Margaret Danaher and Wesley Steeb
18th Century Theology: Jonathan Edwards
14 February 2010
“Watch and Pray”;
Puritans and the World During the 1750’s
Jonathan Edwards’s sermons and writings evidence his concern with the world around him. Though conflict was exploding in Europe and on the American continent, the Puritans viewed everything through a providential framework believing God’s sovereign plan would prevail. From Enlightenment thought and European power struggles to political debates and denominational schisms, the events in the 1750’s set the backdrop of the tumultuous world in which Edwards and his Puritan contemporaries lived and sought God.
Focusing on the abilities of the human mind, the Enlightenment directly contradicted the Christian mindset. Enlightened strains pervaded the discussions and writings of the 18th century. The Enlightenment gained renewed influence in Europe post-1750 when the French initiated circulars to further disperse their philosophies. During the 1750’s a developing community of letters increased the distribution of these ideologies over a wider geographical area. The greater interchange and synthesis of ideas earned this period the title of the “Mature Enlightenment.” A moderately free press allowing increased publication of Enlightenment material and contributions from independent authors facilitated the growth of the Enlightenment in Europe.  This period of Mature Enlightenment thought centered on “the actual reinterpretation of human knowledge in the clear light of a definitely perceived natural reality, and the actual revision of human ideals in terms of the primacy of individual freedom.” Rather than a variety of disparate strains, the individual Enlightenment movements began to cohere into a unified mission to promote liberty based upon individual freedom. Previously preoccupied with order in all areas of life, the Enlightenment shifted its focus onto “men’s freedom … and the continuing respect for order in the organization of both thought and society became subservient to the concern for liberty, for which order was to provide the necessary, but external condition.” While not abandoning their previous ideals, Enlightenment thinkers responded to the struggle for world empires with an increasing focus on the individual’s condition in a political state.
Concurrent with the development of the Mature Enlightenment, a strain of anti-Christianity appeared in Europe. Previously warring philosophies were unified under the new campaign against Christianity. Natural theology gave way to the spread of Deism. What Protestant doctrine survived was interpreted through a rationalist framework. Whether primarily assaulting Christian doctrine via criticism of ecclesiastical beliefs or insisting upon the secular and natural basis of free will, the soul, and human virtue, man replaced God as the center of religion.
Enlightened philosophies widely influenced publications throughout the world. Rift with Enlightenment concepts, George Berkeley wrote a short poem that was widely read both by his contemporaries and after his death. A foreigner who visited America several times, Berkeley’s poem reveals themes and ideologies influencing those in America during the early 1750’s. Published in 1752, Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America is essentially a 6-stanza epic about America. This oft-quoted and widely circulated piece shows America as the repository of all the good that was leaving Europe. The primarily Greco-Roman imagery is a symptom of the Enlightenment disavowal of religion. Most of the attempts to describe America to this point had been liberally laced with religious images. Fleeing what he termed a land in decline, Berkeley believed that the Muse would abandon Europe for a place of refuge in the West. Thus, he incorporated the Helliotropic ideas of the time that civilization followed the sun’s progress from East to West. Preaching a gospel of human enlightenment and liberation of the human mind, he saw an explicit role for America in the narrative of human progress. Taking a rather apocalyptic view of history, he believed that America’s role in this narrative was at the edge of the final act:
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
Berkeley’s progressive framework distorted his sense of history and made him believe that what came last would eclipse all previous developments. Even though America was distinctly attached to Britain, he saw a special purpose for the Colonies. America was filled with the potential to usher in a new age.
Warring European Powers
The struggles between European powers influenced Berkeley’s notion that culture and reason would need to flee to America to be preserved. French and English forces fought for dominion around the globe. During the early 1750’s India became highly contested colonial real estate and both nations started claiming cities. By 1754, French military officers began negotiations with the British who held the more strategic position. These conflicts in India primed it for a life of colonization: “both European nations had intervened actively in Indian politics … Indian authority itself was becoming dependent on European support.” Thus, the struggle lay between the two European powers. Britain soon proved itself the stronger, more capable force. While The Seven Years War waged in Europe, conflict in India waned as neither France nor Britain could spare sea power to defend their claim to Indian land.
The French and English faced-off on the American continent while tensions grew in Europe. This struggle for dominance came to the inevitable decision that England could demure or declare war on France. England assumed that Austria would be their ally and asked her to send troops to defend Hanover, a precious strategic site to the English interests in Holland. These English requests convinced Austria that Britain was a burdensome ally. Austria was disinclined to take the burden of a war she considered primarily over colonial interests in which she had no stake.
The Seven Years War began in 1756 when Austria attempted to retake Silesia which it had lost to the Prussian empire in 1740. France and Austria had dominated Europe as rivals for two hundred years. Thus the Austro-French Treaty of Versailles signed May 1, 1756 shocked the Western world. Both countries acknowledged increasing threat from Great Britain and signed the treaty as a defensive measure. War continued throughout Europe, with eruptions in colonial holdings until the summer of 1759. The British eventually christened this year “annus mirabilis, the wonderful year” due to their slough of victories. The Seven Years War approximated a first world war with tactical campaigns on land and by sea in America, Europe, and indirectly the struggle in India. The first hints of British victory in 1759 would not be realized until several years later.
England’s acceptance of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 had no unifying effect between Britain and the European countries that already embraced it. Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar in England and its American Colonies after resisting the perceived forces of popery which instituted this calendar in Catholic European nations 200 years earlier. The previous calendar system based on astronomical movements and factors deteriorated in accuracy when it ceased aligning with its celestial markers. Initial reticence to adopting the Gregorian Calendar in 1582 (when the Roman Catholic countries in Western Europe switched form the old system by papal decree) arose because the English considered it a tool of the Pope. George Parker started advocating the calendar change for scientific reasons in 1750. On May 22, 1751 the Gregorian Calendar became law with the king’s signature after passing through the House of Lords as a bill. This new calendar resulted in the legal year beginning on January 1 instead of March 25 and removed 11 days from 1752. Wednesday, September 2 was followed by Thursday, September 14 resulting in a 19-day month. People were concerned that they had lost 11 days of their lives. Still reticent to the forces of the Catholic Church, Great Britain only adopted the calendar on scientific grounds.
French and Indian War
From 1754 onward, the French and Indian War pulled all aspects of life into its orbit, including religion, which both influenced and was influenced by the conflict. New Englanders’ responses to events in the war evidenced the faith and preoccupation of the American people with God’s role in world affairs. In the midst of "the dark days of the French and Indian war," Puritans needed to face the harsh realities of the war around them without questioning their Creator. Thus, Preacher Joseph Bellamy explained the prevalence of wickedness and suffering in four sermons collectively titled The Wisdom of God in the Permission of Sin. Bellamy explained sin as a way for God to display his infinite goodness and mercy. Satan's plans for leading the world astray only ended in God's victory and his people's increased appreciation for his attributes. "[Satan's] aiming at supremacy, seducing mankind, and raising all this confusion in the system has occasioned the Almighty to assert his supremacy and set his own son at the head of the creation and in him to bring all things to an everlasting establishment…” Even in the darkest of situations where the devil seemed most prominent, Bellamy contended, God was at work, “[Satan] meant all for evil; lo, God meant all for good, to bring to pass as it is at this day.” Under opposite circumstances, Americans in the 1750s still found opportunity to embrace God's providence. The momentous English victory over the French at Quebec spurred celebrations involving entertainment, bonfires, and fireworks. However, secular celebrations proved secondary to religious observances so that “sermons…probably outnumbered bonfires.” The colonials believed that their previous losses occurred because “God had chastised his people with defeat and discouragement in order to make them mindful of their sins.” This victory came as a result of God's blessing after his people had realized their errors and repented.
Puritan tradition played a major role in creating the rift between the British Army and the New England regiments that would later widen and produce revolution. Lord Loudoun felt Braddock's frustrations as he tried to lead the colonial armies. “The culture of New Englanders, the descendants of seventeenth-century Puritans, was premised upon covenantal relationships, and therefore upon the strict observation of contractual obligations.” This radically different understanding of the relationship between commander and commanded prevented them from submitting to Loudoun’s generalship and rendered them incapable of "[producing] the kind of armies that contemporary European states did.” Sometimes religion was exploited to achieve expedient ends. In 1755, the British deported native Acadians after subduing two French forts in Acadia. They based such action on the Acadians’ refusal to renounce the Catholic faith. But the British merely used religion as an excuse to further strategic aims: they required the French to abandon their faith because they "intended to use any resistance as an excuse to get rid of [the Acadians]."
American Colonial Politics
Just as the Puritan minded regulars frustrated the British commanders in war, political affairs drove the Colonies further away from harmony with Britain as well. The decade began with contention when Britain refused to accept American paper money. Due to lack of mineral resources available in America to forge hard money, colonial paper money inconvenienced the English. In the Currency Act of 1751, Great Britain made clear that American money would not suffice to pay debts to the mother country. This escalated tensions which had already been mounting. The Albany Congress of 1754 exacerbated this separation albeit unintentionally. Delegates from the Colonies met in order to reinforce an existing alliance between the English and Americans and the Six Nations. Yet the Indians proved less than reassuring by avoiding any promise of loyalty to the English in the event of a war with the French. Anxious for some sort of security, the congress formed a union, proposed by Benjamin Franklin himself, which would allow them to form a united front against the French and Indian threat. This move proved controversial and sparked much debate. It also inspired a sermon preached by Jonathan Mayhew titled "Ye Cannot Be Saved from the Storm Accept Ye are at Union Amongst Yourselves.” In that sermon Mayhew urged that "whenever all our scatter’d Rays shall be drawn to a Point and proper Focus, they can scarce fail to consume and print up these Enemies of our Peace, how faintly so ever they may strike at present." The fact that the political union of the Colonies prompted attention and the religious theater attested changed the emphasis in religion: “Between 1740 and 1776, preachers and pamphleteers made ‘liberty’ and resistance to British taxation sound like religious conversation.” Also momentous politically, the religious response to the company Congress is also vital in understanding the shift in religious thoughts towards the political in the 1750s.
Religion in the American Colonies
On the whole, the 1750s saw a dispersion of denominations that broke down regional barriers in the Colonies. Due to education’s close correlation to faith in the 18th century it remained a focus of the church. One predominant debate of the decade occurred concerning the establishment of King’s College in New York in 1754. Far from countenancing a "wall of separation," colleges in the 17th and 18th centuries received government funds while promoting various religious denominations. New Yorkers’ feared that the Anglican bent of the proposed institution would produce an Anglican hegemony and even its establishment as the state religion. This apprehension sparked a contentious debate over the public subsidizing of religious institutions. As William Livingston warned, “a public Academy is, or ought to be a mere civil Institution, and cannot with any tolerable propriety be monopolized by any religious Sect.” The college did receive colony funding in 1756. While the Anglican-leaning institution gained a foothold in New York, the Hanover Awakening, a movement which established Presbyterianism in Hanover County Virginia, introduced Presbyterianism to an Anglican stronghold. This New Light movement “eventually overturned not only the Anglican establishment but also the stratified and status conscious society that the established religion reflected and supported.” Though not welcome by the Anglicans, the dissenters obtained protection under the English Toleration Act, which provided a "historic victory in the opening wedge for the official toleration of religious dissent in Virginia.” The movement, which found its inception in the 1740s gained a stronger foothold in 1755, and made history as the first of its kind in the South, as Samuel Davies established the Hanover Presbytery.  The Anglican presence at King’s College and Presbyterianism's foray into Virginia testify to the increasing intermingling of denominations in the 1750s.
Like Edwards, preachers during the 1750s incorporated world events into their preaching, responding to them in ways that acknowledged God's supremacy and spurred them to do their duty. As seen in his involvement in the Hanover Awakening, Samuel Davies proved one of the prominent preachers in the 1750s. Utterly patriotic, Davies demanded action in response to faith and provided an excellent example of the increased emphasis of politics and religion. In “The Curse of Cowardice," He successfully used his talents and his position to galvanize Hanover County into participation in the war effort at a time when the enlistments were far from satisfactory. “You that love your religion enlist: for your Religion is in Danger. Can Protestant Christianity expect quarters from Heathen Savages and French Papists?” Davies’s sermon proved effective and caused a flood of enlistments too great to be accommodated.
When Edwards died in 1758 he departed from a world that had greatly changed since the time of his birth in 1703. Edwards’s last recorded notes from his January 1758 sermon entitled “Watch and Pray Always” embodied the Puritan behavior in a tumultuous world. Though sparse, his outline exhorts listeners to “First. Watch. / Second. Pray. / Third. Always.” This, Edwards believed was the appropriate response to an ever-changing and increasingly splintered world. During the last decade of his life, Puritans had had plenty to watch and much to evince their prayers. Great Britain had proved its international hegemony with decisive victories against France. The American Colonies both splintered religiously and united politically during the 1750’s. Rational religion had replaced mysticism while patriotism had become its own gospel.
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. Walter R. Borneman, The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America. (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 57-58.
. David A. Copeland, Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers: Primary Documents on the Events of the Period. (Greenwood Press: Connecticut, 2000. <http://books.google.com/books…>), 142.
. Rodger M Payne, “New Light in Hanover County: Evangelical Dissent in Piedmont Virginia 1740-1755.” (The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 61, No. 4. Nov., 1995), 667.