Monday, October 31, 2016

American Missions Distinctly Rooted in New Divinity Theology

Within The New Divinity and the Origins of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions David W. Kling proposes that the theological influences of the New Divinity movement of the early 1800s intricately inspired the formative nature of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) - a concept Kling asserts is unchallenged by scholars of American religious history as the doctrinal guidance of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, and other Congregational ministers visibly are rooted in the origins of the Protestant missionary movement. Congregational ministers and heirs of Edwardsean thought became known as proponents of the New Divinity movement and initiated evangelical pursuits of mass conversions to the Protestant religion. An early model for missionary work can be detected through the urging of the Great Awakening theologian's Life of Brainerd which emphasized the reality of redemption and man's need to encounter that grace. Following Edwards' example, Kling suggests that Samuel Hopkins took the basis for mission work further by taking the abstract ideal of heart conversion and forming sincere spiritual change into a matter of practicality narrowed on "self-denial for the greater glory of God's kingdom and the betterment of humankind."[1]

The essence prevailing Edwards’ New Divinity resulted in a “distinction between natural and moral inability,” found especially in his well-regarded Freedom of the Will which promoted the idea of human agency and cultivated a sense of urgency in believers to demonstrate that "faith as doctrine is incomplete without fruition in experience,"[2] convictions which motivated hopeful missionaries to fulfill the calling to convert nations yet deaf to the Gospel as per Edwards’ emphasis upon genuine expressions of religious affections. These sentiments would rekindle during the Second Great Awakening and future Holiness Movements as Protestantism submerged America’s culture in a spiritual landscape.

Despite the demise of famed Great Awakening ministers, the revivals of the 1800s saw an influx of youthful converts desiring to enter missions. Upon fervent prayer meetings and intimate gatherings, many attendees of Second Great Awakening camp revivals associated as New Divinity believers who committed their lives to spreading the Gospel across domestic, cultural, and political borders. A famous example of such commitment by youth attending one of these revivals was the declaration of Samuel J. Mills Jr. to fulfill the spiritual calling resonating within him and his peers at Williams College despite enduring balmy weather which ushered the group to take shelter beneath a haystack while they continued formulating ways in which they could realize this vision. The Haystack Prayer Meeting served as the fundamental instance where the foreign missions movement initiated by American Protestants spread from Christian students to other seminaries and eventually into formal organizations and mission associations. Student involvement, interest, and assistance from congregational bodies resulted in the official opening of the ABCFM in 1810. Within the span of two short years, five missionaries from this religious collective ventured to the vastly pagan "jewel of the British empire:" India while others turned their gazes inward to reform American society.

This initial launch sounded the beginning of American missionary work which found its basis primarily in the contributions and labor of Congregationalists from New England though the activities of Presbyterians, Reformed Dutch, and other denominations which came to join the ranks of the new ABCFM. Kling wisely discerns that though Edwards and Hopkins offered theological insight, they did not purposefully intend nor supply doctrinal rationale as to how Protestants were to engage in international or domestic ministry. Kling paints them as transitional figures as Edwards functioned prior to the growing consciousness of the importance of mission work, and though Hopkins was aware of the underpinnings of this movement through New Light influence through the Great Awakening of the 1740s, he did not live to witness the effects occurring in the generation proceeding after these two influential theological figures ascended into glory. Instead, Kling argues that the following generation "extended and applied the implicit missionary theology of Edwards and Hopkins into an explicit theological justification for the creation of the ABCFM."[3] It is also an ironic fact that the man known as the "father of the foreign missionary work in Christian America” is often overlooked, as Samuel J. Mills Jr. never served as a foreign missionary, yet he arguably did more to pioneer the advance of mission work compared to any contemporary. A grand student leader and religious evangelical promoter, Mills organized the ABCFM, was "instrumental in the formation of the Foreign Mission School,"[4] and dedicated to educating converted native peoples so that they could serve as ambassadors for Christ amongst the members of their culture in their homeland.

Though he did not travel abroad, Mills’ domestic influence punctured the heart of Congregational worship as he served as a pioneer missionary in the western territories of America and posed as an abolitionist who desired to rectify the institution of slavery, to educate, and to include African Americans as equal members of church and society. Suitably, Mills’ lobbying for educational reform assisted evangelization at home and abroad with the opening of missionary societies and organizations which funded the distribution of Bibles, construction of Sunday schools, the traveling expenses and lodging for preachers and missionary families, and the establishment of education societies to lessen the “cost for ministerial training for pious young men aspiring to the ministry.”[5] Thus, Mills operated as a fundamental catalyst of the foreign missionary movement which aligned with the broader scope of the antebellum reforms sweeping throughout the initial stages of the nineteenth century.

The New Divinity or Edwardsean or Hopkinsian mindsets relied upon by Mills and other Congregationalists surged the movement forward as many felt compelled by the idea of a "disinterested benevolence," rather that the believer ought to be willing to be damned for all eternity if one’s individual sacrifice of their salvation could bring glory to God. Though perhaps misguided regarding how the redemption and salvation of all mankind remains at the heart of the Christian doctrine, those of New Divinity theology stewed in Edward’s “grand providential/millennial scheme” believed that revivals “signaled the dawn of the millennium – a new age [emerging] through natural means as an outpouring of God’s Spirit manifested in religious activity – [denoting how] Christian activity was a precondition [and that Christians ought to be] engaged in benevolent activities, social reform, and missionary outreach”[6] to usher in the second coming of Christ.

Fundamentally, Kling’s work explains the contributions of multiple New Divinity members, such as Moses Hallock, William Richards, Ammi Robbins, and the impact of sermons such as Edward D. Griffin's "The Kingdom of Christ" which called for the fulfillment of the Great Commission which supported Mills’ efforts to gain sponsors and volunteers to sustain and expand the ABCFM. However, Kling primarily constructs a narrative regarding an exploration of Edwardsean theology, Mills' exceptional organizational skills and passion which propelled the success of the "Society of the Brethren" (a secret missionary society) and the ABCFM as an institution and movement, as well as how the historian analyzes the overall influence of New Divinity thought on the mission field. Intriguingly, Kling reiterates how most scholarship lacks the assertion that New Divinity is the stirring cultural factor entwined with the Edwardsean tradition that prompts the development of American missions. In fact, Kling boldly claims that New Divinity ideology should be considered a "widespread movement insofar as it promoted a theology and directed that ideology into organizations bent on influencing the nature of society"[7] – the origin of missionary societies being firmly ingrained within New Divinity doctrine, revivalism, and an intricate series of voluntary associations which were distinctly New Divinity-based and whose members adhered to New Divinity doctrine which served as the motivation and justification for domestic and international American missions due to a benevolent view of depraved mankind – a step away from prior forms of Calvinist theology as though a new light had dawned in order to lead America and the world closer toward the Divine being and the awaiting millennium.

[1] David Kling, “The New Divinity and the Origins of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.” Church History (2003): 792.
[2] Michael Haykin, “All the Dogmas of the American School” in Great Admirers of the Transatlantic Divinity, 201.
[3] Kling, “The New Divinity,” 793.
[4] David Raymond, "The Legacy of Samuel J. Mills Jr." International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38, no. 4 (2014): 207.
[5] Ibid,.
[6] John Hubers, "Making Friends with Locusts: Early ABCFM Missionary Perceptions of Muslims and Islam, 1818-50." International Bulletin of Missionary Research 33, no. 3 (2009): 151.
[7] Kling, 794.

Image (c) Salem Harbor, Caravan, 1818.

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