Covenant, Revival, and Lent
in the Congregational Tradition

Harry S. Stout
Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity
Yale University

March 3, 1993

Last November, I received an invitation from your pastor asking me to help celebrate your 350th anniversary as a church with a lecture during Lent. The theme of the month, he added, was “A Visioning Process for the Future. ” At first glance, it is odd to ask a historian to speak on a “visioning process for the future. ” By definition history is past. In Christian terms, it’s the celebration of great “clouds of witnesses” who have gone before us and are even now witnesses to our fidelity and covenant-keeping. In these terms, the future appears at first blush to be the opposite of history: prophecy rather than documentary; the unknown wilderness ahead rather than the completed city left behind. And I should say at the outset, that prophecy is not my strong suit (I predicted against all odds that Bush would win and Dallas lose!).

Yet, in another sense, asking a historian to speak on a visioning process for the future is perhaps not so odd. And here I would focus less on the word “future” as an event to be predicted, than on the phrase “Visioning Process. ” When I think of a visioning process I have in mind the old Bunyan story of Pilgrim’s Progress. I think of people embarking on a perilous journey into uncharted territory. They desperately need a compass to sustain them in a single direction. Now if history can’t predict what will happen on the journey, it can represent a compass, a means of navigation to guide them along their way. Your history, I would suggest, is the best compass you can possess to navigate the unknown wilderness ahead.

In thinking of Guilford Congregational history as a compass I recalled the advice of a very wise man, who once said that the genius of any institution is its destiny. Now by “genius” he did not mean the high I. Q. s who happened to be around “at the creation. ” He was referring, rather, to the founding spirit and particular character that defined the particularity and central inclination of this institution. What is it that sets institution X apart from institution Y? To the extent that later periods protect and maintain that founding spirit they will survive and even thrive. To the extent they discard it for novelty or for more successful alternatives of the moment they risk destruction.

The more I study history — whether the distant past or the immediate past, the more impressed I am with the wisdom of this observation. Institutions that bend with every breeze and move to every current are like cork boats in an immense sea. They bob this way and that, and eventually wind up moving in circles. Institutions that perpetuate their genius, on the other hand, tend, in the long run, to thrive — or at the least, not to lose all sense of direction and bob in circles. You in Guilford need a sense of direction. Like mainline churches everywhere you face crucial decisions regarding your future. Things cannot stay the same, else you become a museum. Where will you look? If you’re smart, you will look to your history as the context for your future. There will be no shortage of media voices calling for revolutionary change; few of them will be heard tomorrow. Don’t fall captive to the siren call of “relevancy” if that engenders amnesia. The one thing that can always be said about relevancy is that today’s relevancy is tomorrow’s irrelevancy.

For your genius — your history — to be your destiny, the act of recall is important and unending. It is not something for a day or a season; something to dust off every twenty-five or fifty years, or every 350th anniversary. Rather it is something to be researched, internalized, and improved upon as part of the ordinary business of ongoing life.

And you do have a long, ongoing life to recall. By my calculations you are moving into your 18, 252nd consecutive week of meeting for worship. To the best of my knowledge that streak is uninterrupted. Amidst all the wars, depressions, celebrations and tragedies, there has not been one Sunday, any time, when Congregational worship has not taken place in Guilford. Presidential inaugurations, political constitutions, clubs and libraries, all pale in comparison to this history. Even town meetings — occasional, episodic, and irregular, fail to match the sheer human spectacle of Congregational worshippers coming together like clockwork, 18, 000 weeks in a row.

As you look back over thousands of weeks, what was the genius that set you apart? As I look over three hundred years of Congregational history both here in Guilford and throughout New England, two words come to my mind: “covenant” and “revival.” I would like to say a word about each.

First, covenant. I doubt there are any of you out there unfamiliar with this word, for even now it appears in your literature and discourse. But all too often, in our market-driven capitalist society, covenant is mistakingly thought of as “contract.” Indeed, the term even appears in the language of contemporary contracts as interchangeable. This is unfortunate in that contract is almost the exact opposite of covenant. Contracts exist to protect and enhance our self-interest. Covenant, on the other hand, as your forbearers understood it implies self-giving; a sacrifice of self-interest for the greater good. That greater good, in turn, was understood in the language of relationship — both with God and with fellow humans. Covenant relationships bound all members together in lieu of synods, presbyteries, episcopacies, or state governments.

Covenant relationships implied a dual vision, upward and outward. In outward terms, covenant referred to the mutual commitments that members made with one another. Their sense of society and community was as an organism — a body. Here too our modern culture deceives us and supplies a false direction. It would have us believe that the individual is the basic unity of society, when in fact, Guilford Congregationalists knew better. Contrary to the American cult of self-fulfillment, your predecessors — the articulators of your genius — understood the lowest legitimate common denominator of society to be not the individual, or even the family, but the congregation, living out its life as an integrated organism giving life and meaning and commitment to all those around them.

Covenant theology also looked upward. In covenanting with God, Congregationalists acknowledge that life does not evolve randomly. There is a purpose to every time and every place orchestrated by a sovereign God. Through generations of unpredictable experience, the covenant told the people they didn’t have to be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. The effect of the covenant focus was to locate people in a great adventure that was greater than themselves.

Besides covenant, the word “revival” recurs often throughout your history. It appears as early as the first generation, when groups of worshippers, experienced what they termed a special “season of grace.” If covenants are corporate and communal, they are also intensely personal, and rooted in a personal relationship with God. Puritans recognized that if their community was to stay focused, each individual must maintain an ongoing personal relationship with God. Devotions were at the center of day-to-day life. Puritans spoke often of “regeneration” or “conversion, ” by which they mean less a convulsive, ecstatic experience than a sober-minded, but intensely emotional and existential realization that Christ is not only real, but real for them in a palpable, personal sense.

Of course, this sense was not always palpable, and needed to be revived. In times of revival attention centered especially on the upward focus and restoring vision there. The assumption was that once vision was restored there, on a personal, individual basis, that corporate renewal would follow. Oftentimes the words revival were followed by “reform, ” meaning the application of a renewed relationship with Christ to the world around you. With renewal came the realization of social and moral obligations to be as little Christs in a fallen world. In Guilford, this peaked during the ministry of Aaron Dutton who tied revival to abolition and, amidst considerable controversy in the town, insisted that transformed souls without a transformed community were meaningless.

My comments on revival implies something else that can easily be forgotten in historical recall and that’s the bad times. If your history as a church is filled with ups, it has also had its share of downs — downs that need to be studied as closely as the ups. The realization that history is not always rose-colored is, I think, essential to your journey. If you are to have hope for your journey, you must know that failures are inevitable. As they were inevitable in the past, so will they be inevitable in the future. And the message throughout is that ultimately faith and hope will win out.

When not in periods of revival, your congregation, like others in New England, often found itself in periods of “decline” or lethargy. And this too is an important piece of your history — even genius — to keep in mind. If history is to be your guide, it must be total history. It must be all-inclusive history. That is not easy to come by. For your 350th town anniversary I gave a talk celebrating your history. And the emphasis was on celebration. Yours is a long and noble history that provides a sense of place — actually first place — in this town and in this state. There is hardly a significant figure for two and a half of your three and a half centuries who did not worship in these pews. Nor is there a noble cause that your members have not played leading roles in.

Yet with all of this celebration, once a year or once a decade, that is not what I mean by history — certainly not total history. Celebration history is half-way history. Left alone, it serves, I fear, not to inspire, but the reverse, to discourage. For anyone looking around this church today can see that it is not what it was — or at least it is not what it was according to the legends of celebrations. Celebratory rhetoric all too easily leads to the image of conflict-free, untroubled triumph; of larger than life heroes, surmounting larger than life obstacles, possessed of a larger than life faith. And the implications for the present can be devastatingly demeaning: we don’t measure up; they were giants, we’re failures by comparison. Who can compete with a legend? And so we don’t try at all.

Real history-total history — is your history warts and all. It is history that says for every triumph at Guilford there has also been a defeat; for every peak a trough; and for every redemption a lost soul. Guilford Congregational Church, like all the other New England congregational churches, has had its share of heresies, excommunications, bitter fights between minister and laity and between layperson and layperson. Guilford Congregational Church like the others has gone through periods of peak growth and drought; times when pews were filled and times when they were empty. This is important for you to know, especially now. Like other churches in the “mainline” you are presently in a period of decline — at least in membership, but perhaps also in morale. Your history should tell you not to be crushed. It is not the first such decline. Knowing that you should also have hope in a revival.

Where do we turn for revival? I’m not advocating altar calls. Nor does my theology allow me to endorse slick emotional campaigns in the manner of television evangelists. I have another suggestion, related to tonight’s occasion, and that is to think of your liturgy as a modern means of revival appropriate both to your past and to your present. As I survey 350 years of Congregational history I find one term that can be added to covenant and revival as a master principle of church life, and that is liturgy. Part of Congregationalism’s genius that you inherit is the principle of creative adaptation. This goes all the way back to the “Half-Way Covenant” of 1662. Over the past century, I doubt there has been any more creative adaptation than the observance of a liturgical calendar in your seasons of worship.

And this brings me to Lent. Your Puritan predecessors knew nothing of Lent. Nor for that matter did your nineteenth century predecessors. But you do, and in this more recent history, you have a tool of immense power to revive and rejuvenate you along your journey. Lent, like liturgy generally, is even older than Congregationalism; its genius is as old as Christianity itself. And it adds something that was badly missing in your earlier history, namely forbearance and a recognition of commonness with Christians of other ecclesial traditions. Liturgy recognizes and celebrates the commonness of being one in grace. Through our observance of Lent with other Christians in other traditions, we recognize that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Hebrew nor male nor female. We are all one in Christ. Why not use this lenten season as a season of revival, first among yourselves, and then to the community at large?

Of all the liturgical seasons of the year, Lent is perhaps the most useful for revival for it centers each and every person’s attention within him or herself. And it reminds us in a personal and corporate sense, that celebration is not all there is to faith. Lent is the most human season of the church year, for it forces us to deal with that most feared of human conditions: our own failures. We have failed historically, and that needs to be remembered as perspective for present and future failures that are sure to mark our experience as long as time endures. In a curious way, Lent helps us to celebrate failures, secure in the knowledge of ultimate victory.

Historically, Lent represented a time of recommitment; of revival if you will. It marked a period of simultaneously recognizing and resolving to resist assimilation into the secular culture, whether of ancient Rome or contemporary America. Lent evolved as a time of training. The first day of Lent reminds us that unless we are willing to die to our selves — dust to dust and ashes to ashes — we cannot be raised to new life with Christ. We are called to remember that we are but temporary creatures. As Cat Stevens once sang: “O Very Young you’re only dancing on this earth for a short time. Although you want to live forever you know you never will; goodbye makes the journey harder still.”

As important as Lent is, it does not stand alone. Always following Lent is Easter. The time to come when we glimpse a new landscape — the age to come — and experience a sense of holy awe at the significance of the resurrection for human life. The shape of the age to come reveals a new people of God, a new humanity. This is our ultimate genius. Through our liturgy we are revived by the realization that our journey is not alone and our destination is sure. In every generation there have been, here and there, clusters of new people of God living according to the new order of the new age.

You are such a cluster of people. Now in your 350th year you have a wide open wilderness ahead. And it’s exciting! Use your history as your compass. Remember the navigation points of covenant, revival, and liturgy and always keep before you the vision of that city to come, which calls us in, pilgrims all.