Variety of Practices. With the disappearance of a Puritan orthodoxy at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Congregational churches began to follow a variety of practices that church fathers tried to homogenize into some sort of uniformity. They had little success in Massachusetts, where coastal merchants gravitated toward churches which followed a “broad and catholic path,” stressing a moral life over community piety and admitting to full church membership all who professed a Christian belief. Solomon Stoddard in western Massachusetts also abandoned church covenants, dispensed the Lord’s Supper to all as a means of conversion, and advocated a presbyterial organization to prevent doctrinal errors in local congregations. His sermons were more emotional, however, and were designed to effect individual conversions rather than to create a community consensus. Other congregations continued to uphold the old traditions and would not even accept the Half-Way Covenant that middle-of-the-road churches adopted. The clerical party in Connecticut enjoyed the support of the governor and in 1708 was able to enact into law the Saybrook Platform. This plan provided for a presbyterian-type structure with county consociations to enforce discipline and doctrine in the local churches, ministerial associations to supervise them and their ordination of ministers, and a general association of ministers to set standards and procedures and generally oversee all church affairs. Yet the colony still had to abide by English law and tolerate other religions. It grudgingly passed a Toleration Act that few communities actually followed.
Churches. In the coastal cities throughout New England the physical appearance of churches changed, reflecting the growing wealth and sophistication of the members. Structures became larger and more luxurious and even sported steeples. Balconies accommodated more worshipers; tall windows flooded the interior with light. Altars appeared in the front of the church, with an elaborate, winding staircase leading to a pulpit which was placed high above the heads of the worshipers.
Revivals. In spite of the appearance of order, formalism, and rationalism that seemed to counter the old Puritan way, the earlier piety and longing for conversions continued. News of the powerful preaching of Solomon Stoddard and his revivals passed by word of mouth. The stirring increased under the pastorship of Jonathan Edwards and motivated other ministers to strive for awakenings in their congregations. By 1737, when Edwards published his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God describing the 1735 revival in his parish, local awakenings were regular occurrences. However, it took the
appearance of George Whitefield in 1740 to fan these scattered fires into the general conflagration called the Great Awakening.
Francis J. Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards, revised edition (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1995);
James Jones, The Shattered Synthesis: New England Puritanism Before the Great Awakening (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973);
J. William T. Youngs Jr., God’s Messengers: Religious Leadership in Colonial New England, 1700–1750 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
"Congregationalists." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/congregationalists
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