Reverend Samuel Hopkins

Inducted: 1999
Born: 1721 - Died:
1803

Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803) was a Congregational theologian and reformer. He was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, the son of Timothy Hopkins, a successful farmer with the financial means to send young Samuel to Yale, from which he graduated in 1741. During his senior year at Yale, then operating under Congregational auspices, Hopkins became caught up in the religious revivalism that has come to be known as the Great Awakening. He later claimed to have experienced spiritual conversion at that time.

In 1741, he moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, to prepare for the ministry under the tutelage of the famed revivalist Jonathan Edwards. Two years later, Hopkins accepted the pastorate of the congregation at Great Barrington, Massachusetts (then Housatonic), thus beginning a twenty-six-year ministry on the New England frontier. There, in 1748, he married Joanna Ingersoll, with whom he had eight children.

While serving at Great Barrington, Hopkins published two major theological works that made him the leader of an innovative hyper-Calvinist movement within New England Congregationalism, a movement that was referred to as the New Divinity or Hopkinsianism. Its doctrinal positions (e.g., God does not merely permit sin; He wills it into existence for good ends) and its concept of immediate conversion (a tenet that seemed to diminish the importance of the means of grace–namely prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance) prompted increasing criticism, especially from Hopkins’s own congregation. In addition, Hopkins was a studious, learned minister, not a skilled or inspiring preacher or an effective revivalist. These factors contributed to his dismissal from rural Great Barrington in 1769 and his momentous move to cosmopolitan Newport’s First Congregational Church.

Hopkins labored in this seaport town for thirty-three years until he died in 1803. In Newport, he not only continued to develop the New Divinity and formulated his doctrine of disinterested benevolence, a radical selflessness for the glory of God and the good of humankind; he also began to see the connection between disinterested benevolence and the antislavery cause. In 1776, he published A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of African Americans, addressed to the Continental Congress, in which he insisted that the Revolutionary cause would not prosper until freedom was extended to slaves. In the Dialogue and other pamphlets, Hopkins linked the Revolution and slavery in a framework that became a central element in the first major antislavery movement in America.

While continuing his antislavery crusade, Hopkins also made essential contributions to his theology of the New Divinity, especially in a monumental two-volume treatise, published in 1793, entitled System of Doctrines Contained in Divine Revelation. His biographer Joseph Conforti said, “Hopkins was among the most original theologians America has produced.” His New Divinity movement came to dominate New England Congregationalism during the first two decades of the nineteenth century; “his doctrine of disinterested benevolence helped inspire the foreign missionary movement in the United States, and his antislavery writings were republished and read by New England abolitionists.”

In 1793, his wife Joanna died, and a year later, at the age of seventy-three, he married Elizabeth West. A stroke in 1799 left Hopkins partially paralyzed, but he survived and continued his theological efforts until his death in December 1803.

Rev. Samuel Hopkins was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley

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