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An account of a Revival of Religion in Bristol, Conn., in the year 1799

By the Rev. Giles H.  Cowles

For most of the time since my settlement in this place, there had been some individuals under serious impressions; and from six to eleven had been annually added to the church. But for a year or two before the revival began, the people appeared to be uncommonly inattentive to their eternal concerns. For more than a year, but one had made a public profession of religion, and not more than one appeared to be inquiring the way to Zion. The concerns of the present life appeared to engross the attention of most. This was the situation of the society when the revival began in several neighboring places in the latter part of the year 1798. The minister of one of those societies preached here, the last Sabbath in January, 1799, and gave some account of the work of God in those towns, which considerably engaged the attention of the hearers, and appeared to affect the minds of some individuals. On the second Sabbath in February, information was given that a lecture would be preached at the meeting-house on Wednesday, and that several ministers were expected. The people generally assembled, and three neighboring ministers were present. The exercises were introduced with some observations on the peculiar attention to religion which had begun in places around, and two sermons were delivered on the occasion. An unusual attention and solemnity were soon very apparent in the congregation, and numbers appeared deeply affected, and in tears. A conference being appointed in the evening, a large school-house was filled; and divine influences appeared more powerful than in the afternoon. The assembly was solemn as the grave. All seemed to be deeply impressed with a sense of the importance of their eternal concerns, and to hear with the most eager and anxious attention. The exercises continued till nine o’clock, and yet the hearers appeared as if unwilling to leave the house.

The next day, being on a visit in one part of the society, I conversed with three young persons who appeared to be feelingly convinced of their sin and danger, and who were the first that had any conversation with me respecting their eternal concerns. But within a week from the time of this lecture, perhaps fifty appeared to be under deep conviction of sin; and ten or twelve entertained a hope that they were reconciled to God. Thus the divine Spirit in its quickening influences, seemed to descend like a shower, in different parts of the society. Almost all appeared to be so far affected, that the general inquiry and conversation were about the things of religion. At first, it was in some, perhaps an affection of the passions, but as this subsided, it was in many instances succeeded by a deep and rational conviction of their guilt, danger, and need of the Savior, and the renewing influences of his Spirit. For several months, the work of conviction continued to extend, though with less rapidity than at first, and there were frequent instances of hopeful conversions; till by some disagreeable occurrences, the work appeared to be greatly retarded in the month of June. At that time a sectarian controversy about certain sentiments, little connected with the essential truths of religion, unhappily arose, and for a time, engaged much of the attention and conversation. This produced disputes and ill-feelings, and seemed greatly to divert attention from that anxious concern for the salvation of the soul, which had before prevailed. And although in a few weeks, this dispute in a great measure, subsided, yet the revival never recovered its former life and power. And there has appeared to be very few new instances of conviction or conversion since that time. This shows the pernicious tendency of such controversies to check religious awakenings, and quench the Spirit of God. How cautious, then, should all be of introducing such disputes in times of peculiar attention to divine things.

But to proceed in the narration—It may be observed that most who have had a thorough conviction of their entire depravity, great guilt and danger, entertain a hope that they have become reconciled to God. A few yet remain under serious impressions, who do not suppose they have embraced the Savior; while some, it is to be feared, who have been in some measure awakened to a sense of their sin and danger, have lost their conviction…There has appeared among those who were seriously affected, a peculiar disposition to hear, and get divine instruction, and an unwillingness to leave religious meetings after the public exercises were concluded, as long as they could hear religious conversation. It was pleasing to see with what solemn attention and apparent satisfaction, many of the youth listened to divine instruction, who a few weeks before, were thoughtless of the important concerns of religion, and took their greatest pleasure in balls, vain company and amusements. But the ball chambers, and the card-tables were now forsaken. And those who were serious, were deeply impressed with a sense of the hurtful tendency of such things to divert attention from divine things, quench the strivings of God’s Spirit, and harden the heart.

One hundred have made a profession, and been received into this church since the revival began, of whom sixty-one are females, and thirty-nine males. About sixty are under thirty years of age, and there may be, perhaps, twelve that are nearly fifty or upwards. This shows the great importance of cordially engaging in religion in the season of youth. Most of those who have made a public profession suppose that they have become reconciled during this peculiar effusion [outpouring, or, work] of the Holy Spirit; but some, who date their conversion several years back, have now been more quickened and confirmed in their hopes. Others have been shaken from their old hopes, been brought to see that they were building on the sand, and have now hopefully embraced the Savior, and thus built on the rock of ages. There are, perhaps, twenty who entertain a hope of having made their peace with God, that have not yet made a public profession of religion.

It may be remarked, that the converts are chiefly from families where one or both the parents were professors, or hopefully pious. This consideration affords parents a very powerful motive to engage in religion, and to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. By neglecting these things, parents are destroying both themselves, and their children.

Having given this general sketch of the beginning and progress of the revival, I shall proceed to some observations to illustrate in a more particular manner, the nature of the work.

It has been remarkably free from all irregularity and enthusiasm. The convictions have been rational, but deep and powerful. When first awakened, persons were generally moved by a sense of danger. They generally set out with a resolution, and the expectation of doing something to make themselves better—commend themselves to God, and procure his favor, having no just sense of their entire depravity of heart, or moral inability. But the more they attended to the duties of religion, and endeavored to make themselves better, the more sensible they became of their exceeding depravity and guilt. Like the woman, who spent all she had to be healed of the physicians, they were sensible that they were nothing bettered, but rather grew worse. They were soon brought to see that their hearts were full of sin and opposition to God. When under thorough conviction, they would readily acknowledge that they were sensible that they were greatly opposed to God’s character, laws and government—that they had always acted from a wicked, selfish heart, and therefore had never done anything right in the sight of God. They would observe that they formerly had no idea that they were opposed to God, but used to suppose, that they had some love to him, and did many things which were right and acceptable to him, and that it therefore appeared as if it would be hard and unjust in God to doom them to destruction; but that they were now sensible that they had always been opposed to God—had always acted from a sinful temper, and so had been sinning against him in all their moral conduct, and that he might justly cast them off forever. In this stage of their convictions, they did not feel that their great sinfulness consisted in any particular sinful misconduct, or immorality, but in their hearts, that great fountain and source of all wickedness, and in the general temper which actuated them in all their conduct. They were feelingly convinced that they never could enjoy any real peace or happiness, or participate in the holy enjoyments of heaven, unless their hearts were renewed by the divine Spirit. They were also fully sensible, that such was their depravity and opposition to God, and holiness, that they never should repent, and cordially embrace the gospel, unless influenced by the Spirit of God; and that he might, in justice, leave them to go on and perish in their sins. Thus they felt that they lay at the mere sovereign, uncovenated mercy—that their only ground of hope was that God through Christ, would have mercy on whom he would have mercy. In this situation they were sensible, that the doctrine of divine sovereignty or election, which mankind naturally oppose, and deny with such bitterness, was their only ground of hope. For if God were not to have mercy upon them, till they had done something to recommend themselves to his mercy, or to procure his grace, they felt that their case would be hopeless. Neither did they feel that their hearts being wholly depraved or opposed to God, would afford them any just excuse for remaining impenitent; but they were feelingly convinced that should they perish, the blame would fall upon themselves. This view of their character and condition, stripped them of their self-righteousness, and self-dependence, rendered them sensible of their need of the Lord Jesus as their Savior to deliver them both from the power and punishment of sin, and so prepared them to trust in him alone for salvation.

To be continued next week…

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