19 February 2018
The 1730s in Puritan America
The 1730s are a unique period of the Eighteenth Century, lying between the beginnings of the American Enlightenment of the previous two decades and the pinnacle of American religious revivals in the following decade. The 1730s, however, did have their share of people and events which shaped Puritan life, religion, and culture, culminating with the First Great Awakening at the end of the decade.
While the Puritans were defined by their clear religious beliefs and adherences, the first major event that had an impact on Puritan life was the rise of rationalism. In 1731, Samuel Johnson published his Introduction to the Study of Philosophy. This book encouraged the reader to step away from the strict Calvinism of the Puritan religion and into the thinking of the intellectual. “[Johnson] made the chief end of God to be the happiness of mankind, instead of making it man’s chief end to glorify the deity” (Adams 140). This is a direct contradiction to the Calvinist theology of Puritanism espoused by Jonathan Edwards in his A Dissertation Concerning the Ends for Which God Created the World some twenty years later. Johnson’s book is described as merely one example of how the intellectualism of the university was contorting the religion of New Englanders. “The rationalism of the college was slowly eating into Calvinism” (Adams 140). Rationalism, however, was not the only thing eating into Calvinism during the 1730s.
Arminianism began to show its face in New England in the early-to-mid Eighteenth Century. This theology, opposite of the Calvinism espoused by Puritans, was deemed a threat to the Puritan church and worried church leadership. “It has commonly been thought that the origins of the First Great Awakening lay, in part, in a widespread belief that Arminian theology had infiltrated New England’s Congregationalist clergy in the opening decades of the eighteenth century” (Smith 48). One means for the growth Arminianism in the Colonies was via the introduction of Methodism. In 1736, John Wesley, along with his brother Charles, arrived in the American Colonies, bringing their newly-developed system of beliefs, Methodism, across the Atlantic from England. Methodism, however, would not truly take root and gain credibility until after John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience” in England on May 24, 1738. On this day, he experienced his “evangelical conversion” while attending a Moravian service. “The significance of [John] Wesley's Aldersgate Experience is monumental … Without it the names of Wesley and Methodism would likely be nothing more than obscure footnotes in the pages of church history” (Burnett 36).
Rather than merely being a footnote in Christian history, Methodism became a key contributing factor of the religious revivals of both Western Europe and the American Colonies. While the Wesley brothers, along with George Whitefield, were the founders of the initial branch of Methodism in the United Kingdom with its Arminian theology, Wales saw the emergence of a Calvinist counterpart. The Welsh Methodist Revival began in 1735 with the conversion of former Anglicans Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland. Both Harris and Rowland, along with George Whitefield, who had broken away from the Wesley brothers, began preaching a Calvinist version of Methodism to large crowds in South Whales (Bebbington 20). This revival of Evangelical Christianity in Western Europe acted as a precursor to religious revival in the American Colonies just a few years later.
Perhaps the most essential colonist to The First Great Awakening, the religious revival in the American Colonies, was Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards. Edwards began his preaching in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1734 which, by some accounts, marked the beginning of the Great Awakening (Barck & Lefler 401). By the spring of 1735, Edwards reported over three-hundred citizens being saved and admitted to the church (Smith 94). Eventually, however, the number of conversions waned, and Edwards became discouraged. “The growth of deism and atheism, at least as Edwards defined the latter broadly, led him to lament in 1739 that ‘never [has there been] such a casting off the Christian religion and all revealed religion, never any age wherein was so much scoffing at and ridiculing the gospel of Christ . . . as there is at this day’” (Smith 94). This led Edwards to seek help of an experienced revivalist from England, George Whitefield. Edwards wrote Whitefield, who had just arrived in Georgia, in 1739 to ask him to come preach in Northampton (Smith 101).
Meanwhile, Whitefield was in the midst of a two-year tour of the Thirteen Colonies, bringing the revival of Great Britain to the American Colonies. Like he did in England, Whitefield preached to crowds of thousands in hastily prepared dwellings or outdoors, and truly was the star of the Great Awakening in the Colonies. Unlike Edwards, a calculated intellectual preacher, Whitefield spoke extemporaneously “to the heart rather than to the head” and “could make Hell so vivid that one could locate it on an atlas” (Smith 403). Whitefield was the single most published person in the Colonies from 1739-1745 (Kidd 84). His widespread influence in the Colonies can be attributed to one unlikely friend: newspaperman Benjamin Franklin.
Whitefield and Franklin first met in November of 1739 and became fast friends (Kidd 84). This pairing was unlikely because of Franklin’s self-proclaimed deism and Whitefield’s status as a clergyman. Franklin, however, respected Whitefield’s intellectuality and ability to influence a crowd (Kidd 84). Ben Franklin’s friendship and publication of Whitefield was not his only contribution to New England life. Franklin was a major player in the American Colonies during the 1730s and made many contributions to the infrastructure of colonial societies. He established the first public library in the Colonies, “The Library Company of Philadelphia,” in 1732 (Keys 381). He also established the best and most well-known fire department in the Colonies, the “Union Fire Company” in 1736 and one of the first city-paid police forces in 1737 (Barck & Lefler 282). These key components to municipal infrastructure spread throughout the Colonies, making colonial life a little easier and more community-dependent.
Life in the Colonies did not completely revolve around religion and intellectuality in the 1730s. The Colonies began to create their own “banks” in order to begin printing their own currency. Connecticut was the first of these New England Colonies to establish their bank in 1732. They named this institution The New London Society United for Trade and Commerce. This formed the prototype for Massachusetts’s version, The Land Bank of Massachusetts which opened in 1740 (Adams 154). While, in theory, having more currency on hand seemed like a good thing for the colonists, in reality, currency depreciation occurred. When Rhode Island opened their bank in 1733 and began printing currency, depreciation got so bad that currency from Rhode Island was completely undesired among the colonists (Adams 155). Due to these “banks,” the New England economy had to fight to stay above water.
The Colonists fought and stayed above water once again when they were called on to participate in the Royal Navy and Military in 1739. England declared war on Spain, and it was decided that the West Indies would serve as the theater of operation for Great Britain. The Crown asked colonial governors to send men to fight on behalf of the British (Adams 164). The British government asked for four companies of men to volunteer from Massachusetts, and Puritan-dominated Massachusetts raised 10 companies of volunteers (one thousand men). Overall the New England Colonies had three thousand more volunteers than the British asked for and expected (Adams 165).
The 1730s was a decade full of events that impacted Puritan society on many different levels. As often was the case with the Puritans, however, the changes of the 1730s revolved around faith. In just this decade, the Puritans saw the incline of rationalism, the introduction of Arminianism, and the resurgence of the Calvinist Puritan faith. These, coupled with the economic, societal, and intellectual impacts of the decade, resulted in the Puritans becoming a little more like the world around them. Rather than remaining the separatists they came to America as, during the 1730s they experienced and experimented with new ways of thinking and adopted new ways of doing things that were once foreign to them. This decade, perhaps, marked the beginning a shift from the separating Puritans of old to the united Americans of the 1770s and beyond.
Adams, James Truslow. Revolutionary New England 1691-1776. Simon Publications, 2001.
Barck, Oscar Theodore, and Hugh Talmage Lefler. Colonial America. 2nd ed., The Macmillan Company, 1969.
Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Routledge, 1989.
Burnett, Daniel L. In the Shadow of Aldersgate: An Introduction to the Heritage and Faith of the Wesleyan Tradition. Cascade Books, 2006.
Keys, Thomas E. “The Colonial Library and the Development of Sectional Differences in the American Colonies.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 8, no. 3, 1938, pp. 373–390.
Kidd, Thomas S. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. Yale University Press, 2014.
Smith, John Howard. The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015.