CHAPTER 11. THE SOFTENING OF PURITANISM:

PREREQUISITE FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF AN AMERICAN CULTURE

The previous chapters have established that the thirteen colonies were three distinct economic regions with associated differences in religion and politics, but that common experiences with slavery would eventually overcome the differences, at least in the cultural arena. If the colonists were going to become unified culturally, they needed some philosophy on which all could basically agree. A modified Puritanism (completely compatible with slavery and racism) provided the answer. The actual adoption of Puritanism was a gradual process that involved the modification of some of the more severe tenets of Puritanism. This chapter relates the story of this modification.

The Great Awakening prepared the way for the modification of Puritanism and the spread of common-man religions tailor-made for the white middle class. This helped unify the people in the thirteen colonies and ultimately made it possible for the triumph of a puritanical civil religion in the United States.

One factor working for greater unity among the colonies was the gradual economic development of America. A number of changes took place that helped create a more unified sense of a nation. For instance, growing trade led to a vast improvement in the roads. Inns along the roads greatly multiplied. Benjamin Franklin, as postmaster, 1753 to 1755, introduced shorter and better postal routes and lower rates, and regularized the practice of sending newspapers by mail. Yet unifying the colonies would require more than communication and transportation networks. To achieve cultural unity, a common cultural identity was necessary.

There were three main religious competitors, each largely regional: Puritanism in New England, Quakerism and other left wing faiths in the mid-Atlantic region, and Anglicanism in the South. But the Calvinist religions, including Puritanism, numerically dominated in the colonies by the year 1775 (Burns 1982). The religious breakdown was Congregationalists (32 percent), Anglicans (28 percent), Presbyterians (23 percent), German churches (11 percent), Dutch Reformed (4 percent), Baptists and Catholics (1 percent each), and Methodists and Jewish (each less than 1 percent).

None of these religions as they existed at the start of the eighteenth century could provide the basis for unity. Clearly the Quaker faith was too anarchic in a colonial world that cried out for unity. Anglicanism was too remote and aristocratic for a nonnobility society. Puritanism was the most likely source of unity. And yet this faith was narrowly identified with the increasing power of New England merchants and traders. If it was to become the basis for a national culture, it would have to be severely modified. This modification came with the Great Awakening.

The Great Awakening

In a society without a hereditary nobility, the common man yearned for more of a say. Colonists pushed for greater equality, and one means to achieve this was to latch on to religious ideas that were amenable to greater democracy. This happened in the Great Awakening, a religious upsurge that was the most significant and far-reaching development in American religion during the colonial period. It is no accident that this movement started in the North and in areas dominated by small-scale agriculture, such as parts of New Jersey and western Massachusetts, for the South was too dominated by its plutocracy.

In a society whose belief system derives to a great extent from a religious base, it is not unusual for societal conflicts to be expressed as religious conflicts. People will fight over different interpretations of religious ideas, yet these ideas are inseparably linked with disputes over economic, social, and/or political issues. Those involved in the disputes may appear very sincere about their religious beliefs, but when seemingly narrow disputes over religious doctrines turn into major societal warfare, one has to look at the larger economic, social, and political issues involved. Often those involved in the conflict either do not understand or do not want to express the conflict in terms of economic issues. They do not want to see their ideas as expressions of self-interest. Since many find economic ideas ignoble, the real issues become clothed in religious trappings.

This is what happened in the Great Awakening. One has to look beneath all the sound and fury of the dispute between those who wanted a more personal relationship with Christ and those who wanted the more traditional religious approach. With a closer look, we see the dispute occurred between the emerging merchant class, which was worldly, cosmopolitan, and liberal in religion, and those of the farming class, who felt themselves left out in the cold by the growing power of the traders and merchants. In colonial America the churches predominantly catered to the upper class. The common farmers felt untouched by this more formal religion.

The Great Awakening began in the Mid-Atlantic region in 1720. In that year the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland sent Theodore J. Frelinghuysen to New Jersey. In Holland, because of his left wing pietistic (i.e., an emotional religion) views, he was a member of a small isolated group within his church. Naturally he blossomed in the New World, which was hungry for religions more attuned to the interests of the common person.

Another voice of the new religious awakening was that of Gilbert Tennent, son of William Tennent, a Presbyterian minister who set up a school in his home to train sorely needed Presbyterian clergy. The school came to be known as the "Log College." After 1727, it was located in Tennent's parish of Neshaminy in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Gilbert Tennent became a minister and accepted a call from New Brunswick, New Jersey. Here he came to know Jacob Frelinghuysen, who lived nearby. Tennent, influenced by Frelinghuysen's pietism, converted to the more evangelical religion, and this in turn led to pietism's becoming an important force in the Presbyterian church.

Western Massachusetts was also home to the Great Awakening. This region was the largely unsettled western frontier of the state until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. When western Massachusetts did develop, it became a highly agricultural society, specializing in flax, lumber, and livestock production. This made it a much more conservative region than that of rich eastern Massachusetts, home of sophisticated merchants.

At this time, western Massachusetts was controlled by a sort of aristo-plutocracy, partly mercantile and partly landed. The "River Gods," including the Stoddards, the Woodbridges, the Dwights, and the Williamses, ruled the entire area west of the Connecticut River (see Smith 1946). And among these gods, one of the most powerful spokesmen was Solomon Stoddard. This famous minister, who his opponents referred to as Pope Stoddard because of his great influence over his congregation, started his career in Northampton.

In 1662 the Puritan Half-Way Covenant, proposed by the Puritan religious body known as the synod, said that persons not sufficiently advanced in grace could qualify for full membership in the church and could secure baptism for their children. Stoddard expanded on this idea allowing those not certain of their state of grace still to take communion and enjoy other privileges of full church membership. This version of faith, known as Stoddardeanism, was criticized by Boston's influential thinker Increase Mather. For a century the Stoddards were the most influential persons in western Massachusetts, and their view of church membership dominated Puritanism in that region.

But Solomon Stoddard's grandson, Jonathan Edwards, was a different sort of man. In 1729 Edwards replaced his grandfather as pastor of the congregation at Northampton. For twenty-five years he preached to this congregation. Nevertheless, it was his final rejection of Stoddardeanism that got him into trouble.

Theologically, Edwards represented a revival of original Puritanism, a revolt against the compromise of the Half-Way Covenant. He restored individual, emotional religious experience as the condition of church membership, in place of the now almost universal, purely formal qualification of "owning the covenant." He found considerable support among the common people as they increasingly asserted their independence from the plutocracy that had come to control the churches as well as the economy.

Edwards reached the height of his fame in 1740-1742. In 1740 he started what became a regional revival by a series of guest sermons, the first in Boston. In 1741 he delivered his famous sermon at Enfield. In addition to his sermons, Edwards's writings both defended and defined evangelical religion.

Another prominent preacher of the Great Awakening was the charismatic Methodist George Whitefield, who inspired many emotional reactions among his audiences. In fact, these effects were so prominent that Jonathan Edwards became greatly disturbed following a Whitefield tour. In Whitefield's wake the man from Northampton encountered screamings, faintings, convulsions, contortions, and trances. Consequently, he desisted from evangelical preaching for awhile. In 1741 Edwards wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, in which he helped extinguish the fire he started. With this step, he became hated by both sides -- by the wealthy, who saw him as a fomenter of trouble, and by the less fortunate, who saw him as a traitor.

Edwards came into conflict with his own congregation when he insisted on stricter standards for church membership -- for him it was not enough just for a person to say they believed and had not been openly scandalous. A special committee of ministers from the area convened to rule on the dispute and the decision went against Edwards. So in 1750, at the age of forty-eight, the famous preacher left Northampton.

The Great Awakening split the Congregationalists into "Old Lights" and "New Lights," the latter following the born-again religious theory. The Presbyterians also split, into "Old Sides" and "New Sides." An interesting sideline is that many of the born- again religious groups established colleges: Princeton (Presbyterian), Brown (Baptist), Rutgers (Dutch Reformed), and Dartmouth (Congregational).

Baptists

One of the immediate effects of the Great Awakening was the spread of the Baptist faith. This new faith arose from a group that broke from the Puritans. Since the group emphasized the importance of the adult conversion experience, they came to abandon the idea of infant baptism for adult baptism by immersion.

The story of the rise of the Baptists is a complicated one involving two important groups: the Particular and the General Baptists. The Particular Baptists trace their roots back to the England of 1616 when Henry Jacob broke from the Puritans. Their strength was especially strong in Wales, and from this region many Particular Baptists came to America. In 1663 they emigrated to Massachusetts.

The story of the General Baptists began with John Smyth, an Englishman who became a Separatist. He believed that since the Church of England was a false church, its baptisms were invalid. Only those who professed personal faith in Christ were the proper subjects of baptism. A group who disagreed with Smyth broke away and in 1612 established the first known Baptist church on English soil. Later many of these Baptists emigrated to Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina. Many followers of Roger Williams were Baptists of the General type.

In America the Baptist churches proved to be the greatest beneficiaries of the Great Awakening. When conversion came to be viewed as the decisive Christian experience, infant baptism was an anomalous embarrassment. Combining a stress on adult baptism with the Great Awakening's suspicion of established churches, the Baptists looked very attractive indeed. Many of the Separatist churches adopted Baptist beliefs. Baptism was also the beneficiary of the New Light Congregational churches. Within thirty years the number of Baptist churches in New England went from 24 to 78. And by 1804 the number had grown to 312. What was even more important from the perspective of national unity was the spread of the Baptist faith in the American South. In 1787 the two strains of Baptism united in Virginia in order to press for the disestablishment of Anglicanism and the establishment of complete religious liberty.

Quakers

The Quaker faith was also considerably weakened during the Great Awakening. In Pennsylvania new German and Scots-Irish immigrants largely settled on the frontier. These people soon found themselves subject to Indian attacks. Finding little sympathy for their precarious situation among the pacifist Quakers, they worked against this faith. Along with the support of such outstanding leaders as Benjamin Franklin, they gradually overthrew the power of the Quakers in Pennsylvania and greatly weakened the Quaker faith.

Nevertheless, the faith did have a profound impact in that it was an alternative that helped to soften the authoritarian tendencies in Puritanism. This is illustrated in the career of Benjamin Franklin, definitely a Boston Puritan, but one who became much more liberal in the freer atmosphere of Quaker Philadelphia. The Quaker faith also had a great impact on several important areas. Quakers were among the earliest supporters of science, philosophy, rationalism, and the Enlightenment in general. They were also on the forefront of many reform movements, including abolitionism and feminism.

Results of the Great Awakening

The Great Awakening made it possible for Puritanism to become the basis for the nation's moral code. The religious reformers of the 1740s helped purge Puritanism of its more anti-democratic tendencies, thereby making the religion more attractive to the white middle class. The Great Awakening was one sign of the growing interdependence of the colonies. The leaders of the revival were the first to plan their activities in explicitly intercolonial terms. Indeed, George Whitefield was probably the first "American" public figure to be known from New Hampshire to Georgia. His death on his seventh tour in 1770 was commented on by the entire colonial press.

In Massachusetts the Great Awakening also represented a weakening of the power of the Massachusetts trading class. But the most important consequence of the Great Awakening was that it weakened Puritanism by forever shattering the religious unity of New England. Moreover, the older Calvinist faiths lost many members to the Baptist and later to the Methodist religions.

The "democratizing of religion" gave a voice to the common man. Breaking the strength of Puritanism also helped increase interest in the separation of church and state. Ultimately, it paved the way for even more liberal influences in American religion. Now more rationalistic approaches to religion could be discussed. The Great Awakening, therefore, opened America to many of the ideas of the European Enlightenment.

The Great Awakening also created a basic rift in American religion between religions of the more fortunate (the nonevangelical religions of Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism) and religions of the less fortunate (evangelical religions of Baptism and Methodism). This distinction still exists, though it has become somewhat blurred.

 

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