Religion and Social Movements

Newbury Finds a Scary New Preacher – When Calvinism Made a Comeback

In the 1790s, New England churches were experiencing religious shockwaves. The fire and brimstone days of Calvinism made a comeback.

Portrait of Young John Calvin, whose religious ideas were very much up for debate in New England in the 1790s.

Portrait of Young John Calvin, whose religious ideas were very much up for debate in New England in the 1790s.

The harsh view of God that most embraced during Colonial times had been pushed aside in many places for a kinder gentler interpretation of God.

The Unitarians had created a more loving version of God that aligned with their more optimistic outlook.

But Calvinism was enjoying a resurgence. In Newbury, around 1795, the parish I needed a pastor. For several years, it had searched and found none.

Finally, a man named Clark was engaged, and he was from the fire and brimstone school of thought. In Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, Sarah Anna Emery describes how her mother, then a very young girl, got first taste of the new approach to religion.

Six years had elapsed; still our parish was destitute of a pastor. Numerous had been the candidates, but a call had been extended to only a few. Amongst these favored ones had been the Rev. Abraham Moore, and the Rev. Daniel Dana, but those gentlemen had accepted other invitations. The fourth parish, adhering to the teachings of Parson Johnson and Dr. Toppan, for several years leaned strongly to the ancient faith, but the new and somewhat popular idea crept into the congregation, and doctrines began to be promulgated and received, which the fathers would have vehemently denounced.

A young candidate by the name of Clark, caused a great sensation. Some accepted his views with enthusiasm, while others denounced his words as a sacrilege to the pulpit, which had been so ably filled. I well remember a call this clergyman made on us. A tall, pale, light-haired man, with homely features, and a rigid, austere air, his appearance was most unprepossessing, especially to children.

I had been a favorite with Parson Toppan, and unlike so many children at that day, never dreamed of feeling awe or fear in the presence of the minister; but Mr. Clark’s manner was so restrained and frigid, there was such an assumption of sanctity, that I instinctively drew aside, and quietly stole into my low chair in the corner of the room, while my little brother crouched on his stool beside mother, hiding his head under her apron. The clergyman seated himself in the arm chair mother offered, and after hesitating, hemming and hawing, inquired ”if she was the late Parson Johnson’s granddaughter?”

Having been answered in the affirmative, with an accession of sanctimony, he asked, “if she held to his tenets?”

The good woman was too much occupied, with her dairy and her family, to trouble her head much about doctrines, but father was a staunch supporter of the old creed, and somewhat timidly, but with decided .firmness, she replied, that she had never seen cause to depart from the teachings in which she had been reared.

Our visitor, hummed, hawed, drew his fingers through his lank, white hair, then wheeling round facing my poor, trembling, little self, he abruptly asked, “Child, where would you go if you were to die?”

I could have truthfully told him, I did not know, but my tongue was palsied, I quaked all over with terror. In a still more severe tone he continued, “Child, do you know the catechism?”

I managed to enunciate, “Yes, sir.”

“Then you know that, as a child of Adam, you were born totally depraved, and unless you are born again in Christ you must be eternally damned. There are many little children in hell, yes, children as young as you, suffering fiery torments.”

I do not know what farther he might have said, for with an hysterical scream I sprang to my feet, and mother led me from the room, leaving grandma, who was deaf as a post, to do the parting ceremonies. Father upon learning of the afternoon’s occurrence, was positively furious, and he neither went himself nor permitted any of the family to attend divine service through Mr. Clark’s ministration.

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