The 1730s:

A Survey of the Decade













Bryce Asberg and Abraham Sullivan

REL 319: Eighteenth-Century Theology

February 17, 2021





The 1730s were years of transition, a connection between the world of the past and the world of the future. While changes which would sweep the English-speaking world in the ensuing decades were merely in their developmental stages, it was during the 1730s that they began to sprout. This was especially true for New England; but in order to understand the American experience, one must also understand the British scene.

Since New England was composed of British colonies, New England residents would be keenly aware of developments in the home country, at least insofar as news made the long journey across the Atlantic. The 1730s in Great Britain were largely a decade of peace and continued development under the careful hand of Sir Robert Walpole. Although his powers were a far cry from those of a modern British head of government, his opponents attacked him as a “prime minister” after the French style of parliamentary leadership because Walpole successfully consolidated his power to an extent never before seen.[1] He craftily developed a group of allied ministers within the government who could fight alongside him. This inner circle eventually led to the idea of a cabinet with corporate responsibility for policy decisions.[2]

As Walpole was pioneering full use of the resources available to a cabinet minister, he strove hard to keep Britain free from foreign entanglements. Eventually the public perception of his pacifism would give his opposition the support they needed to remove him. Nevertheless, Walpole was successful in keeping Britain out of European wars for most of his tenure. Along the way, he achieved significant diplomatic wins, namely “reconstruct[ing] the anti-French coalition of William III’s reign and he had broken apart the Franco-Spanish alliance which had been so threatening to British trade.”[3] It is not surprising that Walpole’s tenure saw great growth in trade, due both to foreign policy and financial reforms.[4] Despite Walpole’s best efforts, however, he could not prevent the War of Jenkin’s Ear from breaking out in 1739. This was a naval war with Spain that did not go well for England and helped bring about Walpole’s political demise.[5] 

Historians debate whether the Church of England dominated public life in the early eighteenth century, or whether the Church served as a means for political ends. This question is difficult to answer due to the complicated relationship between the church and the state, but it is certain that the government had great authority over church leaders, even when it was not exercised for raw political purposes.[6] Data is imprecise, but it appears that around this time church attendance, as well as the frequency of communion administration, began to decline.[7] This lends some support to the idea that the state-church union was weakening the Church of England.

New England Puritans would be interested in these developments. For instance, they would experience material benefits from Britain’s increased financial prosperity. But Puritans were not exclusively, or even primarily, interested in material matters, and they would see international conflict with spiritual significance. British warfare against predominantly Catholic countries was inseparably tied to the advance of the Gospel. Moreover, North American Puritans would see in the Church of England a body that had been corrupted and was falling away from effective Gospel ministry. Though the New England colonies were tied to England, they were also trying to create something better.

This blend of British heritage and the desire for something new created a unique society in the New World. Of course, much of the legal heritage the colonists used to establish their systems of government was essentially British. But Massachusetts, and some of the other New England colonies with her, put an emphasis on Biblical law which made them, in many ways, the least like old England. For instance, while inheritance laws in other colonies mirrored ancient British traditions, Massachusetts law followed Old Testament precedent.[8] Other laws forbade not only blasphemy but even the mocking of religion. For instance, fines could be assessed for laughing during a sermon or mocking the preacher as he left the building. Those who spoke “slightly of the ordinance of baptism,” presumably including attacks on the prevalent practice of paedobaptism, could also receive punishment.[9] These religious laws were indeed invoked, including in a lawsuit against a man who called Jonathan Edwards “as great an instrument as the Devil had on this side [of] hell.”[10] Their active enforcement shows that they were not merely token rules, but reflected beliefs deeply held by New England society.

Other laws meant to protect the poor resulted in an early modern welfare system. For instance, illegitimate children of impoverished parents received funds from the public treasury, as did the aged and infirm.[11] And, though New England colonies allowed slavery, they “tended to treat slaves…more humanely than did colonies farther south.”[12]

Early Puritan settlements were very communal in nature, with the colony as a whole acting as one body. Even church government reflected this, as early Congregationalists regularly held synods which superintended colonial churches in an almost Presbyterian manner. As the 1730s approached, however, the colony receded into the distance as the town came to the fore.[13] No longer did the colony vote as a whole on anything; rather, each town sent its representative to the General Court.[14]

The increased localization of politics did not necessarily mean an increased individualization. Citizens still had to apply to town leadership if they wished to transfer to a church in another district; local communities intervened in familial matters to adjudicate disputes.[15] Important decisions were settled by ballot in the town meeting, though Jonathan Edwards himself found that a man could lose a vote simply by refusing to supply the voters with punch, and the trusting spirit of the New England mind meant that ballot fraud went unchecked and largely undetected.[16] So the New England community was a local one, in which each man knew his neighbors and was governed by them alone. This relative privacy of locale, however, meant a reduction of privacy for the individual, who could do little to escape the prying eyes of those who sat next to him in the pews or plowed next to him in the fields.

            Municipal codes were enforced by the most respected men, who acted both as elders in the church and as legal experts. Lesser offices were available to any man who wanted them, and did not remain within a close circle of the elites; “a substantial portion of the male population had the opportunity to participate in the lower levels of the town government from time to time.”[17] But the main offices, those which carried the most weight, were reserved to a few patriarchs of the town – sometimes, as in the case of powerful ministers William Williams and Solomon Stoddard, the pastor among them.[18]

            The New England town, then, though governed on a local level, represented a traditional and hierarchical system. When, for instance, the Northampton meeting house had to be rebuilt during the late 1730s, Jonathan Edwards found that the most difficult factor in construction was deciding which families would be able to sit near the front of the church in the new building.[19] Most people took their societal class very seriously. The Great Awakening, however, would cause widespread disruption to this traditional social order, and divide New England clergy amongst themselves.

The Great Awakening first manifested itself in Northampton, under the direction of Jonathan Edwards. The roots, however, can be found earlier. Cedric Cowing traces the revivalist line of thought back to Solomon Stoddard, predecessor to Jonathan Edwards at the Northampton congregation. Stoddard, who became so influential that he was known as the “pope” of his region, developed a style of preaching which was extemporaneous and “searching.” He declared, “The Word is as a hammer and we should use it to break the Rocky Hearts of men.”[20] Because of this, Stoddard’s preaching emphasized a sort of revivalism, an urging of his hearers to believe in Christ and be saved.

Jonathan Edwards continued this deeply searching style of preaching, even increasing an emphasis on conversion and outward manifestations of the inner work of God. While he certainly did not believe that outer signs could infallibly point to the inward work of the Spirit, he did believe that some things were evident. And like so many adults in any generation, Edwards was especially concerned that the youth failed to show these manifestations.

That is why Edwards was shocked when, “at the latter end of the year 1733, there appeared a very unusual flexibleness, and yielding to advice, in our young people.”[21] This was the spark of awakening in Northampton, and it soon spread to the entire town. All manner of people engaged in discussion of religious topics, almost to the detriment of worldly pursuits. But the effects were more pronounced than mere discussion. The awakening extended to being “gone through,” or converted. Soon, the church had around 620 members, almost the same as the adult population of the town.[22] This represented an impressive increase of 300 members.[23]

Edwards was thrilled at this increase in religious interest and wrote a detailed account which contained many themes that would dominate the rest of his public ministry. In an echo of his most famous sermon, Edwards wrote that the revival made it “a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell.”[24] Beyond fear, those experiencing awakening exhibited a focus on the excellency of Christ, paralleling a sermon Edwards gave around this time entitled “The Excellency of Christ.”

As Edwards went on to argue, “many are, doubtless, ready to date their conversion wrong, throwing by those lesser degrees of light that appeared at first dawning, and calling some more remarkable experience they had afterwards, their conversion.”[25] This theme is repeated in his teaching on justification by faith alone, where Edwards attributes a justifying role to all acts of faith, desiring Christians not to search vainly for their initial act of faith.[26] Edwards even gives passing mention to his church’s practice of admitting adults to the Lord’s Supper without a vetted confession of faith, an issue that would become incredibly controversial later in his career. Through these examples it becomes clear that the Great Awakening was a formative period in Edwards’ theological development and his writings on the Great Awakening relate to many of the themes of his ministry.

Edwards had high hopes for the continuation of this revival and he was keenly interested in what he thought would feed fuel to the fire of awakening. Throughout New England, revivals were spurred on by news of God’s work in others’ hearts, and the desire to be a part of sharing this news led him to publish his A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, the overseas publication of which launched Edwards’ international fame.

            But the Northampton revival did not last. Just as the town became famous in Great Britain for the mighty works of God taking place there, Edwards found himself disappointed as the townspeople returned, perhaps not to immorality, but to bickering and pursuit of wealth.[27] He aired his sorrow in a letter to Benjamin Colman, the minister who had helped him publish A Faithful Narrative: “I am ashamed, and am ready to blush, to speak or think of such an appearance of Strife, and division of the People into parties as there has been, after such great and wonderful things as God has wrought for us.”[28] It seemed that Edwards’s hopes for ushering in the millennium had been unfounded.

            The end of the decade, however, saw a renewal in revivalism. This time, the work of the Spirit would not only affect Northampton, but would spread like wildfire across all of New England. The catalyst for this surge was the coming of George Whitefield, a British itinerant preacher, to America in 1739. Whitefield, whose powerful voice and emotive tone could stir even the hardest of hearts, brought with him a fiery emphasis on personal conversion which frequently took aim at the established clergy. Even more so did a host of other preachers who sprang up in imitation of Whitefield.[29] Whitefield preached to huge crowds of people, urging them not only to believe the doctrines of the faith but also to be transformed in the inner man. Eventually, Whitefield’s message of Holy Spirit-driven Christianity would transform the United States. Along with this transformation would come the rupturing of social order and the destruction of traditional church hierarchy. As Old Lights, who resented these new ways, clashed with the New Lights, who welcomed such preaching, New England was turned into a battleground. It would be a battle which split denominations, and one which also turned the huge forces of the Williams-Stoddard clan against Edwards for good. Perhaps the Great Awakening was Edwards’s greatest achievement, insofar as he was its spark in the New World; but it was also his undoing.








Cook, Edward M. The Fathers of the Towns: Leadership and Community Structure in Eighteenth-Century New England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Cowie, Leonard W. Hanoverian England: 1714-1837. New York, NY: Humanities Press, 1967.

Cowing, Cedric Breslyn. The Great Awakening and the American Revolution: Colonial Thought in the 18th Century. Chicago, I.L: Rand McNally, 1971.

Edwards, Jonathan. A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Accessed February 16, 2021.

———.  Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening. Edited by Philip F. Gura. New York, NY: Library of America, 2013.

———. “Justification by Faith Alone .” Accessed February 16, 2021.

Jarrett, Derek. Britain, 1688-1815. London: Longmans, 1965.

Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Nelson, William E. The Common Law in Colonial America. Volume III, The Chesapeake and New England, 1660-1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

O'Gorman, Frank. The Long Eighteenth Century: British Political and Social History, 1688-1832. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Zuckerman, Michael. Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.


[1] Leonard W. Cowie, Hanoverian England: 1714-1837 (New York, NY: Humanities Press, 1967), 251-252.

[2] Ibid., 255.

[3] Derek Jarrett, Britain, 1688-1815 (London: Longmans, 1965), 188.

[4] Cowie, 258.

[5] Ibid., 265.

[6] Ibid., 116.

[7] Frank O'Gorman, The Long Eighteenth Century: British Political and Social History, 1688-1832 (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1997), 167-68.

[8] William E. Nelson, The Common Law in Colonial America, volume 3, The Chesapeake and New England, 1660-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 97.

[9] Nelson, 100.

[10] Nelson, 101.

[11] Nelson, 109.

[12] Nelson, 122.

[13] Michael Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 10-16.

[14] Zuckerman, 19.

[15] Zuckerman, 146-147.

[16] Zuckerman, 173 (Edwards) and 181 (ballot fraud).

[17] Edward M. Cook, Jr., The Fathers of the Towns: Leadership and Community Structure in Eighteenth-Century New England (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1976), 27.

[18] Cook, 37.

[19] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 186.

[20] Cedric B. Cowing, The Great Awakening and the American Revolution: Colonial Thought in the 18th Century (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1971),

[21] Jonathan Edwards, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God,” A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (International Outreach Inc.), accessed February 16, 2021,

[22] Marsden, 160.

[23] Ibid., 160.

[24] Edwards, Faithful Narrative.

[25] Edwards, Faithful Narrative.

[26] Jonathan Edwards, “Justification by Faith Alone ,”, accessed February 16, 2021, See especially Section III.

[27] Marsden, 189.

[28] Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening, ed. Philip F. Gura (New York, NY: Library of America, 2013), 656-57.

[29] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 49.