Old and New Light

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The terms Old Lights and New Lights (among others) are used in Christian circles to distinguish between two groups who were initially the same, but have come to a disagreement. These terms have been applied in a wide variety of ways, and the meaning must be determined from context. Typically, if a denomination is changing, and some refuse to change, and the denomination splits, those who did not change are referred to as the "Old Lights", and the ones who changed are referred to as the "New Lights".


The terms were first used during the First Great Awakening, which spread through the British North American colonies in the middle of the 18th century.[1] In A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), Jonathan Edwards, a leader in the Awakening, describes his congregants vivid experiences with grace as causing a "new light" in their perspective on sin and atonement.[2] Old Lights and New Lights generally referred to Congregationalists and Baptists in New England who took different positions on the Awakening than the traditional branches of their denominations. New Lights embraced the revivals that spread through the colonies, while Old Lights were suspicious of the revivals (and their seeming threat to authority). Historian Richard Bushman credits the division between Old Lights and New Lights for the creation of political factionalism in Connecticut in the mid-eighteenth century.[3] Often many "new light" Congregationalists who had been converted under the preaching of George Whitefield left that connection to become "new light" Baptists when they found no evidence of infant baptism in the apostolic church. When told of this development, Whitefield famously quipped that he was glad to hear about the fervent faith of his followers but regretted that "so many of his chickens had become ducks."[4] The Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania would experience a division during the Great Awakening, with those elements of the denomination embracing the revivals called "New Side" and those opposed to the revivals called "Old Side."[5]

In the Church of Scotland in the 1790s the "Auld Lichts" followed the principles of the Covenanters, while the "New Lichts" were more focused on personal salvation and considered the strictures of the Covenants as less binding.[6]

The terms were also used during the Second Great Awakening in America, in the early 19th century. New Lights were distinctive from the Old Lights in that they were more evangelical and, as historian Patricia Bonomi describes, carried "ferocity peculiar to zealots...with extravagant doctrinal and moral enormities."[7]

The terms were also used in 1833, when a debate over swearing allegiance to the U.S. Constitution split the Reformed Presbyterians. The "Old Light" Reformed Presbyterians, in keeping with their Covenanter heritage, refused to swear allegiance to the constitution and thus become citizens because the constitution made no mention of the Lordship of Christ, whereas the "New Light" Reformed Presbyterians allowed for it. Following the split, the Old Lights eventually formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the New Lights formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod.


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  2. Ava Chamberlain, "Self-Deception as a Theological Problem in Jonathan Edwards's 'Treatise concerning Religious Affections,"' Church History, (1994) 63#4 pp. 541-556 in JSTOR
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  4. Thomas R. Schreiner, Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, (B&H Publishing Group, 2007) pg. xvi https://books.google.com/books?id=EraDre6dUwYC&source=gbs_navlinks_s
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  6. M. Lynch, Scotland: A New History (London: Pimlico, 1992), ISBN 0712698930, p. 400.
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See also