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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: November 2007

3 - The New England background

from Part I - Edwards’s life and context


The religious culture of early eighteenth-century New England was recognizably “Puritan ” in important respects despite changes in social and political life that resulted in toleration of the once-despised Baptists, Anglicans, and Quakers and a sharp curtailing of the ministers' influence in political affairs. Both were consequences of the colonists' “adjustment to empire. ” Yet the signs of continuity were many. The Platform of Discipline of 1648, familiarly known in New England as the Cambridge Platform, remained a persuasive description of the “Congregational Way ” that had been inaugurated in the 1630s. In their everyday preaching, the clergy reiterated the distinction, so important to the generation of John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, and Thomas Shepard, between “vital ” or “experimental ” religion and religion that was merely external, or a matter of “formality. ” Simultaneously, the ministers were voicing another Puritan commonplace: the obligation of everyone in a Christian society to practice certain moral duties. No less conventional were complaints that young people were flouting these duties and that civil magistrates were inconsistent in punishing the disorderly. Even so, New England seemed to some contemporaries a society in which social life was penetrated by the work of “reformation ” that had meant so much to the Puritan movement. Meanwhile, congregations and ministers were deeply involved with the rituals of fasts and thanksgivings that evoked long-persisting assumptions about a covenanted people's obligations to observe God's will.