Dissertation Note: “Edward Dorr Griffin and the Edwardsian Second Great Awakening”

Rogers, Mark. “Edward Dorr Griffin and the Edwardsian Second Great Awakening.” PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2012.

In the heat of an early American revival, one church was characterized by quiet and calm. What may surprise many is that this revival took place not in the First Great Awakening, but in the Second. While historians generally point to the hysterics of the Cane Ridge revivals or the anxious bench of Charles Finney as the defining characteristics of the Second Great Awakening, Mark Rogers calls our attention to a contemporary revival that took on quite a different tenor.

In his dissertation, Rogers explores the life of Edward Dorr Griffin (1770–1837) to help us better understand the complexity of both the Second Great Awakening and the legacy of Jonathan Edwards. As Rogers argues, while historians have long recognized a discontinuity between the First and Second Great Awakenings, Griffin’s life and ministry help us see a continuity, for the revivals he led were characterized by a Calvinist Edwardsianism. And so Rogers argues against both an Arminianization of the nineteenth century thesis and a declension of Edwardsianism thesis.

Rogers recounts the life of Edward Dorr Griffin, whose times intersected with many early American evangelical institutions. We see his Edwardsian development under the tutelage of Jonathan Edwards Jr. and his influence through pastorates in New Hartford, Connecticut, and Newark, New Jersey, and through his role in the founding of institutions like Andover Seminary (America’s first seminary), Park Street Church in Boston, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the American Bible Society.

Throughout the monograph, Rogers again and again traces Edwards’ influence on Griffin’s theology and ministry. Griffin intentionally sought to place himself in the stream of Edwards, and Rogers repeatedly shows how he mirrored Edwards by comparing the primary sources of both men. Griffin and others sought to promote Edwardsianism in a number of ways, including reprinting several of Edwards’ works like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Others, such as Nathaniel Taylor and Charles Finney, who disagreed with Griffin on certain theological issues, also claimed the mantle of Edwards. While such claims illustrate the complexity of the Edwardsian movement in the decades after his death, Rogers convincingly demonstrates the continuity between Edwards and Griffin.

Edwardsianism’s influence affected the way Griffin conducted his ministry. As Edwards emphasized revival, so Griffin preached for revival from his earliest pastorate down to his final days as president of Williams College. Yet he called for emotional restraint in revivals in ways that Edwards did not, a call that arose in reaction to radicals such as James Davenport and bodily manifestations in the First Great Awakening, which Griffin and other New Divinity pastors believed had derailed the earlier revival. As Rogers explains, “Griffin and his fellow Edwardsians deradicalized the First Great Awakening … in order to promote another Awakening, this time more pure and, hopefully, longer lasting” (108).

Edwards’ influence on Griffin was also visible in his use of means to promote revival. Rogers offers a corrective to the idea that the First Great Awakening was merely “a surprising work of God,” while the Second Great Awakening was a humanly implemented revival through the use of means. He shows both that Edwards used means and that Griffin used the same kinds of means as Edwards, such as concerts of prayer, preaching for revival, pulpit exchange, and reporting revivals in public media.

How did these means differ from Finney, the most vocal proponent in his day of using means to promote revival? While Griffin embraced innovative means, he nonetheless rejected certain means, such as the anxious bench, calling for people by name in public prayer and preaching (something Edwards denounced as well), and getting people angry to show that they were sinners who hate God. Rogers identifies the major difference between the conservative revivalists like Griffin and the new-measure revivalists like Finney: “While [Griffin] had always thought means were important and were used by God in revival, he had also maintained that regeneration and revival were both supernatural miracles that could not be guaranteed by the right use of means” (314). This debate over means and revivalism in the Second Great Awakening revealed a fragmentation within Edwardsianism. Everyone claimed the Edwardsian mantle; Griffin stood as the conservative revivalist of the time.

In further correcting our understanding of the Second Great Awakening, Rogers shows that Griffin identified the year 1792 as the time when revivals broke out in the U.S.—not 1801 or 1802, as many historians suggest. His Calvinism formed a critical aspect of his brand of revivalism, which differentiated him and his colleagues from some of the Arminianizing tendencies in other revivals. And in his ministry he also combatted Unitarianism in Boston and led the way in promoting foreign missions.

After Griffin died, it became clear that the new measures had won the day—they would evolve into the modern revivalism of D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham. And Griffin’s death, Rogers argues, represented the passing of “the conservative, Edwardsian revivalism that had helped launch the Second Great Awakening in New England” (321). But Griffin’s life illustrates well the tensions in revivalist approaches within evangelical Christianity even today and raises questions about how new generations can and should appropriate Edwards in their own practices and theology.

Rogers writes his dissertation in a lucid style, and he not only displays a good grasp of the historiographical literature on the Second Great Awakening and Edwards’ legacy, he also examines a wide selection of primary sources, including sermons, lectures, letters, notes, and church and organization records. He places Griffin in his Edwardsian, Presbyterian, Congregational, and the Second Great Awakening context, and he recognizes the very real impact of social concerns such as salary on the relations between a church and its pastor.

This dissertation makes several important contributions to scholarly conversations about American revivalism and Edwardsianism. But it also offers insights to pastors today by exploring the life of a pastor who sought to live a life of piety, practiced self-examination, struggled at times to balance his own broader ministry priorities with his responsibilities to his congregation, yet made it his habit of finishing his sermon preparation by Tuesday to devote time to visiting people all day Thursday.

One major question remains: Given this picture of Griffin and his distinction from other revivalists like Finney and those at Cane Ridge, how representative is Griffin in his time? He certainly complicates our understanding of the Second Great Awakening, and it is clear that he was influential in New England and New Jersey. But how many others in his day embraced his theological and revival emphases? How common was his kind in that time? Perhaps those questions necessarily fall outside the constraints of a dissertation this length. Nonetheless, this line of inquiry would be a fruitful area for others to explore, building on Roger’s work.

Rogers’ dissertation should cause professors of American history—and especially American religious history—to change how we teach the First and Second Great Awakenings. It complicates the Second Awakening in a way that gives us a better sense of the diversity in those revivals, a diversity that mirrored the increasing diversity of the young Republic. This monograph is highly recommended, and historians should hope that it will soon be published. Rogers certainly makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the Second Great Awakening and the legacy of Jonathan Edwards.

~ David P. Barshinger, PhD

Trinity International University