Sam Fiske and Nathan Miller


A Decade of Tragedy: 1700-1709

When Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703, the turmoil and conflicts occurring at home and abroad during the War of the Spanish Succession shaped the psyche and temperament of the Puritan community in New England. The Puritans perceived the war in Europe and throughout the world as a battle between good and evil, while the struggle against the French and Indian forces was considered a judgment from God and a call to repentance. The Puritans covenantal view of society mirrored the Suzerainty treaty found in Deuteronomy and emphasized obedience by the vassal to the suzerain. In light of the afflictions that they faced, the church, being the new Israel, saw itself falling short of the covenant and viewed the Indian raids as God’s punishment for their disobedience. As a result, this Puritan perception of the world dominated their response to these conflicts and affected the way Jonathan Edwards saw all events in light of eternity and God’s sovereignty.

In 1702, the politics of Europe erupted after the death of Charles II of Spain. The king had left a will that gave the throne to the Bourbon line of Louis XIV, handing control over the Spanish Empire to the French. England, along with the rest of the “anti-Bourbon Grand Alliance,” believed having both the Spanish and the French crown on the same head would be disastrous and wished to see the crown given to the Hapsburg line of the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I. This War of the Spanish Succession was fought over the balance of European power between England, the Dutch, and the Holy Roman Empire against Louis XIV of France with a little help from Spain itself. The conflict stretched from Europe to North and South America, as well as the West Indies.[1]

In Europe, the French Huguenots who had been exiled from France saw this as an opportunity to stem back the tide of Roman Catholicism. They helped stir up a war-cry for England and its allies in defending the Protestants, especially those Reformed, who were still on the continent.[2] The Puritans almost certainly sympathized with the European Protestants’ cause and saw it as a spiritual battle between good and evil.

The branch of the war that spilled over into North America became known as both Queen Anne’s War and the Second French and Indian War. The New England and the South Carolina regions became the two major fronts of the war, the north facing the French territory and their Indian allies, and the south dealing with Florida under Spanish control where Indians prepared raids on English settlements.

In the end, a treaty came with little promise of lasting peace. After several attempts to gain Port Royal, the British alongside colonists did actually succeed and renamed it Annapolis after their queen. Then in the end, the Peace of Utrecht gave England Acadia, Newfoundland, and the Hudson Bay territory, while the Five Nations of the Iroquois were acknowledged as British subjects. The French, although losing some of their key lands, did not take defeat lightly and quickly began looking to fortify their remaining land in North America.[3] In Europe, the Spanish throne was given to Philip Duc d'Anjou, France’s choice heir, but with the stipulation that Philip would not be allowed to inherit the French crown.[4]

On a worldwide scale, it would seem plausible that the Puritans viewed the War of the Spanish Succession as a Protestant cause, holding back the tide of Catholic and anti-Protestant France. After such strong resistance against the Protestant religion, specifically the French Huguenots, the Puritan mind would view the increase of French power as fatal.

Yet despite the fact that this was a worldwide conflict, the Puritan mind would likely be more concerned with the dangers it brought close to home. Horrible tragedies occurred in the settlements where the French and Indians attacked. Many colonists were killed and often tortured, while many children were taken away and raised under French and Indian influence, “held in Chains of Darkness by the Frauds, and Cheats, and Chicaneries of the French Priests.”[5]

Cotton Mather wrote a sermon in 1714 that looked back on the war (note: this is not how the colonists referred to the war at the time) to determine why God in his sovereignty brought such tragedy and what it meant for the people in the colonies. For Mather, God spoke through the Bible and through Jesus Christ most clearly. Yet the pastor was quick to point out that God also speaks “in all the Works of His Hands.”[6] Therefore, it is the responsibility of Mather and other ministers to interpret God’s actions as a message to God’s people. This is Mather’s summary of God’s message:

The sum of the voice, even the Mighty Voice, you cannot but be aware, and apprised of it. It is that of the angel with the everlasting gospel, saying with a loud voice, fear GOD and give glory to HIM. ‘Tis, ‘O acknowledge the glorious GOD in all your ways; make it the chief end of your lives, to render and procure, continual acknowledgements of His glories. Place your blessedness, in the enjoyment of Him. Embrace the lovely Jesus in all His offices, as the only Saviour, to bring you unto that blessedness. Be afraid of all sin against the Holy Lord. Be weaned from a world, wherein satisfaction is to be despaired of. Be the wiser and the better for all that befalls you; and let God have [revenues?] to His kingdom, out of all that He does for you, or on you. Walk with GOD, and be holy in all manner of conversation.[7]


According to Cotton Mather, the war was more than just a tragedy; it was a punishment and a call to covenant renewal.

            This view comes naturally from the Puritan belief of being the new Israel. If they were the new Israel, then it would be important to see the mistakes that the nation of Israel made and do their best to avoid repeating them. When Israel fell into sin, God would send other nations in to punish and remind His people to cry out to Him. The Puritans saw the French and Indians as their modern Philistines who would not allow peace in the land.

            Indeed, conflict and anxiety replaced peace in the colonies as Indian attacks on New England towns began in earnest during the first decade of the eighteenth century.  Remembering English injustices in the past, the Abenaki Indians spoiled for a raid against the New England colonists.  Capitalizing on the Abenakis hatred for the English and their shared Catholic faith, which the Abenakis received from French missionaries, the French allied with the Abenakis.  The French viewed such an alliance as a boon because they desired to weaken the English forces in North America and eventually drive them out altogether.  To achieve this, the French realized that by raiding New England settlements and villages this “forced the English colonies to disperse their forces and employ most of them in passive and expensive frontier defenses instead of offensive operations.”[8] By taking away the English ability for offense, the French believed that eventually they could bleed the English until they had had enough and force them to leave North America.  As a result, French sanctioned Indian raids terrorized the New England settlements and on the night of February 29, 1704, a band of Abenaki Indians raided Deerfield, Massachusetts. They carried away Jonathan Edward’s uncle John Williams, as well as, 112 other residents of Deerfield into captivity in Canada.  This event showed the Puritans their need for spiritual reform and also greatly affected the environment in which Edward’s grew up.

            After his release from captivity, Reverend John Williams wrote a narrative of his experiences in captivity entitled The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion.  In his account, Williams doid not focus on his suffering or mistreatment, but instead he focused “on the cunning efforts of the French priests to convert him and his parishioners.”[9]  He viewed his captivity and the Indian raid as a punishment from God due to their disobedience to the covenant with Him.  In the opening of his captivity narrative, Williams wrote, “The history I am going to write proves that days of fasting and prayer, without reformation, will not avail to turn away the anger of God from professing people.  And yet witness how very advantageous gracious supplications are to prepare particular Christians patiently to suffer the will of God in very trying public calamities!”[10]  Williams believed that the trials he was facing were part of God’s sovereign plan to refine and strengthen his faith, and only through God’s grace did he survive the ordeal.  Throughout his narrative, Williams recalled several instances when his master tried to force him to become a Catholic. For example, Williams wrote “My master took hold of my hand to force me to cross myself, but I struggled with him and would not suffer him to guide my hand.  Upon this he pulled off a crucifix from his own neck and bade me kiss it, but I refused once again. He told me he would dash out my brains with his hatchet if I refused. I told him I should sooner choose death than to sin against God.”[11]  Williams thanked God for the strength to resist temptation in the face of threats to his life.  Having been influenced by this powerful narrative, Edwards grew up viewing the world in light of God’s sovereignty and the spiritual significance of all of creation.

For the Puritans, the Deerfield Massacre showcased the actual battle being fought between good and evil which transcended the divide between nationality or religious affiliation.  Most Puritans saw the various Indian raids and in particular the Deerfield raid as punishments from God to a wayward people who had turned from their covenant with the Lord.  In fact, Greg Sieminski of the United States Military Academy writes, “Authors of the earliest [captivity] narratives, like Rowlandson and [John] Williams, interpreted their captivity as a form of divine testing in which their rejection of Indian culture was equivalent to resisting a satanic temptation in the wilderness.”[12]  At a young age, Edwards could remember gathering as a family and praying for his uncle John and the other Deerfield residents who had been taken captive.  In his biography on Edwards, historian George Marsden writes:

 In their repeated entreaties he [Edwards] learned not only of distant conflicts, but also that the encounters were not simply among the English, the French, and their Indian allies.  The real war was among spiritual powers, a nation God had favored with true religion versus peoples in Satan’s grip, Catholics and pagans. Retelling of the Deerfield massacre vividly reinforced this understanding of the cosmic significance of the international struggles.[13]


As a result, Edward’s writing is imbued with a historical perspective which he believed showed God’s sovereignty and work through His creation.  For the rest of his life, Edwards viewed life through the lens of eternity and he believed that “everything was a symbol pointing either to the need for redemption or to some aspect of God’s character and the redemptive love in Christ.”[14]  To Edwards, God’s sovereignty could be seen in every aspect of creation, and even in terrible situations like the Deerfield Massacre, God used such events to bring about His perfect plan.

            Throughout the hardships and struggles that the Puritan community in New England suffered in the first decade of the eighteenth century, they courageously served the Lord and raised their children to trust in the sovereignty of God.  Born in 1703, Edwards grew up in this time and was shaped by the events which characterized it. The narratives from the international struggles, and especially the tragedy at Deerfield, showed Edwards God’s control over all of creation and they also revealed to him the often ignored spiritual dimension of creation. Everything that occurred, Edwards thought, was a part of God’s will and His bringing it to fruition.


[1] Boles, Laurence Huey, Jr. The Huguenots, the Protestant Interest, and the War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-1714.(New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1997), 1.

[2] Boles, 2

[3] Accessed on 12 February 2011.

[4] Accessed on 12 February 2011.

[5] Mather, Cotton. Duodecennium Luctuosum: The History of a Long War with Indian Salvages, And their Directors and Abettors; From the Year, 1702 To the year, 1714. Microfiche, 1688. Printed by B. Green, 1714. Page 20

[6] Mather, 3.

[7] Mather, 4. Words in brackets just mean the word was difficult to read on microfiche.

[8] Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney. “Revisiting The Redeemed Captive: New Perspectives on the 1704 Attack on Deerfield,” William and Mary Quarterly 52 (1995): 8.

[9] Greg Sieminski, 42.

[10] Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney, Captive Histories. (University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst and Boston, 2006), 94.

[11] Ibid., 113.

[12] Greg Sieminski, “The Puritan Captivity Narrative and the Politics of the American Revolution,” American Quarterly 42 (1990): 35.

[13] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (Yale University Press: New Haven, London, 2003), 15-16.

[14] Ibid, 77.