Bible Reading and Revival

The Holy Bible contains the life-giving truth of how to know Jesus Christ.  Extended, concentrated exposure to it will dramatically change individuals and entire communities.  Read the following account of God’s work at Princeton University when the students were required to memorize five chapters of the Bible per week.

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Excerpt from “God at Work: Religion and Revival at Princeton University 1746-1979”

Religion in American colleges went through what was perhaps its all-time nadir in the 1790’s. As the ideals of French liberalism spread through the United States, infidelity, immorality, and lawlessness ran rampant in the colleges. Most colleges of this era were faced with disciplinary problems that make the turbulent 1960’s look tame by comparison.

At Princeton during this period, riots and wholesale suspensions were not uncommon, and in the 1840’s the President was even shot at. The number of Christian students dropped drastically, with one class in the 1790’s having only two ‘professors’ of religion. Neither President Samuel Stanhope Smith, a progressive liberal-minded minister, nor President Ashbel Green, considered today as a reactionary conservative, were able to control the lawlessness of the students, and both were forced to resign. Academic standards dropped, funds were lost, the number of students enrolled plummeted, and at one point the college almost closed in despair. An 1802 fire burnt down the main building of the College, Nassau Hall, and when students were blamed for setting it (the real cause is uncertain), this created a reactionary mood among the trustees, which only made matters worse.

As a result of these difficulties, the College lost the moral support of the church. Because of the reigning infidelity and the proliferation of the sons of wealthy merchants and planters, many Presbyterians felt that Princeton was no longer the place to send young divinity students. At the same time, the demand for ministers was becoming more pressing with the expanding frontier. To fill this need, 17 seminaries were established in the period 1807-1827.

These factors led to the establishment of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1812. Unlike most other seminaries of its day; it had no affiliation with its nearby college, for its founders feared that the College’s lawless atmosphere might poison its students. Indeed, in spite of the logical location of Princeton for a seminary, it was only after much maneuvering and many concessions that the College Trustees managed to persuade the seminary founders to settle in Princeton. This made for an interesting relationship in the years ahead, for with the image of the college so low, the Seminary overshadowed the College until the Civil War, and also siphoned off funds that might have otherwise reached the College. In addition, many Seminary professors sat on the Board of Trustees, and they thereby exercised an indirect form of control over the College.

God’s grace abounded all the more dramatically amidst the prevailing law­lessness of this period. A wave of college revivals occurred between 1800 and 1815, with 1/2 to 1/3 of students converted at Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst, and Princeton (Orr, p. 25). Oftentimes one revival would set off a chain of others, since students were in close communication with Christians at other schools, and word of revival at another school would stimulate them to more prayer and evangelism.

Princeton’s remarkable revival of 1815 had great impact, and thus deserves our close attention. The President at the time, Ashbel Green, was a very godly and pious man, for all of his administrative deficiencies. His goal was to “make the College what its pious founders intended” (Wertenbaker, p. 154), and he felt that this could only be accomplished by making the College “the seat of a series of religious revivals that would transform the worldly and the vicious into meek, pious youths, some of whom would go forth to preach the gospel” (Wertenbaker, p.l54).

Green’s prayers and work were rewarded in 1815, and a detailed account of this event can be found in “A Report to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, relative to a Revival of Religion among the students of said College, in the winter and spring of the year 1815” (Jones, p. 618ff). Green explains that there were no unusual signs of revival in the beginning of the year, other than a relatively solemn attitude since commencement. Around the middle of January, “the divine influence seemed to descend like the silent dew of heaven, and all became impressed with the importance of spiritual things.” Every room sud­denly became a place of devotion, with convicted students seeking the counsel of the formerly despised divinity students, as well as professors and seminari­ans. Green relates that “for a time it seemed as if the whole of our charge was pressing into the kingdom of God, so that at length the inquiry in regard to them was not who was engaged about religion, but who was not.”

This happy state of affairs lasted for about 2 months after which there was a. change of atmosphere. Green remarks that by this time many of the students had become confirmed in their piety, others were still prayerful, some were not as prayerful as they once were and still others were losing the impressions of religion that they had gained. Yet the impact of this revival can be seen by the percentage of students (nearly half) who were converted in it. Before it there were a mere 12 professors out of a student body of 105. After the revival over 40 other students became the “subjects of renewing grace” with 12-15 more probable and the rest of the students remaining very open to religion.

Green considered this revival one of the most important events of his life and ministry, for many who were converted became influential clergymen and public figures.  The revival also had a salutary effect on discipline at the College with almost no problems following in its wake for nearly two years. Unfortunately, the students who were affected by the revival graduated in a few years, and riots and other disorders broke out again.

It is profitable to take note of the causes of this revival, as Green saw them.

Most important was intense exposure of students to Scripture which had been made the subject of regular course study two years earlier. Not only did students have to study the Bible in class, they also attended two services daily, and had to memorize and be prepared to recite 5 chapters of the Bible weekly. It is small wonder that this saturation with Scripture, as Green said, “rendered their minds solemn and tender beyond what they themselves were aware of at the time...(and gave) them a deep reverence for the truths of divine revelation ...” (Jones, p. 620).

Other factors which Green credited were the improvement of the circum­stances of worship, as students could no longer worship with townspeople after the local Presbyterian church burnt down, and the messages could therefore be aimed directly towards the needs of students; and improved discipline, which Green thinks preserved the youth by preventing the hardening of their hearts by gross vice. Also crucial was the fact that the few pious students at the College had become alarmed at the vice around them, and had been praying earnestly for revival for over a year. When these pious students sensed the new openness of their friends, they began to witness to them with surprisingly good results, and this encouraged them to witness more. Once it became clear that a revival was in the making, these students banded together regularly in prayer.

This revival, like most revivals, was non-sectarian in character. Many non­Presbyterians were apprehensive about it at first, but this potential stumbling block was put to rest by Green when he declared that he was not interested in proselytizing to Presbyterianism, and that the doctrines which were being propounded were common to all brands of…Christianity.

Not only did this revival have great impact on the lives which were changed through it, but it also produced a number of lasting institutions. This was the era of the founding of voluntary societies in college, and the most important of these at Princeton was the Nassau Hall Bible Society. This was formed to distribute Bibles to the destitute, and in 1827 the Society undertook the ambi­tious task of distributing a Bible to every destitute family in New Jersey. Thirty College and seminary students devoted their entire fall vacations to distributing Bibles (Maclean, p. 356, vol. 2). Members of this society helped organize the famous American Bible Society, of which the Nassau Hall Bible Society became an affiliate.

The Nassau Hall Tract Society was also formed in the wake of the 1815 revival, and this was the forerunner of the American Tract Society. Revival converts started the Princeton Sabbath-School Society, and the Nassau Hall Education Society was formed in 1821 “to aid indigent youth of talent and of good ‘moral character’ in obtaining a liberal education” (Maclean, vol. 2, pp. 197).

Most importantly, in 1825 Chi Phi was “started to promote the circulation of correct opinions on Religion, Morals, Education, etc., excluding Sectarian Theology and partisan Politics” (One Hundred Years, 1825-1925, p. 7). Chi Phi became the Philadelphian Society in the following year, a group of great future importance. Since the Philadelphian Society was founded in the wake of the 1806 Williams College Haystack Prayer Meeting, which was the start of the modem American missionary movement, the Society emphasized missions from its inception. Thirty of its members entered the foreign mission field in the first 30 years of its existence, no small number in the early years of mission work.

This excerpt was taken from Kenneth P. Jasko. “God at Work: Religion and Revival at Princeton University 1746-1979.” Unpublished manuscript, 1979.

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