Study Guide

Colonial New England Analysis

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  • Race

    The "Noble Savage" Did Not Disappear

    Despite the devastating consequences of their defeat in savage conflicts like King Philip's War (1675–1676) and the rapid depletion of their numbers from European diseases, the Indians of New England never simply "disappeared" or "died out" as so many white settlers expected. 

    Believing themselves specially selected by God to embark upon the mission of practicing His true faith in the New World, Puritans believed that the timely epidemics that plagued the Indians upon—or shortly before—their arrival, were in fact holy signs that God had reserved this land for them.

    Reeling from disease-induced demographic catastrophe, most Indians in the Massachusetts region recognized the futility of armed combat after 1676, and for the next century, they waged what historian Colin G. Calloway has called "wars of quiet survival" to cope with an ever-expanding white population that encroached upon their lands and resources. 

    Many Indians adopted some aspects of English language and culture while still fighting for their lands and rights in colonial courts and legislatures. They found little success there, and without their traditional hunting grounds or means of survival, way too many were reduced to begging or peddling. Some went on whaling voyages (an entirely foreign endeavor for them), worked as servants in white homes, or married men from other races.

    In fact, several Native-American women accepted offers of marriage from Black neighbors, especially in the absence of Indian men who'd gone away to find work or who were killed in warfare or by disease.

    The tribes that did survive retained a core of custom, belief, and identity, even if they needed to incorporate new ways of life and even new people into their communities in order to adapt and survive.

  • Gender

    Does She Sink or Does She Float?

    An accusation of witchcraft was a serious matter in 17th-century New England. The regional religious climate of the period was so intense that people legit believed the Devil was lurking just around the corner. He could be manifested in any number of guises, just waiting to tempt people into sin and eternal hellfire.

    Women were considered especially vulnerable to the Devil's temptations. After all, European culture dating back to the Medieval Ages had depicted females as temptresses who could lead men astray, and the Bible claimed that Eve and her kind had been forever tainted with sin from the moment she accepted the serpent's apple in the Garden of Eden.

    Because witchcraft accusations were so serious in colonial society—witchcraft was punishable by death—the justice system intervened to try to prevent false accusations of witchcraft or possession by harshly punishing those who made false charges. When in 1647, a Springfield, Massachusetts, woman named Mary Parsons was accused of spreading rumors that a local widow was a witch, a local judge sentenced her to be "well whipped [...] with 20 lashes by the constable, unless she could procure the payment of 3 pounds" to the widow in question for  "the reparation of her good name." (Source)

    Still, not even such harsh punishments for false accusations could prevent witchcraft hysteria from repeatedly erupting within New England communities. The first accusations predated the infamous Salem Witch Trials (1692) by almost half a century. The first person in North America to actually confess to witchcraft was Mary Johnson in 1648. And even before the Salem witch hysteria, more than 300 people were charged with witchcraft in New England, and most of them were middle-aged women. Over 30 were hanged.

    A witch, Puritans believed, was a person who made a pact with the Devil in order to obtain supernatural powers. Such powers were held responsible for social afflictions such as crop failures or stillborn children. Popular faith in the existence of witchcraft—and the danger posed by it—was brought to America from Europe, where hangings for witchcraft dated back to medieval times and were often presided over by the most prominent village officials.

    The Puritan clergy of New England compounded this historical legacy by constantly warning their congregations of Satan's omnipresence and his devices of temptation. Because Massachusetts was well known for its religiosity, church elders reasoned that their colony—the so-called Bible Commonwealth—was a special target for a Devil who targeted the godly. Schoolchildren were taught in their primers that Satan would attempt to lure boys by offering them permission to skip school and play all day long. 

    TL;DR: New England Puritans believed that the Devil was a deep-seated presence in their daily lives, that they must remain constantly vigilant against him, and that if they failed to do so it would be at the peril of their own souls. Yikes. An all-encompassing terror of eternal damnation was a constant presence in the lives of these settlers.

    The Main Event: The Salem Witch Trials

    The heightened tensions and anxiety of the post-Glorious Revolution period in North America contributed to an outbreak of unparalleled witchcraft hysteria in late 1691.

    The colony of Massachusetts was undergoing a difficult transition to its new status as a royal province in which religious toleration was mandated from the crown, and town membership surpassed church membership as the prerequisite for voting power.

    Salem Village, scene of the infamous witch trials, was in the process of trying to break free from the taxes and influence of its neighbor, the larger Salem town on the coast. These subtle sources of anxiety and tension may have made the town residents even more willing than most Puritans to believe that the Devil was present and active in their midst. 

    A 21st-century historical reinterpretation has argued that a frontier conflict with nearby Indians known as King William's War was an essential precursor to the witchcraft trials. In this new account, historian Mary Beth Norton argues that the colonists saw themselves as punished for their sins by visible spirits (the Native Americans) and invisible ones (the Devil's Satanic possession).

    The story of how the Salem witch hysteria began has a few subtly different versions, but all of them involve several pubescent girls in the town. 

    One explanation describes how the girls began to experiment with fortune-telling by dropping an egg white into a glass and asking what trade their future husbands would practice. Another says the girls met in the kitchen of town minister Reverend Samuel Paris, to hear his West Indian slave Tituba tell them voodoo stories.

    Oh, hey, The Crucible.

    Maybe both accounts are true, but ultimately, the girls began experiencing nightmares and suffering fits, in which they shouted, barked, and seemed to undergo involuntary spasms. The town doctor and other adults interpreted these symptoms as signs of demonic possession. The girls identified Tituba and two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, as their tormentors and as Satan's servants. The three women were arrested, and Tituba confessed to the charge before proceeding to identify several people in town who she said were also performing Satan's deeds.

    By March 1692, seven more people in town were said to be afflicted, including a well-respected matron, a desperately poor man, four maidservants, and one child, 12-year-old Anne Putnam. So, in reality, men, women, and children were accused of witchcraft.

    When a former preacher returned to Salem to preach in the meetinghouse, he found what was considered to be solid proof of Satan's presence: the possessed group spoke in church and commented on the sermon, two actions forbidden to any member of the congregation regardless of sex, age, or status.

    Pulling Legs and Women Power

    Let's be real here: Few avenues were open to women who sought influence in the community and among its traditional elites. 

    Through witchcraft, which cast women as the medium between the natural and supernatural worlds, women could attain a power that terrified many New Englanders. Fear of female empowerment cannot entirely explain the psychology behind any of the New England witch trials, but the hysterical response to alleged witches does speak volumes about the limited avenues open to women during this period. 

    Perversely, witchcraft trials allowed women to testify and took women's words—both in accusation and defense—seriously. The only other place where New England women could speak in church or influence church governance was the Quaker meetinghouse.

    Significantly, Salem magistrates treated their witnesses' testimony with a great deal of respect during the infamous witch trials of 1692. Women who'd long since been deprived of any political or judicial authority were suddenly taken at their word, and their testimony carried the power to end lives and to destabilize the entire community only because it was given credence by powerful male authority figures.

    For example, the magistrates believed the statements from Elizabeth Johnson and William Barker who claimed that Satan was planning a literal attack upon Salem, to be followed by attacks throughout the region, so that he might abolish all the churches and set up his own Devil's kingdom. The metaphorical dimensions of Satan's trap quickly slipped into the literal dimension and back again during the course of this testimony. 

    Both accusers and the accused described meetings with the Devil and over 200 people who professed their allegiance to him. One man testified that he saw accused witch Susannah Sheldon carried through her yard and over a stone wall by some other witches.

    Although ministers never described Satan physically in their sermons, they believed the various representations of him that emerged during the trials: he appeared as a "black man"—not necessarily connoting an African man—and a large black dog, a hog, a red cat, a black cat, a little yellow bird, and even a clawed monkey with the face of a man and the feet of a cock.

    All of these versions seemed plausible to a society that assumed the Devil could appear in various guises to tempt his victims.

    George Burroughs: Bad Husband and Accused Wizard

    Now, not all of those tried were women. (Just most of 'em.)

    The former minister of Salem, George Burroughs, had left town for Maine nine years earlier but was brought back for trial as a wizard. During his trial, neighbors John and Rebecca Putnam—parents of Ann, who was one of the "possessed"—testified that while he was town minister during the 1680s, Burroughs had asked the Putnams to hear his side of a serious argument with his wife. He'd wanted her to sign a covenant that she'd never reveal his secrets. The Putnams were shocked to hear this, as most Puritans would've been obligated to consider the covenant of marriage sufficient for such a promise. The Putnams also remarked that Burroughs was very "sharp" with his wife in their presence, though they observed that she "was a very good and dutiful wife to him." (Source)

    The girls at the center of the trial accused Burroughs of being a ringleader for the witches, the very man who forced women to sign the Devil's black book. They said that his two dead wives had appeared and testified that he'd killed them. 

    Clearly, village gossip had circulated throughout the private homes of Salem, sealing the minister's negative reputation with the town's women and, as it turned out, his fate. 

    The testimony of neighbors reinforced these accusations, and his reputation was further damaged by the appearance of two matrons from his new congregation in Maine, both describing Burroughs' unkindness to his second wife and his paranoia over her conversations with other women.

    Another man accused of witchcraft, Giles Corey, was "stoned." Yep, literally pressed to death by heavy stones. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the accused witches were women.

    Honestly, that the young girls who drove Salem's witchcraft hysteria could be taken at their word by adults, and especially by powerful members of the community, certainly empowered them with an influence seldom experienced by such young Puritans, let alone Puritan females. 

    In a telling encounter toward the end of 1692, as the hysteria subsided, some of the girls encountered an elderly woman resting on a bridge as they traveled through neighboring Ipswich. They began shouting "A witch!" and writhing around as though possessed. But when no one took notice, the girls got up and proceeded on their way, suggesting that Salem's witchcraft hysteria may have been, in part, a simple matter of adolescent attention-seeking.

    The End Results

    By September 1692, it became clear that accused witches who confessed to their possession would be spared their lives. After all, confessions were consistent with Puritan theology and court procedure.

    Those women who denied any guilt, even just initially, had manifested a sense of independence and a resistance to authority that demanded punishment. Sarah Good insisted upon her innocence all the way through to the day of her execution, when she warned her minister that "You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink." (Source)

    Such denials and refusals to confess flew in the face of a strictly hierarchical Puritan faith. They defied both the court and the notion of a woman's proper comportment. The accusations continued to spread, and as they did, the leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony became concerned.

    Finally, the governor intervened. Because his own wife was accused of witchcraft.

    The special court at Salem was disbanded and the remaining suspects were released. After a year of hysteria, more than 100 arrests, and 19 hangings (including a 71-year-old woman and several husbands of the convicted witches), the witch trials reached an end.

    This disturbing chapter in the region's history pointed to more than simply adolescent hormones run amok—most of the testimony ultimately came from adults—or underlying feuds among the families of the town.

    The fact that most of the accused were women, and that most of those women had somehow manifested an independence or insubordination deemed inappropriate and even potentially disruptive or dangerous, should provide one of the most telling explanations of all. It's also worthy of note that most of the accused were middle-aged, without sons or brothers. So, they stood to inherit property and to live as autonomous "spinsters," an existence that in and of itself, threatened to defy or unseat the carefully maintained and cherished patriarchal order of this 17-century society.

    Women's Work Is Never Done

    Women who lived on farms woke at 4:00AM and made breakfast for their families by 5:00AM or 5:30AM.

    They woke the children, fed the livestock, churned butter, prepared lunch, tended the garden, cleaned the house, herded and milked the cows, hoed the cabbage, prepared dinner, and got the children ready for bed.

    Phew. And that's just the beginning. Then they knitted linen and cotton, made candles and soap, combed, spun, bleached, and wove wool to make clothes, hemmed sheets, sewed quilts, mended, altered, and knit the family's clothing, washed the laundry, hauled water, and chopped wood. 

    They taught their daughters to sew and spin wool so that they in turn could knit stockings, dishcloths, caps, and mittens. They performed medical aid for injured livestock and for family injuries. Because of the high rate of childbirth, many women gave birth every other year for a decade or more. 

    Which means they performed most of these tasks while pregnant. Oof.

    As if this weren't enough, some women also labored outside the home in the 18th century. Most of the babies born in colonial North America were delivered by midwives, a profession that didn't decline until the advent of "male science," the forceps (a surgical instrument used in childbirth resembling tongs), and obstetrics during the late-18th and 19th centuries. 

    When a mother gave birth in 17th and 18th-century New England, she was surrounded by the women of the community. Midwifery manuals advised mothers to provide refreshments for these guests. The women provided valuable moral support, but they also gathered herbs from the garden and the field which they crushed and made into medicinal concoctions to help alleviate the mother's pain during childbirth.

    Which of course occurred without the modern accoutrements of the sterile hospital room, the educated physician, or any modern form of anesthetic.

    All in the Family

    During the 18th century, women also became the center of the family, as the father-dominated and disciplined unit gave way to a "modern" approach simultaneously popular in Europe, which stressed affection on the part of the parents, and encouraged self-expression in children. 

    Previously, whites had disparaged Native-American parents along the Atlantic coast for what was perceived as their lax approach to parenting. 

    Ironically, as time went on, whites adapted parenting techniques more reminiscent of the Indians' very permissiveness, even if both cultures remained fundamentally distinct from one another.

    And the white male patriarchy didn't disappear. Men still retained control over family finances and disciplinary forms varied from family to family. But the advent of the nuclear family, even in its earliest stages, was a significant outgrowth of this period.

    Opportunities and Liberties for Women

    In towns, women were shopkeepers and tavern hostesses, and could also work as printers, painters, doctors, teachers, silversmiths, shipwrights, and tanners. 

    In many but not all of these cases, the women were widows who carried on their deceased husbands' careers, so they enjoyed greater control over property than they did in Europe. Plus, the Puritan call for order and stability at home, led to legislation designed to discourage spousal abuse and grant women the ability to divorce. 

    But only in some cases. And usually as the town magistrates saw fit. Baby steps.

    Since the very earliest settlements, "godly" women had been enjoined to meditate, read, and write. A very small number of them published their writings, notably Anne Bradstreet, whose work The Tenth Muse was published in England in 1650 and in the colonies in 1678. Bradstreet's preface read:

    I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
    Who says my hand a needle better fits

    In other words, Bradstreet acknowledged her critics, who thought that she'd be better suited to sewing instead of writing. But the Puritan clergy, like Bradstreet's own brother-in-law John Woodbridge, proudly presented her work to the public, and her book was prefaced by commendations from six other men.

    But we can't get too ahead of ourselves. Still, long-standing notions of ultimate male superiority and female dependency and subordination were imported from Europe, and remained very much intact and prevalent throughout the colonies.

  • Economy

    Trade Triangle

    By the end of the 17th century, New England colonists had tapped into a sprawling Atlantic trade network that connected them to the English homeland as well as the West African slave coast, the Caribbean's plantation islands, and the Iberian Peninsula. Colonists relied upon British and European imports for glass, linens, hardware, machinery, navigational instruments, paint, and well, you get the gist.

    In contrast to the southern colonies, which could produce tobacco, rice, and indigo in exchange for imports, New England's colonies couldn't offer much to England beyond fish, furs, and naval stores. In spite of their shortcomings, the New Englanders built a thriving mercantile network and a lucrative shipbuilding system. After all, they needed fishing boats, and the regional economy quickly became dependent upon the sort of trade that only ships could produce at the time. 

    New Englanders began to profit mightily from trade with England, rather than simply supplying the mother country with cheap staples, as mercantilist doctrine demanded. In response, between 1698 and 1717, the English government imposed an unfavorable trade balance on New England and New York by raising duties against major colonial exports like fish (to protect English fisheries) and meat (to protect English agriculture). This meant that the colonies were forced to purchase more from England than they were able to sell back.

    The colonists dealt with this unfavorable situation by using their own ships to sell to other markets not subject to English taxation—the Azores, southern Europe, Madeira, and Newfoundland. But the New Englanders' most important trade, by far, occurred in the West Indies, where Americans sold bread, corn, flour, fish, beef, pork, horses, and bacon to the islands' planters, in part so that the planters could feed their slaves. 

    In return, the Caribbean planters gave the New Englanders molasses, sugar, rum, indigo, and dyewoods. The molasses trade was particularly crucial to the New England economy. It created a lucrative market for manufactured items from the region, since those Caribbean colonies owned by non-English powers were only allowed to sell the English molasses in return for the items they wanted to purchase.

    New England traders could also receive specie, a.k.a. money in coin form, from this trade with foreign Caribbean colonies. Currency inflation became a major issue in colonial politics during this period, as coins were always in short supply, and farmers and other colonial debtors demanded more paper money to raise prices and bring them more profit from selling their crops. Creditors, on the other hand, wanted to limit the amount of paper money in circulation, increasing the value of their capital.

  • Society

    The Forgotten Slavery

    By the mid-18th century, farming families in towns of several thousand people were spread across New England. They developed a mixed economy that provided a range of sources for both sustenance and profit. 

    A fishing industry grew along the Atlantic coast, which provided seafood to the local population and a source of trade with West Indian planters who needed a food source for their large slave plantations. The people of the region cleared local forests and used the timber to build ships, houses, barns, and barrels. The farming work was more difficult in this rocky northern region than in the richer soil of the South. 

    What truly distinguished the colonial American North from other regions—and from the rest of the Western world—was the widespread land ownership that produced a relatively equal society, with lower numbers of either extremely wealthy or extremely poor people. Most men could buy or inherit a farm of at least 50 acres, enough to support a family. 

    Now, we said relatively.

    The exception could be found with indentured servants, who sold years of their own unpaid labor in exchange for passage from Europe to America. But indentured servants were more numerous on the labor-intensive tobacco plantations of the Chesapeake than in New England. 

    Land ownership provided most New Englanders with a satisfying living, voting rights, and economic independence, encouraging the development of a new American ideology that promised abundant opportunity and the possibility of prosperity through hard work.

    Under Pressure

    A rapid population increase in the 18th century exerted pressure on land supply, while in the century after 1630, the white population of New England increased by a factor of at least 118, and the supply of land remained the same. 

    As families divided their lands among many children, farm sizes quickly shrank by two-thirds or more. In some places, farms that averaged 250 acres in the 1630s dwindled to less than 85 acres by the 1730s. And back when a superstore wasn't a hop, skip, and a jump away, at least 50 acres were required to sustain a family.

    Of course, smaller farm sizes made farming more difficult. Traditional practices of planting crops for three years, then letting land lie fallow for seven years, were no longer viable. Farmers could only afford to let land lie fallow—to increase soil fertility—for two years. Aggressive soil use reduced crop yields, and farmers were forced to take up livestock production as an alternate source of income. 

    Many migrated in search of available land, resettling on the frontier in Nova Scotia, Maine, New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, or in the Middle Atlantic region. Those who remained in densely settled areas also took up work as clockmakers, weavers, shoemakers, or carpenters during the agricultural off-season to supplement farm income.

    Home Sweet Home

    New Englanders lived in tight quarters, with entire families often cooking, eating, working, and sleeping together, in a single room. 

    Typical New England homes, known as "saltbox houses," had steep roofs to prevent the accumulation of snow in the winters, and they centered around a fireplace. If they had glass windows, the glass was usually imported from England. The interior walls were whitewashed or plastered, but the exterior boards were rarely touched until the 18th century, when a dark "Indian red" color became popular. At night, the homes were mostly dark inside, as the only sources of light available were oil lamps or candles. Both of those options were expensive for most families, so New Englanders tended to go to bed soon after sunset. 

    The life of the home was centered in the "hall," the main room on the ground floor where meals were cooked over the fireplace. Forks weren't introduced until the 18th century, so earlier families either used their hands or wooden spoons to eat their food. Dinner often consisted of corn, boiled meat, vegetables, and cornmeal or cornmeal mush, with cider, beer, rum, or milk. Wine was expensive for most families, and was usually reserved for special occasions. Colonists also enjoyed the Native American meal known as succotash: corn and kidney beans cooked in bear grease. Yum.

    When it wasn't being used as a kitchen and a dining room, you'd find ladies making clothes with the spinning wheel or the handloom, or churning butter and cheese. There were several subtle regional variations, even within New England. Families who lived in towns tended to trade and purchase food staples much more often, while those in more rural areas away from the bustling seaports cultivated the vast majority of their food themselves. In the north, women tended to do more gardening and field work than wool spinning.

    At night, the hall transformed into a bedroom. Husband and wife would sleep on a "jack bed" built into the corner—it only needed one post for support. The children slept in a trundle bed that was stored beneath the jack bed. Last but not least, the hall was also the bathroom. Family members brought in buckets from an outside well and bathed near the fire.

    To provide sufficient supplies for the long winters, most homes had cellars where food and other items could be stored. In the loft over the hall, older children sometimes slept on bedrolls. More affluent families could add "lean to" rooms onto the back of their houses, to provide for a separate kitchen and free up the hall to serve as an entertaining area—or parlor—for guests.

  • Religion

    Faith, Change, and Living for the Moment

    When Plymouth was absorbed into the new royal colony of Massachusetts in 1691, English government reforms boosted 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. 

    Without fail, 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. And change is tough. 

    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, because Puritans had argued that these were gained through thrift and hard work, and 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. 

    Of course, these concerns didn't evaporate overnight, and secularism didn't 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. But interpretations like these 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.

    Getting Riled Up and Awakened

    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. The 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. Today, we call it Princeton. Not too shabby. 

    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 went to the tavern 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."

    Edwards spoke in a solemn and calm tone, and didn't over-dramatize his message, but he still had to wait several minutes for the audience to quiet down after finishing before he could lead them in a hymn.

    People really got that spider metaphor, man. 

    New Guy in Town

    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' vivid depictions of a fire-and-brimstone deity, Whitefield's God was merciful. But don't get too excited. Because 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, these 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 undermatched and unsuccessful in their efforts to stem the tide of this 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 exception of unconverted Indians—were deeply affected for decades to come by this change in religious practice and philosophy. 

    Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other churches emerged from the schism in the Congregationalist church. Even Black slaves in the Chesapeake region were caught up in the revivals because they frequently came in 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. 

    So, many uneducated people without much standing or property—white and Black alike—were caught up in the movement. 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 participated 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.

  • Environment

    We Are an Invasive Species

    The rapid introduction of hundreds of thousands of European settlers, along with the plants and livestock they brought with them, led to an inevitable alteration of the physical landscape of the North American continent.

    Even before the colonists arrived, Native Americans along the Atlantic coast had hunted large numbers of wild animal species to extinction. This process only accelerated once Indians began to prize the rifles, metal and glass trinkets, and other items that the Europeans offered them in exchange for furs.

    Europeans brought pigs, sheep, horses, and cattle with them to the New World, and these animals multiplied rapidly in America. 

    In the process, they exhausted the supply of native grasses and shrubs that they grazed upon. The settlers also drained the ponds produced by native beavers in order to provide meadowland for their cows, destroying the areas that wild ducks had utilized as breeding grounds.

    Native animals prized for their furs, like bears, wolves, raccoons, and deer, were quickly hunted to near-extinction—and in some cases, to complete extinction—in settled areas. 

    White colonists utilized wood for so many purposes that the coastal forests were swiftly depleted. The forest area was further reduced because farm animals—who reproduced even faster than humans—required ever-larger grazing areas. The resulting loss of forest canopy resulted in hotter summers and colder winters, and in a windier region than had existed prior to settlement. Plus—er, uh minus—the cleared, grazed land was more susceptible to flooding. Erosion and drought resulted from the depleted watersheds and the more rapid snowmelt.

    With every alteration in landscape and introduction or decimation of a species, the physical landscape was transformed. And though they may not have realized it, whites and Indians alike were creating far-reaching environmental and ecological changes that would wield serious long-term consequences for the land, air, and sea upon which they and their descendants depended.

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