Just recently I visited a blog site that listed some of the most recent messages they had listened to. One of those most recent messages was by one of the pastors (Erik Raymond) of my home church, Omaha Bible Church. The message was about Ashael Nettleton and was part of a series of messages called “Giants of the Faith” done by the pastors, elders and some lay leaders of our church. The audio can be heard here. I was curious because I don’t remember hearing that particular message so I listened to it.
Asahel Nettleton was indeed a giant among many of the faith. He lived at a time in history that had seen a great awakening in spiritual revival based on the truth of the scriptures. Nettleton was an evangelist who had great impact in the churches he was invited to speak in. Those churches encountered many conversions. In fact it has been reported that he was responsible for leading over 30,000 folks to Christ in a time when the population of the entire nation was only about 9 million. The uniqueness of those conversions was the large number who remained faithful to Christ. Asahel Nettleton never pastored a church or authored a book, and yet he was certainly been regarded as one of the most successful preachers in history. Nettleton held to the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God in all things.
His effectiveness as a preacher can only be attributed to the working of the Holy Spirit and without any of the methods that modern evangelicals believe to be so essential in evangelism. Nettleton never once did an “alter call” but regarded the Holy Spirit as the instrument to guide men to think about what they had heard in his messages. The conversions that occurred were solid conversions.
Nettleton is mostly forgotten and overshadowed because he also lived in a time where great revival in spiritual pragmatics was occurring. This revival was being lead by a man named Charles Finney who is well known in evangelical circles to this day. According to a contemporary to Finney and Nettleton, pastor Bennett Tyler “Finney’s revivals came in like a tornado, sweep through a community, and leave behind desolations behind them”. Finney used manipulative emotional methods to entice folks to be saved. He appointed new converts to lead revivals which flys in the face of what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 3:16. Finney also denounced those ministers who did not use his “new measures” methods. I would definitely charge that Finney is indeed the reason why we have so many forms and methods of evangelism in churches today. But for the most part the methods are basically the same. They manipulate based on emotions to entice folks to make a decision for Christ.
It is a shame that Asahel Nettleton has been overshadowed and a bit forgotten in this age because according to many articles and texts he made a major impact for Christ in the lives of folks in his day. He is forgotten in modernity because his methods of evangelism focused on God doing the work contrasted by Finney’s methods that focused on a man-centered, pragmatic, number gathering form of “winning souls” for Jesus Christ. Nettleton recognized that the greatest danger of Finney’s methods might not be to his generation but to the succeeding ones that would assume that all successful evangelism based their success on measured statistics. Many generations have passed and the prominent method for evangelism in this generation is one that is so focused on numbers that it has totally ignored theology.
It was good to read the recent article in Christianity Today about the resurgence of young folks seeking more solid theology and moving away from the seeker sensitive way of doing church. I am encouraged by this. It is our duty as believers to hold fast to the doctrines we have been taught from scripture. (Rev. 2:25, 3:11) Knowing this, that God will draw to himself whom He has predetermined to be saved. Not by any “new measures” we, His creation can come up with.