Henry Alline: “A burning and shining light”

Nova Scotia’s most gifted preacher and prolific hymn writer

Henry Alline (1748-1784) has been described by the late George Rawlyk as “Nova Scotia’s most gifted preacher and most prolific hymn writer.” His short life was lived against the background of the American Revolution and massive movement of immigration to Canada from Great Britain and the American colonies.

His family arrived in Nova Scotia in 1760, and like many, had little formal education either religious or secular. However, the family was deeply moved by the Great Awakening and valued such practices as family prayer, Bible reading, and Sunday observance.

Halifax, in 1760, was a place godlessness and vice. With over 100 liquor establishments, it was said, that the business of one half of Halifax was to sell rum and the other half was to drink it! Henry Alline avoided the rum and the gatherings in which it flowed. He considered such to be “useless earthly pleasures and vanities.”

Without the help of a resident pastor or formal theological training, Alline concentrated on reading the Bible preparing his heart for God. In his journal he recalls that his first “spiritual” recollections related to being fearful during a thunderstorm. This fear motivated him to pray earnestly. When he was about 20 he experienced the first signs of saving grace and devoted himself to an ascetic lifestyle.

In 1776, the year of the American Revolution, Alline began an eight-year itinerant preaching ministry against the wishes of his family. He was just 28 years old and unmarried. His ministry was concentrated mostly in the Minas Basin of Nova Scotia. Within three years he was ordained and his family became more agreeable to his ministry.

Alline preached extemporaneously anytime and anywhere he could. His preaching was focused on dramatic conversions and emotional manifestations were not uncommon in his meetings. This caused open opposition from many.

But, he spent only a few days in each place before moving on to the next opportunity. Like John Wesley, his contemporary, he travelled, often by boat or snowshoes in winter, but mostly by horseback, sometimes 40 or 50 miles per day. If churches were closed to him, he preached in barns or private homes.

He preached three or four times a day. His sermons were not prepared to be read from the pulpit. They came spontaneously from his devotional life. He began with the text and kept focused on the central themes of conversion and revival. He warned his audience about the dangers of being eternally lost and the need for a dramatic “new birth” conversion experience.

He was a “pro-revival” preacher or a “new light” preacher. He questioned the old Calvinism that hesitated about the Great Awakening. He felt the stress on election neglected the need for “new birth” and laid too much emphasis on the austerity of God rather than the love of God.

Alline was a poet and new music burst from his heart. He involved his audiences in congregational singing of songs, many of which he wrote himself. He permitted his converts to “testify” to their conversion experiences and to exhort and persuade others to come to Christ.

Not surprisingly, most of his opposition came from other clergy who considered him to be unlearned and unqualified for ministry. However, Alline was not unintelligent or anti-intellectual. He may have lacked formal training, but he did not want for desire and energy. He was saturated with the KJV Bible and read the works of Milton, Pope, Bunyan, Watts, Luther, Wesley, and the Puritans.

Bumsted called him, “Canada’s most important and prolific intellectual voice in the 18th Century.” He wrote doctrinal works such as Two Mites Cast Into the Offering of God, a volume entitles Hymns and Spiritual Songs, and autobiography The Life and Journal of Henry Alline. He also published sermons and pamphlets. He expressed his devotion to Christ with an ascetic pietism. He never married. His relationship with God was 24/7.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Dr. Garry E. Milley is an ordained PAOC minister, author, and speaker.

About the author