The Puritan obsession with children and youth was not, however, limited to concern about sin. It also expressed fear for the survival of the Puritan faith. With the first generation of New Englanders, with the rapid decline in conversions relative to population growth, how could the younger generation be nurtured in the faith that had motivated their parents? … To perpetuate their religion, the Puritans instituted mechanisms for indoctrinating youths, including youth-specific catechisms, covenant-renewal ceremonies in churches and homes, private religious societies, catechetical exercises, lectures, and covenant renewals, in which groups of youths were assembled on the Sabbath to renew their parents’ covenants.
No earlier people had ever invested greater responsibilities or higher expectations in their children than did the New England Puritans, but this heavy investment produced intense anxiety. The survival and success of the Puritan enterprise hinged on the willingness of the ‘rising generation’ to maintain their parents’ religious beliefs and ideals.
Beginning in the 1660s and 1670s, Puritan presses and pulpits produced a stream of jeremiads lamenting the sins of the rising generation and the degeneration of the young from the religion and godliness of their forebearers.
As early as the 1720s a growing number of religious leaders adopted a new strategy to instill discipline in the young. This was an evangelism that sought to convert young people in their teens and bring them into church membership. … The [resulting] Great Awakening, the emotional religious revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, stressed the idea that divine grace could save the young. A majority of those converted during the Great Awakening were single young men and women; a quarter were in their teens.
Nevertheless, the Great Awakening did reinforce a trend toward greater youthful autonomy. Over time many young people turned away from the local churches that had sought their membership. Youthful piety increasingly found expression in religious ceremonies that took place outside the established churches, sometimes led by lay preachers. … The fervor and enthusiasm of the religious revival had drawn youth to it as a possible way to assert an independent identity.
By the mid-eighteenth century, adult control over young people’s access to economic independence had diminished, and young people were exercising greater autonomy over their leisure activities and courtship practices. A flood of advice books, philosophical treatises, novels, plays, and poems condemned prolonged submission to paternal rule and defended youthful freedom as a natural right. This antipatriarchal, antiauthoritarian ideology helped to sensitize the colonists to arbitrary British colonial authority.