Religious Passion in the North, Religious Apathy in the South, and Witchcraft

A major theme of this week’s reading is the spread of religious fervor in the New England and Mid-Atlantic areas throughout the 18th century and its impact on colonial life. Although previous religious movements had taken place all over the world, the one in the British Colonies is unique. Rather than spreading across the entire east coast, the Awakening was confined to areas where places of worship and people were closer together and overall, more likely to interact. While the Northern people were captivated by the speeches of George Whitefield and the pamphlets and papers distributed by people like Benjamin Franklin, Southern people were noticeably less moved. Communities in the South were much more spread out, which made spreading the religious movement throughout the region an extremely difficult task. This movement was also original because it involved people forming many different strands of a religious belief. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists each separated from Protestantism yet all of them remained connected because they all had branched off of Catholicism. Rather than the groups becoming homogenized with each other they became homogenized against the British homeland, which is what makes the Great Awakening so revolutionary.
Taylor depicts the Great Awakening’s appeal to Northern people most effectively through primary sources. Benjamin Franklin’s refusal to donate money followed by his sudden willingness to empty his pockets (348) along with Nathan Cole’s recollection of a “heart wound” (349) were both extremely helpful in demonstrating the power that orators held over colonists who were both educated and uneducated. Massachusetts Reverend Peter Thacher’s account of the newfound appreciation and involvement in religion by males also strengthens Taylor’s argument of a formidable religious presence in the North and religious indifference in the South. Although succinctly, Taylor does an exceptional job explaining why speakers like Whitefield did not experience the level of success in the South as he did in the North.
In conclusion, I would like to comment on the ongoing debate over whether or not the Great Awakening in colonial New England and the witch hunts of the late 17th century have a cause-and-effect relationship. As my classmate Amgaither pointed out, the New England area was composed of more educated, community oriented, and religiously active people. These factors primed the area for such momentous religious occurrences in both cases but one did not cause the other.

Shocking Similarities and Awakening

After nearly a century on the continent, European colonists in America had gradually become more proficient in maintaining settlements in the New World and were well on their way to establishing their own nation independent of European influence. Before this could happen, the Salem Witch Trials and The Great Awakening took place, radically altering the religious and supernatural mindset of the inhabitants of the Americans before the Revolution.

In Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, he described the process of this religious revival best when he wrote “after significant lags and regional exceptions, we find a dramatic, widespread, and increasingly synchronized outburst of revival religion.” (Taylor, 339). In a sense, this rebirth of religious devotion in the 1700s has set the tone for the relatively conservative and widespread religious devotion that still exists strongly in the Unites States today.

I found it interesting how the readings were divided between Taylor’s description of The Great Awakening and the four external essays concerning the Salem Witch Trials. Much like EVFRASER, WIROBERTSON, ROMANGONE, CHMASONE and SHCALLAWAY, I too believe that the two events were absolutely interrelated. For better or for worse, religion (particularly Christianity) overtime has used scare tactics as a means of gaining support (e.g. the fear of going to Hell, natural superiority). I believe the Salem Witch Trials and the fear of being persecuted in such a harsh manner was an extension of this scare tactic in an attempt to homogenize society. In her essay “Confess or Deny? What’s a “Witch” to Do?” Elizabeth Reis writes “ministers made it perfectly clear that intimacy with Satan ended one’s chance attaining saving grace and damned one to enter an eternity in hell.” Ministers could easily take advantage of this fear in their sermon. They could use it to not only add members to their church, but to strengthen the congregation’s devotion. By persecuting supposed witches for their supposed worship of Satan and other occult practices, churches in the Americas made it clear how they viewed those with different spiritual views, and how through their preaching they are simply trying to save them.

Finally, I found Taylor’s section on George Whitefield especially interesting. His description of him “drawing immense crowds too large for churches” (Taylor, 347) and as a “charismatic and moving speaker” (Taylor, 347) who would move across America delivering his sermon would be just as accurate in describing a notable 21st century Evangelical preacher today as it was back then. Whitefield in a sense almost set the archetype for modern-day “megapreachers” (as we call them in Canada) all the way down to their association with political figures (in Whitefield’s case it was Benjamin Franklin) and strong concern with their public image.