Modern history

Religious Strife and Social Upheavals



In the 1730s Gilbert Tennent, a leading preacher in the American colonies, outraged more traditional ministers with his evangelical zeal. The son of a Scots-Irish clergyman, Gilbert Tennent was born in Vinecash, Ireland, in 1703 and at age fifteen moved with his family to Philadelphia. After receiving an M.A. from Yale College in 1725, Gilbert was ordained a Presbyterian minister in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with little indication of the role he would play in a major denominational schism.

Tennent entered the ministry at a critical moment, when leaders of a number of denominations had become convinced that the colonies were descending into spiritual apathy. Tennent dedicated himself to sparking a rebirth of Christian commitment, and by the mid-1730s the pastor had gained fame as a revival preacher. At the end of the decade, he journeyed through the middle colonies with Englishman George Whitefield, an Anglican preacher known for igniting powerful revivals. Then in the fall of 1740, following the death of his wife, Tennent launched his own evangelical "awakenings."

Revivals inspired thousands of religious conversions across denominations, but they also fueled conflicts within established churches. Presbyterians in Britain and America disagreed about whether only those who had had a powerful, personal conversion experience were qualified to be ministers. Tennent made his opinion clear by denouncing unconverted ministers in his sermons, a position that led to his expulsion from the Presbyterian Church in 1741. But many local churches sought converted preachers, and four years later a group of ejected pastors formed a rival synod that trained its own evangelical ministers. During these upheavals, Tennent married a widow with children and became pastor of the New Building of Philadelphia, a church founded by Whitefield supporters. But he proved too moderate for many of the more enthusiastic congregants, who left to join the Baptist Church.

While ministers debated the proper means of saving sinners, ordinary women and men searched their souls. In Pomfret, Connecticut, Sarah Grosvenor certainly feared for hers in the summer of 1742 when the unmarried nineteen-year-old realized she was pregnant. Her situation was complicated by her status in the community. She was the daughter of Leicester Grosvenor, an important local landowner and town official, and Sarah's family regularly attended Pomfret's Congregational church.

The pew next to Sarah and her family was occupied by Nathaniel Sessions and his sons, including the twenty-six-year-old Amasa, who had impregnated Sarah. Many other young women became pregnant out of wedlock in the 1740s, but families accepted the fact as long as the couple married before the child was born. In Sarah's case, however, Amasa refused to marry her and suggested instead that she have an abortion.

For centuries, women had sought to end unwanted pregnancies by using herbal potions. Although Sarah was reluctant to follow this path, Amasa insisted. When the herbs failed to induce a miscarriage, he introduced Sarah to John Hallowell, a doctor who claimed he could remove the fetus with forceps, a recently developed instrument to aid in delivery. After admitting her agonizing situation to her older sister Zerviah and her cousin Hannah, Sarah allowed Hallowell to proceed. He finally induced a miscarriage, but Sarah soon grew feverish, suffered convulsions, and died ten days later.

Apparently Sarah's and Amasa's parents were unaware of the events leading to her demise. Then in 1745, a powerful religious revival swept through the region, and Zerviah and Hannah suffered great spiritual anguish. We are not sure whether they finally confessed their part in the affair, but that year officials finally brought charges against Sessions and Hallowell for Sarah's death. At the resulting trial, Zerviah and Hannah testified about their roles and those of Sessions and Hallowell. Still, their spiritual anguish did not lead to earthly justice. Hallowell was found guilty but escaped punishment by fleeing to Rhode Island. Sessions was acquitted and remained in Pomfret, where he married and became a prosperous farmer.

The New Dutch Reformed Church, New York City, 1731. Private Collection Peter Newark American pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of Gilbert Tennent and Sarah Grosvenor were shaped by powerful religious forces—later called the Great Awakening—that swept through the colonies in the early eighteenth century. Those forces are best understood in the context of larger economic and political changes. Many young people became more independent of their parents and developed tighter bonds with siblings, cousins, and neighbors their own age. Towns and cities developed clearer hierarchies by class and status, which could protect wealthier individuals from being punished for their misdeeds. A double standard of sexual behavior became more entrenched as well, with women subject to greater scrutiny than men for their sexual behavior. Of course, most young women did not meet the fate of Sarah Grosvenor. Still, pastors like Gilbert Tennent feared precisely such consequences if the colonies—growing ever larger and more diverse—did not reclaim their religious foundations.

An Ungodly Society?

The upheavals that marked the lives of Gilbert Tennent and Sarah Grosvenor were shaped in part by economic and political changes that began several decades earlier. As American colonists became more engaged in international and domestic commerce, spiritual commitments appeared to wane. In New England, Congregational ministers condemned the apparent triumph of worldly ambition over religiosity. Nonetheless, some ministers saw economic success as a reward for godly behavior even as they worried that wealth and power opened the door to sin. In the late seventeenth century, these anxieties deepened when accusations of witchcraft erupted across southern New England.

The Rise of Religious Anxieties

In 1686 the Puritan minister Samuel Sewell railed against the behavior of Boston mercantile elites, many of whom spent more time at the counting house than the house of worship. Citing examples of their depravity in his diary, including drunkenness and cursing, he claimed that such “high-handed wickedness has hardly been heard of before.” Sewell was outraged as well by popular practices such as donning powdered wigs in place of God-given hair, wearing scarlet and gold jackets rather than simple black cloth, and offering toasts rather than prayers.

While Sewell spoke for many Puritans concerned with the consequences of commercial success, other religious leaders tried to meld old and new. The Reverend Cotton Mather bemoaned the declining number of colonists who participated in public fast days and their greater interest in the latest fashions than in the state of their souls. Yet he was attracted by the luxuries available to colonists and hoped to make his son “a more finished Gentleman.” Mather was also fascinated by new scientific endeavors and supported inoculations for smallpox, which others viewed as challenging God’s power.

Certainly news of the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) offered Puritans hope of regaining their customary authority (see chapter 3). But the outbreak of King William’s War in 1689 quickly ended any notion of an easy return to peace and prosperity. Instead, continued conflicts and renewed fears of Indian attacks on rural settlements heightened the sense that Satan was at work in the region. Soon, accusations of witchcraft joined outcries against other forms of ungodly behavior.

Cries of Witchcraft

Belief in witchcraft had been widespread in Europe and England for centuries. It was part of a general belief in supernatural causes for events that could not otherwise be explained—severe storms, a suspicious fire, a rash of deaths among livestock. God sent signs through nature, but so, too, did Satan. Thus people searched babies for deformities, scheduled important events using astrological charts, and feared eclipses of the sun. When a community began to suspect witchcraft, they often pointed to individuals who challenged cultural norms. Women who were quarrelsome, eccentric, or poor were especially easy to imagine as cavorting with evil spirits and invisible demons.

Witchcraft accusations tended to be most common in times of change and uncertainty. Over the course of the seventeenth century, colonists had begun to spread into new areas seeking more land and greater economic opportunities. But expansion brought with it confrontations with Indians, exposure to new dangers, and greater vulnerability to a harsh and unforgiving environment. As the stress of expansion mounted, witchcraft accusations emerged. Some 160 individuals, mostly women, were accused ofwitchcraft in Massachusetts and Connecticut between 1647 and 1692, although only 15 were put to death. They were linked to ruined crops, sickened neighbors, and the death of cattle. Many of the accused were poor, childless, or disgruntled women, but widows who inherited property also came under suspicion, especially if they fought for control against male relatives and neighbors.

The social and economic complexities of witchcraft accusations are well illustrated by the most famous of American witch-hunts, the Salem witch trials of the early 1690s. In 1692 Salem confronted conflicts between long-settled farmers and newer mercantile families, political uncertainties following the Glorious Revolution, ongoing fear of threats from Indians, and local quarrels over the choice of a new minister. These tensions were brought to a head when the Reverend Samuel Parris’s daughter and niece learned voodoo lore and exotic dances from the household’s West Indian slave, Tituba. The daughters and servants of neighboring families also became entranced by Tituba’s tales and began to tell fortunes, speak in gibberish, and contort their bodies into painful positions. When the girls were questioned about their strange behavior, they pointed not only to Tituba but also to other people in the community. They first accused an elderly female pauper and a homeless widow of bewitching them, but soon they singled out respectable churchwomen as well as a minister, a wealthy merchant, and a four-year-old child.

Within weeks, more than one hundred individuals, 80 percent of them women, stood accused of witchcraft. When the new governor, William Phips, took office in May 1692, he set up a special court to handle the cases and appointed eight Puritan leaders, including Samuel Sewell, to preside. Twenty-seven of the accused came to trial, and twenty were found guilty based on testimony from the girls and on spectral evidence—whereby the girls were seen writhing, shaking, and crying out in pain when they came in contact with invisible spirits sent by the accused. Nineteen people were hanged, and one was pressed to death with stones.

But when accusations reached into prominent Salem and Boston families, Governor Phips stepped in. He ended the proceedings and released the remaining suspects. In the following months, leading ministers and colonial officials condemned the use of spectral evidence, and some of the young accusers recanted their testimony. Witch-hunts in North America were small affairs compared to those in Europe, rarely occurred outside New England, and died out by 1700. Yet for those caught up in the trials, the consequences were severe.

The Salem trials illuminate far more than beliefs in witchcraft, however. The trials pitted the daughters and servants of prosperous farmers against the wives and widows of recently arrived merchants. The accusers included young women like nineteen-year-old Mercy Lewis, who was bound out as a servant when her parents were killed by Indians. Fear of attack from hostile Indians, hostile officials in England, or hostile neighbors fostered anxieties in Salem, as it did in many colonial communities. Other anxieties also haunted the accusers. A shortage of land led many New England men to seek their fortune farther west, leaving young women with few eligible bachelors to choose from. Marriage prospects were affected as well by battles over inheritance. Thomas Putnam Jr., who housed three of the accusers, was in the midst of one such battle, which left his three sisters—the accusers’ aunts—in limbo as they awaited legacies that could enhance their marriage prospects. As young women in Salem forged tight bonds in the face of such uncertainties, they turned their anger not against men, but instead against older women, including respectable “goodwives” like Abigail Faulkner.


• What factors led to a rise in tensions within colonial communities in the early 1700s?

• How did social, economic, and political tensions contribute to an increase in accusations of witchcraft?

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