The Great American Unknown Evangelist[i]
When we talk of great American Evangelists, it often starts with Billy Graham and then tracks backwards to Dale Moody, Billy Sunday, and finally Charles Finney, the famous evangelist of the 2nd Great Awakening of the 1830’s and 1840’s. But there is one who is never mentioned, the forgotten Evangelist. He was already preaching when Finney started, in fact he was preaching before Finney was converted.
He was born in Connecticut in 1783 when the United States was 7 years old. He was the oldest son of a farmer, raised in church, and taught the Bible in his home. As a teenager he remembered working in the fields till sunset one day and as the sun went down he thought about the reality that one day the sun would set in his life and what would be his eternity. But he buried such thoughts until he was about 18 when he became convinced that he was a very “frivolous” individual. It was likely after a thanksgiving party and dance, and for the next few months he wrestled with his sinfulness. He tried to deal with it by questioning the Bible and the very existence of God. If he could convince himself that there was no God then he would be free, he thought, from the problems of his sinfulness. But finally, after 8 months, his heart changed. He began to see the grace of God as beautiful. And though he didn’t realize it at the time, Asahel Nettleton was born again.
In fact, that year, before the invention of an ‘altar call’ about 90 people had come to Christ in a revival in the Congregationalist church he attended. This wasn’t a revival “service,” there was no guest preacher, it was just that God showed up and souls were saved.
Asahel continued to work on the farm and study the Bible with his pastor, finally going to Yale. He wanted to be a missionary but he never made it to a foreign field.
First it was because he had to stay close to home and pay off his debts from his College years. Then it was because of his preaching. And lastly, because of Typhus fever.
He graduated in 1809, worked to pay off debts and served in a small church as a sort of interim pastor. People began to notice his effective preaching. He was ordained in 1811 and began waiting for a mission society to call. In 1812, already known as a good preacher, he was invited to preach in New York. On his way he stopped for a week in South Britain, Conn. and was asked to preach. God began to move mightily on the congregation. Remember, no altar calls or invitations like today, so after he sent them home there was no new members card in their hands, or a tract with the plan of salvation or a sinner’s prayer printed on it. All they had was the Bible and the Holy Spirit of God working on them. OH NO! What good could come from that?
Over the next few days many came to Christ. He went on to New York, and it happened again. He preached the word, sent people home, but the conviction of the Holy Spirit was so great that again many came to Christ. These were not big communities or big churches. If 80 folks were saved in a town of 800 that was quite an impact.
This was the beginning of 11 years of evangelistic preaching. But Asahel went into this with certain rules of his own. First, He went no-where he wasn’t invited by church or pastor to be. He didn’t compete with local pastors or try to hurt their ministry or churches. Second, he would not go or stay where he felt they depended on him for revival. He was not the focus, Jesus was. If they were depending on him he left. Third, he would not work to stir up excitement for the services he was preaching, salvation was not a matter of soulish excitement but of God’s conviction. And fourth, he didn’t preach for money.
Within 5 years he was ordained as an evangelist. And after 11 years of preaching 3 times on Sunday, 2 to 3 times in the week, and countless personal conversations and home visits there were some 30,000 people who had professed Christ as Savior. 30,000! Today with the population 20 times what it was in those days that would be like a minister having 600,000 conversions.
Why did he only preach 11 years? While visiting in a home of a boy who had Typhus fever, he too got the disease. He was a bachelor and a friend took him in to nurse him back to health. His friend and friend’s wife got sick and though he and the wife recovered his friend did not. He never forgot the sacrifice his friend had made.
During the next few years he was too weak to preach more than just a few times, and was often bed-ridden for weeks at a time. But he didn’t waste his time. He compiled a hymnal.
There were few hymnals around in those days but a popular one was a collection of hymns of Isaac Watts. Since it was popular he made his as a companion with some 600 hymns. Some companion! It had about 50 from Watts and Wesley, and several from another English Pastor, John Newton. It had many of the same songs we have in our hymnbook today: Newton’s Amazing Grace, God moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform, Come ye sinners poor and needy, Hark the Herald Angels sing, and Come Thou Almighty King. And one song that he composed the music too, even though he wasn’t a trained musician; “Come Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.” If you look in our hymnals you’ll see the title of the music is Nettleton.
After several years of recovery he continued to preach but not at the rate he did before. It was occasional but he was invited to many well-known pulpits and God continued to bless his ministry with salvations. His later years however became known for his opposition to another famous evangelist.
In fact, what little fame Asahel received was largely due to opposing the preaching and the methods of Charles Finney, one of the most famous preachers of all time. Finney is famous for having had some 500,000 decisions for Christ. That’s half a million.
Some say of course he was more famous, he was more effective. But remember this: Most of Nettleton’s preaching was in rural settings but Finney worked mostly in cities. Finney had a longer preaching ministry than Asahel. And one more important fact was Asahel’s legacy. Those converted during his ministry were faithful in their walk with Christ for many years to come. Some estimate their continuance in the faith at over 90%. Finney was fortunate if 10% of his people continued in the faith. Even many of the ministers who worked with Finney left the ministry in a short period of time. But nobody talks about that much. Even Billy Graham’s people (BGEA) only hope for 25% retention of their converts.[ii] And half of that is based on their continued follow-up. If all they count is the sermon and the counseling immediately after, they figure about 12% in true conversions. 12%! More than Finney, but much less that Nettleton. In fact some have said that Billy Graham just continued the failed methods of Charles Finney. It’s true that his methods were similar; But Billy Graham’s theology is sound. Charles
Finney’s real problem was theology. When you preach a false Gospel you should be amazed if anyone gets saved. And that’s what Nettleton saw as the problem. No doubt Finney was a praying man, and Asahel praised Finney for his intentions and for his preaching Jesus; but there were still some big problems.
Finney denied that salvation was a miracle. He said you just have to overcome their stubborn will and get them to change their minds about Jesus. He denied that Jesus’ death on the cross was a substitution for us and that Christ's blood actually paid for our salvation. Finney taught you had to keep yourself saved. This is another GOSPEL!
That was Nettleton’s main problem with Finney, not the “anxious bench,” referring to Finney’s altar call method. Though it was a problem since it was designed to pressure sinners make a decision now! Finney would pray out loud for sinners by name trying to shame them into making a decision. He did this because salvation didn’t depend on God! It depended on Finney convincing people to accept his message.
Nettleton on the other hand, believed that salvation was all about grace. Without the miracle of new-birth, no one would ever see the kingdom of heaven. He believed that when a person was saved by God it could not be undone by man. Finney believed you can be saved today and go to hell tomorrow if you don’t continue with God.
What is the legacy of Nettleton today? I’m afraid that for most it’s forgotten. It seems only the legacy of Finney continues. Except… Billy Graham believed more like Nettleton. One of the greatest witnessing tools ever devised was started by D. James Kennedy, Evangelism explosion. It follows the legacy of Nettleton. Pastor John MacArthur’s ministry follows the legacy of Nettleton. The fastest growing post-modern church in America, Mars Hill in Seattle follows the legacy of Nettleton. Real evangelism still exists.
Real evangelism is not a battle for numbers but a battle for new-birth.
Real evangelism is not gross manipulation but a gospel message.
Real evangelism lasts, it doesn’t fade in a few months.
Real evangelism honors God, it doesn’t honor man.
I hope and pray that the legacy of Asahel Nettleton for real salvation and real holiness lives long and prospers.
[i] Brief Biographical sketch by Dr. Tom nettles, Southern Baptist Seminary.
Asahel Nettleton: the Forgotten Evangelist by Jim Erhard.
God Sent Revival, by John F Thornbury
Review of Life and labors of Asahel Nettleton by Jim Eliff. www.CCWtoday.org
Article, How Does Doctrine Affect Evangelism? The Divergent paths of Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney, by Rick Nelson, Founder’s Journal, Issue 33, Summer 1998. www.foundersjournal.org
His three-prong approach of excellent sermons, altar counseling and intensive follow-up by counselors and churches provided penitents with numerous opportunities to hear the Gospel and repent, resulting in, according to Graham, a possible 25 percent success rate.1 Although this seems like an improvement over the 5 to 10 percent success rate common in the 1800s, it is roughly equivalent when one considers the Graham inquirer has numerous exposures to the Gospel and personal counseling, equivalent to an 1800s inquirer attending an after-meeting and a minister visiting him at home until God deigned to save him.
According to Kel Richards, National Coordinator for BGEA Australia, on the 1994 Christian Life and Witness Course video made for Australian BGEA counselors, only 2 percent of conversions take place during the sermon, 48 percent during counseling and 50 percent sometime during follow-up. When the previously cited 25 percent salvation rate is applied to these statistics, Graham’s formula for success looks even better. If only a sermon is provided, just one half of one percent of decisions will be effective. If a sermon plus altar counseling is provided, twelve and a half percent of decisions will be effective. If a sermon plus altar counseling plus follow-up is provided, twenty-five percent of decisions for Christ will be effective.