New Light Schism

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Early New Englanders generally practiced congregationalism, though by the 18th century they seldom thought of themselves as the spearhead of the Reformation. A wave of revivals known as the Great Awakening swept New England beginning in the 1720s, dividing churchgoers into New Light (evangelical Calvinists) and Old Light (more moderate) wings. An increasing minority were calling themselves Baptists.

Nearly all Europeans in these colonies were Protestants, but individual denominations were very different. There were Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, Mennonites and Quakers. While the Church of England was the established church (the official, government-supported church) in the Chesapeake colonies, German and Scottish non-Anglicans were migrating south from the middle colonies, and Baptists were making their first southern converts. Although most Chesapeake slaves were American-born by the late 18th century, they practiced what they remembered of African religions, while some became Christians in 18th-century revivals.

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New Light Schism

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The New Light Schism was a division in the Presbyterian and Congregational denominations in the mid - eighteenth century primarily over practical matters of Christian experience. Presbyterian schism occurred in 1741 when the Old Lights, who were predominantly of Scotch - Irish heritage, ejected the New Light faction and formed the Old Side synod of Philadelphia. The New Light party, with their English Puritan background, grew out of the Great Awakening and revived a more experiential interpretation of the Christian life. They organized the New Side presbyteries of New Brunswick and Londonderry.

Both parties professed traditional Calvinist and Puritan doctrine, but they differed substantially on its practical implications. Old Light ministers, interpreting Calvinism in a rationalistic manner, claimed that holding orthodox theology was more important than Christian living. For them God's sovereign decree determined who was elect, and correct theological belief, not manner of life, was the only major practical sign of salvation. Moral laxity often resulted from such deemphasis on religious experience, leading to several Old Light pastors being tried by presbyteries for persistent immoral living and drunkenness.

In contrast, New Lights William and Gilbert Tennent stressed Puritan piety as indispensable to Calvinist theology. They preached conviction of sin, teaching their hearers that true faith in Christ required a vital conversion experience leading to moral obedience and personal holiness. Gilbert Tennent, in "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry," contended that some Old Light clergy were actually unregenerate, and he encouraged believers to seek spiritual nurture elsewhere. Old Light members countered that New Lights were guilty of "enthusiasm" and defamatory accusations. Their itinerant preaching and their encouragement of layment to pressure fellow church members into New Light experience violated Presbyterian polity.

During the schism New Siders experienced dramatic growth and founded the College of New Jersey (Princeton) to educate their ministers. Meanwhile the Old Side generally failed in its educational efforts and actually declined in number. In 1758 New Side initiatives produced reunion on conditions favorable to that group.

Congregationalists also experienced schism over the Great Awakening. After George Whitefield's and Gilbert Tennent's evangelistic tours in 1740 - 41 brought a general revival to New England, James Davenport's incendiary preaching and incitement of emotional excesses brought sharp Old Light reprisals. Charles Chauncey argued that revivals were not the work of God because emotional outbursts were not produced by God's Spirit. Charging New Lights with antinomianism and enthusiasm, he claimed that religion, rather than pertaining to man's emotions, primarily appeals to the understanding and judgment.

Jonathan Edwards defended revivalism. He admitted that instances of doctrinal and ecclesiastical disorder existed. But he argued that believers could distinguish between genuine and counterfeit awakenings by examining whether they brought love for Christ, Scripture, and truth and opposition to evil. Edwards defined the essence of true religion as "holy affections." Religious experience is not limited to the mind. When regenerated by the Holy Spirit, man's whole being, heart, mind, will, and affections, is engaged.

This schism helped Edwards and his followers revive a balanced, vital Calvinism. Chauncey and other Old Lights, on the other hand, broke from Calvinism and began to advocate Arminianism and eventually Unitarianism.

W A Hoffecker
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

C Chauncey, Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against and Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England; J Davenport, The Rev. Mr. Davenport's Confessions and Retractions; J Edwards, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England, and A Treatise Concerning the religious Affections; E S Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England; G Tennent, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry; L J Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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