Eli West

Prof. Westblade

18th Century Theology

October 5, 2015

The 1750’s: Events and Thoughts that Influenced Puritan New England

            The 1750’s posed many dangers for the Puritan communities of colonial New England. American colonists born at the beginning of this decade grew up in a community constantly on the verge of attack from foreign powers and native savages. Moreover, even beyond physical dangers, there were powerful forces among the European intellectuals who were casting doubt on the most essential doctrines of Christian faith. Despite these threats, however, the health and faith of New England churches, including the congregation of Jonathan Edwards—the most famous theologian of the decade—remained remarkably stable. In effort to provide context to this period of American Puritanism, this paper will survey the highlights the French & Indian War—by far the most important political event of the decade—as also note the period’s most influential thinkers and theologians.

            The French and Indian War dominated the news and politics of New England in the 1750’s. Battles first sparked between French and British colonists over coveted fur trading lands of the Ohio River Valley, but their fighting erupted soon after into a global conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War. On American shores, the contest was mostly between British soldiers sent to protect the royal colonies and French forces who allied with Indian tribes angry at the increasingly westward expansion of European colonists.[1] 

            The long fight began after the British built a fort at the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in effort to forestall French settlement in the region. The French responded by capturing the fort and renaming it Fort Duquesne in August of 1753. Under the leadership of George Washington, British forces attempted to retake the fort but were devastatingly defeated on July 4, 1754. British loses continued through 1757. France’s domination over the American continent was seemed all to certain. The tide turned however in 1758 as British forces outwitted French troops in capturing Nova Scotia. By 1761, France had lost control over its Canadian and American forts.[2]

Fighting still dragged on until 1763 when France, Spain, and Great Britain signed the Peace of Paris. France retained only her main West Indian islands, and the tiny fishing islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon near Newfoundland. On the other hand, Britain secured all of Canada, all the area east of the Mississippi, and the island of Grenada in the West Indies. It also retrieved Florida from Spain. In short, the outcome of the war left Britain was sure master of the colonial empire.[3]

Although the war came with great costs, its effect on New England Puritans were mostly indirect and therefore not as detrimental to daily life like later American conflicts would be. Few colonists were forced to enlist or give over their fortunes to fund the British military.[4] Nevertheless, the worry over Indian raids was very real. For instance, during the winters of 1756-1757, Jonathan Edwards’ congregation at Stockbridge was so sure their vulnerability would fall prey to the Indians that they sent petitions to the Massachusetts General Court begging for troop protection. Edwards himself was not so troubled. His long-range optimism stemmed from his eschatological beliefs, which foresaw the defeat of the anti-Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. Any negative effects from the war on the New England church was undoubtedly judgment from God because of their sin, but Edwards believed that God would ultimately grant them victory over the French Papists. [5] His optimism proved right.

Despite the on-going war, the 1750’s was rich with intellectual scholarship and religious expression. During this period, Enlightenment philosophy especially dominated the works of secular thinkers such as Voltaire and David Hume, while many Protestant theologians identified with the pietistic ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield.

Building off the foundation left by Isaac Newton in the early stages of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers promoted a materialistic philosophy that tried to explain everything in the universe in terms of matter and motion. Gradually, their thoughts developed into a body of religious beliefs known as Deism or Natural Religion. Deists of the 1750’s based their beliefs on reason and those doctrines that are essentially common to all the religions of mankind. These principles included an acknowledgment of God’s existence, God’s demand for the righteous living of men, and Gods’ rewards and punishes for men in a life after death. Such naturalistic philosophers prized what was natural over supernatural, and what was known by reason rather than by revelation. Not surprisingly, the works of such skeptical thinkers cast seeds of Atheism that were already germinating in the 1750’s. By the end of the century, there was a strong and unashamedly outspoken current of Atheism among intellectuals.[6]

The 1750’s marked an especially significant time for Enlightenment thought as Frenchman Denis Diderot published seventeen large volumes within 1751-1765 in his work the Encyclopedia. Also known as the “Bible of the Enlightenment,” the Encyclopedia featured works from virtually every major Enlightenment thinker including David Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Diderot’s compilation dramatically influenced political, social, and philosophical thought in eighteenth century and prepared ground for later the French Revolution. Throughout the work, its skeptical tone argued that man could not arrive at any truth about God, the soul, after-life, or anything outside of his own experience. It cast doubt on all matters of religious belief, especially calling into question the divine inspiration and historical accuracy of the Bible.[7]

Nevertheless, while most of the advanced thinkers of the 1750’s identified with naturalistic philosophy, Deism made little headway among the lower and middle classes of the Western world—especially within Protestant communities. On the contrary, this decade was in the middle of another philosophic phenomenon known as Pietism. This form of religious expression dominated the rural masses who largely ignored the rationalism of the intellectuals and instead stressed man’s direct relationship to God.[8]

Major theologians of the Pietism movement during the eighteenth century stemmed largely from Anglican origins including John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. Before the eighteenth century, Pietism was mainly confided to the Lutheran Church, while Anglican clergy were often worldly, sometimes rationalistic, and had little influence over the religious practice of the masses. John Wesley, an evangelical preacher, writer, and founder of Methodism changed that stereotype. Recognizing the need reach the masses, Wesley traveled 5,000 miles a year and preached some 40,000 sermons all over Europe. At the heart of Wesley’s message was that a Christian was anyone who “accepted” Christ and lived methodically according to “Christian principles.[9]” His brother Charles, composer of wrote over 6,500 hymns, agreed, preaching that measure of one’s life is by his faith and sober conduct, not by ritualistic church attendance.[10] Their ideas quickly spread across Europe and were furthered in America by the itinerant preaching ministry of George Whitefield. Whitefield met the Wesley’s at Oxford, and after being ordained in the Anglican Church made seven voyages across the Atlantic. He preached over 18,000 sermons while traveling the American colonies. He was unique and controversial to many as he encouraged men to come to righteousness by their individual decision and forsake the ritualism of mainstream Christianity.[11]

Although he was outside of the Church of England, Jonathan Edwards approved of these movements of pietism. His support for such thinking shows in some his most important works that he published during this last decade of his life including Religious Affections (1750), Freedom of the Will (1754) The End for Which god Created (1756), The Nature of True Virtue (1756), and Original Sin (1758).[12]

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Byers, Paula K., ed. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research,          1998.

Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History. 4th Rev. ed. New York, NY: Touchstone, 2005.

Hayes, Carlton, Marshall Baldwin, and Charles Cole. History of Western Civilization. New York,             NY: Macmillian Company, 1962.

Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Harrisonburg, VA: R. R. Donnelley and Sons,                      2003.

Williams, Neville. 1492-1775: The Expanding World. Vol. 2 of Chronology of World History.                   Santa Barbara, CA: Helicon Publishing, 1999.        

 

 



[1]Carlton Hayes, History of Western Civilization. (New York, NY: Macmillian Company, 1962), 469-470.

 

[2] Ibid., 471-472.

 

[3] Ibid., 474.

 

[4] Ibid., 475.

[5] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (Harrisonburg, VA: R. R. Donnelley and Sons,                 2003), 414-426.

 

[6] Carlton Hayes, History of Western Civilization. (New York, NY: Macmillian Company, 1962), 485-486.

[7] Neville Williams, 1492-1775: The Expanding World. Vol. 2 of Chronology of World History.              (Santa Barbara, CA: Helicon Publishing, 1999), 315.          

 

[8] Carlton Hayes, History of Western Civilization. (New York, NY: Macmillian Company, 1962), 487-489.

[9] Paula Byers ed. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 16 (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998), 209-210.

 

[10] Ibid., 208-209.

 

[11] Ibid., 241-242.

 

[12] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (Harrisonburg, VA: R. R. Donnelley and Sons,                2003), xiv-xv.