proposed to Esther Edwards in 1752).[84]

The brotherhood promoted the birth of institutions, significant institutions. One major project, the birth of the College of New Jersey, was noted earlier and another overlapping institution (if the term be allowed) was the founding of a denomination, the Synod of New York. These endeavors intersected, so much so that historian Richard Webster contended that “the Presbytery of New York was probably mainly induced to press the forming of a new synod, in order to found a seminary of learning.”[85] But the College of New Jersey is better represented by the expansiveness of the evangelical brotherhood than by the Synod of New York. As historian Howard Miller points out, “At no point in the colonial period were the presbyteries or their churches the college’s principal source of income.” Rather, the largest gift came from the Philips brothers of Boston. [86] When the New Jersey legislature repeatedly refused the college’s request to have fundraising lotteries, Aaron Burr, looking to his home state, convinced the Connecticut legislature in 1754 to approve a lottery there.[87] The minutes of the Synod of New York do not even mention the college until 1752 and seventy-five percent of the students of Princeton in its first half-century came from outside New Jersey, a sizable portion of those from New England.[88]

The birth of the Synod of New York was inspired by the division of the church in 1741 between supporters of the revival and its opponents.[89] In the wake of that division, the Synod of Philadelphia stood in opposition to the Conjunct Presbyteries of New Brunswick and London-derry, led, most notably by Gilbert Tennent. Dickinson worked behind the scenes seeking counsel from Colman, Foxcroft, and Edwards to effect a reunion but, after years of failed conversations, led the New York Presbytery, which included Dickinson, Pemberton, and Burr, to join with the Conjunct Presbyteries to form the Synod of New York in 1745.[90] In the years between the formation of the Synod of New York and the reunion with the Synod of Philadelphia in 1758, the Synod of New York grew from twenty-two to seventy-three members, with the number of congregations following similar trends.[91]

A final institution built by this brotherhood, including Jonathan Dickinson, Aaron Burr, Ebenezer Pemberton, and Gilbert Tennent, among others, was the creation of the New York Commissioners of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge in 1741.[92] This group (founded in the wake of the struggles of the Boston Board, founded by Jonathan Belcher and Benjamin Colman, among others) appointed David Brainerd to his missionary post after his expulsion from Yale.[93] Upon the birth of the College of New Jersey, the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge or SSPCK, supported a number of students in hopes that some would become missionaries.[94] Aaron Burr was instrumental in securing funding from the SSPCK to purchase 3,000 acres for settlement of Native Americans and funding for John Brainerd, David’s brother, as a missionary. Samuel Davies used his trip to Great Britain to secure funding for a missionary and schoolmaster for the Catawbas in South Carolina.[95] In a neat summary of the ties that bound these institutions together, the New York Board of Commissioners of the SSPCK and the Princeton Board of Trustees were made an interlocking directorate in 1764.[96]

These friends prayed with and for each other. David Brained, who suffered not a little melancholy, recorded in his diary for March 19, 1743, that he was “bitterly distressed under a sense of … ignorance, darkness, and unworthiness … but had some sweetness in conversation with Mr. [Aaron] Burr, and in praying together.”[97]  Samuel Davies, who suffered horribly from seasickness on his voyage to England, found prayer with Tennent a great gift. “Yesterday and today we prayed together alternately in our Room,” he wrote in his diary, “and I felt some Tenderness and Importunity in so doing.”  Indeed, Tennent and Davies were known to stay up until 3:00 AM praying together. Davies drew the close connection between friendship and prayer in the outset of his voyage to England, “I have been treated with uncommon Kindness during my Stay in Philadelphia by Many and have contracted sundry new Friendships, from which I hope to receive Happiness, hereafter, and especially to enjoy the Benefit of many Prayers.”[98] On a much wider stage, Jonathan Edwards was a major proponent of the international Concert of Prayer for the revival of religion. In An Humble Attempt, published in 1747, he sought to extend “international agreements to regularly scheduled extraordinary prayers for awakenings” and the advance of Christ’s kingdom.[99]  This work was commended in a preface signed by Thomas Foxcroft and Thomas Prince, among others.[100]

The folks considered here were all committed to the course of the awakening and to Reformed denominationalism, but they were also committed to each other in profound ways: opening their homes, travelling long miles together, building institutions, sharing their joys, wisdom, hopes, fears, trials, confessions, prayers, and scholarship over extended periods of time. This brotherhood provided a point of stability in a world in serious transition. These friendships––I would suggest––influenced the course of Reformed religious developments in this country in ways yet to be fully explored.

To take but two possibilities: in New England, the Great Awakening inspired many churches to become Baptist, but this, by in large, did not happen in the Middle Colonies.[101] The formation of the New York Synod, with New Side sympathies, and the lack of “civil pressure” in the middle colonies no doubt contributed to this.[102] But the friendships among the brotherhood, may well have played a role in maintaining the allegiance of clergy and laity to a specific denomination. Historian Marilyn Westerkamp nodded in this direction when she claimed, “I would argue that, in part, [clergy] resolved disputes and negotiated compromises because they were colleagues, friends, and confidants. They needed the emotional and institutional support that clergymen give to one another and that the church administration provided them in their work.”[103]

Likewise, the scholarly debate about the actuality of the awakening could well be informed by a more deliberate focus on the spiritual friendships that stood between the leadership of the movement and the development of institutions to undergird the movement. The connections in this brotherhood—from Massachusetts to Connecticut, to New York, to New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, to Virginia—provide a link that crosses not only geography, but also decades and denominations (however construed). This brotherhood provided glue to the religious movement of the awakening not unlike that usually attributed to Whitefield alone.

Years ago, Timothy Smith suggested that “the quest of community [was] a central feature of early American experience,” and that “the emotional fervor of religious revivals cemented [early voluntary associations into] new unions, making organizations organisms, denominations, “communions.”[104] Likewise, historian Timothy Hall has claimed that the “ties of affection that linked members to a long-distance imagined community” invited them “into a close-knit, voluntary local expression of that wider community.”[105] The evangelical brotherhood was a powerful incarnate expression of this quest for intimate spiritual and personal community that traversed the eastern seaboard and shaped the future of Reformed Christianity in America. Dare I say, these spiritual friends have something to teach Reformed Christians in twenty-first century America.

A version of this paper was delivered at the Theology Matters conference on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, March 8, 2023. I thank the participants for their comments and questions.

[1] Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton: 1746–1896 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), 16, 21–22.

[2] Wertenbaker, Princeton, 23–24.

[3] Wertenbaker, Princeton, 25–26; George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 339.

[4] Wertenbaker, Princeton, 26–27.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George Claghorn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 262.

[6] Leonard Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-examination of Colonial Presbyterianism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949).

[7] Thomas Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 247.

[8] Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia:1740–1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

[9] Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); Michael Crawford, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[10] Jon Butler, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried,” Journal of American History 69 (1982): 322. Timothy Smith almost suggests this in “Congregation, State, and Denomination: The Forming of the American Religious Structure,” in Denominationalism, ed. Russell Richey (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), 66.

[11] Frank Lambert, Inventing the Great Awakening (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 6.

[12] Thomas Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[13] Kidd, Whitefield.

[14] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards.

[15] See Bryan F. LeBeau, Jonathan Dickinson and the Formative Years of American Presbyterianism (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997); Milton Coalter, Jr., Gilbert Tennent, Son of Thunder: A Case Study of Continental Pietism’s Impact on the First Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); George Pilcher, Samuel Davies: Apostle of Dissent in Colonial Virginia (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971); Michael Batinski, Jonathan Belcher: Colonial Governor (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996); Mark Valeri, Law and Providence in Joseph Bellamy’s New England: The Origins of the New Divinity in Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[16] Susan O’Brien, “A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Network, 1735–1755,” American Historical Review 91 (1986): 813; John Few, “Wheelock’s World: Letters and the Communication of Revival in Great Awakening New England,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (2001): 99.

[17] O’Brien, “A Transatlantic Community of Saints,” 813, 816.

[18] Francis Bremer, in his study of seventeenth-century friendships among Puritans, allows, “For purposes of this study friendship will be used as meaning a relationship between two individuals that is maintained over time and that satisfies mutual needs. … The relationship is instrumental but also affective. In cases where friends share an intense religious experience which they identify as signifying spiritual rebirth into a communion of saints, that affection is very strong, the experience of defining them as an elect group separate from others.” (Francis Bremer, Congregational Communion: Clerical Friendship in the Anglo-American Puritan Community, 1610–1692  (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994), 11).

[19]Timothy Hall, Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 14.

[20] Williston Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1969), 515. Charles Briggs is a notable exception to this tendency. He notes, “The Connecticut churches were commonly called Presbyterian from the earliest times” (Charles Briggs, American Presbyterianism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885), 183).

[21] Marsden, Edwards, 116. Marsden notes the ambiguity in talking about denominations in this era in his observation that, “A striking feature of Massachusetts’ ecclesiastical affairs (a feature that eventually proved Edwards’s undoing) was that the churches never established uniform polity” (178). See also J. William Youngs, God’s Messengers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

[22] Marsden, Edwards, 178; Sheila McIntyre, “‘This loving Correspondency’: New England Ministerial Communication and Association, 1670–1730,” (Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1996), 211; Edwards preferred Presbyterianism writing, “I have long been perfectly out of conceit of our unsettled, independent, confused way of church government in the land; and the Presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the word of God and the reason and nature of things.” (Richard Webster, A History of the Presbyterian Church in America: from Its Origin Until the Year 1760 (Philadelphia: J.M. Wilson, 1857), 252).

[23] Richard Warch, School of the Prophets: Yale College, 1701–1740 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 271–72. This blurring was mirrored in England. See Russell E. Richey, Denominationalism: Illustrated and Explained (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013) 42, 85.

[24] Russell Richey has classified Jonathan Dickinson and Samuel Davies as “catholic” evangelicals and argued that “[Catholicity’s] place within liberalism has made its role in evangelicalism from the seventeenth century to the present less readily appreciated” (Richey, Denominationalism: Illustrated and Explained, 26–27). Likewise, Richey claims of life in England, “dissenters during most of the eighteenth century chose unity over denominationalism. Interaction and association took many forms: friendship, correspondence, societies, exchange of pulpits, gatherings, mutual assistance” (89). C.C. Goen allowed “In the Bay Colony a more strict congregational view had prevailed, while in Connecticut the ‘moderate Presbyterians’ controlled the religious establishment” (Goen, Revivalism and Separa-tism in New England, 1740–1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962; reprint, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 1).

[25] Timothy Hall claims, “Society had become more fluid, religion and culture more diverse, boundaries more porous than ever before” (Hall, Contested Boundaries, 32).

[26] LeBeau, Dickinson, 136. See also Marsden, Edwards, 215.

[27] Anne S. Lombard, Making Manhood: Growing up Male in Colonial New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 79; Richard Godbeer, The Overflowing of Friendship: Love Between Man and the Creation of the American Republic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 71.

[28] Ray Pahl, On Friendship (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 54–55.

[29] Lombard, Manhood, 79–80.

[30] Lombard, Manhood, 81.

[31] Randolph Trumbach, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Academic Press, 1978), 64–65.

[32] Allan Silver, “Friendship in Commercial Society: Eighteenth-Century Social Theory and Modern Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology 95 (May 1990): 1487.

[33] William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938; Second ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), 52.

[34] Haller, Rise of Puritanism, 54.

[35] Bremer, Congregational Communion, 6.

[36] Quoted in Bremer, Congregational Communion, 6.

[37] Godbeer, Friendship, 7, 65–66.

[38] Godbeer, Friendship, 66–67.

[39] Godbeer, Friendship, 84

[40] Godbeer, Friendship, 8. Indeed, frequently, particularly in the seventeenth century, friendship and literal family relationship over-lapped. See Godbeer, Friendship, 92–93, and Lombard, Manhood, 54.

[41] Godbeer, Friendship, 8.

[42] Lombard, Manhood, 96; Godbeer, Friendship, 71.

[43] Quoted in Godbeer, Friendship, 97–99. There has not been a lot of work on seventeenth-century male friendships among evangelicals.  But Jessica Warner, in “Evangelical Male Friendships in America’s First Age of Reform,” Journal of Social History 43 (2010) noted that, “Evangelical friendships … were more grounded than their secular counterparts, which is to say that shared religious values and experiences gave pious youths an additional dimension on which to bond,” and “the typical evangelical friendship would appear to have grown stronger over time precisely because the men in question enjoyed more than just a passing social bond” (691).

[44] Quoted in Valeri, Law and Providence, p. 20. See also Joseph Bellamy, The Works of Joseph Bellamy, Vol. I (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987), xii–xiii.

[45] Bellamy, Works of Bellamy, vol. I, xiii.

[46] Quoted in John Corrigan, The Prism of Piety: Catholick Congregational Clergy at the Beginning of the Enlightenment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 19.

[47] Valeri, Bellamy, 20. Thomas Kidd has pointed out that “The evangelical movement was formidable, but its most important leaders [Whitefield, Edwards, Wesley] struggled terribly to maintain interpersonal harmony.” (Kidd, Whitefield, 129). George Marsden contends that while Edwards and Whitefield were “firm allies” they were “too different in style to work closely together” Marsden, Edwards, 212.

[48] Marsden, Edwards, 280.

[49] George Whitefield, Journals of George Whitefield, (np: Christian Classics, 1970), 230–31.

[50] Quoted in Webster, Presbyterian Church in America, 389.

[51] Quoted in Bellamy, Works of Bellamy, Vol. 1 (New York: Garland, 1987), x–xi.

[52] Quoted in Valeri, Bellamy, 44.

[53] Quoted in Ava Chamberlin, “The Grand Sower of the Seed: Jonathan Edwards’s Critique of George Whitfield,” New England Quarterly 70 (1997): 369; Marsden, Edwards, 211.

[54] Quoted in Kidd, Whitefield, 197. 

[55] Quoted in Webster, Presbyterian Church in America, 399.

[56]Quoted in Coalter, Tennent, 105–06. See also Davenport’s retractions inspired by the ministry of Eleazar Wheelock in Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield (Boston, Charles Tappan, 1845; reprint edition, New York: Arno Press, 1969), 249–252.

[57] Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. Norman Pettit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 441.

[58] Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, ed., Pettit, 52, 54.

[59] Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, cv Ebenezer Pemberton; Batinski, Belcher, 171; Harry Stout, Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 282.

[60] Kidd, Whitefield, 89, 90.

[61] Webster, Presbyterian Church in America, 549.

[62] Edwards, Life of Brainerd, ed. Pettit, 39–40.

[63] Marsden, Edwards, 239; Edwards, Life of Brainerd, ed. Pettit, 55.

[64] Keith Hardman, “Jonathan Dickinson and the Course of American Presbyterianism, 1717–1747,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsyl-vania, 1971), 239; Trinterud, American Tradition, 118.

[65] Trinterud, American Tradition, 119; Coalter, Tennent, 117. Colman also wrote a preface to Tennent’s sermon against the Moravians. (Webster, Presbyterian Church in America, 392).

[66] George Pilcher, ed., The Reverend Samuel Davies Abroad: the Diary of a Journey to England and Scotland, 1753–55 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967), 31, 32, 33. 

[67] Valeri, Bellamy, 47.

[68] Bellamy, Works of Bellamy, vol. I, fn. xiv.

[69] Marsden, Edwards, 450.

[70] Marsden, Edwards, 143, 180.

[71] Edwards, Life of Brainerd, ed. Pettit, 40.

[72] Edwards, Life of Brainerd, ed. Pettit, 54.

[73] Bellamy, Works of Bellamy, vol. I, xiv.

[74] Marsden, Edwards, 428ff.

[75] Coalter, Tennent, 73 and fn. 55 p. 184.

[76] Coalter, Tennent, 63; Whitefield, Journals, 460–61.

[77] Kidd, Whitefield, 220.

[78] Pilcher, Davies Abroad, 44.

[79] Samuel Pilcher, Samuel Davies: Apostle of Dissent in Colonial Virginia (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971), 1.

[80] Quoted in Pilcher, Davies, 140.

[81] Pilcher, Davies Abroad, 23.

[82] Kidd, Whitefield, 90.

[83] Edwards, Life of Brainerd, ed. Pettit, 409.

[84] Webster, Presbyterian Church in America, 448. Edwards also travelled to his father’s home with Whitefield. See Tracy, Great Awakening, 100.

[85] Webster, Presbyterian Church in America, 258. This is to say, Dickinson had one eye on Philadelphia for the church and another eye on New Haven concerning Yale.

[86] Howard Miller, The Revolutionary College (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 72, 73.

[87] Miller, Revolutionary College, 74.

[88] Miller, Revolutionary College, 72, 309 fn. 67.

[89] See Bradley Longfield, Presbyterians and American Culture: A History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 7–14.

[90] Longfield, Presbyterians and American Culture, 16–17. Webster, Presbyterian Church in America, 204, 215.

[91] Longfield, Presbyterians and American Culture, 27.

[92] Briggs, American Presbyterianism, 301.  A Board of Commissioners in Boston was created in 1731 which included Belcher and Colman.  See Frederick Mills, “The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge in British North America, 1730–1775,” Church History, 63 (1994): 18–19.

[93] Briggs, American Presbyterianism, 302; Mills, “SSPCK,” 21.

[94] Mills, “SSPCK,” 22.

[95] Mills, “SSPCK,” 23–24.

[96] Mills, “SSPCK,” 27.

[97] Edwards, Life of Brainerd, ed. Pettit, 200.

[98] Pilcher, Davies Abroad, 30, 44, 23. See also Hall, Contested Boundaries, 108.

[99] Marsden, Edwards, 334–35. Jonathan Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings, ed. Stephen Stein (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 308.

[100] Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings, ed. Stein, 311.

[101] Goen, Revivalism and Separatism, 51, 206; Brian F. LeBeau, “‘The Acrimonious, Controversial Spirit’ Among Baptists and Presbyterians in the Middle Colonies During the Great Awakening, American Baptist Quarterly 9 (1990): 170. Some Presbyterian laity did move to the Baptist fold (LeBeau, “Baptists and Presbyterians,” 171) and some congregations did split (Miller, Revolutionary College, 13), but this was not as prevalent as in New England.

[102] LeBeau, “Baptists and Presbyterians,” 170. See e.g. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism, 63–64.

[103] Marilyn Westerkamp, “Division, Dissension, and Compromise: The Presbyterian Church during the Great Awakening” Journal of Presbyterian History 78 (Spring 2000): 16.

[104] Timothy Smith, “Congregation, State, and Denomination: The Forming of the American Religious Structure,” in Denominationalism, ed. Russell Richey (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), 66–67.

[105] Hall, Contested Boundaries, 102.

Bradley Longfield
Bradley Longfield
Bradley J. Longfield is Professor of Church History, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Iowa. He is author of The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates and Presbyterians and American Culture: A History


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