Noah Webster in an 1833 portrait
by James Herring
His conversion occurred in 1808 during the Second Great Awakening. The revival began in Kentucky and soon spread to all parts of the young nation. In 1807, the revival came to Webster’s church, First Congregational Church of New Haven, Connecticut, pastored by Moses Stuart.
Webster made a public profession of faith in April 1808, together with his two oldest daughters.
It was life-changing conversion experience. Following is a description by Alan Snyder, Webster’s biographer:
“Webster’s conversion was the intellectual and moral watershed of his life. As such, it provided him with a spiritual and intellectual framework which extended into every sphere of life, including perceptions of and judgments about man, morality, government, education, and the very purpose of being. ...
“Internal conversion results in a profound alteration of an individual’s conception of the nature of God, man, sin, and brings a transformation in both thought and action. ... conversion is a return t God, a restoration of the relationship God originally had intended to have with man, through a turning away from sin (i.e., rebellion against God’s commands) and a turning to the mercies of a forgiving Father. ...
“Having once read it [Webster’s testimony], one can have no doubt that Webster’s conversion was authentic and produced a basic reorganization of his entire life. In Webster’s world, God moved from the periphery to the center, providing him a new purpose and focus” (Snyder, Defining Noah Webster: Mind and Morals in the Early Republic, pp. 221, 222).
Consider some details of Webster’s life prior to his conversion:
- He was an active church member.
- From age 20 he had resolved “to pursue a course of virtue through life, and to perform all moral and social duties with scrupulous exactness.”
- He believed in God and was thankful to God. “... for some years past, I have rarely cast my eyes to heaven or plucked the fruit of my garden without feeling emotions of gratitude and adoration.”
- He believed that Christ died for man’s sins, but he also believed that good works are necessary for salvation.
- He doubted some doctrines of the Bible, being that religion should conform to man’s reason and if something wasn’t “reasonable,” it could be rejected.
- He believed that one should not be passionate about religion. When the Second Great Awakening first came to his town, he was opposed. “I felt some opposition to these meetings, being apprehensive that they would by affecting the passions too strongly, introduce an enthusiasm or fanaticism which might be considered as real religion.”
Following is Webster’s own fascinating account of his spiritual conversion, written in response to a letter from his brother-in-law, Judge Thomas Dawes of Boston, who had written to Noah in opposition of the revival:
“My wife [Rebecca], however, was friendly to these meetings and she was joined by my two eldest daughters [Emily and Frances] who were among the first subjects of serious impressions. I did not forbid but rather discouraged their attendance on conferences. Finding their feelings rather wounded by this opposition, and believing that I could not conscientiously unite with them in a profession of the Calvinistic faith, I made some attempts to persuade them to join me in attending the Episcopal service and ordinances. To this they were opposed. At some times I almost determined to separate from my family, leaving them with the Congregational Society and joining myself to the Episcopal. ...
“During this time, my mind continued to be more and more agitated, and in a manner wholly unusual and to me unaccountable. I had indeed short composure, but at all times of the day and in the midst of other occupations, I was suddenly seized with impressions, which called my mind irresistibly to religious concerns and to the awakening. These impressions induced a degree of remorse for my conduct, not of that distressing kind which often attends convictions, but something which appeared to be reproof.
“These impressions I attempted to remove by reasoning with myself, and endeavoring to quiet my mind, by a persuasion, that my opposition to my family, and the awakening was not a real opposition to a rational religion, but to enthusiasm or false religion. I continued some weeks in this situation, utterly unable to quiet my own mind, and without resorting to the only source of peace and consolation. The impressions grew ever stronger till at length I could not pursue my studies without frequent interruptions. My mind was suddenly arrested, without any previous circumstance of the time to draw it to this subject and as it were fastened to the awakening and upon my own conduct. I closed my books, yielded to the influence, which could not be resisted or mistaken and was led by a spontaneous impulse to repentance, prayer and entire submission and surrender of myself to my maker and redeemer. My submission appeared to be cheerful and was soon followed by that peace of mind which the world can neither give nor take away. ...
“I now began to understand and relish many parts of the scriptures, which before appeared mysterious and unintelligible, or repugnant to my natural pride. ... In short my view of the scriptures, of religion, of the whole Christian scheme of salvation, and of God’s moral government, are very much changed, and my heart yields with delight and confidence to the divine will. ...
“I am taught now the utter insufficiency of our own powers to effect a change of the heart and am persuaded that a reliance on our own talents or powers, is a fatal error, springing from natural pride and opposition to God, by which multitudes of men, especially of the more intelligent and moral part of society are deluded into ruin. I now look, my dear friend, with regret on the largest portion of the ordinary life of man, spent ‘without hope, and without God in the world.’ I am particularly affected by a sense of my ingratitude to that Being who made me, and without whose constant agency, I cannot draw a breath, who has showered upon me a profusion of temporal blessings and provided a Savior for my immortal soul. To have so long neglected the duties of piety to that Being on whom I am entirely dependent, to love whom supremely is the first duty, as well as the highest happiness of rational souls, proves a degree of baseness in my heart on which I cannot reflect without the deepest contrition and remorse. And I cannot think without trembling on what my condition would have been had God withdrawn the blessed influences of his Spirit, the moment I manifested opposition to it, as he justly might have done, and given me over to hardness of heart and blindness of mind. I now see in full evidence, the enormous crime, the greatest, man can commit against his God, of resisting the influence of his holy Spirit. Every sting of conscience must be considered as a direct call from God to obey his commands; how much more then ought man to yield to those pungent and powerful convictions of sin which are unequivocally sent to chastize his disobedience and compel him to return to his Heavenly Father.”
We don’t look for a certain type of conversion experience. The details of conversion can differ dramatically from person to person. Some experience feelings of elation; some don’t. Some conversions are more instant and dramatic than others. In some cases, the conversion might seem to happen over a brief period of time, from the standpoint of the one being converted and those observing the conversion, and it might be difficult or impossible to pinpoint the exact time.
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