“Ripe for Revolution: Puritan Dissentions in the 1740’s and 1750’s”

Religious, Political, and Social Life of the New England Puritans

1740-1750 A.D. Decadal Paper

18th Century Theology, Dr. Westblade

Jolene Estruth

            By the time of the 1740’s, the Puritan church found itself expanding throughout New England. Between 1740 and 1750, over 45 ‘new congregations’ appeared all over New England. Many of these new congregations merely seceded or split from previously existing congregations, occasionally for doctrinal reasons other times for more political reasons. Several groups came from England seeking not religious freedom, like the Puritans, but rather political and economic gain (The New England Soul, Stout, 192). This created problems within the structure of church hierarchy as rights of memberships and even the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper became available more so to the common, unconfirmed folk. The manner in which Solomon Stoddard, grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, addressed this crisis later erupted into great conflict between Jonathan and his congregation at North Hampton. Even with much disagreement, a few of these new congregations eventually rejoined with their congregation of origin after the death of their ministers. “Of the 77 Separate churches founded between 1742 and 1750, only 23 survived beyond 1765” (Stout, 224-5). Though the divisions meant the growth and outpouring of the church however, they were still divisions. Although the growth of the church initially appears to be a promising and hopeful occurrence, the New England Puritans faced many additional religious, political, and social difficulties during the ten years between 1740 and 1750.

            The Great Awakening is perhaps the “most sensational event in the history of New England preaching” (Stout, 195). This “religious excitement” climaxed in 1740-1741 (Stout, 203). Many historians, along with many in the church, question the genuineness of these various spiritual episodes and experiences. In the 1740’s and 50’s, the Old Light Congregationalists “detected symptoms of enthusiasm throughout the ranks of their opponents” (Stout, 208). There can be no doubt of the profundity of the preaching; Ministers from Edwards to Whitefield (dubbed ‘the Grand Itinerant) to Buell traveled to numerous church congregations and preached fiery awakening sermons. Each according to their own style, Edwards tends to be most remembered for his ‘Hell-fire’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” while preachers like Whitefield for his shameless exposition of the total depravity of man and supernatural grace (Stout, 195). As Marsden says, “Edwards hoped to awaken people to what that awful reality (Hell) must mean to them here and now. Language, as he saw it, was not used just to create ideas of reality, as Locke might describe it, but preeminently to arouse affections that would excite vital knowledge among the hearers” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 221). Edwards also detailed in his Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth that, “the spiritual or practical knowledge is of greatest importance; for a speculative without a spiritual knowledge, is to no purpose, but to make our condemnation the greater” (Edwards, 158).

In essence, no matter the style of the Awakening sermon, the purpose and message of each minister was to communicate the essential, spiritual knowledge of the Divine through practical means and to thus arouse the affections of the hearers. The Covenant of Law and Gospel, morality and grace, find their combination in the teachings of the Great Awakening: ministers effectively display the sinfulness of man, convincing hearers of their emanate conviction, while then sharing the literal good news of the powerful work of God through the love of Christ Jesus. As the Calvinist doctrine states, what else could be the response to this Irresistible Grace than utter repentance and the agony of a tortured, sinful soul? The message of Revival sermons sounded similarly all throughout New England: “Everywhere people were caught up in the whirl of revival and were asking the same question—‘What must I do to be saved?’ And everywhere ministers were repeating the same message in sermon after sermon: you must acknowledge your sin, humble yourself before Christ, and be born again through His Spirit” (Stout, 202). Some famous sermons preached during this Awakening include: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” “The Peace which Christ Gives His True Followers,” “Marks of a True Conversion,” and “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.”

Though the preaching remained unified for the most part however, the Puritans found themselves divided regarding the Awakening, as they were in their congregations over things such as Covenant Theology. One either supported or dissented from the Great Awakening. At the end of 1742 a group of ‘Old Light’ critics of “revival passed legislation forbidding itinerancy” or, in other words, awakening preaching (Stout, 208). Most individuals opposed this legislation, and this led ultimately to two divulging classes of thought: supporters and skeptics. Part of the skepticism that accompanied the work of the Awakening came because of the sheer plummet from the ‘spiritual high’ of the revivals. After the second revival preaching by George Whitefield in North Hampton in 1744, several individuals in Edward’s congregation suffered from severe spiritual depression after the death by suicide of Joseph Hawley II, one of the church members. Edward’s acknowledged that, “Satan seemed to be more let loose, and raged in a dreadful manner” (Marsden, 163). It seems that the work of the devil accompanies the work of the Lord. For Edwards, this spiritual attack confirmed the revival he saw within his congregation as genuine. He said in response to Chauncy’s Old Light arguments against the Awakening that conversion itself was a form of enthusiasm, “but one that came from the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit transforming the heart from love of self to disinterested love of ‘divine excellency’ or ‘Being in general’” (Stout, 213). For others, especially in the present, the same enthusiasm that made Edwards so sure raised questions of these wide-spread conversions.

Whether one accepts the miraculous work of the Lord through the mass conversions of the awakening or not, one must acknowledge the Great Awakening allowed for certain essential changes to come about. One author phrases it this way, “Conclusion: that it (the Great Awakening) was preeminently a work of God's grace carried on with great power and productive of vast results. Whether we regard the deep sleep from which it roused the churches throughout the land, the number of hopeful converts estimated by some at 50,000 with which it replenished them, or the new life it breathed into their pastors and teachers, we are forced to this conclusion” (A Historical Sketch of the Congregational Churches in Massachusetts, 160-173). Five important changes came as a result of this Great Awakening: it eventually brought the death-blow to Half-Way Covenant, but also led to Jonathan Edward’s dismissal from his congregation in North Hampton in July of 1750, from the Great Awakening; the Arminian, Pelagian, Socinian views grew in power and popularity; the Great Awakening resulted in the forward prominence of the Doctrine of Grace in New England theology and that has been held ever since; the Universities of Princeton and Dartmouth grew from the Awakening; David Brainard came to be known by much of the New England world, including Edwards in particular who later wrote his biography (A Historical Sketch of the Congregational Churches in Massachusetts, 160-173). Through the Great Awakening, according to Harry S. Stout, another experiment in liberty began, “this one in the churches, as New Englanders discovered the power they possessed when united against authority” (215). The warfare in the church mirrored the warfare in the land and both foreshadow the ripening soil for Revolution.

In the midst of this religious outpouring, New England experienced great political and social difficulties as well. During this time, the War of Austrian Succession raged overseas beginning in 1740 and came to the colonies in 1743 as King George’s War which deeply affected the American Colonies, especially Massachusetts. King George’s War was the third war between France and Great Britain for complete control over the North American continent. The result was inconclusive. Essentially, Great Britain returned property previously belonging to France in exchange for Madras, India after years of bloody invasion by both sides in the America’s with the help of their Indian allies. After vainly struggling for many years, both sides signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle agreeing to return conquered territories and end this pointless warfare. New Englanders were outraged as they contributed to the exhibitions through funds and personnel, and nothing came of the war but years of waste and turmoil. “A generation came of age who knew nothing of the traumas of total war and who were free to disagree without fear of foreign reprisal. In 1745, that happy period of external peace came to an abrupt end” (240) in part, because of both the religious and physical warfare.

New England also faced dissension due to the rise of new and controversial literature, such as Richardson’s “Clarissa.” One author said of this work’s effect on society,

Another strength of this volume is its representation of readers from different social ranks and continents, their comments prefaced by detailed biographies. Such diversity shows, according to Bueler, that Clarissa was not “for novelists or public intellectuals alone, but for any person, of either sex and any age, who could read and write” (1: xi). For example, Joseph Marcos Gutiérrez, a Spanish civil lawyer and translator, is hopeful that “this celebrated work will serve to correct the conspicuously slackened manners of his nation” (1: 563); a suicidal German girl is advised by Professor Christian Fürchtegott Gellert to read less Clarissa, since the book seems “detrimental to your heart” (1: 333); American Abigail Adams, prior to becoming the first lady, eagerly anticipates dining with Richardson’s son-in-law Edward Bridgen (1: 280); and Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner tracks in an account book both his daily purchases and his progress in reading Clarissa (1: 260–61). In Reading Clarissa, these voices mingle with those of such prominent figures as Johnson, Hume, Goethe, Rousseau, Sade, and Voltaire (Clarissa: The Eighteenth-Century Response, Parker).

Much of the art, literature, and social nuances introduce to the colonies during the 1740’s and 1750’s effected the Puritans in the same manner as Clarissa. Many authors around this time also began to include Slaves in their Romantic works of literature. One historian remarks, “By instating slaves and African others as a literary presence in their works, Romantic writers attained proximity with those (until then) distanced selves. This incendiary act transformed a whole culture’s approach and understanding of the slavery issue, and it made explicit what Levinas calls the ‘face to face,’ the ‘discursive responsibility for the other’” (David Shafer, “The Politics of Race and Slavery in the British Empire and Ancient Regime”).   This drastic change certainly did not occur until much later in American history, however, the seeds for many things were planted during this tumultuous time. The craft of home-making saw much change during these years as well.  Imports from Great Britain made the “refinement and appearance of gentility” possible in colonists’ daily life (Jaffee). The arts of a culture greatly influence its religious trajectory and philosophical thought. These original works offering new, exciting, and shocking ideas coupled with the Great Awakening slowly began the shifting of the American psyche to embrace change and social, political, and religious rebellion. Perhaps this rebellion yields good, perhaps ill. Either way, after all of the drastic and stark shifts in New England during this decade, the Puritans were ready for revolution.