Erica Haimbaugh

Prof Westblade

REL 319


The 1690s: Political and Spiritual Upheaval

            The 1690s were marked by war both in Europe and in the colonies. The Nine YearsÕ War covered almost the entirety of the decade, and the colonists fought both French colonials in Canada as well as Indians allied with the French. Although English colonists breathed easier once William and Mary took the throne from Catholic James II, the decade was also marked by spiritual warfare of a different kind—the witch trials rocked Salem and surrounding areas, causing widespread fear and distrust. Also in this tumultuous decade, the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies were granted a new charter, combining them into one colony by order of the King and Queen and also changing the governmental structure of the colonies. (Also of note, although none knew how important it would be at the time, Timothy and Esther Edwards were married in Northampton in 1694.[1])

            Politically, the 1690s were a continuation of what is called King WilliamÕs War, the French and Indian War, and the Nine YearsÕ War. In 1688, Prince William of Orange invaded his uncle King James IIÕs realm with the Dutch army, and James fled to France. William and Mary took the vacant throne and agreed to a legalized form of what had already been the case—the balance of power between the Crown and Parliament that James had so upset was restored. Once declared king, William had the power to challenge French dominance, and he did so with great alacrity. This was the beginning of what is called King WilliamÕs War, which overlaps with the Nine YearsÕ War.[2] Louis XIV of France, on the other hand, fought not only to maintain and further his kingdom and power but also to put James IIÕs son James III on the throne, while Protestants sought to keep the English throne out of the hands of Catholics.[3] This European war took place also in the colonies—New England and New France. The French in Canada and the English in Massachusetts and New York each led raids on the other, trying to establish dominance on the North American continent and gain more territory on the orders of their parent countries. This resulted in ill feelings, because those in the colonies were expected to fight the parent countriesÕ wars with what they saw as little military or monetary support.[4]

There was also political upheaval in another way: although the Massachusetts Bay Colony had had its charter revoked in 1684, it was not until after the Glorious Revolution that a new one was granted.[5] In the late 1680s, Increase Mather went to Europe to gain the support of James II for restoring the old charter. James II desperately needed allies and was thus sympathetic to the Puritan cause and cries against Sir Edmund AndrosÕ rule of the colonies. James II never delivered the promised aid, however, as William III soon deposed him. Increase was left in a bit of a bind, as William decided not to restore MassachusettsÕ Charter but rather issue a new one. This new charter enfranchised men on the basis of property rather than church membership, which heralded the end of Puritan New England as it once had been.[6]

 While Increase was in England, his son Cotton sought to maintain his church and give good counsel about the witch trials in Massachusetts. The first accusation of witchcraft was leveled against Goody Glover in 1692 and the debate on witchcraft continued between Mather and another man, Robert Calef until 1696, though the trials themselves ended in 1694.[7] Cotton Mather was very concerned to not accuse anyone on the basis of spectral evidence (as the devil could make apparitions of holy people appear to torment those accusing people of witchcraft) or on circumstantial, so-called evidence, such as an angry look. On the other hand, Mather deeply wished to trust the judgment of the juries and to follow through on the punishment they prescribed. He was at once trying to be cautious in not killing saints but also aware that even Lucifer was a fallen angel. In CottonÕs mind, it was very possible, perhaps even probable, that those apparently tormented by witches were in fact possessed by devils. If that were the case, the devils in possession were causing the possessed to see the appearance of good and holy people, resulting in the ruination of saints.[8] These happenings were seen as portends of the end times, causing Mather to preach on the book of Revelation, which was unusual for a Puritan minister.[9] Mather also attended an execution in Andover, and though accounts of what he actually said differ, it is likely that Mather, in the end, defended the sentencing from the judges. His father, on the other hand, objected to the witch hunt and did not believe they should have been executed: Increase had heard the accused witches recant their confessions of witchcraft.[10] Both published books near the end of the trials, and while both tried to present a united front, there were many who believed they were in direct opposition to each other.[11]

Also around the end of the witch trials, in around 1693, Increase and Cotton MatherÕs church, the North Church, finally agreed to the Halfway Covenant, and baptized John Sunderland on January 15, 1693. This was an extension of the Stoddardism already put in place by Cotton Mather in 1690, when his father was in England. Cotton had determined that if a person was certain they were not unregenerate, they might take communion.[12] Nearly a year later, the North Church experienced a revival: in one Sunday of September Cotton admitted thirteen people into the church. The following year, 1695, they admitted only five. This 1694 revival occurred at the same time as the appearance of angels to many who had previously been tormented by witches or possessed by devils. The Mathers were skeptical of these happenings, but Cotton Mather was sure his life had been touched by the supernatural in some way.[13]

            The 1690s were a time of great upheaval and confusion in the English colonies, and also in the world at large. Everyone was touched by a war in some way—if not actual war with the French, then Indian raids; if not physical warfare, then spiritual warfare as the Puritan colonies were faced with a changing system of government and spiritual attacks either by witches, devils, or, as some believe today, by unhappy and repressed children seeking to be free of Puritan restrictiveness.[14] In any case, the front half of the 1690s were loaded with intense change, and it was only with the end of the witch trials and the Nine YearsÕ War that lives really returned to their new normal in the face of the new charter and its subsequent change in governing style.


Baker, Emerson W. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American

Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.


Hall, Michael G. The Last America Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather. Connecticut: Wesleyan

University Press, 1988.


Leckie, Robert. ÒA Few Acres of Snow:Ó The Saga of the French and Indian Wars. New

York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999.


Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.


Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728. New

York: Oxford University Press, 1971.


Peckham, Howard H. The Colonial Wars 1689-1762. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 1964.

Rose, Craig. England in the 1690s: Revolution, Religion, and War. Blackwell

Publishers Ltd: Oxford, 1999.


Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. New York: Harper & Row,



[1] Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 23

[2] England in the 1690s, 8-13

[3] ÒA Few Acres of SnowÓ: The Saga of the French and Indian Wars, 173-5

[4] The Colonial Wars: 1689-1762, 25-56

[5] The first charter had been revoked because the king wanted to institute a new form of government, one with him at the head rather than God. Puritans were deeply concerned about this, because they felt it would be an affront to God to remove His headship of their community. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, 61-2. The previous charter had given the Puritans an almost unreserved autonomy, because the charter was tied to the land of Massachusetts rather than to a company under the KingÕs authority. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, 53-4.

[6] The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather, 214-254

[7] Life and Times, 88; 132

[8] Ibid, 102-3. (See also: A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience for a discussion on the idea that the devil did, in fact, cause this uproar in order to kill many good Puritans and cause a break in the united worship and love of God that was found there.)

[9] Ibid, 107-8

[10] Ibid., 110

[11] Life and Times, 117

[12] Ibid, 119. (See also: The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 120-4 for a deeper discussion of why Increase at first did not approve of the Halfway Covenant and why he later changed his mind.)

[13] Ibid, 135-6

[14] Ibid, 90-1