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The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America Hardcover – November 28, 2007
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About the Author
Thomas S. Kidd is associate professor of history, Baylor University, and author of The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism, published by Yale University Press. He lives in Woodway, TX.
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Sticking with a theme of redefinition, Kidd also desires a slightly nuanced understanding of what makes one an evangelical Christian. He considers the four-pronged approach of David Bebbington-conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism-to be slightly off, and instead argues for an evangelicalism defined by "persistent desires for revival, widespread individual conversions, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit" (xix). This definition is crucial to the overall argument of the book, as the author sees this period as a fracas over the limits and boundaries of each of those three characteristics.
This fracas involved the splintering of evangelicalism into three parties: antirevivalists, moderates, and radicals. Antirevivalists were critical of these new movements, fearing the dangers and likely conclusions of extreme expressions of enthusiasm, as well as having little patience with the wellspring of itinerant preachers who had no qualms with charging those critical of the revivals with the great crime of ministering while unconverted. Moderate evangelicals welcomed the revival spirit, but with much caution. They, too, understood the potential problems of charismatic excess and sought to draw boundaries around "legitimate" instances of revival. The litmus test of revivalism for moderates would be defined in this way: though "Authentic religious experiences might manifest themselves in various ways...they would always produce enduring, godly effects" (119). Ecstatic experiences proved nothing if they did not result in a noticeable change in the way one lived and acted.
The bane of both these groups was, of course, the radicals. Radicals practiced unrestrained itinerancy and some would even practice unrestrained exhortation, allowing untrained men, women, children, African American, and Native American Christians to preach and exhort. Most characteristic of the radicals, however, was the extreme emotionalism that often accompanied, or was encouraged by, stirrings of revivalism. Such emotionalism included "shaking, fits, and trances...involuntary motions or swooning" (131), and radicals soon began claiming that only those who experienced such heights could be assured that they were truly converted.
In telling the story of this first generation of American evangelicalism, Kidd relies on the vast extant source material from the era including diaries, pamphlets, books, personal correspondence, etc. Though some of it can get quite repetitive, these types of first-hand accounts give much credence to the thesis that revivals were ongoing for the better part of the eighteenth century, rather than just a few short years in the middle of the century. One problem with such reliance, however, is a lack of involvement with other social and cultural issues that may have influenced the onset of these episodes. Though Kidd briefly mentions some types of these issues, i.e. an economic crisis that may have helped spur the 1740 revival in Massachusetts, there is no real explanation as to how these outside issues may have influenced or effected religious sentiments at the time.
This is also true with regard to wider intellectual currents in the eighteenth century. Here, too, we see the limits of sticking with primary, first-hand source material. It would have been particularly interesting and illuminating to have seen some discussion of the impact of Enlightenment thought, particularly on the moderates and the ways that the new paradigm factored into their desire to view the awakenings in terms of reason, virtue, and logical definition of the movement. Again, some mention is hinted at, but there is not much of an attempt to synthesize the broader intellectual movement with the growth of American revivalism.
Despite these faults, The Great Awakening is a valuable introduction to the era and religious issues and currents at play in the early days of American evangelicalism. Particularly useful is the constant interweaving of George Whitefield's ministry through the various pockets of revival. As the most notable figure during the awakenings, The Grand Itinerant naturally has prime of place in the overall narrative. Whitefield is described as a brilliant preacher who sees a great deal of success in his travels around the Colonies, but Kidd is careful to stress that Whitefield should primarily be viewed as a catalyst in the towns he visited, rather than being the primary "soul-getter," noting that most conversions happened after Whitefield had left town.
This book is also helpful in showing the impact of the New England revivals on the southern colonies, and particularly in aiding the growth of the Separatist movements. Separatists united around the necessity for immediate, discernible conversions, and championed the right of the uneduated to preach and be ordained by the local church. Much of this concern was born out of a perceived lack of purity in the antirevivalist, and even moderate churches, as well as wanting to decisively break from those who opposed so-called "excesses." While all Separatists could agree on these points, a rift would form over the issue of Baptism, causing the formation of the Baptist movement which would gain steam in the Middle Colonies and explode in the South, particularly in the nineteenth century.
Overall, Kidd has presented a delightful telling of the early American evangelical story that is rich in drama and anecdotal evidence. Even if there are a few interpretive issues in the overall argument, The Great Awakening is a wonderful primer that will introduce the reader to the primary characters, issues, and effects of colonial American Christianity, as well as provide a useful framework for viewing the influence of evangelicalism on later American culture, particularly during the revolutionary and Civil War eras.
I could not finish this one. Not that I often put down a book... perhaps 1-5% of the books I pick up I fail to finish.
For instance, I could not finish The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. It was a well written piece, but it was too intense for me. I got about half way through, decided I couldn't take it, and skipped to the last 5 pages.
In this case, the subject matter was too uninteresting to me. The treatment of it was too much "person A did this, and then person B did this, and then person A did this, and then person C did this." If you're an evangelical and a rabid historian, perhaps this work will be interesting to you.
If you're an evangelical, dive in. Also, if you're an evangelical, read your Bible and think for yourself.