The Yale Revival


volume 16, number 5, February 2, 2017

“He delivered us from the domain of darkness.” -Colossians 1:13

The Yale Revival

Yale was established in 1701 at Saybrook, Connecticut and later moved to New Haven, Connecticut. It was to be a training center for the education of students for the “Publick employment both in Church and Civil State.” The Congregational Church in Connecticut was eager to begin such a college because they believed Harvard, established in 1638, was already suspect in its theology. To this day the motto of Yale remains Lux et Veritas, Light and Truth. 

By 1795 however, the strong, authoritative Biblical foundation of Yale had crumbled. Of the one hundred and thirty students, only ten of them were professing Christians. Lyman Beecher, a student at the time at Yale and later a powerful New England preacher, said that the Yale students were given to much drunkenness, gambling, and licentiousness. The in vogue philosophy of the day was the French Enlightenment, the effects of which were sweeping over the nation of France at the time. From September, 1793 to July, 1794 the Reign of Terror, led by Robespierre and his euphemistically called Committee of Public Safety, had rounded up 300,000 French citizens suspected of Royalist allegiance (that’s one in every fifteen French men and women) and imprisoned them. Forty thousand were executed by the latest and most efficient engine of execution, the Guillotine. Students at Yale went about calling themselves Voltaire, Rousseau, and D’Alembert as they read the atheistic philosophy of Thomas Paine. 

Into this caldron of unbelief and licentiousness stepped the new President of Yale, Timothy Dwight, already a well known poet, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the greatest philosopher and theologian our country has produced. The students, knowing Dwight’s commitment to Biblical orthodoxy, challenged him immediately on his beliefs. From the beginning of the school term in 1795, Dwight preached weekly at the chapel, and over the next six months he dismantled the godless philosophy of the French Enlightenment and proceeded to present a well reasoned defense of the Bible’s accuracy authority.  “From that moment,” says Sereno Dwight, Timothy’s son, “infidelity was not only without a stronghold but without a lurking place.” By the next year twenty-five of the one hundred and thirty students had become Christians. In 1802 a full fledged revival broke out on the Yale campus. Leading up to the revival a small number of students gathered weekly to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the college. The students had read about the mighty movement of God on the western frontier of Kentucky and Tennessee and longed for the same at Yale. That year, of the two hundred and thirty students, one third became Christians and fifty-eight joined the college church. One student later reported, “The whole college was shaken. It seemed for a time as if the whole mass of the students would press into the kingdom. It was the Lord’s doing, and marvelous in all eyes. Oh, what a blessed change! It was a glorious transformation.” Professor Benjamin Stilliman called Yale “a little temple” where prayer and praise seem to be the delight of the greater part of the students.”  Half of the graduating class (thirty students) entered the pastoral ministry that year. Subsequent periods of revival followed in 1808, 1812, 1813, 1815, and 1831. New Haven was also dramatically affected by the revival. In 1831 nine hundred people in the town were converted and one hundred and four students were also converted that year. James Brainerd Taylor, distant cousin of David Brainerd and a student at Yale in 1827, was also a powerful catalyst for revival in New Haven and surrounding towns during those days of the Spirit’s outpouring. 

Our tendency seems always to look back with a romantic fondness of days long past, living with an uninformed view that life was just better, that only in the late Twentieth Century have things turned in a secular fashion. This is not at all true. Colonial America leading up to the War of Independence and the subsequent years, well into the Nineteenth Century, was filled with militant unbelief, atheism, and agnosticism. The late Eighteenth Century consequently was marked by wickedness, perversion, and bloodshed. Many seemed “hell bent” on throwing off the mantle of Christianity and the Great Awakening of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and William and Gilbert Tennent.  

But humble Christians were moved to pray. They could no longer stand the status quo. Small groups of believers sprang up in the late 1700’s around our new nation and God graciously heard their prayers. Revival began around 1792 on the western frontier but then it spread to the north, northeast, and the southeast. Some suggest the revival finally lost steam around 1864 near the end of the War Between the States where thousands of soldiers in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were converted in their camps as they listened nightly to mainly Presbyterian preachers holding forth the bread of life.    

To be sure, we are living in dark days in the western world. We continue to be “hell bent” on casting off the mantle of Christian belief; but for the Christian there is always hope. We must never give up hope that God can and will visit us again with a mighty outpouring of His Spirit that we too may experience times of refreshment from being in the Lord’s presence. 

What, then, must we do? We must pray with the intolerable burden—an intense agony, grief, and alarm at the status quo in our personal lives and family, in the church, and in the world. Are you praying with the intolerable burden? If so, then great. Stay at it by God’s grace. If not, then repent and ask God to stir up this burden in you, and then pray. Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call upon Him while He is near.   

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