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Religion in Colonial New England

Faith, Change, and Living-for-the-Moment

When Plymouth was absorbed into the new royal colony of Massachusetts in 1691, English government reforms enhanced the power and prestige of non-Puritans in the area, especially large landowners and merchants. Because they were forced by the crown to obey the English Toleration Act of 1689, Massachusetts Puritans had to allow, for the first time, other Protestants in their midst to worship freely. This changing climate produced a considerable amount of tension, particularly among the Puritan clergy, who considered the religious practice of other denominations like the Quakers to be tantamount to "Devil worship." Many Puritans thought that England's imposed reforms and the redistribution of power that they necessitated were indications of the presence of Satan himself.

As it turned out, such anxieties were signs of change. As the first generation of settlers gave way to subsequent ones, New Englanders began to view their existence as more than simply a preparation for the afterlife. Land increasingly became viewed as a commodity that could be bought and sold for profit, rather than a means of survival. Settlers felt more justified in their pursuit of material success and wealth, for Puritans had argued that these were gained through thrift and hard work and therefore demonstrated evidence of piety. Puritans initially exhibited much more anxiety about such indications of mortal success, for they were well aware of its potential to overshadow the religious virtues and become the central preoccupation of people's lives. These concerns did not evaporate overnight, nor did secularism set in right away. Colonial leaders and church elders continued to interpret earthquakes, epidemics, and Indian wars as signs of God's wrath at the sins of the colonists. Yet such interpretations also revealed a widespread concern over what many perceived to be the increasing secularization of their society and the Puritan church's growing lack of control over its congregants.

The Great Awakening

Almost simultaneously in the Mid-Atlantic colonies and in New England, young ministers effected a revolutionary change in the practice of religion and its impact on their parishioners. In Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, Gilbert Tennent attended a "Log College" that his revivalist father had established to teach ministers how to appeal to the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who lived around Philadelphia. Gilbert himself became a very successful revivalist and a leader of the "New Light faction" that split from the more traditional "Old Lights" of the Congregational church. That division would eventually become permanent, and new dissenting churches emerged from it. Though they were initially ridiculed for training uneducated ministers in the backwoods, the Tennent family went on to become central forces in the movement to found the College of New Jersey, known today as Princeton.

By 1735, Jonathan Edwards had captivated almost the entire town of Northampton in western Massachusetts with his emotionally potent sermons. This 31-year-old Yale valedictorian sought to reverse what he deemed a disturbing trend in town, where young people frequented taverns at night and practiced "licentiousness," as Edwards described it. To reach people's hearts with his message and to scare them into following a more pious lifestyle, Edwards sermonized in detail about the horrors of hell. His 1741 exhortation at Enfield, Massachusetts, entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," marked what was probably the climax of the religious revival known as the Great Awakening. In the sermon, Edwards continued his trend of detailing the tortures of hell as a means of making the consequences of impiety seem much more real and immediate to his listeners. He also preached that God is all-knowing, and that He "holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked." Though Edwards spoke in a solemn and calm tone and did not over-dramatize his message, he still had to wait several minutes after finishing for the audience to quiet down before he could lead them in a hymn.

Whitefield Arrives

Though it clearly had local roots, the Great Awakening has been most directly associated with George Whitefield, an English minister who came to America in 1739 and remained for two years to preach throughout the colonies. In contrast to Edwards's vivid depictions of a fire-and-brimstone deity, Whitefield's God was merciful, although damnation was just as terrible. Whitefield quickly attained a sort of celebrity status; the papers followed his every move and tens of thousands of colonists attended his revivals. His example quickly became the inspiration for thousands of evangelists who roamed around the country, holding tent meetings and stirring up the congregations of more established ministers. Clearly such ministers were threatened by the new developments. Connecticut sought to quash the movement by punishing the evangelists who entered its boundaries; other critics published pamphlets, newspaper articles, and delivered sermons attacking the revivalist preachers as untrained hacks.


For all their efforts, the critics were woefully undermatched and unsuccessful in their efforts to stem the tide of an utterly populist revolution in faith. The Great Awakening was a truly American phenomenon, a rarity at a time when the various colonies were still very much separated by geography, social customs, religion, and demographics. Nearly everyone on the Atlantic seaboard, with the possible exception of unconverted Indians, were deeply affected for decades to come by this sea change in religious practice and philosophy. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other churches emerged from the schism in the Congregationalist church. Black slaves in the Chesapeake region were caught up in the revivals because they frequently came into contact with not only their masters but also white yeoman farmers on nearby lands. Many already knew English because the plantation sizes in the region tended to be small and they frequently interacted with whites. Their Christian conversion was a pivotal step in the process by which an African-American identity was born; these slaves practiced a faith similar to but in many respects apart from the whites, for they often incorporated the rhythms, traditions, and cultural practices of their African heritage into their Christian worship. Many uneducated people without much standing or property—white and black alike—were caught up in the movement, for it spoke directly to them and simultaneously exposed the tensions between elites and the masses and between the merchants who focused on profits and the many parishioners who were saddled with debt. For a brief time, even women partook not only in the avid worship of the revivals, but in the sermonizing itself. Ministers often preached against the worldly ways of the elites, including the affluent planters, and a few specifically condemned slavery. The people learned to formulate, trust, and defend their own independent judgment against the edicts and orders of a variety of elites.

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