Nathan Neveau

Dr. Westblade

18th Century Theology

19 February 2018


New England Puritans: 1670-80


            In order to understand the events of the 1670s-80s, the setting in which they occurred must be first laid out. The most important features include the plight of the English puritans, the missional efforts to the natives, and the rising generation in New England. Once the stage is set, the preaching, the King Philip War, and the Reforming Synod of the 1670s will be seen more clearly. The theme of New England as God’s elect nation runs throughout Puritan history and especially during this time period. From 1670 until 1680, a transformation, guided by God’s providential hand, occurs which regenerates the society and paves the road ahead for New England.   


Puritan England

            While many puritans made the journey to the new world in search of religious liberty, other puritan brothers and sisters remained in their homeland, England. For those remaining, 1662 became a dreadful year when the Act of Uniformity was passed. This Act imposed a single form of worship, outlawed other religious denominations, and provided strict terms for those wishing to be clergymen in England.[1]  Non-conforming pastors were forced to leave their pastoral position in the Church of England, and in response, many formed separatist churches. These congregations faced major persecution.[2] From 1662 until the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689, dissenters in England lacked the liberty New England puritans enjoyed. Though New England puritans faced unique challenges in the New World, their freedom set them apart from those remaining in England.


Indian Evangelism

            After their arrival to the New World, many puritans were faithful to Jesus’ call to spread the gospel to all ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19). Leading this charge was James Eliot and Daniel Gookin. After establishing relations with them, Eliot translated the Bible into the native language, an exceedingly difficult process considering they had no original written language.[3] Tied to the ministry effort, the puritans also sought to educate to the Indians. In 1674, Gookin proposed a plan to the Commissioners which would provide free education to the natives, but the King Philip War prevented the actualization of the proposal.[4] The missionaries viewed the years preceding 1650 as a time of planting and the decade leading up to the King Philip War as a harvesting season.[5] Though a difficult process, the gospel was successfully taken to the Indians. At the eve of the war, and estimated 2,500 Indians had converted, roughly twenty percent of the population in the New England area.[6] The King Phillip War of 1675 was a major setback in Indian relations, but efforts continued after this two year interlude.


Second Generation Puritans

            Nearly forty years after their arrival in the 1620s, the second generation of puritans came to age and began raising families of their own. This generation lacked the religious zeal of their parents, thus church membership and conversion were low. Though by virtue of their baptism, the unconverted people of this generation remained under the authority of the church. However, a major problem arose regarding the children of the second generation. Due to the Cambridge Platform of 1648, non-communicant members of the church could not have their children baptized. Dwindling membership threatened the church’s authority over the third generation. At the same time, they saw the danger of maintaining authority at the expense of diluting their congregations. The evolving church needed to find the balance between its power and purity.[7]

            To address this issue, The Half-Way covenant, first promoted by Richard Mather, created a provision to church membership. Third generation children could be baptized into the church, even if their parents were only outward members. The parents needed to agree to two requirements: affirm the churches’ “historical faith”, with the hope they would someday adopt it as their own, and live with outward conformity to God’s Word. In this arrangement non-confessing members did not enjoy the privilege of participating in communion, but still fell under church discipline.[8] Thus, the purity of the communion table was preserved and the church maintained authority over the majority of the population.

            Though the majority of church leaders favored this decree, it was not universally accepted. The major opposition of the Half-Way covenant included Increase Mather, son of Richard Mather, and John Davenport.[9] The majority held the argument which emphasized New England as a type of Israel. They compared baptism into the church to the circumcision of Israelites, stressing that not all of those circumcised in Israel enjoyed a saving relationship with God.[10]  This dispute ran throughout New England congregations and continued to be disputed into the 1670s. Debates such as these, says Jonathan Mitchell, were “the course of Protestantism from its origins”[11]. The individual congregation’s autonomy led to differing beliefs on certain issues. These ongoing disputes flowed into the 1670s.




            The New Englanders’ theology consisted of a high view of God’s providence, consistent with their Calvinistic roots. These views led them to conclude that He was the guiding force of their development in the New World. Of the sermons printed at Cambridge before 1690, the most frequent were election sermons. They declared New England an elect nation established by their federal covenants with God. In these sermons, the preachers addressed their congregation like prophets spoke to the people of Israel, calling the people to maintain their covenantal relationship with God.[12] Fast sermons were the second most prominent sermons of this time. They functioned to record the location of the New Englanders in providential history, often addressing specific sins of the people and resulting calamities for those sins.[13] Preachers sought to draw a link between divine providence and the events in New England. For example, Increase Mather gave a sermon in 1675 following a Boston shipwreck in which many lives were lost. Mather suggested this incident was linked to other recent events and entailed a warning for a specific group of people in New England.[14]

            In the first half of the 1670s, the respect for the pulpit decreased. The people strayed further from the national covenant, thus judgment was imminent. The prophetic preachers warned the people of the coming judgements of the Lord. In 1674, Increase Mather predicted that the day of trouble for New England was near.[15] Such a prediction put the already decreasing credibility of preachers on the line, and put two roads before the puritans: Either a great calamity was on the horizon, or the people would continue diverging from their federal covenant.


King Philip War

            On Sunday, June 20, 1675, the Wamponoag Indians attacked the town of Swansea. Days later, Chief Metacom, King Philip, led another attack against Swansea, killing nine people and injuring others.[16] This attack and the war that ensued confirmed Mather’s foresight. The Indians devastated the colonists with their surprise tactics, but a little more than a year after the initial attack, King Philip was captured and killed. Though they came out on top, the war took a toll on New England. Towns were destroyed, men, women and children were killed, and economic development and frontier settlement were halted.[17] The consequences of the King Philip War fell heavy on the colonists. In addition, relations between the colonists and Indians that James Eliot, Daniel Gookin and others fought to build deteriorated greatly. Eliot continued his missionary efforts with some success; however, the war was an immense hindrance to his work.[18]  Also, the war confirmed the judgment preachers, such as Mather, predicted in their fast sermons. As a result, the pulpit was strengthened in New England society, and church membership increased to all-time highs. The war reinforced the New England faith as they praised God for his providential deliverance.[19] Through the atrocity of the King Philip War, God called His elect nation back to loyalty in their covenant with Him.


Reforming Synod

            Following years of lower membership and the King Philip War, church leaders looked to foster moral reform and conversion. At a 1679 conference known as the Reforming Synod, stricter enforcement of outwards obedience was proposed as a remedy to moral deterioration. The synod believed this change would protect their national covenant.[20] In addition, the Reforming Synod encouraged churches to gather for covenant renewal. They hoped these renewals would activate the peoples’ conscience to bring moral restraint. Due to the emphasis on moral reform, some perceive the aims of the synod as solely external; however, revival accompanied the changes. The covenant renewal ceremonies increased church attendance, and pastors employed a style of conversion preaching to their new audience. Thus, a season of revival followed. At the close of the 1670s, the Reforming Synod set the landscape for the coming years of harvest in New England led by Solomon Stoddard.


            In a short span, New England endured a societal fall from the religious fervor of first generation puritans, but the events of the 1670s rejuvenated the elect nation. God had worked to draw His children back to Him. The crux of the decade, the King Philip War, reaffirmed the integrity of the preachers and the conviction of God’s providence for the people of New England. Though not an exclusively significant event of the decade, the transformation of society hinged at the war. The closing of the decade signified rebirth and renewal for the puritans, continuing in their national covenant as the elect people of God.



Durston, Christopher, and Eales Jacqueline. The Culture of English Puritanism, 1560-1700. New             York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996, 234-65.

Rumsey, Peter. Acts of God and the People, 1620-1730. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press,     1986, 23-44.

Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England.       

New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Vaughan, Alden. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians. Boston: Little, Brown and            Company, 1965.


[1] Durston, Christopher, and Eales Jacqueline. The Culture of English Puritanism, 1560-1700. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996, 236.

[2] Ibid., 247-49.

[3] Vaughan, Alden. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965, 276-80.

[4] Ibid., 287-88.

[5] Ibid., 288.

[6] Ibid., 303.

[7] Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 58.

[8] Ibid., 59.

[9] Ibid., 60.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 61.

[12] Ibid., 72-76.

[13] Ibid., 77.

[14] Rumsey, Peter. Acts of God and the People, 1620-1730. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1986, 23-24.

[15] Stout, The New England Soul, 80.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 81.

[18] Vaughan, New England Frontier, 320-21.

[19] Stout, The New England, 81-83.

[20] Ibid., 100.