Virginia and New England Before 1680, there was little public religious life in the colonies except for that supported by the colonial governments. New England and Virginia recognized only the Congregational Churches and the Church of England, respectively, and these churches received tax money to support their ministers and ministry. Ministers functioned as spiritual leaders, teachers, and counselors. Between 1680 and 1770, however, religious diversity upended these two established colonial churches. As the cultivation of tobacco expanded in Virginia, so did the landowners’ prosperity and their appetite for land. The ambition for wealth conflicted with regular church attendance, and Virginians struggled with the importance of religion in their society; ministers had little support from the prosperous squires. In 1680, more than half of the thirty-five parishes in Virginia had no minister, and many had no church building. It took a concentrated effort under the leadership of James Blair, agent of the Anglican bishop in London, to renew the Anglican Church. In the 1690s, Blair led a campaign of church building, new taxes, and laws outlining church administration, which lasted well into the 1720s. Two issues troubled the Anglican Church about Virginia: the clergy’s independence from the squires, who made up the majority of the vestry and controlled the clergy’s salaries, and the proposal to appoint an American bishop who would govern the Anglican churches and ordain ministers.
This salary issue, called the Parson’s Cause, peaked in the 1740s. Ministers were often immigrants without local support and so had to ingratiate themselves to powerful persons. At the same time, without tenure and a guaranteed salary, they could not be independent of the landowners. In 1749, the Virginia legislature approved an act that guaranteed ministers tenure from the time they arrived in the parish. The ministers accepted this law as their charter of independence and aggressively defended it. The possibility of a colonial bishop appointed by the London Anglican bishop lingered until the eve of the Revolution. By this time, clergy and squires alike feared a curtailment of their liberties by a British bishop. The Anglican Church had been struggling with dissenters, principally the Baptists, and there was a call to renewal among the Anglican churches to begin with the local parishes and their program of worship. In Virginia, one had to attend church at least once every fourth Sunday. In many areas, however, parishioners did not have the opportunity to attend services overseen by an ordained clergyman every week, because of the scarcity of ministers. The population was scattered across large plantations instead of being largely concentrated in towns and cities, and so ministers often had to travel a circuit of 60 to 100 miles or more, sometimes over rivers and through swamps. These challenges took their toll on a minister’s health, morale, and effectiveness.
When the minister was present, he presided over a worship service structured according to the Book of Common Prayer. Ordinarily, the minister preached a sermon based on the biblical texts for the day and remained available for visiting with the parishioners after the service. Relying on the stretched resources of these itinerant ministers, the parish sometimes appeared more symbolic than central to life in Virginia. In New England, the Great Migration of the 1630s and 1640s attracted more than 20,000 newcomers to the area. The Great Migration was more than just a movement of people across the Atlantic Ocean; this well-planned immigration had a religious dimension to it. The Puritans saw themselves as leaving behind a corrupt, vicious, and dying Old World, to build God’s “city upon a hill” in the New World. These people had committed to a new society based on biblical teachings, and they felt obliged to become a model for others. John Winthrop, a stockholder in the Massachusetts Bay Company and its designated leader, preached a sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” on board the Arabella. He exhorted the Puritans to observe the covenant, a mutual agreement between them and God. It was believed that if the people were obedient and faithful, they would be favored by God, but if they disobeyed the covenant, they would experience a calamity. The Puritans believed that every event had a cause and that any tragic event, such as drought, a town fire, illness, or pestilence, was the result of breaking the covenant.
Ministers interpreted these experiences through scripture and demanded strict obedience to the covenant. The Puritans chose John Calvin, the Reformation theologian, as the source of their theology. Calvin emphasized the sovereignty of God, the belief that no event happens except by the will of God, as well as the doctrine of predestination. Predestination taught that God had chosen a selected group of people, who would receive forgiveness of their sins and upon death would enter heaven. Those who were baptized and who searched for forgiveness had to adopt a life of piety, examine the biblical teachings and apply them to their lives, and attend church with the hope that one day they would feel confident of their election. With this confidence in their election, then they would publicly “claim” their conversion before the congregation. These converts then became “saints” with the right to vote on church and public issues. Such practices led to an emphasis upon seeking new knowledge of the scriptures and following the guidance of the minister. Ministers had a heavy responsibility to study the Bible and its commentaries in order to teach and lead the people to an assurance of conversion. Puritans expected their ministers to be educated and able to interpret the Bible, and they opened Harvard University in 1636 with this aim. Later, some Puritans felt that Harvard had strayed from orthodoxy, and so they established Yale College in 1701.
Attendance at church was mandatory, and an absentee could be fined. Puritan meetinghouses were plain no padded pews or religious icons, nothing to distract the worshiper from concentrating on the Word of God. The church represented the nucleus of Puritan life positioned in the center of town. The typical worship service included prayers, readings from the Bible, communion, and a sermon that followed a strict logical pattern: text, explanation, and then application. Puritans appreciated a good, lively, thought-provoking sermon. As the spiritual leader of the community, ministers used several types of sermons Sunday sermons (which could be up to two hours in length), Thursday sermons, election-day sermons, fast-day sermons, and special-occasion sermons and they also conducted weekly catechism classes for the youth. Thursday sermons often were teaching sessions on some topic of interest to ministers and adult churchgoers, such as prophetic texts in Daniel and Revelation. These sermons provided an opportunity for the congregation and other ministers to hear sermons on difficult topics. In New England, the average weekly churchgoer could hear approximately 7,000 sermons in his or her lifetime, which totaled 15,000 hours of concentrated attention to the Word. The Puritan communities had no competing public voices of a different viewpoint; the sermon was the only regular voice of authority.
By 1660, New England ministers had begun to notice a decline in church attendance and were concerned that the Congregational churches might lose influence in their communities. Factors that influenced this decline included increasing commercial activities, population growth that increased the numbers of non-Puritans, and the movement westward for land by the second and third generations, which allowed them independence from their parents. Many Puritan congregations watched the children of older members ignore the churches or reject them outright. The ministers began to preach “jeremiads,” sermons of complaint and remorse for the “falling away” from biblical teachings, emphasizing the need to repent and reclaim the covenant. Because of the paucity of new members, some ministers established the Half-way Covenant. This allowed children of baptized members to be baptized with the expectation that these children would eventually claim their own conversion and become full members of the church. Until then, these unconverted children could not participate in communion or vote on church matters, privileges granted only to the converted “saints.” Not all Puritans accepted the Half-way Covenant because they thought it compromised the experience of conversion; however, Solomon Stoddard, pastor of the Northampton church, effectively used the Halfway Covenant to gain new more members. Stoddard allowed anyone of good character to take communion and assumed that such participation would aid in the quest for conversion. After Stoddard’s death in 1729, his grandson Jonathan Edwards, a theologian and philosopher, became pastor of the Northampton church.