1690-1699: A Survey
With the constant political and religious struggles of England in the 17th century, New England was relatively independent in its governance. Following its establishment in 1628, the Massachusetts Bay Colony effectively governed itself until its charter was revoked in 1684 by King James, who was a disliked by many of the religious and political elite because of his very strong pro-Catholicism, pro-French, and pro-absolute monarchism stance. Once King James II gave birth to a Catholic heir, the event prodded and sparked the already-dissenting nobles to take action and retrieve William of Orange III, a Protestant, to come in and take the crown. They succeeded in the overthrow of James II, who would be the last monarch over all the provinces of Scotland, England, and Ireland.
The news of this Glorious Revolution soon reached Boston, where the New England province was already dealing with its own tyrant, Governor Edmund Andros. Andros was extremely unpopular among the colonists, but held several high-ranking political positions throughout the 17th century. To the disliking of the Puritans, he openly affiliated himself with the Church of England. Andros also found disfavor due to the fact that he set up an arbitrary government, forced the colonists to follow the Navigational Acts, and forced the toleration of Anglicans. Unhappy with Andros and inspired by the revolution in England, the New Englanders organized their own coup, which succeeded in overthrowing Andros, imprisoning him, and sending him back to England in 1689. The New Englanders were both excited and surprised that they could not only carry out a revolution but that they could perform it without creating anarchy—they soon established their own temporary government to govern themselves called the Committees for the Conservation of Peace.
The New Englanders wanted to prove to William of Orange that despite their own sudden overthrow of Andros, they were both still loyal to him as the new king and also that they could govern themselves well enough that they deserved a charter. The minister Increase Mather appointed himself to visit England and convince King William III to give New England a new charter. In order to prove their loyalty and gain property rights from the new monarch, a small military campaign was organized under Bradstreet, the interim governor. The campaign was aimed at a French fortress in Canada, but it was not very successful, resulting in the death of about one-thousand men; however, the campaign at least proved New England’s loyalty to the crown. King William III was convinced by Increase Mather and New England’s efforts as he sent Mather with a new charter along with his own appointed man, William Phips, to govern the province.
The Glorious Revolution and other political issues in England permitted New Englanders to continue as de facto rulers of the colony until late 1691. On May 14, 1692 the Massachusetts Royal Charter came into effect making Massachusetts a Crown colony under the sanction of King William and Queen Mary and the rule of Royal Governor William Phips. The charter had profound effects on the colony as Puritan church rule was dismantled in favor of English civil rule. For the church, this was a confusing time. While they certainly didn’t disagree with their fellow New Englanders and their overthrow of Andros, they were concerned about the new charter. The new charter marked the end of their theocratic state as property ownership and taxpayers replaced church membership as the determining factor for voting into office the new magistrates and the governor of New England, resulting in an ideological shift of interests and power in New England. As author Harry Stout noted in his book “The New England Soul”, now the magistrates were no longer answerable to the “visible saints,” but to the crown. Also the laws were no longer drawn from scripture, but from London and English Common Law. Religious tolerance was enforced and a greater number of “outsiders” migrated to the New England area for reasons other than to be a part of Puritan society. Before, the Puritans had shown no tolerance to Baptists and Anglicans, but now were required to recognize multiple denominations. What would this do to the national covenant? Would it survive this sudden secularization of the civil government?
What was possibly even more confusing for the church at this time was the fact that, even with the new charter, the New England Mission and the national covenant they had set out to establish seemed to be surviving just fine—at least it throughout the 1690’s. Later during the 1700’s the religious tolerance would leave a wide open door for greater Anglicanization. However, for time being, the Congregationalists still carried the majority of the community’s loyalty, a point which Cotton Mather noted in one of his sermons in order to calm those who were fearful that the church had lost the authority that it once had. In fact, Mather insisted, the church had greater stability and authority because it had English Common Law backing the already-hierarchal system, and the Congregationalists still held the largest vote in the land. Similarly, many ministers also appreciated how the new charter actually gave them more of an official authority—they didn’t simply have to depend on scripture to declare their authority as ministers, but now they had the English Common Law backing their authority. In addition, ministers still found their sermons to hold just as much power and sway over the people as before. Stout wrote that if there was a religious lesson to be learned from the Glorious Revolution, for the Puritans it was that they came to the realization that they did not necessarily need to maintain a theocratic state in order to maintain their national covenant.
However, it’s important to understand that the new charter did have a significant effect on the way minister gave their sermons as well as how the Puritan people viewed themselves in the decade of the 1690’s. Before, ministers gave occasional sermons (as opposed to their regular sermons on Sunday that pertain more to religion) on how the church members could submit to the theocratic scriptural laws that drove their community’s civil polity. With the new charter, pastors spent more than half a century trying to, as Stout put it, “organize their messages around the fusion of English law and covenant logic” (Stout 121). How were the Puritans to live as a separate covenant people as well as citizens under the English crown? How were the Puritans to submit to this secular authority while also maintaining their submission to scripture and God as well? Ministers would put special emphasis on submitting to the authorities at hand, especially after the overthrow of Andros when there was a large demand for the manifestation of loyalty to William and Mary. Following the outbreak of the War of Grand Alliance on the Continent of Europe in 1688, tensions between French and English colonists in the new world came to a head in 1689 in what has come to be called King William’s War.
The beginning of the war consisted of minor border raids and skirmishes not uncommon for 17th century New England. Fighting intensified however, after the Iroquois, who were allied with the English, massacred French villagers in Lachine, New France in last 1689. In response the French and several Native American tribes committed the Massacre of Schenectady, NY the following year.
The war reached its highest point in 1690 when the skirmishes evolved into all out armed conflict. It was also during this year that the New Englanders achieved their greatest military success followed by its slow decline. In early May 736 New England militia under the leadership of Governor William Phips attacked the French fort at Port Royal, Nova Scotia and won a decisive victory. The success of the battle inspired the colonists to be more militarily aggressive and led them to attack the capitol of New France. The French were much more determined to hold out against the English after losing Port Royal, and in the Battle of Quebec the French triumphed over the invaders. With their capital secure, the French subsequently recaptured Port Royal.
For the next seven years the New Englanders fought a losing defensive war against the French and their Native American allies. Massacres, pillages, and captivity became the norm for Colonial life. Not until 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick did the brutal skirmishes between the nations began to slow and only for a time as war broke out again in the early 18th century.
Jonathan Edwards and his contemporaries grew up in this environment where New Englanders lived in constant fear of surprise attacks by the Catholic French and their heathen Native American allies. It was not uncommon for friends and relatives to be kidnapped and held captive in Canada or for neighboring villages to be burned to the ground. Puritan theology and culture, which was already heavily focused on being watchful for the works of Satan in the world, was continually reaffirmed as terrible crimes were daily committed against New England by the enemies of Protestant Christendom.
Perhaps the most intriguing and substantial times in the history of early New England were the witch trials in the small town of Salem, Massachusetts. The Puritans’ desire for a truly pure society combined with their overwhelming fear of Satan’s influence in the world often led to superstitious claims of demonic entities in the colonial communities. The ordeal began in January 1692 when Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, the daughter and niece of Salem Minister Samuel Parris began behaving unusually. By February many other local girls began acting strangely as well, and the children commenced a series of accusations against women supposedly practicing witchcraft.
The first three women accused, Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne and the slave Tituba, stood trial before local magistrates in early March on charges of witchcraft. While only Tituba admitted to practicing witchcraft, all three women were jailed. Later that month another woman, Martha Corey, was accused of witchcraft by the young girls, and after a trial was imprisoned. While Betty Parris was sent to stay with relatives in order to calm the community’s anxieties, the other girls and even one adult woman continued to behave as if bewitched. Together they accused 71 year old Rebecca Nurse and four year old Dorcas Good.
Dozens of new charges continued to be brought against men and women throughout the year. Influential men such as Battle of Port Royal hero and Massachusetts Governor William Phips, Puritan Minister Increase Mather, and his son Puritan Minister Cotton Mather became involved to varying degrees. By the decree of Governor Phips the Court of Oyer and Terminer was specifically created for the purpose of trying witches. In June 1692 Bridget Bishop was the first to be executed by being hanged. Several more citizens were hanged throughout the summer and Giles Corey was pressed to death in mid-September for refusing to confess.
By late September the last hangings occurred and the accusations began to diminish after massive public outcry against the accusation of many prominent citizens. In October Increase Mather wrote against the validity of spectral evidence and Phips officially dissolved the court. Sporadic trials continued throughout the country into the next year, but no further executions occurred. In all 19 men and women were hanged, one man was crushed, and an unknown number died of poor conditions in prison and other trail-related circumstances. Nearly everyone had mixed emotions about the events surrounding the trials, but continuing fears about demonic forces in New England shielded citizens from realizing the full brunt of their actions. It wasn’t until January 14, 1699 that a day fasting was decreed along with many personal apologies regarding the trails.
Deadly diseases were also a major concern for the colonies throughout their history. In the 1690s alone there were outbreaks of smallpox in 1689-1690, yellow fever in 1690 and 1693, smallpox again in 1696, and yellow fever once more in 1699 followed quickly by yet another outbreak of smallpox. As prevention and treatment of the diseases was still primitive and controversial, the death rate of those who were stricken with either disease was depressingly high. Such epidemics were often attributed to God’s divine wrath on his sinful people and Puritan ministers used such unfortunate circumstances to reinforce a congregation’s commitment to their covenant with God and each other.
The 1690s was also a time of great advances in communication and commerce. Such developments helped the spread of ideas and promote unity among the colonies. On February 3, 1690 Massachusetts became the first colony to issue paper money making commerce more efficient and thus increasing the prosperity of New Englanders. On September 25th of that same year Boston published New England’s first multi-paged Newspaper “Publick Occurrences.” While the publication was considered illegal and was quickly shut down due to the publisher’s failure to gain official government sanction, it none the less paved the way for many other news publications. In 1691 King William granted Thomas Neale a 21-year grant to establish North America’s first postal service which further increased the ability to spread ideas throughout North America. Further, in February 1693 the College of William and Mary opened in Williamsburg, VA as the second college established in the colonies.
While the many improvements of the period were beneficial in numerous ways, negative consequences came as a result as well. As prosperity grew in New England more and more settlers began arriving for commercial reasons rather than religious reasons. While this didn’t become a major issue until later in history, it still marked a shift from the Puritan covenant-based community of the founding era to the independent entrepreneur spirit of later years. Increased publications and ease of sending written materials made it more convenient for pastors to reproduce sermons and connect to a greater extent with their congregation and fellow churches, but it also allowed for more worldly ideas to infiltrate the isolated bubble of Puritan society. While the College of William and Mary brought great opportunities for education to the new world, it was founded on a royal charter and was thus a distinctly Anglican institution which competed with Puritan colleges like Harvard and later Yale for the minds and souls of colonial youth.
In 1696 England passed a new Navigation Act after the previous law became lax during King William’s war. The law was first and foremost an economic measure designed to funnel money toward Great Britain itself in accordance with the mercantilist theory of economics. The act required that all trade originating in the colonies be done using English ships and only after stopping in English ports. Therefore, the colonists were prohibited from trading directly with foreign nations and Great Britain had the opportunity to tax the cargo of each ship each time it docked at an English port. Needless to say the act was financially devastating for the colonies. The lucrative colonial businesses that sprouted up to reap the profits of the booming African slave trade and Caribbean sugar market were essentially put out of business. New England prosperity was severely reduced and tensions between the colonists and their home country were steadily increased leading to the revolutionary war roughly 80 years later. Thus Puritan society occasionally struggled with the uncertainties associated with a boom and bust economy and developed a love-hate relationship with their mother country.
At the close of the 17th century, the second generation of Puritans was coming into adult maturity. Their fathers had had to adapt to their circumstances by way of the Halfway covenant. In the same way this generation was compelled to adapt to their circumstances by way of their own “halfway secular government and church polity” covenant. With these two major shifts, as well as an ever changing political environment, dramatic witch trials, technological changes, and British regulatory laws, the second generation was proud to still have preserved themselves as a separate people with a distinct covenantal mission. The changes that were occurring around them forced the Congregations to emphasize reflection on the past, especially past ministers and the pure mission they sought to achieve. As many funeral sermons of the 1690s about past ministers and past minister’s wives published and redistributed show, it was extremely important to remind the second generation that they must carry on the mission of their fathers, which they had successfully done so far. The call towards being both holy individuals and a holy congregation was done, very much so, through the elevation of their fathers and those of the first generation.