19 February 2018
The Long Eighteenth Century: 1756-1766
The Seven Years’ War and its Aftermath
“Give us help from trouble, for vain is the help of men” –Psalm 60:9-12
The Seven Years’ War & its Aftermath
The Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War, is a political conflict which belies the idea of religious warfare. In the comprehensive context of the eighteenth century, it is nearly impossible to examine the politics of this war and those preceding it without examining the religious undertones to all of the political beliefs and actions of the general population globally. Historian Mathias Persson observes, “[R]eligion and politics were largely intertwined… parallel themes in a rudimentary master narrative defined by a sequence of dichotomies: ‘self’ and ‘other’, freedom and oppression, virtue and vice, godliness and ungodliness.” This dichotomous attitude precisely defines interpretations of the war in New England.
The foundation for the colonists’ religious perspectives concerning the war subsisted of beliefs garnered mainly from the preceding wars, such as King Philip’s War and King George’s War (the War of Austrian Succession). In a profound and remarkable succession of events spanning these several wars, the colonists’ religious fastidiousness coincides with the ultimate victory for the English. As a natural result, the colonists begin to associate their good fortune with the will of God. In following with their covenantal narrative, New England consisted of those resembling God’s chosen people. From a rational perspective, the religious perspectives which dominate New England throughout the eighteenth century is sensible due to the Puritan’s devotion to the federal covenant with God as His chosen people. The Seven Years’ War, then, is integral to the religious climate of New England.
From 1756–1763, the larger scope of warfare between Britain and France evidences the power struggle to building an empire—in large part, through North America with her vast land and resources. The other name for this war, the French and Indian War, comes from the alliances between French and Indian forces subsisting in and around the settled and frontier colonies. Although it is easy to remain distant from the horrors of warfare, especially in the affluence and insulation of modern America, fully explicating these often dark and dismal days for the colonists is necessary to gain a full appreciation of their perspective on the War. Indians slaughtering entire families were an everyday reality, especially for the frontier colonies. With the destruction of General Edward Braddock’s army approaching Fort Duquesne at Monongahela on July 9, 1755, all of the colonies from Virginia to northern New England were thrown into a state of shock and panic.
The main reason for the redcoats’ defeat was due to their inability to garner enough Indian support; the French, however, managed to marshal plenty of Indian allies. This devastating loss pushed more Indians to either side with the French or into neutrality away from any British alliance. The colonists were fearful of another Indian uprising, hearkening back to the days of King Philip’s War and the Deerfield Massacre. Their fear was not unfounded. Within a year, New England–Indian relations began to dissolve rapidly due to French influence, so much so that Indian missionary trips were no longer viable. The tribes were no longer receptive to the biblical schools, or any English colonist for that matter. There was minimal protection against the Indians’ savage warfare because the British armies were usually elsewhere, colonial armies were largely amateur, and most frontier towns had weak fortifications—as a result, prisoners of war and scalping became commonplace.
While there were the select New Englanders such as Aaron Burr who believed that these incidences were tragic consequences of God’s judgement on the colonists and tended to view Protestantism through a hopeless, bleak perspective, most New Englanders held a more balanced understanding of the loss around them. The majority maintained a providentialist patriotism: total dependence on God as the key to victory. By this time in history, New England had shed its Puritan outsider image and self-identified with the Protestant and British cause. The colonists viewed their role in the war as the cause for a political advance of international Protestantism—millennial expectations of a worldwide awakening. Their firm belief in their religious role in the war was based on the noticeable ideological parallels between warfare and evangelism, which famous theologians like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield would preach about often. Edwards, ever the fanatic Biblical scholar, sought any connections available in periodicals for adverse financial news about the pope and his minions.
In following the news reports, which aligned with Biblical prophecies, Edwards had reason to interpret certain patterns as indications of eventual British victory in the New World. Edwards, as well as the majority of New England, attributed the short-term defeats and disasters to Satan’s counterattacks and God’s loud calls for repentance. He saw Braddock’s defeat as the judgement on British pride & self-confidence. His analysis was not uncommon—New England and the world at large relied on these periodicals for updates on this global war in a time when information was slow and hard to come by. During the war, periodicals were shaped by their religious undertones in examining political occurrences, dividing sides into those for freedom or for oppression, for Christ or for the AntiChrist, and the like. This, in turn, strengthened the belief among New Englanders that this war was a part of the larger battle between forces of good and evil, and that the British had a duty as God’s chosen people to counteract the French forces. As a result, the people’s response to both success and defeat was constant acceptance of God’s will and not their own understanding, combined with a fastidious approach to fulfilling his covenant.
The fall of Fort Oswego and Fort Henry in 1756 and 1757 further jeopardized the northern colonies to direct invasion by the French-Indians. Preachers like John Mellen and Matthew Bridge compared these defeats to Babylon and Israel’s desolation during Babylonian captivity. The immediate plights of the defeat led New England ministers to invoke the same conversionist rhetoric their predecessors had applied to the crises caused by King Philip’s War. Their capitalization on New England’s fear ushered in many conversions, numbers which enlarged following the succession of earthquakes occurring at intervals around that time. Following William Pitt’s appointment as secretary of state in 1757, colonial spirits worsened as New England volunteers and British regulars suffered multiple defeats.
New England hunkered down in its militant prayer, and within a few short years clergy sentiments turned around with the successful campaigns of 1758 and 1759, led by new troops and young commanders such as Jeffrey Amherst and James Wolfe. Sermons increased their reflections on the interdependence of military readiness and divine dependence—prayers were urged to be made with an active martial resolve, hearkening back to the Biblical accounts of Israelites during the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem. Providence became the general theme of congregations throughout New England. With the fall of Montreal in 1760 came the end of the struggle over North American territory, and for the colonists a spiritual victory in a divine warfare with infinitely stakes the game of kings vying for greater empire. In short, New England believed it was the hand of God behind the restored peace, because Providence eventually granted mercy to His people who wanted the unrest to dissipate.
A summary reflection of the Seven Years’ War in the colonies reveals that the sacred history of Israel was the touchstone for New England’s religious resolve. With the conclusion of the War, the following three years of peace and political prosperity for the British Empire caused the millennial rhetoric to dissipate. Without any major wars or natural disasters to center around, the pulpit’s calls for militant religious action faded away. The lack of sudden conversions and global wars gave no sense urgency for the New England preachers to move their congregation toward the expectancy of millennium.
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