Papers from Hillsdale College
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

The Life of Samuel Hopkins

by Elizabeth Chamberlain

Many great names in theology can be found in eighteenth century America. Included in the long list of preachers and revivalists was Samuel Hopkins, a New England minister. Hopkins was a student and close friend of Jonathan Edwards, and took the famous Edwards' theology to new levels. Although he was not considered an impressive preacher, Hopkins made a great impact with his writings. His experiences with education and his various churches, as well as the other parts of his life, are important to consider when studying Hopkins' ideas.

Samuel Hopkins was born on September 17, 1721, to a reasonably established and comfortable family in Waterbury, Connecticut. The Hopkins family had been established in Waterbury since the time of Samuel's grandfather, John. John Hopkins was a respected pillar of the church and the community, and two of his sons, Stephen and Timothy, Samuel's father, followed in his footsteps. Timothy named Samuel, the first of his nine children, after his brother, a West Springfield preacher. Because Samuel was born on the Sabbath, Timothy decided that he should become a minister.

Samuel grew up on the family farm, and was respected by those who knew him for being pious and hardworking. He enjoyed life on the farm, and would have been content to live on the farm for the rest of his life. Samuel was well on his way to becoming an important part of the community like his forefathers, but as he grew older several factors combined to change his mind about staying home. At the age of fourteen, most young men of the time period would spend time thinking about their future. Young Samuel spent much time in spiritual reflection, reading his Bible and praying, after which he became less inclined towards farming and found that he wanted to study and learn. At about the same time, the family farm ran into some trouble, which prompted Samuel's father to sell much of it. The sharp decrease in the success of the Hopkins' farm and the time he spent in prayer prompted Samuel to prepare for the ministry.

In 1735, Samuel moved to the nearby town of Southbury to study under the Reverend John Graham. It was a common practice of the time for young men intending to go to college to live as a kind of apprentice to a minister. Hopkins stayed with Graham for two years, and in September of 1737 , at age sixteen, entered Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. He applied himself to his studies with diligence, and was fairly withdrawn. He spent his summers at home, and in the summer between his sophomore and junior years became a member at the family church in Waterbury. During Samuel's time at Yale, the Great Awakening was at its height. Itinerant preachers were common visitors to the college, and the list included speakers such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. Gilbert Tennent in particular impressed Hopkins, and he determined in his mind to go study with Tennent upon graduation.

Many students at Yale were deeply affected by the Great Awakening, and Hopkins was no exception. Especially significant for him was the preachers' stress on the need for converted ministers. He fully agreed with this idea, but did not really think much about it until several students, lead by David Brainerd, went through the college knocking on doors to confront people on the status of their salvation. Even though he had joined his church, Samuel realized that he had never been converted. At that point in time, Hopkins became an "awakened sinner," which made him loathe himself. He attended prayer meetings, but remained miserable for quite some time. Finally, one evening during the end of his senior year, Samuel described an experience in which he "had a sense of the being and presence of God, as I never had before; it being more of a reality, and more affecting and glorious, than I had ever more perceived ... was greatly affected, in the view of my own depravity, the sinfulness, guilt, and odiousness of my character..."{1} Later, he came to recognize this event in his life as the time of his conversion, but at the time he was not entirely certain of it.

One other major effect the Great Awakening had upon Hopkins was the bringing of the famous Jonathan Edwards to Yale's campus. Edwards preached just before graduation, and Hopkins was impressed enough to change his mind about studying with Tennent. Samuel did not speak to Edwards, but decided that he was going to spend some time in Northampton. After graduation in September 1741, Hopkins returned home, where he became rather depressed as he fasted and prayed to decide what to do next with his life. In December, he finally decided to ride to Northampton, where he discovered that Edwards was away on an extended speaking tour. Sarah Edwards, however, was used to having students at the house, and invited Samuel to spend the winter with the family until Jonathan returned. Samuel accepted the invitation, but still was not in good spirits. He was still rather uncertain of his conversion, and spent much time wondering about it. When Edwards finally returned home in the spring, he and Hopkins had a discussion, which lead him to finally believe that it was likely he had been converted. Even to his dying day, however, Samuel still expressed some uncertainty about his salvation.

In March of 1742, Hopkins returned home to prepare for receiving his preaching license, which he received on April 29 from the Fairfield East Association. He then went back to Northampton, where he helped Edwards and preached in neighboring towns. In December of 1742, he was called to Simsbury to fill the vacant pulpit for the winter, and after six months was called to the pastorate. A large number of the congregation voted against Hopkins, causing him to decline the invitation. He also wanted to delay settling down in order to do more studying, so once again he headed for the Edwards' house. This time, however, he only remained for about two weeks before a rheumatic illness made it necessary for him to leave.

In July of 1743, Hopkins moved to the Berkshire town of Housatonic, later known as Great Barrington. On December 28, 1743, the five members of the Second Congregational Church of Sheffield witnessed the ordination of Samuel Hopkins in his first church. There were very few members in this church, mainly because those five were the only converted people in the town at the time. During the course of his twenty-five years in the church, there were many struggles, both from within and without. There were attacks from the French and the Indians, which not only posed a threat to the people of the town, but were often used as an excuse to skip church services.

Hopkins made many enemies while in Housatonic. His theological views, such as his opposition to the Halfway Covenant, made him rather unpopular. Hopkins was also a patriot from the beginning of the rebellion from England, which brought the anger of those loyal to the crown upon him. His sermons did not help the peoples' opinion of him either, for although he had some interesting content, his delivery was considered absolutely terrible. Even with so many troubles involved with working in the church, Hopkins stayed because he believed he had a mission to the people in the area. In his time there, one hundred sixteen members were added to the church. Unfortunately for him, the problems Hopkins had lead to his dismissal on January 18, 1769.

While at Housatonic, Samuel also began a family. On January 13, 1748, he married Joanna Ingersoll, a member of his congregation. Through the years, five sons and three daughters were born into the Hopkins family. Samuel still maintained a very retired life in Housatonic. Fourteen to eighteen hours daily were spent in his study. Hopkins awoke at four or five in the morning, and ended his day at nine in the evening to pray with his family, never arriving in bed past ten.

Hopkins also saw more of Edwards when he moved to Stockbridge, a short distance from where Hopkins lived. He was actually the one who suggested that Edward receive the position in Stockbridge. Hopkins himself was deeply involved in the work with the Indians. He believed strongly in stopping Indian persecution and slavery, among other things, and was a great advocate of measures helping these two groups of people. During the period from 1751 to 1758 he also helped to edit some of Jonathan Edwards' writings. When Edwards died, Hopkins was given care of his manuscripts.

After his dismissal from the pulpit of Housatonic, Hopkins was very uncertain about where to go next. While trying to find a church, he spent much time writing, which he had a greater ability for than speaking. He was very particular about which church he would take, and antagonized many by proclaiming that he wanted a church with many "real Christians." Finally, the church in Newport, Rhode Island, after having him as a preacher for six weeks, requested that he become their minister. The vote was seven to three for Hopkins, but because the church was so divided he was hesitant to come. In fact, he was not going to take the church, and one Sunday preached a sermon intended to be his farewell. He unwittingly convinced the rest of the people of the church and was voted in unanimously. Hopkins began his ministry on April 11, 1770, and remained in Newport for the rest of his life.

The time in Newport was not without troubles of its own. Newport was a center of slave trade, and the anti-slavery stance that Hopkins had taken by that time caused some trouble. He was there when the American Revolution broke out, and as a patriot had to flee the town. For four years, Hopkins traveled to preach in towns such as Newburyport, Canterbury, and Stamford. When he returned to Newport in 1780, he discovered that the parsonage was destroyed, the church was a wreck, and his congregation was scattered. For at least a year after his return to Newport, Hopkins' congregation could not afford to pay him, and after that time were still unable to offer him much financial support. This, however, did not bother Hopkins too much, because he believed in self-denial and could live on a very low income. He was offered positions at other churches with higher salaries, but he remained committed to the church in Newport.

Another burden added to Hopkins during his time in Newport was the illness of his wife Joanna. She was an invalid for the twenty years preceding her death in 1793, and Samuel had to do much to care for her. About a year after Joanna's death, Samuel married Elizabeth West, a respected teacher who was nearly twenty years his junior. Elizabeth provided an ideal companion for Hopkins in his later years. She was almost as well-read in theology as he, and proved to be of great assistance to Hopkins.

In Newport, Hopkins became a prominent citizen. Brown University awarded him the title of Doctor of Divinity in 1790. Fifty-nine members were added to his church during the thirty-three years he spent there. In January of 1799, Hopkins suffered a serious stroke. He still continued to preach, however, until October of 1803. Samuel finally died in December at the age of eighty-two.

1. Joseph A. Conforti, Samuel Hopkins and the New Divinity Movement, Washington, D.C., Christian college Consortium, 1981, p. 27.

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Last updated: 3 April 1998