Sunday, January 20, 2008

Book Review: "The Great Awakening"

Thomas Kidd's The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2007) treats various aspects of what Kidd terms the first long Great Awakening, stretching from before Jonathan Edwards' 1734 Northampton revivals through approximately the end of the American Revolution. He argues that the early evangelical movement cannot be viewed as monolithic, but instead subject to deep internal struggles over the meaning of the movement's purposes, tactics and doctrines.

The first chapters of Kidd's book relate the earliest outbursts of evangelical fervor in New England, from ministerial calls for divine intervention in the 1670s to proto-revivals beginning in the 1710s, and the 1720-22 events in Connecticut which are generally considered the first publicized "awakenings." He provides well-written synopses of the efforts of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and other leaders of the revival movement, making the excellent point about Whitefield that while he generated significant excitement in most places he went, the movement had begun before he arrived on the scene. For those interested in print history (like me), Kidd throws in the fascinating tidbit that "works by or about Whitefield caused the number of printed texts produced in America to almost double between 1738 and 1741" (p. 47).

A middle section of The Great Awakening examines the deep and very meaningful rifts which emerged between radical and moderate evangelicals in the early 1740s and beyond. Among other things, Kidd notes, evangelicals clashed "over the role of exhorters and itinerants, the doctrine of assurance, the witness of the Spirit, ecstatic responses among laypeople, and the leveling effects of the revivals" (p. 155).

Finally, Kidd presents a series of chapters covering the Great Awakening's impact on Indians and African-Americans, as well as its course in Virginia and the Carolinas. He also has an important chapter evaluating the evangelical movement's importance to the American Revolution. He finds here as elsewhere that no universal conclusion is appropriate - some (perhaps a majority) within the evangelical movement supported the Revolution, while others remained loyal to the crown.

This is a clearly-written, well-researched and very readable book, with excellent endnotes for further reference. It is a necessary synthesis of the events comprising the first Great Awakening, and I'm sure it will stand the tests of historiographical time.

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