Justin Rodi and Jake Studebaker
From the founding of Jamestown in 1607 the men and women who settled the American Colonies were defined by unique religious convictions. These protestant religions, despised by both the Roman Catholic Church and forced away by the Church of England, sought freedom to worship God in ways they had deemed proper. As they began their fight for freedom, many settlers came to the new world seeking financial opportunities. Two generations removed from the initial settlement of the new world many colonials were no longer religious freedom fighters, but rather unremarkable and simple men and women. This lack of church interest would lead to what would later be called the Great Awakening, a mass religious revival headed by Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. The decade following the turn of the 18th century would lay the groundwork for this revival, and as theology became more central to colonial life the fight for religious liberty would come to define the new world.
In 1701 Yale college was founded, initially called (rather bluntly,) “A Collegiate School,” with the goal of propagating the Christian protestant religion. The Puritan church desired for the school to emulate the church body. The leadership of the college closely resembled the congregational system, with students taking on decision making authority early in their education, and a board of trustees structured similar to how church elders would have overseen a congregation. The aim of the school was to educate ministers of the faith, as well as train young men in arts and sciences. While not the first puritan college, Yale offered a new approach to education, as in Massachusetts, Harvard’s brand of Puritan theology had long been fought by minds like that of Reverend Thomas Hooker. Thus, Yale’s founding emphatically declared the unique differences southern puritans would grow to hold, eventually leading to the disputes of congregationalism and synod-based leadership. Yale became the bastion of Puritan orthodoxy, but not long after the college was ensnared in controversies, and before the end of the decade the school had undergone radical changes, losing any hope at becoming the Puritan safe haven it once sought to create.
Not long after Yale’s founding, just miles away, revolutionary ideas were being put forth, not in favor of orthodoxy but radically liberal ideals, in the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges. Adopted in October of 1701, this document authored by William Penn introduced unprecedented changes to colonial leadership. The Quaker-centric colony removed the need for land ownership as a prerequisite to holding political office, ended the use of taxation supporting religious activities, and enabled the local colonial government to enact its own legislation. These three ideas pushed colonial boundaries, clearly defining steps towards religious liberty in for colonials. William Penn set the precedent of colonial government’s separation from the colonial church, stating clearly that nobody “shall be in any case molested or prejudiced… because of his or their Conscientious persuasion or practice.” With the focus of religious liberty for most non-Anglican protestant religions, many politicians and theologians alike applauded Penn for the bold steps his colony had taken in seeking religious freedom.
At this same time, however, some people viewed the issue of religious liberty as less important than others. One man in particular, Puritan minister Cotton Mather, saw chief amongst these an attitude of complacency towards pious action. As Mather saw it the late 1600’s had been a time of moral failure, as colonies began slipping into non-charitable action. Mather set out to rectify this destructive behavior in his book Magnalia Christi Americana: or The Ecclesiastical History of New England. Released in 1702 it discussed God’s presence throughout colonial history. Mather wanted to encourage the puritans to continue seeking God, highlighting what God had done for the people of New England, and what they could do to act on God’s faithfulness. He also took time to comment on the theological issues of the day, later in the text referencing his decision to keep the sacrament of communion for active members of the regenerate church.  Mather’s goal with his publication was to inspire the people of the land to continue seeking God throughout the struggles they faced as colonists.
Beginning in 1701, Europe was set ablaze by the War of Spanish Succession as colonials in North America were thrust to the front lines of a new war of religion that Queen Anne’s rise to the throne precipitated. This war came only half a century after the Peace of Westphalia was penned in the German states. In Europe, the war was viewed by many as a means of spreading and solidifying the place of Protestant religion in regions such as Catholic Spain and France. Huguenots in France hoped that, through the course of the war, Louis XIV would be swayed to relieve the pressure he was placing on them daily and make concessions to his protestant brethren. In England, Louis and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I were treated as puppets of the pope, ready to deal the already sick and dying Protestantism its final death blow. As such, the Church of England and Parliament alike beseeched Queen Anne to widen the aims of the war to include the security of Protestantism at home and abroad.
Concerns regarding the War were not constrained to Europe. In North America, colonists were now given a grave new concern, namely raids by French or Native forces. The already strained relations between Native Americans and the Protestant New England populace were now exacerbated further by the Catholic French. Fighting a constant losing battle on the spiritual front, New Englanders would now have to worry about a much more physical war. Raids were conducted by joint French and Indian forces across North America. Although brought about by the War, the raids had explicitly religious undertones. Newly converted Natives were honored and eager to enforce their Jesuit faith.
One such raid occurred in 1704 in Deerfield, Massachusetts. In the final days of February, the brutal Deerfield Massacre was executed, in which dozens of English puritans were killed and over one hundred were carried into prison. Assisted by the multiple Native American tribes, the French brutalized the small Deerfield community. The English and French had both competed for the alliance of one particularly violent tribe, namely the Abenaki Tribe. Excessively dangerous, the English understood the importance of an alliance with the Abenakis. In negotiations, however, the English offered to replace the French Jesuit missions with Puritan missionaries, angering the Native Americans who claimed they “promised to be true to God in our Religion, and thus we profess to stand by [the French].” Negotiations failed, and the raid took place. Of the captives, one man, the famous Reverend John Williams, would later publish a book titled The Redeemed Captive in which he encouraged survivors to return home and rebuild, as well as continue attempting to evangelize to the Native Americans. The Deerfield Massacre was one of many large-scale raids that occurred on the continent, yet it was remembered as a particularly brutal example of the struggle for Protestants to survive in the New World.
In the same year that Queen Anne ascended to the throne, Europe witnessed the refinement by Jethro Tull of one of its greatest Agricultural inventions, the seed drill. While there is little knowledge as to how widespread this invention was in the colonies, it is indicative of a larger movement across Europe known as the Agricultural Revolution. The development of new technologies and agricultural techniques led to explosive growth in the agricultural output of England. These ideas quickly spread to other areas of the world, including the American colonies. The excess of agricultural production allowed affected areas to support massive population growth in both England and the colonies. As prosperity rose, immigration to the New World also skyrocketed. Between 1680 and 1700, the population of the colonies jumped from 151,000 to approximately 250,000. New arrivals in North America included various competitive religious groups which the established Puritans would have to constantly engage with. By the end of the decade, more state-focused Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Baptists, and Roman Catholics would establish churches in New England, establishing more and more spiritual battlegrounds in the young colonies. Yet, by far the largest headache to the Puritans of New England would be a group well established in the colonies by this period, namely the Presbyterians.
In 1706, the Presbyterian churches in America formed the first Presbyterian synod in North America. The move to establish a synod in Pennsylvania was one of the final motions to solidify the ever-widening split between the Congregationalist and Presbyterian movements in America. Differences in Calvinist and Antinomian theology drove a wedge between the two groups and exacerbated the already exhausting issue of church structure. By creating their own synod, the Presbyterians were signaling that they were a permanent force in America, one that Congregationalists would have to simply live with. According to Presbyterian scholar D. G. Hart, “...1706 is the first manifestation of Presbyterianism in North America. The reason is simple: for Presbyterianism to exist it requires a presbytery, and the first presbytery in America began with the initial meeting of the Presbytery in Philadelphia. Without a presbytery, a minister or congregation...is still only a congregation, and so abiding by congregationalist church polity.” Presbyterians had now established an identity in the New World and shunned their Congregationalist brethren. This moment in 1706 serves essentially as the final marker of the split in Puritan New England between Congregationalists and Presbyterians.
The first decade of the 18th century was fraught with danger yet filled with a great deal of promise. Although war once again began to ravage the European continent and death turned its ugly head towards the colonies, there was hope in certain regions of North America. In Pennsylvania, religious liberty became the central focus of the colonial government, allowing numerous groups to seek asylum there. In New Haven, a theological school meant to train the future generations of ministers was founded. As the European population grew due to newfound strategies and technologies in farming, more and more religious groups began to establish themselves in North America. In the regions which practiced religious toleration, this was viewed as a boon and a blessing. In the established Puritan circles of New England, these new strains of Protestantism provided a significant challenge to the group which had already fought tooth and nail to solidify and defend themselves. As a final note, in the quiet year of 1703, New England witnessed the birth of Johnathan Edwards. Although no one knew at the time, the birth of this child was ultimately the greatest spot of hope to arrive in the 18th century, a small spark which would become a bright and burning star by the 1730’s.
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 George M. Marsden, “Johnathan Edwards: A Life”, (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2003.)