Kelly Scott and Hannah Weikart
26 September 2013
18th Century Theology
Jonathan Edwards in Context:
A Brief Exploration of the 1740s in the British Colonies
In the religious sphere, the 1740s would be remembered as a decade of religious revival. This move away from ritual and ceremony toward introspection and spiritual conviction came to be known as The Great Awakening. Awakenings were not uncommon in the Connecticut Valley or even in Jonathan Edward’s career; however, The Great Awakening was distinct in its scale. It was international in its roots, and its effect was one of the first intercolonial events that began to build a common culture throughout the colonies. It was also the first religious movement driven more by popular culture than by local pastors. This revival would change the face of religion in America and would become the defining time of Jonathan Edward’s career.
The Great Awakening had roots internationally. The American wave began with the preaching of George Whitefield. This twenty-five year old Reformed English Anglican preacher identified the colonies as prime missional locations due to their remarkable growth rate of 260%, the increase in urban communities that made the life of an itinerant preacher much easier, and the influx of immigration that meant he would meet a crossection of cultures (Lambert 112-113). Whitefield came to Savannah, Georgia, as an itinerant pastor in1738. His presence and his works became a source of hope to Jonathan Edwards in the spiritual dullness of the end of the 1730s.
Whitefield returned to America less than a year later and this journey initiated the beginning of The Great Awakening. As he traveled from Philadelphia to Georgia, he revolutionized American preaching with field and itinerant preaching. These strategies helped make him highly accessible and universally known. This is also one of the first times commercial principles were applied in a religious setting. When Whitefield came to town, there would be previous publicity, and clergymen would appeal to their congregations to attend in hopes that as many people as possible would listen to his message. Newspapers and increased access to printing helped spread the word of his arrival and spread his messages to audiences nationwide as well. He became one of the first American celebrities as his reputation preceded him wherever he went. His audiences were notably enthusiastic, and they highly anticipated his arrival. In three tours in the colonies, two in Philadelphia and one in Boston, he reported crowds of 20,000. After his tour through the southern colonies, he left the colonies promising to return for a New England tour.
In February of 1740 Edwards heard of Whitefield’s planned journey to New England and he contacted him to ask him to include Northampton. In this letter, Edwards voiced concerns that New England was hardened to the gospel. He was concerned that Whitefield might not have as much success due to the congregation’s abundant knowledge and apparent resistance to its true consequences. Yet he kept an attitude of hope that Whitefield reciprocated in his return letter.
On October 17, 1740, the two greatest theological voices of their era met for the first time. Edwards and Whitefield completed each other. It was the meeting of two eras, personalities, and cultures. Both were incredibly driven and effective, but where Edwards was bookish, meticulous, methodical, and medieval, Whitefield was charismatic, free-willed, extemporaneous, and ahead of his time. As different as they were, they were fond of each other. Whitefield brought a new attitude to Christianity of innovation, spirit and adventure. His sermons were compelling and emotional, and his celebrity status allowed him unprecedented clout. Even Benjamin Franklin, the historical example of deism, found him to be a kindred spirit and helped Whitefield publish his writings.
Whitefield had a disdain for hierarchy and social tradition. He led a lasting rebellion against social norms in the Church. He believed that the local church in itself carried little to no authority. This explains his belief in traveling ministry to the universal Church. Whitefield deduced this revelation from a focus on personal relationship with Christ and emotions that result from such a relationship that could be found without the local church. He found these to be superior to traditions and sacraments administered in the local church.
Edwards was all for trying new means and doing things outside of Scripture as long as they did not contradict Scripture. He did confront Whitefield on multiple occasions to question his reliance on “impulses” that he believed were direct messages from God. Edwards believed that these emotional experiences must also be filtered with a rational mind and scriptural context.
When Whitefield left, Edwards was thankful for the spiritual life he had brought back to his congregation, but he was also cautious of what was to come. Edwards knew that this spiritual momentum might be hard to cultivate as the emotions dwindled and reality returned. Whitefield had not done much of anything to change New England church membership, but it had certainly acted as a catalyst for things to come.
Over the next two years, things would only accelerate in New England. In December of 1740, Whitefield sent Gilbert Tennent, one of his followers, to check in on the Northampton congregation. By the time he left the following March, the momentum was taking hold of Boston. In the summer of 1941, the movement began to take over, and on July 8, 1741, Edwards gave the most memorable sermon of The Great Awakening and of his career. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” brought a response so strong that he never spoke the whole thing. The topic of Hell was not at all uncommon for an “awakening sermon.” This sermon brought out the incredible beauty that God is both “dreadfully provoked” and angry with you but simultaneously inexplicably merciful to you.
It is incredibly important to note that New England was not the epicenter of The Great Awakening, and it was by no means the uniform experience for all of the colonies. The Middle Colonies were home to several denominations and immigrant cultures. This religious pluralism meant that revival was received in several different ways. German Pietism, a movement that came from the Thirty Years War, was similar to Whitefield’s style. It stressed the importance of personal spiritual experience over dogmatic creeds. It generally supported a return to primitive Christianity and interdenominationalism (Lambert 129). The collaboration of The Great Awakening with Dutch Reformed, German Pietism, and Scotch-Irish evangelists characterized the Awakening for the Middle Colonies. The New England awakening remained almost exclusively in the Congregational Church (Sweet 292) with indirect profit in Baptist and Episcopalian churches. Most importantly there are estimates of up to 50,000 new church members, and 150 new Congregational churches were formed, bringing the grand total to 530 (Sweet 291). Without a doubt it brought New England back to a place where they need not lower standards of membership to those of the Half-Way Covenant which was a controversial move made by Solomon Stoddard to make church membership easier to attain. The Southern awakenings were interdenominational influencing the Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. After Whitefield’s journey through in 1739, Samuel Morris, Samuel Davies, and John Rodgers became prominent leaders among the Southern New Lights.
The Great Awakening also did not go without opposition. Just as it rose from 1739-41, the movement met opposition strongly from 1742-45. In the Middle Colonies there was a spilt between the New Lights and Old Siders that resulted in much mediation from the synod. In Connecticut opposition came when New Lights were called to the General Assembly to pass legislation for its control. The Act of May 1742 resulted in the letting go of several Connecticut ministers, and Separatists were persecuted and even imprisoned for their New Light tendencies (Sweet 290-91). In the Southern Colonies the Governor of Virginia issued a proclamation prohibiting itinerant preachers. Davies and Rogers fought back in 1748 looking to get licenses to preach in as many churches as possible, and they began to lead the “New Lights” charge. They worked not “to Presbyterianize the colony” but to fight against irreligion and win souls for Christianity.
The immediate result of The Great Awakening was the addition to Church membership and the influence of Christianity on culture. The entire nation was in spiritual upheaval and thus more focused on being a nation of Christian ideals. This and the common experience of itinerant preaching made a common culture that could be understood almost anywhere in the country. This does not mean that revival manifested itself in the same form or was received without hesitation. In fact, it drew a line of dissension in colonies. The rest of the decade was spent on the heels of such a remarkable event and finding a resolution to the upheaval of revival.
Settlers had begun to make their homes in the original thirteen colonies by the middle of the eighteenth century. The colonies’ respective borders continued to be defined through military and cultural conflicts. During the 1740s specifically, the territories of the New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Georgia, and Florida colonies worked towards permanent definitions. In 1741, King George II defined the southern border of New Hampshire as three miles north of the Merrimack River and then west from Lowell (Stein, 181). King George II also clarified the eastern boundary of Rhode Island which granted islands on the eastern half of the Narragansett Bay to the colony in 1747 (Stein, 246). With the monarch’s decisions, the colonies of New Hampshire and Rhode Island both possessed land previously claimed by Massachusetts. King George II’s royal decrees allowed the future states to peacefully expand their borders. British colonists lived under the jurisdiction of the monarch and the division of land demonstrated the authority of the king, even across the Atlantic Ocean.
In contrast, the boundaries of the Florida and Georgia colonies were decided with much bloodshed. The original royal charter for Georgia defined its southern border as the Altamaha River, which remained safely within the Carolinas. Spain held the Florida territory and distrusted the British position being so near to the north. Following conflicts between Spain and Great Britain’s forces, the British Georgians finally defeated the Spanish army in 1739 in the Battle of Bloody Marsh. The battle, which was fought on St. Simons Island, set Georgia’s southern border as the St. Mary’s River (Stein, 73-4). The Battle of Bloody Marsh was the conclusion of James Oglethorpe’s efforts as the founder of the Georgia Colony to prevent Spanish intrusions.
Prior conflicts with Spain in the Americas included British military expeditions to Jamaica, Panama, Cuba, and Hispaniola. In November 1739, the Spanish conducted raids on the Georgia Colony and killed two settlers. Oglethorpe lobbied the British Parliament for additional military funding and taxes on slaves and land passed in the Commons House three months after the raids. The financial support improved the colony’s ability to defend itself, but policies limiting the military service of men from the Carolinas to six months did not bolster Georgia’s forces as Oglethorpe had hoped (Spalding, 105-6). Bolstered by the Parliamentary support, nearly 200 men captured two Spanish forts in the Florida territory and moved closer towards St. Augustine, which controlled a significant portion of Spain’s trade and supply lines (Spalding, 107). Oglethorpe planned an ambitious attack by both land and sea, but the arrival of Spanish ships in the St. Augustine harbor from Cuba wrecked all opportunities to reach the city by the water. Troops moved to Fort Mosa instead, where they negligently failed to foresee a Spanish attack and suffered 68 fatalities (Spalding, 112). Oglethorpe received the blame for the Georgians’ mistakes in their encounters with the Spanish and the invasion was cancelled in July 1740 (Spalding, 115).
The embarrassment of the British and low numbers of troops available in the colonies caused Georgia to be largely abandoned to Spanish attacks. Remaining dedicated to the preservation of the Georgia Colony, Oglethorpe rallied an army of colonists, not soldiers from Great Britain. Following two invasions in June and July 1742, the Carolinas granted the Georgians the assistance they had requested (Spalding, 132-3). Oglethorpe boldly attempted additional invasions of Spanish territory in 1742 and 1743, but failed after threatened by the Spanish Navy (Spalding, 134-45). Repeated conflicts between the Spanish and British colonists served to delineate the borders of the nations’ territories and also to prove the vulnerability of Americans.
To the north, King George’s War between Great Britain and France was being conducted in New England and Canada. The colonies gathered supplies in the wars following Oglethorpe’s encounters with the Spanish and in 1745 the colonies sent men to fight against the French and Native Indians. Connecticut troops numbered 500 men, New Hampshire sent 450, Massachusetts and Maine provided a combined force of 3,000 men, and other colonies, like Rhode Island, supplied armed ships and weapons for the war effort (Peckham, 100-1). On April 30, 1745, the British colonists attempted to land in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia and the subsequent resistance from the French killed three soldiers on both sides and allowed the British to capture twelve enemy soldiers. The colonists’ forces continued the violence by setting houses on fire and contesting the holding of the battery by firing cannons on it. In late May, the British attempted to capture the French island at Lighthouse Point, but after two drunken attempts, 60 British men were killed and 119 were captured. The British finally captured the enemy’s new battery at Lighthouse Point on June 17, 1745, along with more than one million pounds in French sterling (Peckham, 101-104).
The violence of King George’s War bled over from Canadian onto American territories. Conflicts near the border occurred in Putney, Vermont and Thomaston, Maine. New York was invaded in November 1745, resulting in 30 deaths and more than 60 prisoners being taken. French forces also manipulated Native Indian tribes to raid British communities in Albany and Schenectady, New York in the spring of 1746. Such attacks led both sides of the war to take prisoners, especially following repeated attacks on Fort Number Four in New York, but most were returned unharmed following negotiations (Peckham, 108-9). The peaceful return of captured enemy soldiers, large numbers of troops that volunteered from each colony, and the release of defeated armies following a pledge to forfeit fighting all demonstrated the great honor and the role of virtue among the colonial communities. While issues of pay and drunkenness sometimes arose, the troops were generally well-mannered and trustworthy.
With the conclusion of the wartime conflict between the French and British in October 1748, the American territories returned to their previous ways of life. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle did not increase British power, but allowed King Louis XV to keep Cape Breton Island for France and required that both nations recognize Maria Theresa as the Austrian monarch (Peckham, 116-7). However, the military battles in both the northern and southern colonies had disturbed their peace.
Underscoring the military conflicts of King George’s War and the Georgia Colony was the unrest of slaves held by colonists. The Georgia Colony banned slavery until 1750, but other British territories permitted the practice. In 1738 and 1739, a slave jail break created violence and 200 slaves were implicated in a plan to revolt in Maryland. The following year, a conspiracy plan to poison New York’s water supply was discovered and created hysteria. These events, along with multiple suspicious fires in New Jersey, led to the arrest and execution of numerous slaves. The British colonists feared the uprising of their human property and responded through acts of violence, such as burning slaves convicted of arson alive (Aptheker, 191-4). Charles Town, South Carolina hosted a series of slave rebellions in 1740. After a conspiracy of more than 150 slaves and suspicious fires were discovered, additional executions took place. The colony attempted to remedy some of the unrest of the slave population by passing legislation that required better food, clothing, and shortened work hours for slaves. Tariffs also stopped the importation of slaves to the Carolinas for the first four years of the decade, but the rise of evangelical Christianity had created a desire for freedom that could not be resolved in the bondage of slavery (Aptheker, 189-91). Words of preachers from the Great Awakening invigorated slaves in their desire for freedom.
The 1740s ushered in an era of freedom and clarity for the British colonists. The Great Awakening created a time of political and religious freedom. By lengthening the leash of the local church on its members, the expansion of freedom in spiritual life was even extended to slaves. Inspired by the Great Awakening and the stirring sermons they heard, slaves gathered a notion of equality and responsibility to their Creator alone. Listening to scripture, such as the liberation of the Jews in Egypt, the slaves also inherited a spirit of rebellion. This spirit of rebellion was not exclusive to them either. The same fire that fueled the beginnings of desire for freedom and independence from slavery led the colonists to rebel against Great Britain.
Along with the expansion of both religious and political freedoms came the establishment of both social and geographic boundaries. The colonies divided their land through royal decrees and fought distinct enemies. The northern colonies battled the French, while the southern territories faced conflicts with the Spanish. The military forces of the colonies largely did not combine between the distinct geographic regions. Additionally, despite the common ground of truth established throughout the colonies, the various reactions of the colonists to the preaching of the Great Awakening further exaggerated their distinctions. The northern, middle, and southern colonies practiced different denominations of Christianity, causing diverse social issues to arise from the spiritual revival. The 1740s became characterized by increased faith and freedom that catapulted the colonists towards the Revolutionary War.
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