The First Great Awakening has long been a minor battlefield in early Americanist historiography, where scholars hotly debate various aspects of the revivals and their influence on the development of American society. Recent works have dispelled Jon Butler's diminution of it in 1982, and Douglas L. Winiarski joins an emerging cadre of historians who are enriching our understanding of the awakening. Through a series of microhistorical studies, Winiarski paints what is easily the most detailed social portrait of New England since Michael Zuckerman's Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century (1970), and the best work on the Great Awakening in New England since Edwin S. Gaustad's landmark study, The Great Awakening in New England (1957). Winiarski argues that the heady radicalism of “New England's era of great awakenings [is] the historical fulcrum on which the ‘shared culture’ of David Hall's ‘world of wonders’ tilted decisively toward Jon Butler's robust antebellum ‘spiritual hothouse’” (p. 9). On this point he is absolutely correct, demolishing what remains of Butler's dismissal of the awakening as a nonevent, and the constricted timeline most historians continue to cling to, claiming that the revivals ended around 1745. Preferring Susan Juster's fourfold definition of evangelicalism to David W. Bebbington's, Winiarski focuses so intently on religion as lived experience that he loses sight of how evangelicals emphasized the conversion experience, the importance of Bible reading, the pietistic fixation on the crucifixion, and the imperative to spread the Word. Through his many vivid examples, he betrays an admission that Bebbington's points about evangelicalism are just as operative as Juster's, and thus the two definitions are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. The depth of research is impressive, particularly in primary-source materials, but his coverage of nonwhites is superficial at best; regarding women, his fulsome examples shed little light on how revivalism actually empowered them. The absence of emerging female early Americanists from his bibliography is surprising. However, as fascinating as are these stories of New England's—mostly Massachusetts—towns and families divided by revivalist religious radicalism, Darkness Falls on the Land of the Light contributes to a hoary tradition of implying the primacy of New England in early Americanist historiography. The overwhelming bulk of the work characterizes the First Great Awakening as an event taking place mainly in New England and practically nowhere else, which Thomas S. Kidd's The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelicalism in Colonial America (2007) and my own The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725–1775 (2015) have successfully refuted. Nevertheless, Winiarski's emphasis on the radicalism of the revivals, the divisions engendered by them, and especially his giving equal consideration to the awakening's critics and opponents, corrects an imbalance that overly favored the revivalists. Eschewing the contemporary “new light”–“old light” terminology of the revivals, Winiarski opts for the unwieldy terms “Whitefieldian” to describe eighteenth-century evangelicalism, and its champions variously as “Whitefieldarians” and “Whitefieldites.” Altogether, this gives far too much credit to George Whitefield's preaching tours for sparking and promulgating the Calvinist revivals, implicitly denies that the Great Awakening's roots reach deeper into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and suggests that New England lacked an incipient revivalist tradition prior to the “grand itinerant's” arrival. Additionally, he incorrectly characterizes the middle-colony Presbyterian revivalist Gilbert Tennent as a Whitefieldarian and thus casts the Great Awakening in New England as entirely an English import, in no way an intercolonial phenomenon apart from Whitefield as the common denominator. Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is also blemished by a puzzling assertion that previous interpreters of the awakening “overlook[ed] or minimize[d]” the vigor of the public and private piety of those affected by the revivals, and by the mistaken notion that the established view of the early eighteenth century as a period of rising formalism in religious practice, superficial lay devotion, and growing secularism is unfounded (pp. 8–9, 134–35, 8–9). The latter assertion collapses under the weight of the evidence provided in scholarship, and Winiarski seems to concede this (pp. 71, 122–28, 161, 250, 319, 337, 434–36, 501). The book is strongest in explaining how the fissures opened by the revivals led prominent clergymen such as Ezra Stiles to embrace religious pluralism and seek ecumenical harmony and mutual toleration, and how acrimonious theological arguments among clergymen and lay people alike broke the Arminian Congregationalist dominance over New England's religious life, splintered churches, and divided communities. Despite its flaws, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light remains an important contribution to the historiography of the First Great Awakening. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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