New England History 1720s
As the decade preceding the beginning of the First Great Awakening, in many respects, the 1720s marked the beginning of certain eras and the end of others in the New England colony. With increased immigration from Great Britain, natural phenomena, the beginning of an important man’s ministry, and a war, the decade presented many challenges and transitions for the colony to work through. The result of such events and transitions set the stage for the First Great Awakening to take place.
In the 1720s, New England saw a large influx of immigrants enter the colony from Great Britain. Harry Stout provides an example of the major growth in his The New England Soul when he says, “In Connecticut, new parishes were partitioned off at an average rate of seventeen per decade throughout 18th century, with a high point of twenty-three new societies incorporated in the decade 1721-1730” (Stout 163). With many new congregations forming in short periods of time, new ministers needed to be ready to lead them. The problem before New England during this overwhelming immigration existed, as Stout explains, in establishing pastors with “binding congregational covenants” (Stout 163) in order to preserve “New England’s place as ‘Emmanuel’s Land’” (Stout 163). The colony not only needed conformity from these immigrants, but more importantly, it needed the church to continue to be central to society to advance New England’s mission to be the modern people of Israel. In fact, although the colony grew in population, “By the 1720s, New England church membership appeared to decline in proportion to natural population increase and immigration” (Smith 88-89). As a result of immigration factors and a declination of church attendance, Jonathan Edwards noted and preached against the sharp decline in public and private morals within New England (Smith 89).
The threat to the idea of New England taking the form of a modern Israel stretched beyond a decline in church membership and morality. The other major force of contention came from east of New England, a Native American tribe known as the Wabanakis. New Englanders had a particular hatred for this tribe of people, caused by countless attacks and worries that the Wabanakis inflicted (Protestant 93). One particular example was the capture of Reverend John Williams’ family in 1704. As Thomas Kidd describes in The Protestant Interest, John Williams’ daughter Eunice “never returned, marrying a Kahnawake man and converting to Catholicism” (Protestant 93). The real threat that came with the Wabanakis was the fact that they were supported by French Catholicism, led by Sebastian Rale, a French Jesuit who sparked much controversy between the Indian tribe and the New Englanders (Protestant 95-96). Rale had played a role in the American colonies for thirty years, first coming over to evangelize to the Indians in 1689 (Protestant 95).
In 1720, in an attempt to end the feud with the Wabanakis, as well as buffer the French threat, Governor Robert Ashurst advised the New Englanders to partake in more mission’s efforts to convert the Indians, as well as show respect to their land rights (Protestant 99). Unfortunately, the request fell on mostly deaf ears, with Samuel Sewall and Solomon Stoddard having been some of the only New England leaders to take this request seriously (Protestant 100). Instead, increased tensions between New England and the Wabanakis resulted in a declaration of war by Governor Shute in July 1722, because of a retaliation from the Indians, which resulted from “a failed attempt to seize Rale” (Protestant 101). This declaration marked the beginning of what would become known as the Father Rale’s War. The war was narrated and publicized, according to Kidd, “as a new episode in the European and North American battle between Catholicism and Protestantism” (Protestant 102).
The outbreak of the war had intense opposition from prominent church leaders, especially Solomon Stoddard, who argued that cooperation was attainable with the Indians if the New Englanders would only refocus their efforts on sharing the good news with the Indians instead of defeating them. Stoddard referenced the terrible truth, according to the New Englanders, that Catholics had evangelized much more effectively to the Indians all over the New World and caused the Protestants to look particularly bad (Protestant 105-106). Despite Stoddard’s efforts, the war continued. The beginning of the end in this war came in August 1724, when Massachusetts forces completed an expedition on Norridgewock, the heart of Sebastian Rale’s campaign, which resulted in many deaths of Indians and the killing of Rale (Protestant 107 and American 191). Cotton Mather, a Boston Minister at the time, thought “there was no doubt that the French Jesuit and Satan were in a league against New England” (Protestant 108). Mather insisted that the death of Rale was a victory in holding on to Protestant principles. The war continued for another year, with the French seeking revenge for what they perceived as a martyrdom of Rale. Kidd describes, however, that “it seemed that the death of Rale and the fatigue of the Wabanakis led to the war’s end” (Protestant 112), and a peace treaty was signed in November 1725 (Protestant 112). The war brought fear to the New Englanders, who were “deeply concerned with their place in the contests of empire and the worldwide battle for the fate of Christianity” (Protestant 113), and yet the ministers found the constant strife unsurprising (Protestant 114).
The 1720s presented multiple threats to the advancement of the New England’s vision of being Emmanual’s Land, and the ministers and preachers needed revival of Christianity in order to continue its mission. Perhaps coincidentally, hope was closer than it may have seemed, and came in an unexpected manner. On October 29th, 1727, late into the night, “New England awoke to the most convulsive earthquake in living memory” (Stout 165). What began with “a flash of Light” (Stout 165) finished with groups huddled in the middle of streets sure that the day of judgement had come (Stout 165). The aftermath of the earthquake could not have boded more perfectly for the New England ministers and leaders. Harry Stout describes the earthquake as the catalyst to “bring the whole country to the churches” (Stout 165). With all of the townspeople and new attendees searching for answers, congregational ministers provided the answer, which was simple: the end times are near. In fact, the earthquake happened the same night as an end times sermon was preached by Nathaniel Gookin from Hampton (Stout 165). Both Cotton and Increase Mather spent much of their preaching lives working on predicting when the end would come (Protestant 147). The earthquake only intensified their convictions. Although their predictions were incorrect, increased emphasis on missions and evangelism, as well as massive numbers of conversions preceding the Second Coming of Christ, gave new hope for New England (Protestant 157). Kidd explains that the earthquake “led to many conversions and further speculations about great numbers of conversions at the end of time” (Protestant 162). The earthquake seemed to start a chain of revivals and revivalist efforts in preparation for the end of the world.
The original revivalists from New England had a specific goal in mind as revivals continued to take place all around their colony. Smith states, “it was a fundamentalist, early seventeen-century form of Calvinism that the revivalists who arose in the late 1720s and early 1730s sought to restore and hoped would redefine all of American Christianity” (Smith 57). In other words, revivalists in New England hoped to bring the colony, and more broadly, the entire country, back to Puritan lifestyle and restore the title of Emmanual’s Land. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Jonathan Edwards took over the Northampton church in February 1728/29 from Solomon Stoddard (Smith 52). Edwards, who not only experienced a revival in his own life, but also witnessed many conversion experiences first hand (Rivett 278), would lead the revivalist movement into the 1730s. Considering all that transpired in New England leading up to Edwards, one might say, the harvest was ripe when he took the pulpit.
Kidd, Thomas S. American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths. Yale University Press, 2016.
Kidd, Thomas S. The Protestant Interest: New England After Puritanism. Yale University Press, 2004.
Rivett, Sarah. The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England. University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Smith, John Howard. The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015, pp. 1–357.
Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. Oxford University Press, 2012.