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Hampden-Sydney College: ‘What hath God wrought?’

Author
Category Articles
Date May 21, 2013

What hath God wrought? (Numbers 23:23).

When Balak sought Balaam to curse God’s covenant people, Yahweh spoke to Balaam, informing him that what he had ordained would indeed happen. He is not a man that he should lie or repent. The nations would look on and see God’s blessing on his people and say, “What hath God wrought?” (Num. 23:18-24). In May, 1844 Samuel F.B. Morse, who grew up in Midway, GA, tapped out these words from Numbers in the first ever telegraph message. Indeed, Morse was in awe of this new technology that radically changed our world. However, fifty-six years earlier, in 1788, something with even greater, eternal significance occurred at Hampden-Sydney College in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Hampden-Sydney College still exists and its roots are the Presbyterian Church. It was founded by alumni of Princeton in 1776, after a great revival there in 1773. By the 1780’s the marvellous effects of the Great Awakening had dissipated and the entire country was in a slide toward Sodom. The godless Jacobin philosophy that engulfed France was taking hold in America. At best the majority of the people were Deists. That is, they believed in some vague notion of a god, but he was not involved in their lives. The people had rejected the supernaturalism of the canonical writings, that is the Holy Bible, and were adrift, falling quickly into unparalleled wickedness and perversion.

This was certainly true at Hampden-Sydney and the President, John Blair Smith, also a Presbyterian pastor of two nearby, small congregations, Briery and Cub Creek, was deeply grieved. He and the members of his churches began to pray for revival in their communities and at the college. In 1788 eighty young men were at the college and none were outwardly professing Christians. It had become vogue to reject the Calvinistic upbringing these young men had received. But two students, William Hill and William Calhoun, found each other and admitted they were concerned for their souls. When Calhoun read Alarm to the Unconverted1, a Puritan classic by Joseph Alleine, he became even more concerned for his soul. The two agreed to pray secretly on Saturdays in the woods, lest other students see them and mock them. But one Saturday they were expecting rain so they decided to pray in the residence hall. Others heard them praying and threatened to break down the door if they persisted. Later that day John Blair Smith heard about the incident and invited these young men (others had since joined their ranks) to come to his study the next week and pray. Within weeks half the student body was gathering for prayer. There was much weeping, repenting, and rejoicing. Revival had come to the student body at Hampden-Sydney and the communities within one hundred miles of there. Blair’s father, Robert, who had been converted forty years before under the preaching of George Whitefield, after hearing of the revival, came for a look. He had this to say:

The half had not been told me of the display of God’s power and grace among them. No, not the tenth part. I have seen nothing equal to it for the extensive spread of power and spiritual glory since the years 1741 and 1742. The work has spread for over a hundred miles amongst people of every description high and low; white and black; rich and poor; learned and unlearned, orthodox and heterodox; the young and the old. Especially among the youth who it seems to have seized generally. Two hundred and twenty-five hopeful communicants (church members) have been added to the Lord’s table among John Blair Smith’s congregation in the space of eighteen months. Such sweet singing I never heard in all my life. I have seen a hundred wet cheeks. Some deeply penetrated with conviction. Some fainting with love sickness as it were in the arms of the Savior. And others rejoicing for the day of God’s power and grace. And all under the same sermon.

This was not the last revival at Hampden-Sydney College. The Holy Spirit visited that college numerous times in subsequent years. Daniel Baker, the Presbyterian evangelist from Midway, GA, was converted there in 1811 while a student.2 Asahel Nettleton, from Connecticut and a Presbyterian, from the Fall of 1827 spent two years in Virginia, and saw revival come again to Hampden-Sydney, with one hundred students crying out, ‘What must we do to be saved?’3

I mention this historical account of a mighty movement of God because in the midst of utter and complete unbelief, hardness of heart, and debauched living, God poured out his Spirit on Hampden-Sydney College and the surrounding communities for at least one hundred miles. God did it then. He can do it now. Second, all involved in this great revival – the preachers, students, churches, and college were Presbyterians. This means at least two things. First, the leaders of the revival knew the vital necessity of the new birth. They did not take the infant baptism of people for granted. They pushed hard on the need for true conversion, for the people to see their undoneness before the one whose eyes are a flame of fire. And second, mighty movements of God need not be restricted to pentecostals and charismatics who believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Presbyterian and Reformed tradition is replete with revivals which utterly transformed communities and nations.

Notes

    Published by the Trust in the Puritan Paperbacks series as

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      What hath God wrought? (Numbers 23:23). When Balak sought Balaam to curse God’s covenant people, Yahweh spoke to Balaam, informing him that what he had ordained would indeed happen. He is not a man that he should lie or repent. The […]

  1. Daniel Baker himself says that he was converted at his home in Midway, GA, at age 14, but ‘having wandered, was, in early manhood [while at Hampden-Sydney], happily, through abounding grace, brought back to the Shepherd and Bishop of my soul’; William M. Baker,

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    • Book Cover for 'Asahel Nettleton '
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      What hath God wrought? (Numbers 23:23). When Balak sought Balaam to curse God’s covenant people, Yahweh spoke to Balaam, informing him that what he had ordained would indeed happen. He is not a man that he should lie or repent. The […]

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