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The years between 1734 and 1750 were an exciting yet scary time to be alive.  New advances were being made in science and medicine. New concepts in philosophy based on reason were spreading through the Western world.  Secular thought was beginning to gain currency among the wealthy and well-educated. The field of economics was in its infancy.  Trade was becoming more sophisticated. The English-speaking world was on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Rural families were beginning to move to the cities to broaden their horizons.  Families were put under strain.  Public drunkenness proved problematic, especially in London, where gin was known as ‘mother’s ruin’. (At left is William Hogarth’s Gin Lane.  Note the woman whose infant is about to fall into the Thames, no doubt after she had visited the pawn shop, denoted by the three balls at the top of the engraving, no doubt to buy more gin.)  Private debauchery and gambling were popular pastimes among those young men who could afford it and young women who abandoned virtue.  Attire was becoming increasingly elegant and elaborately tailored.

Needless to say, some of these events had their downside and it is likely that apprehension in wider society caused the First Great Awakening in Britain and America.  America was a bit more separate from these than Britain, particularly England.  During the Georgian period, especially around London, personal morality and family breakup were great concerns.  Not only that, but would secular thought replace theological reflection? Before I profile the Revd George Whitfield who was another principal clergyman in this period, let’s look at an historical timeline.  Please note this is not comprehensive:

1703 Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley born

1707 Act of Union unites England and Scotland under name Great Britain

1707 Isaac Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs alters course of English hymnody

1709 First mass emigration of Germans to America (Pennsylvania)

1709 Piano invented

1709 Tatler, a publication widely read today in Britain, began circulating in the London coffeehouses

1711 Steele and Addison publish The Spectator, gentleman’s newspaper with commentary on news, literature, and art — also read in coffeehouses of the day and still published today

1712 Last execution for witchcraft in England

1712 Newcomen steam pump, new aid to coal mining

1717 Inoculation against smallpox introduced into England by Lady Mary Wortley Montague

1719 Protestant dissenters tolerated in Ireland

1719 Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

1721 Czar Peter the Great of Russia subordinates church to state, replaces Patriarch with Holy Synod

1721 Robert Walpole is Britain’s first Prime Minister (to 1742)

1722 Herrnhut founded as Moravian settlement in Saxony by Count von Zinzendorf

1726 Gilbert Tennent leads revival in New Jersey

1726 Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

1727 Death of Isaac Newton, whose work Edwards admired

1727 George II King of England (to 1760)

1729 North and South Carolina created as crown colonies

1731 Expulsion of Protestants from Salzburg, Austria. Many emigrate to America

1732 Birth of George Washington

1732 Georgia established as colony under James Oglethorpe

1732 First edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack published by Benjamin Franklin

1733 John Kay invents flying shuttle used in textile mills

1735 Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae, outlining his system of taxonomy of plants

1738 John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, leading to the Methodist Revival

1740 Frederick the Great reigns as King of Prussia (to 1786)

1740 Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, sometimes regarded as first modern English novel

1741 American Presbyterians split over issue of revivalism

1742 First performance of Handel’s Messiah

1744 First Methodist General Conference

1747 Samuel Johnson begins publication of his Dictionary of the English Language

1748 Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws

1749 Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones

1755 David Hume’s Natural History of Religion, denying supernaturalism in religion

1755 Lisbon earthquake kills 30,000 people

1756 Birth of Mozart

1759 Quebec falls to the British

1759 Voltaire’s Candide

Some of the books popular in England and the rest of Europe ridiculed Christianity, yet had a grain of truth.  Tom Jones featured English life much as it is today, 250 years on.  I have read Richardson’s Pamela in its entirety (nearly 1 million words long) and saw the BBC screen adaptation almost 20 years ago.  It is truly a morality tale for our times — a warning to young women.  Candide‘s catchphrase is Dr Pangloss’s ‘The best of all things in all possible worlds’ — something a preacher might say every time something goes wrong. Meanwhile, the Lisbon earthquake was seen as a message from God to repent.  What was a person to think?  Truly, these were, simultaneously, troubling and exhilirating times. 

Tomorrow: George Whitfield crosses the Atlantic

For more reading, see:

Jonathan Edwards’ World: Christian History TimelineChristian History

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