Book Review

"The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America" by by Thomas S. Kidd

D. G. Hart
Thomas S. Kidd
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

In 1982, the Yale University historian of colonial America, Jon Butler, wrote a provocative article on the First Great Awakening and called the colonial revivals "an interpretive fiction." His subject was less the eighteenth century than the particular efforts of nineteenth-century American pastors to construct a narrative of awakenings led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield as a "great" event in the advent of the United States. Butler noted that participants and advocates of the revivals did not describe them as "great." But he was less concerned with how ministers and evangelists understood the events than with the way "Great Awakening" functioned among academic historians. He complained that scholars, despite the want of a comprehensive study, continued to use the "Great Awakening" to explain colonial America. This usage, Butler argued, "distorts the extent, nature, and cohesion of the revivals that did exist…encourages unwarranted claims for their effects on colonial society, and exaggerates their influence on the coming and character of the American Revolution." Although this point had particular bearing on the study of colonial society, it was also pertinent for church historians who had also taken on slim evidence the reality of a "First Great Awakening" and employed it in the standard narrative of American Christianity.

Almost twenty-five years later, Thomas Kidd has taken up Butler's challenge. His book is a comprehensive history of the colonial revivals that later evangelicals and historians would coin the "Great Awakening." It begins in the eighteenth century with the first instances of quickening among New England Puritans, who lamented the coldness and torpor of their churches. It extends through the revivals of the 1720s and 1730s that began to shape hopes for greater vigor and faithfulness in the church. Kidd's narrative continues with the arrival of George Whitefield and the phenomenon of his celebrity and work in promoting awakenings in the English-speaking world on both sides of the Atlantic. The story even traces ongoing occasions of new births and earnestness in the 1760s, 1770s, and 1780s among Southern colonists as well as those who would form the provinces of Canada. Kidd leaves the impression that the greatness of this awakening was its regional scope (from South Carolina to Nova Scotia) and duration (throughout the entire century). He also argues that the nineteenth-century Second "Great" Awakening was really an extension of the First. Perhaps to complete his response to Butler, Kidd even includes a chapter on the American Revolution in which, though lining up on both sides of the war for independence, he argues that evangelicals shared important affinities with the language and rhetoric of liberty. One last attribute of the colonial Awakenings' greatness was the part they played in forming the evangelical movement. According to Kidd, "The Great Awakening can be acknowledged as 'great' because it produced the evangelical movement."

To quibble with such a detailed and comprehensive account would seem foolish, but Kidd's narrative may leave readers wondering about the Awakenings' greatness. One reason is that the Great Awakening, despite Kidd's efforts, lacks a unified narrative. The book reads like a collection of vignettes: a revival in Northampton, Massachusetts; another a few years later in Philadelphia; and then still more a little later in Virginia. In other words, Kidd does not explain why he connects these various "awakenings" so that they add up to a single "great" one. In some ways, this is the perennial debate among historians; "lumpers" link events together into one big episode, while "splitters" stress the particularity of events. Kidd clearly falls on the side of the lumpers. What would have helped Kidd's purposes would be the discovery of an agency or institution, say, the Great Awakening Fellowship of North America, with paid employees, membership statistics, and official publications. But no such entity existed during the First Great Awakening. It was a kaleidoscopic affair, with one evangelist burning brightly here, church controversies smoldering there, and periods of brisk sales for revivalists' journals and books all over the place. Add all these up and the total may be a Great Awakening. But since Kidd is writing for an academic audience and cannot invoke the Holy Spirit to explain the awakenings, his unspecified criteria for construing these revivals as "great" are either his own historical judgment (arbitrary though they may be), or the conventions of an earlier group of church historians who wrote and lectured about the revivals of colonial North America as "great" (and which prompted Butler's dissent in the first place).

Directly related to criteria of greatness is Kidd's description of evangelicalism as a "movement." To place all instances of awakening in the category of movement is to do exactly what Butler faulted historians for doing’namely, constructing rather than describing a reality. This may seem like a point of pedantry, but the idea of movement does suggest membership and rules for inclusion, institutions, designated leadership, and formal lines of communication. Granted, colonial society was not blessed with the structures for associational life that would come with political and economic development. But the colonies did have churches, and the revivals took place independent of ecclesiastical oversight. In fact, they generated great opposition from church leaders, whether clergy in the ecclesiastical establishment in Massachusetts or pastors in voluntary communions such as the infant American Presbyterian church. If the colonial revivals did have an institution, it was George Whitefield’a celebrity whose movements and writings, at least for a time, bound the cause of revival together. But buying Whitefield's journals or going to hear him preach was not the same as taking vows and joining a church. The difficulty here is akin to the phenomenon of Red Sox Nation; a fan of the Boston baseball franchise may be a member of such a regime, but it is hardly an association of persons with real lines of accountability or membership privileges.

The oddity of calling evangelicalism a movement pervades Kidd's account, unintentionally to be sure. For instance, the author grants that evangelicals exhibited great variety, and he explores these differences. He distinguishes among the moderate revivalists (e.g., Jonathan Edwards) and the radicals (e.g., John Davenport), and even the radicals who became moderate (e.g., Gilbert Tennent). This difference concerned whether the work of the Spirit granted evangelists and converts freedom from norms of decorum and civility; in some cases, evangelists flouted ecclesiastical rules, and converts experienced trances or fainting spells that bordered on fanaticism. Kidd's rendering of these conflicts generally casts the moderates as having the better arguments and the basis for the evangelical "movement." In fact, his later chapters on the revivals of the 1760s suggest that the radicals won, since the later awakenings lacked the moderation for which those like Edwards argued. This leads to the question of whether evangelicalism, if it is a movement, is fundamentally radical and so inherently unstable.

Another instance of evangelical diversity was the question of whether to support the War for Independence. Kidd sensibly presents the diversity of evangelical responses, both patriot and loyalist. He also concedes that the political diversity among the converted and revivalists "highlights the problems with interpreting early American evangelicalism as a unified cohort." But to call evangelicalism a movement does suggest a measure of unity that Kidd's narrative cannot support, other than the author's own attempt to tie together these disparate and fissiparous instances of awakening.

One interpretive strategy available to Kidd for yielding a measure of unity among the colonial revivals would have been to link this experiential Protestantism to Puritanism. In particular, the revivals and conversions associated with them bear many of the fingerprints of New England Puritan demands for experiential narratives of personal awakening before qualifying for church membership. On top of this, a strain of Puritanism, practical divinity, arose in the late sixteenth century, characterized by personal holiness and earnest commitment. Having written a first book on New England Puritanism, Kidd is well equipped to trace these lines of development. But instead of looking back to English Puritanism and German Pietism, his gaze in this book turns to the twentieth century. This may have been the advice of editors who hoped for a contemporary readership that would want to read about its historical origins. But if Kidd had considered the way that Puritan practical divinity lost unity as a movement by neglecting the institutional church in pursuit of the authentic and intense experience, he might have avoided the problems that attend the language of "movement."

Despite these deficiencies, Kidd's book does make the valid point that contemporary evangelicalism's roots are in the revivals of the colonial era. Whether they were great, radical, or revolutionary, this book provides valuable material for understanding the nature, genius, and weaknesses of born-again Protestantism.

Friday, December 17th 2010

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