Book Review

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

Samuel T. Logan, Jr.
Thomas S. Kidd
Tuesday, July 1st 2008
Jul/Aug 2008

This book has two primary purposes: (1) to provide a thorough narrative describing the various revivals of religion in the American colonies between 1730 and 1800, and (2) to show that these revivals constitute the beginnings of evangelicalism in America. There is no question that the book accomplishes its first purpose superbly. Whether the book accomplishes its second purpose is more questionable. I will start with the second purpose.

Kidd begins the introduction to his book in this way, "Everywhere in early twenty-first century America, signs point to the influence of evangelical Christianity." He then asks, "How did evangelicalism begin?" (xiii). In his epilogue, Kidd summarizes the answer to this question: "This book has shown that there was, indeed, a First Great Awakening, but it was a long Great Awakening and produced a new variation of Protestant Christianity: evangelicalism….The Great Awakening can be acknowledged as 'great' because it produced the evangelical movement" (322-23). (This kind of structure, by the way, is one of the strengths of the book; it is extremely well organized and well written.) Kidd obviously believes he has accomplished this second purpose-and he may have. It all depends on one's definition of evangelical and evangelicalism.

Kidd recognizes very early in the book that the accomplishment of his second purpose will depend on his definition of evangelicalism. He reviews the fourfold definition provided by David Bebbington-conversionsim, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism-and he argues that "Bebbington's 'quadrilateral' does not adequately distinguish early evangelicalism from movements that preceded it" (xiv). He then suggests the following as a crucial fifth element:

Missing from Bebbington's definition is early evangelicalism's new attention to the person of the Holy Spirit, particularly in revival. Early American evangelicalism was distinguished from earlier forms of Protestantism by dramatically increased emphases on seasons of revival, or outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and on converted sinners experiencing God's love personally. (xiv, emphasis his)

If Kidd is right in his revised definition of evangelicalism, then there can be little doubt that he has, in this book, accomplished his second purpose. But particularly remembering that Kidd has begun his discussion by mentioning early twenty-first century American evangelicalism, there is a question as to whether this definition is fully accurate. Is early twenty-first century American evangelicalism really and universally characterized by "seasons of revival" or "outpourings of the Holy Spirit"? My own judgment is that it is not. And if it is not, what does this mean for the validity of Kidd's argument throughout the book? I think it makes that argument at least questionable.

But whether Kidd has accomplished his second purpose, he certainly has accomplished his first; and, frankly, I would find the book extremely valuable whether or not Kidd has managed to demonstrate a direct lineal connection between the Great Awakening and twenty-first century American evangelicalism. What Mark Noll says of the book is absolutely correct: "There is no book of comparable breadth, either chronologically or geographically." More than forty years ago, in his monumental Religion and the American Mind, Alan Heimert argued that the Great Awakening was the first truly national event in American history, and Kidd shows in great detail exactly how and why Heimert was correct. That in itself makes the book invaluable for anyone interested in either the history of revival or the history of America.

But beyond its sheer breadth, Kidd's book offers some penetrating analyses of the facts he narrates, analyses that potentially enrich both secular and ecclesiastical historiography. Of the many examples, I will mention only a few.

Kidd makes a powerful and persuasive argument that the proponents of the revivals that constituted the "long Great Awakening" led the way in the church in recognizing the full humanity of African slaves in the colonies (136-37, 213-14):

Early American white evangelicals' commitment to evangelization set in motion perhaps the most remarkable change in American religious history: the nearly wholesale conversion of African Americans to some form of evangelical Christianity. That great transformation began in force in the mid 1780's and by the early nineteenth century African Americans were converting at almost unparalleled rates. Evangelical thought among whites and blacks would help fuel the antislavery movement before the American Civil War. (214)

This fact does not, of course, mean that eighteenth-century evangelicals were immediately and completely transported out of their (sinful) cultures. Many such individuals, even while evangelizing African Americans and welcoming them into previously white churches, continued to accept, either passively or actively, the institution of slavery. But Kidd convincingly makes the point that the impetus for change in American racial attitudes came, not from those (often regarded as theological "liberals") who opposed the revivals, but from those (often regarded as more theologically "conservative") who supported the revivals.

An even more fascinating point, particularly given current debates within early twenty-first century American evangelicalism, it was the supporters of the revivals who began to recognize that women might have some role to play in the leadership of the evangelical church (280). Jonathan Edwards' most famous opponent, Charles Chauncy, was also considered the leader of the "liberal" cause in mid-eighteenth century American Christianity. "According to antirevivalist Charles Chauncy…one of the most disconcerting features of the revivals was that 'Women and Girls, yea, Negroes have taken upon them to do the Business of Preachers'" (213). Kidd's analysis of the entire situation is fraught with consequences for the modern church: the revivalists "embraced a certain kind of spiritual egalitarianism….They believed strongly that the gospel of the new birth should be preached to all" (213). Talk about radical ideas!

One of Kidd's strongest analyses concerns the relationship between revivalist theology and the political theories out of which emerged the American Revolution. Alan Heimert (Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the American Revolution), Bernard Bailyn (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution), and Mark Noll (Christians in the American Revolution) are just three of many who have written extensively on this subject and to whose works Kidd refers. His entire eighteenth chapter (appropriately entitled "The God of Glory is On Our Side") deals masterfully with this complex relationship. He points out that among those whom he considers evangelicals there were four main groups: patriots (fully supportive of the revolutionary cause); reformists (who desired "revolution" within American social structures as much as in the colonies' relationship with Britain); loyalists (opposed to the revolution); and sojourners (who sought to remain aloof from the revolution because they "believed that the affairs of the Kingdom of God demanded detachment from the wars of nations"; 291). No one of these four was more evangelical or Christian than the others-a fascinating possible lesson for today's evangelical churches.

A final analysis that this reviewer found particularly enriching, given his personal theological interests, was on why the preaching of Jonathan Edwards made that preaching so powerful. Using the example of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Kidd points out:

"Sinners" used at least twenty metaphors to picture God's wrath building up against rebellious sinners, including a furnace burning, black storm clouds approaching, flood waters surging against a dam, and most famously, the spider dangling over fire….All of Edwards's listeners that day would have affirmed that this judgment awaited unforgiven sinners, but perhaps the doctrine had grown stale with familiarity. Edwards's vivid images may have awakened some previously passive residents, while other visitors may have come expecting to have another emotional encounter with God and got their wish. (105)

This series of metaphors designed to make the propositional truth about hell "affecting" was what, in human terms and according to Kidd, gave Edwards' preaching such power.

And that kind of goal also characterized Edwards' "positive" preaching as well. In a wonderfully appropriate turn of phrase, Kidd suggests that, more than anything else, Edwards sought raise his congregation's "esteem of Jesus" (119). Esteem is an attitude of heart founded upon propositional truth and it recalls Edwards' famous statement in his Treatise on Religious Affections: "No light in the understanding is good which does not produce holy affection in the heart." "Light in the understanding" is the necessary starting point, but it is just a starting point. Increasing one's hearers' "esteem for Jesus" is the ultimate goal of preaching!

Tuesday, July 1st 2008

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