February 19, 2018
Dr. Donald Westblade
18th Century Theology
A Region in Transition: 1710-1720 in New England
The decade of 1710-1720 was a transitional period in New England social and religious culture. The great theologian Jonathan Edwards and the great preacher George Whitefield were only young men then, and the first Great Awakening had not yet come to pass. Similarly, the rigid puritan separatism of the pilgrims and earliest colonial settlers was breaking down, yielding to new forms of covenantal church polity and practice, such as new light congregationalism and the free communion of Stoddardism. In the social and political arena of the decade, religious New England residents found themselves amidst an-ever secularizing culture, one that increasingly embraced slavery and favored secular trade and commerce over religious practice. Colonial New England was changing in the 17-teens, and the puritans had choices to make: change, and lose precious heritage and theological practices, or stand their ground, and lose more political and cultural influence. The decisions were never easy, and often they led to vicious disagreements and denominational schisms. To the religious of New England, these internal differences were a bigger deal than the issues of the heated political climate of the south, where the Indian slave trade and the Tuscarora and Yamasee wars dominated the decade. In other words, political consternation that accompanied the newsworthy events such as the founding of New Orleans in 1718 and the settling of the English south amidst French and Spanish contention was unfamiliar to New England, where intense political controversy was not prominent, and geographical expansion complete.
The New England of the 1710s was progressive, a decade that groomed the revivalists of the future and experienced progressive secularization. One influential trend in New England in the decade was the increasing amounts of Anglicization within the church (Stout 131). The church in this decade was experiencing a dramatic democratization, with offshoot denominations sprouting on every side. Led by leaders such as Cotton Mather and Samuel Danforth, Jr., however, many sought to preserve and restore traditional English custom and church polity, seeing the increasing disunity afforded by the many denominations as harmful to the church at whole. Others saw Anglicization as a disguised political maneuver, one that could “operate as a political force reshaping institutions of law and government to conform to English practice” (Stout 131). Employed by both political loyalists and those who desired a reduction of democratization in New England church polity, Anglicization was a dominant theme of the 1710s.
During the increasing secularization of the colonies in the 1710s, puritan New England began to view themselves as the conveyors of the new millennial reign of Christ on earth. This cultural and religious idea permeated the culture more and more as increasing numbers of immigrants and secular non-Christian citizens entered the scene. This widespread belief that the puritan New Englanders, the chosen people of God, would be the initiators of the holy reign of Christ on the earth coincided with the increasing Anglicization, creating an odd dichotomy between loyalism and independence. “New England could be both a loyal provincial colony and an incipient redeemer nation as long as England protected civil and religious liberties, and the ministers continued to preach the covenant” (Stout 151). This tension between dependence and independence was prominent in the 1710s, though at this time it was primarily conceptual, and had no teeth until the political tensions mounted some decades later.
While political differences existed and took up a prominent place in the public square, for New Englanders, the primary points of disagreement lay within the church. One such discussion lay in the topic of church membership. With the increasing democratization of the church in the colonies, the Saybrook Platform of 1708 had sought to stem the tide of individualized congregations by instituting consociations and assemblies for the purpose of church unity across separate assemblies. One such consociation, the Windsor consociation, in 1712 sought to counteract the widespread freedom of expression in worship and increasing freedom in church membership. It resolved to “’carefully watch [for] Irreverence in the Worship of God’”, as the trend of local congregationalism was to lose the severity and implement more freedom in worship (Stout 164). What agreements like the Saybrook Platform sought to accomplish, then, was to “preserve the binding commitments of members and ministers” by centralizing church government (Stout 154). This did not stop the wider movement, however, one governed by non-conformism and independence of church polity that culminated in the First Great Awakening.
Much of the tension of this balance between progressive congregationalism and conservative puritanism lay in the relationship between minister and churchgoer. The ministers of the 1710s saw themselves as “an embattled remnant whose misfortune it was to labor at a time when popular respect for God’s ministers had sadly declined” (Stout 164). Due to the influence of Solomon Stoddard and the Half-Way covenant in the normalization of the non-communicant churchgoer, the audience of these ministers had become often more unbaptized than baptized. By the 1710s, ministers holding a tight fist in regards to traditional practices, such as closed communion, found themselves with a hard choice to make: assert their ministerial authority and risk alienating Congregationalist progressives, or allow themselves to travel downstream with the cultural change, wherein a church polity that incorporated more and more “rule of the many” was becoming the norm (Stout 165).
Ministers sought to find the balance between conservation and cultural applicability in their sermons, which “remained a powerful force against assertive congregations” (Stout 165). A prime example of this is Samuel Danforth’s famous election sermon of 1714, in which he balanced “sheer artistry” and the rhetoric necessary to guide a congregation and rein them in from fringe doctrines and revolutionary tendencies (Stout 145). Much of the success of preachers like Danforth in the 1710s came from their resolve to maintain simple messages of human dependency and divine mercy and grace. Emphasizing the “specter of an avenging God” was also a prominent theme, even in the increasing “liberal atmosphere” (Stout 147). This trend continued and found its peak in the fire and brimstone that fell in the First Great Awakening.
The 1710s were a decade of change and growth in New England, but compared to other decades of the long 18th Century, contained few groundbreaking or radical changes to the New England way of life. Edwards and Whitefield were still in the pipe, and Stoddard was slowing down. The Colonies were growing culturally and economically, and becoming more and more secularized as immigrants came increasingly for economic and social reasons, rather than religious reasons. This trend helped fuel the internal tension of church structure and practice, between the conservatism of puritan values and the progressive nature of congregationalism. As a decade, it was a transition period, a time in which the colonies developed, and the tone was set for the intense and deep-rooted religious upheaval that was soon to come.