Evangelical Earnestness: Why it means we cant have nice stuff, and more tales from 1850s New England

In 1851 an orthodox Congregationalist minister delivered a sermon on earnestness to his parish in Danville, Vermont. He preached from Acts 4:13, which stated that the early apostolic church “took knowledge of them that had been with Jesus.”  That passage, according to Revd John Dudley, in early Christian history, embodied the “principle which in a very few years spread the Christian religion over the known world.” The passage in Acts 4 unfolded “the secret of that power, which, so far as human agency was concerned, overturned the world, and filled the Roman Empire—her colonies, cities, and villages; her forum and schools; her offices and armies—with Christians.” The principle of earnestness, proclaimed Dudley, was “the manifestation of sincerity in what one professes to believe, and an earnestness in propagating that belief.”

            John Dudley invested Christian earnestness with world-changing power. “The world of mind,” he proclaimed, “is in earnest for something; moving on and on with resistless force, gathering momentum with every stride. Everything give symptoms of the earnestness which is impelling men to live in a hurry.” The rest of the world, everyone around him, he extolled, “was rushing headlong, and we must run with them or be run over and trampled down by the crowd. Everything puts on the feature of earnestness.” Even God’s providences, he stated, were in earnest. “The whole fabric of society trembles, as if shaken by a thousand earthquakes. The horizon darkens, the entire concave puts on the looks of agitation, as if all nature were in agony. New tokens of divine favor arose regularly, “which give assurance that Jehovah is in earnest, amid the tumult, and will bring order out of confusion.”

            This plea for earnestness conformed to some degree with traditional calls to Protestant devotion and a reliance on divine providence, but Dudley’s call to earnestness exposed the innately progressive and revolutionary nature of Low Church or Evangelical Protestantism in North America. Dudley connected earnestness to socio-political reform and revolution. “The Christian…must be in earnest, or he will do no good. He must make those around him feel that he is in earnest, or he is powerless, as a reformer.” None one would “’take knowledge of him that he has been with Jesus,’ if there is no earnestness in him.” Christian earnestness gave the believer “reformatory power” which according to Dudley did not depend on numbers. He went one step further, connecting Christian earnestness, which he saw as a necessary fruit of Christian piety to changing to social and civil order. “Political or moral changes are wrought by the organized and disciplined minority, who set themselves to work in earnest.”

            Dudley’s sermon revealed the innately revolutionary nature of Calvinism in much of the northern states and especially New England. By making the socio-religious paradigm of earnestness a necessary fruit of Christian salvation, and then by attaching that earnestness explicitly to changing the moral, political, and social order, Dudley and his comrades creating a religiosity that necessarily looked for social ills that had to be remedied by earnest Christians, effectively eradicating any enduring societal good to be left untouched. For Reformist-minded American Calvinists, no society or polity could ever be good enough. Meddling was a mark of sanctification. Social and moral revolution, not endurance or stability, became the fruit of the earnestly-lived Christian life. Revolution, for the scion of New England Puritanism, was devotion.


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