The Bible and Revival: Lessons from Elias Boudinot
How American Bible Society’s Founder Built on Two Great Awakenings
February 28, 2023Print this article
With the recent news regarding revivals at Asbury University and other schools across the nation, we thought a quick primer on two of America’s most significant revivals, the First and Second Great Awakenings, might be beneficial. We reached out to pastor and author Andrew Farmer, who researched these periods for his new biography of American Bible Society founder Elias Boudinot: Ordinary Greatness: A Life of Elias Boudinot. Here’s what we can learn from how this early American founder built on revival in his day.
Church history documents many times of marked increase in spiritual hunger and conviction among Christians, sometimes paired with an influx of new believers. These seasons of renewed commitment to God are called revivals or awakenings. Sometimes they are localized and limited in duration. Other times they are widespread and last for years or even decades. Perhaps the two most famous in America are the decades-long events known as the First and Second Great Awakenings.
The First Awakening was part of an international surge in evangelical piety most active from 1730 to 1760. The Second Awakening is traced to the turn of the 1800s and lasted in various forms into the 1830s and later. Both revivals were marked by people gathering in large numbers to hear popular itinerant preachers. Both were socially messy and strained established institutions. And both had a profound effect on the broader culture.
These two awakenings lasted longer than most. What sustained them? Not human enthusiasm or careful organization. A common understanding among the leaders of these revivals is that revivals produce lasting fruit among Christians and in society when they are grounded in the truth of the Bible—featuring both the faithful preaching of the Bible and the personal use of the Bible by individuals.
At the height of the First Great Awakening, George Whitefield was the most well-known person in the American colonies. He consistently called for grounding revival activity in the Bible. In one of his most famous revival sermons he warned his hearers, “If we once get above our Bibles, and cease making the written word of God our sole rule both as to faith and practice, we shall soon lie open to all manner of delusion, and be in great danger of making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience.”
Jonathan Edwards set out to validate the authenticity of that revival in his book, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741). He identifies a desire to read and hear the Bible preached as an important indicator of true revival. For Edwards, a true work of the Spirit in a person’s life promotes “a greater regard to the word of God, a desire of hearing and reading it, and of being more conversant with it than they used to be.”
One person who took this wisdom to heart and made good use of it was Elias Boudinot, founder of the American Bible Society and a man who witnessed firsthand the experience and impact of both Awakenings.
Child of the Awakening
Elias Boudinot was born in 1740 into the height of the First Awakening—and actually baptized by George Whitefield. By the time he was 18 he had sat under the revival preaching of Whitefield, Edwards, and most of the great preachers of the time. Through these experiences, Boudinot developed a hunger to study the Bible for himself. It was a daily habit he established and retained throughout his life. As he entered a career in law and government, Bible reading continued as central to his home life; a young Alexander Hamilton experienced this when he lived for a couple of years with the Boudinot family.
Boudinot cared deeply too about the effective preaching of the Bible. He accepted a position as a trustee of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) and for the rest of his life supported training pastors and preachers through that institution and in congregations in various denominations.
Boudinot saw the Bible not only as essential for healthy Christian spirituality, but as a foundational document in forming a free and just new nation. This commitment was a constant through his service as a patriot in the Revolution, as a legislator in the Continental Congress, as a congressman in the new federal government, and as a public servant until his retirement in 1804. His study and application of the Scriptures also motivated his numerous social and philanthropic pursuits, most notably his staunch and enduring opposition to slavery.
With the turn of the 1800s, reports emerged about possible revival activity on the Kentucky frontier. Now in his retirement Boudinot began to track the effects of what historians now call the Second Great Awakening. But he was more immediately concerned about another trend. The younger generation was drifting away from confidence in the Bible, undercut by the publication of books like Thomas Paine’s popular The Age of Reason (published in three parts from 1794 to 1807). This drift so alarmed Boudinot that he wrote a counterpoint, The Age of Revelation (1801) defending the Bible as revealed truth.
Looking for Renewal
Meanwhile the revival was spreading across the new country. Like the First Awakening, this new revival was culturally and geographically widespread. Similar reports emerged from the Cane Ridge frontier of Kentucky and the stately halls of Yale College. Though it was viewed with caution by some of his circle, Elias Boudinot followed the Awakening with rapt attention. In a letter written in the middle of the War of 1812, we get a glimpse of Boudinot’s openness to a work of God’s Spirit unseen since his childhood days in the world of Whitefield and Edwards.
“Blessed be God, who in the midst of judgement remembereth Mercy. Altho’ our country is involved in a ruinous offensive war, yet is he proving to his Church that he has not altogether forsaken us. The pouring out of his Spirit in various parts of the united States, is truly reviving to his people who stand between the porch & the altar, crying, Lord save thy people. In the eastern parts of New York, in Vermont & Connecticut, the revivals are more interesting than has ever been known. In Philadelphia, the appearances are very promising, and generally speaking in these parts, altho’ there are no appearances of remarkable revivals, yet there is a growing attention to the Ordinances of the Gospel. Bless the Lord, O our Souls, and let all that is within us bless his holy Name.”
His response to this second awakening mirrors his early years: he presses into the grounding of the Scriptures. On a personal level, Boudinot studied his Bible for guidance to help discern true revival fruit (there are allusions to at least seven Bible passages in this short quotation). His concern for sound preaching from the Bible in churches also led him to call for a school to train pastors and Christian workers in sound doctrine and application of the Bible, resulting in the establishment of Princeton Seminary.
But his lasting legacy addressed his concern that citizens in his growing country did not have access to Bibles for personal use. A population deprived of the Bible and ignorant of its truth would be vulnerable both to external attack on the veracity of God’s Word by secularists and the internal erosion of spirituality ungrounded by Scripture.
In 1814 Boudinot began to lay the foundations for arguably his most notable achievement, the 1816 founding of the American Bible Society. By the time of his death in 1821 the Bible Society was sending the Scriptures “without note or comment” throughout the country—and to its growing frontier.
Elias Boudinot’s confidence in the Bible as taught and read was expressed—and confirmed—in the experience of two of the most significant revivals in our nation’s history. It is a tested model we would be wise to heed in our day.
- “Walking with God.” George Whitefield. Circa 1740.
- President Edwards in Ten Volumes, Vol. III (1830), 589. CrossReach Publications.
- Letter to Rev. John McDougal, pastor of Elizabethtown Presbyterian Church, March 22, 1813. Presbyterian Historical Society. The biblical allusions in this letter are most likely to Psalm 66.20; Habakkuk 3:2; Nehemiah 9:31; Ezra 9:8–9; Joel 2:17, 28–29; Ezekiel 37:19–20; and Psalm 103:1 KJV.
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