Perhaps what is most significant about Nettleton’s ministry is not the shear number of conversions but the number who remained faithful to Christ many years later. Most evangelists today would be delighted to “find” even a small percentage of their converts, much less to see them living for the Lord. Nettleton’s converts were surprisingly solid. For example, of the eighty-four converts in an 1818 revival at Rocky Hill, Connecticut, all eighty-four had remained faithful according to their pastor’s report twenty-six years later. Similarly, only three spurious conversions out of eighty-two professors were noted in another pastor’s report on a revival in Ashford, Connecticut.
In contrast, toward the end of his life, “after reflecting on the many who had claimed conversion [under his ministry] but had since fallen away,” the great evangelist Charles Finney “had mixed thoughts on the genuine results of his work.” He was not alone. In a letter to Finney, one of his co-workers raised some interesting questions about their work:
"Let us look over the fields where you and I have laboured as ministers and what is now their normal state? What was their state within three months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields and groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, contentious state into which the churches have fallen and fallen very soon after we first departed from among them."
B. B. Warfield also tells of the testimony of Asa Mahan, Finney’s closest friend and long-time co-worker:
"No more powerful testimony is borne ... than that of Asa Mahan, who tells us -- to put it briefly -- that everyone who was concerned in these revivals suffered a sad subsequent lapse: the people were left like a dead coal which could not be reignited ...."
Nettleton’s ministry was decidedly different from that of Finney, not only with regard to conversions, but also with regard to the lasting impact upon the communities which he visited. One contemporary pastor, Bennett Tyler, noted the differences between the revivals of Finney and Nettleton:
"These revivals were not temporary excitements, which like a tornado, sweep through a community, and leave desolations behind them; but they were like showers of rain, which refresh the dry and thirsty earth, and cause it to bring forth 'herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed.' These fruits were permanent. By them the churches were not only enlarged, but beautified and strengthened; and a benign influence was exerted upon the community around."
Although Nettleton and Finney were contemporaries, Finney has eclipsed Nettleton completely. Today, these questions must be asked: Who was this man so specially used by God in the conversion of many souls? Why has one of such significance been sadly forgotten in our generation? And what makes his ministry so different from the evangelistic ministries seen today? (emphasis mine)
Ehrhard goes on in the article to answer the above emphasized question:
While most modern preaching seeks to avoid doctrinal topics, Nettleton, like Whitefield and Edwards before him, preached the great doctrines of the faith.
In the accounts and descriptions of the great revivals in which Nettleton laboured, one thing comes across very powerfully, and that is that he was able to bring home the awesome realities of the eternal world home to the souls of men. When he talked about the heinousness of sin, they felt its sting. When he portrayed the sufferings of Christ, they felt the trauma of Calvary. When he proclaimed the holy character of God, they trembled at the vision. When he thundered forth the judgements of hell, men were moved to escape that place.
May the Lord give us all grace to love souls enough to preach the great doctrines of Scripture and resist the temptation to minimize doctrinal preaching for the sake of 'relevancy.' Truthfully, the application of the eternal doctrines of Christ's grace and love for His people and the glorious gospel of truth that brings freedom are the only true sources of 'relevancy.'