A Summary of the 1740’s
The middle decades of the eighteenth century are of the highest importance in American, and world, history. During this time, the last defenders of the old way of seeing reality clung tenuously to the last vestiges of the inheritance of the Middle Ages against the onslaught of Enlightenment thought. One of them, Jonathan Edwards, stood athwart the tide of modernism, attempting to halt its course, but the irresistible sweep of the tide of the times ultimately overcame his opposition. The events of the 1740 specifically resulted from and in turn contributed to a growing sense of individualism and belief in the goodness of the people both individually and collectively.
The Great Awakening and the King George’s War were the two events of the greatest significance during the decade from 1740 to 1750. The Great Awakening had began in 1735, but underwent a substantial change with the arrival of George Whitefield in the colonies early in the decade, who capitalized upon the burgeoning individualism of the colonies. King George’s War help create a sense of American, rather than colonial, identity and led to deep dissatisfaction with Britain.
Other events, both in the colonies and around the world, demonstrate the gradual change which the colonies underwent socially and intellectually in the mid eighteenth century, from a self-identified colony, with all the early-modern intellectual baggage associated with that term, to a restless settlement dissatisfied with the mother country. This sense of alienation from the empire began with the events of the 1740’s.
The Great Awakening and Its Effects
Many local awakenings had occurred simultaneously, throughout the colonies, starting around 1735. These had begun to slack off by the end of the decade, but the Enlightenment received a new life with the arrival of George Whitefield in the colonies in 1739. Whitefield, Benamin Franklin calculated, could successfully address a crowd of 25,000 listeners. The meetings of the Great Awakening thus became “the first mass revivals of modern times,” creating lay attitudes inhospitable to established church order. Whitefield threatened the church establishment, both directly and indirectly. Directly, by openly questioning the authority of ministers of whose conversion Whitefield was not personally convinced. Indirectly, by undermining the authority of the clergy with his open-air, populist, emotionally-charged meetings, and his lack of emphasis on theology, which was the purview of the established clergy. Whitefield’s itinerant preaching was frowned upon in New England, and Whitefield, ignoring the authority of the leaders of the churches, held open-air gatherings instead. Whitefield’s actions sparked a storm of criticism between New Lights, supporters of Whitefield, and Old Lights, who questioned the rationality and validity of the revival. Jonathan Edwards, although skeptical of the most extreme cases of emotionalism, largely supported Whitefield, agreeing with his ends, but not always his means.
This quarrel between the Old and New Lights undermined the clergy and elevated the importance of the laity. Harry Stout writes,
“By refusing to recognize the legitimacy of opposing views, the ministry as a whole temporarily lost the public trust. Once substantial numbers of ministers were labeled ‘unconverted,’ or ‘Antinomian,’ congregations everywhere faced the terrifying prospect that their ministers---historically the prime bulwark against divine desertion---might indeed be wolves in sheep’s clothing. With these developments in mind, the decade 1735-1745 may be designated the most critical period in colonial New England’s intellectual and religious history….Suddenly it was the people---guided by their self-made leaders---who had to take responsibility for their religious laves to retain God’s special favor for New England….Thus began another experiment in liberty---this one in the churches---as New Englanders discovered the power they possessed when united against authority.”
Thus the Great Awakening provided the people of New England, and of the colonies as a whole, with a sense of individual freedom not before experienced. Stout concludes that to win back the trust of the laity, ministers had to encourage toleration and respected the rights of the colonies. These changes in the attitude of the ministers resulted in the idea “that the real enemy threatening New England’s mission was not excessive democracy but tyranny.” Thus one piece in the puzzle leading to American rebellion and independence was laid.
King George’s War
George Whitefield returned to New England for a second tour in 1744. Enthusiasm had lessened, however, and public attention was distracted by the beginning of a war with France, in which the New England colonies played a vital role in the North American theatre. In 1745, the colonies, in conjunction with the English navy, captured the French fort at Louisbourg, which inspired the colonies with a new sense of importance and self-reliance. The French, being Catholic, were more than political enemies; the protestant colonies considered them servants of the Antichrist. Edwards viewed the event as evidence of God’s interposition and a harbinger of a new millennial age. “For years Edwards had been recording news of Catholic setbacks in his notebooks. Now he had considered irrefutable evidence of God’s providential interventions in political affairs. Perhaps they were seeing the predawn glimmers of millennial days after all.” Thus Edwards interpreted the colonial victory as a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom.
King George’s War produced frustration and tension with England in the colonies. Very little, from the colonists’ view, had been settled. The British Empire returned Louisbourg, whose capture gave the colonists so much pride. New England casualties were high; higher per capita than the Civil War. Additionally, New England incurred large amounts of debt, and suffered British Navy press gangs. All of these factors created tensions, exacerbated by England’s neglect of colonial interests while negotiating the peace treaty. New Light ministers, changing their tone from exultation and millennial hope to judgement and reproof, cited these troubles as evidence of divine disfavor and signs of the need of repentance. Thus, King George’s War added to the confluence of circumstances setting the stage for the Revolutionary War.
During the 1740’s, Enlightenment rationalism increasingly infected the colonies with its deistic influences, which Jonathan Edwards and others in the New Lights camp opposed to the best of their abilities.
One sign of this secularization was an increase in interest in material profit and economic gain. The Land Bank Scheme of 1741, a unauthorized attempt to create an unofficial paper currency, exemplified this trend. The money provided a cheap access to expensive English goods for ordinary people. Therefore, the legislature supported the illegal bank, against the governor’s opposition. The governor suppressed the bank using executive privilege, but due to popular discontent, was replaced by an Anglican opposed theologically to Edwards. This event demonstrated the material greed and popular strength of the people, a lesson which the former governor, and the British Empire a few years later, learned too late. The land bank scheme, in fact, had similar effects to the revival, because it also strengthened the people and undermined established authority.
The people fought for increased control politically as well as economically. In the colony of Massachusetts, the popular legislature battled with the governor for increased representation to reflect increases in population since the founding charter. This again reflected an emphasis on popularization and democratization.
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin had established the American Philosophical Society, dedicated to man’s reason and power to understand and subjugate nature. Edwards condemned this rationalistic view of nature frequently in his metaphysical writings, arguing that reality was a manifestation of the divine mind, rather than a piece of material clockwork machinery.
The 1740’s, then, exhibited an acceleration of democratization and secularization, trends which Edwards struggled against. The Great Awakening and King George’s War, fed and accelerated this trend, creating circumstances conducive to rebellion roughly two decades later. Edwards, one of last remnants of the earlier tradition, often supported democratization unintentionally, as in the case of Whitefield, while simultaneously condemning the concurrent secularization of the age. In this respect, he was both a child of his time, and a product of what was by then a bygone era of early-modern and medieval thought.
Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1607-1760. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.
Stout, Harry. The New England Soul. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
 George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. p. 206
 Richard Middleton, Colonial America: A History, 1607-1760. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.
 George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, p. 210
 Richard Middleton, Colonial America. p. 253
 Harry Stout, The New England Soul, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. p. 202
 Stout, New England, p. 208
 Stout, New England, p. 211
 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, p. 311
 Stout, New England, p. 239
 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, p. 229
 Middleton, Colonial America, p. 325
 Middleton, Colonial America, p. 263
 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, p. 73
 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, p. 230