Military history

CHAPTER 38

Celebrations of Empire, Expectations of the Millennium

OCTOBER 1759

PERHAPS PREDICTABLY, the reactions of civilians and government officials to the news of Québec’s fall were more ecstatic—because they were unmingled with the irritations and anxieties of military service—than those of the soldiers themselves. Everywhere local and province governments staged elaborate public ceremonies, while people in general demonstrated their joy in less structured ways. In Pennsylvania, where the war-driven market for agricultural produce was helping to counter the memory of a devastated frontier, Philadelphians—except for Quakers, who refused to observe holidays set aside to recognize military victories—celebrated by illuminating their windows and building so many bonfires that they were said to dim the moon. In New York, where merchants and artisans were feasting on military contracts, an evening celebration “was ushered in with a large Bonfire and Illuminations,” continued with “an elegant Entertainment” for “all the principal Persons of the Place,” and concluded with “every . . . Toast that Loyalty and Gratitude could dictate . . . ; each being accompanied with the Discharge of a Round of Cannon, amounting in the Whole to above a Hundred.”1

Boston observed the occasion with an intensity suited to the colony most enthusiastically engaged in the war. “The Morning [of October 16] was ushered in by the ringing of the Bells of the Town, which continued the whole Day”; an “excellent sermon was preached” to the governor, both houses of the legislature, and “a vast Auditory”; militia units performed “Rejoicing Fires,” and all the artillery pieces of the town and the ships in the harbor joined in a massive salute. That evening there was a “Concert of Musick” at the Concert Hall and then a procession to Faneuil Hall, where Thomas Pownall threw a formal dinner for the legislators, “a great Number of Civil and Military Officers, and other Persons of Distinction.” Into the shank of the night the governor and guests toasted their monarch and his generals before reeling outdoors to observe the “beautifuly illuminated” windows of the town, the “large Bonfires formed in a pyramidical Manner . . . on several Eminences” around about, and the “Abundance of extraordinary Fire-Works [that] were play’d off in almost every Street; more especially the greatest Quantity of Sky-Rockets ever seen on any Occasion.” 2

Indeed, New Englanders everywhere joined in “great Rejoicings.” Yet as one would expect of this region where people remained eager to discern providential meanings in events, when the smoke finally cleared, sermons had probably outnumbered bonfires; and the preachers, both Old Light and New, had achieved virtual unanimity in their interpretation of the fall of Québec. Since the end of the seventeenth century, they agreed, God had chastised his people with defeat and discouragements in order to make them mindful of their sins and to bring them back to the paths of righteousness. Through the previous three wars and the first years of the present one, the enemy “gain’d ground, fortified and secur’d every pass into their own country, grew more and more animated,” the Reverend Samuel Langdon told his New Hampshire auditory. “But when God had thus prov’d and humbled and convinc’d us that the race is not to the swift . . . His Providence bro’t about a change” of truly miraculous nature. 3

This pattern recapitulated the ways in which the Lord had always dealt with his chosen ones. He had sent afflictions on the people of Israel in exactly the same way he had recently sent them on New England, and for exactly the same purpose: to call forth moral regeneration, humility, renewal of faith. The return of divine favor, unmistakable in such a great military event as the taking of Québec, spoke directly to the hearts of a people conscious of their special relationship with the Almighty. “I know not how to express the importance of that success and yet I feel it,” the Reverend Samuel Cooper told Governor Pownall and the members of the General Court in his thanksgiving sermon on October 16. “We have received a Salvation from Heaven, greater perhaps than any since the Foundation of the Country.”4

As he had in Israel of old, God had found within New England a saving remnant of saints whose righteousness he imputed to the whole of the English nation—and for that matter to all the Protestants fighting to destroy the popish powers. The Catholic and heathen enemies of God’s people, once so mighty, had been brought low not merely by the exertions of the British and American soldiers but by God’s own doing. No case in all of salvation history had made clearer God’s willingness to fight his people’s battles than the encounter on the Plains of Abraham, where every circumstance manifested divine intervention. Many preachers found even more in the events of 1759 than a reconfirmation of God’s mercy to his people, for the cumulative impact of so many victories suggested that God was preparing to drive the minions of Antichrist out of America altogether, as the opening stroke of the millennium.5

As often happens in times of war and cultural stress, apocalyptic meanings were plain to those who, like the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew of Boston, saw parallels between the prophecies in the Book of Revelation and current events. Mayhew encouraged his audience to look forward to the day when the defeat of the Whore of Babylon (France) would lead the peoples of Spain and Portugal to reject Catholicism and join in a great Protestant revival; to the day when the Indians, delivered from the delusions of popery and priest-craft, might accept the true religion and adopt peaceful ways; to the day indeed when North America would be home to “a mighty empire (I do not mean an independent one) in numbers little inferior to the greatest in Europe, and in felicity to none.” Fairly transported by a vision of peace and harmony, Mayhew invited his auditors to imagine with him the glories of that millennial America:

Methinks I see mighty cities rising on every hill, and by the side of every commodious port; mighty fleets alternately sailing out and returning, laden with the produce of this, and every other country under heaven; happy fields and villages wherever I turn my eyes, thro’ a vastly extended territory; there the pastures cloathed with flocks, and here the vallies cover’d with corn, while the little hills rejoice on every side! And do I not there behold the savage nations, no longer our enemies, bowing the knee to Jesus Christ, and with joy confessing him to be “Lord, to the glory of God the Father!” Methinks I see religion professed and practiced in this spacious kingdom, in far greater purity and perfection, than since the times of the apostles; the Lord being still as a wall of fire round about, and the glory in the midst of her! O happy country! happy kingdom!6

Even preachers less willing to speculate into God’s plans for the future believed that something momentous was coming to pass. Wolfe’s victory and sacrificial death, crowning so many recent Anglo-American triumphs, had confirmed the special place of the Protestant British—and particularly the saving remnant of New Englanders within the empire— within the Lord’s design. With such evidence of divine favor spread on every hand, who could doubt the reality of God’s covenant? And who could doubt that it was New England’s duty to hold fast until God gave them the final victory?7

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