By Douglas L. Winiarski. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
If ever there were a topic that has received more than enough scholarly attention, the Great Awakening should be it. The story of Old Lights and New Lights, of Edwards and Whitefield, is so familiar, and has been examined from so many angles, that it cannot possibly merit new attention and a fresh look—or can it? In this epic study of the Great Awakening in New England, Douglas Winiarski reinterprets the revivals and reframes them as a popular insurgency: one in which the people, inspired by new religious styles and experiences, seized control of a region's religious culture and refashioned it to suit their own sensibilities. In doing so, he shows that there is much more to these well-studied revivals than historians have thus far appreciated. By telling the story from the bottom up, Winiarski argues forcefully and convincingly that the Great Awakening was more disruptive, more revolutionary and more cataclysmic than we have fully understood.
To tell how revivalism transformed New England, Winiarski explores the region's spiritual life through the eyes and words of its laity. He sets the stage by examining the region prior to revival, when "godly walkers" adhered to a culture structured by Reformed theology, mutual duty and the desire for individual salvation—all of which convinced New Englanders to exert themselves spiritually to avoid sin and corruption (29). Churchgoers used a "vocabulary of Christian obligation" to express their commitments to each other, but there were fissures beneath this tidy landscape of well-ordered congregations and households (40). Believers' anxiety over their spiritual states permeated their religious professions, and theological conflicts began to wear down the safe perimeters of churched towns. Before long, waves of revivalism stirred up dissent and eroded the theological foundations on which New Englanders had built their communities.
Jonathan Edwards' Northampton revivals preceded George Whitefield's New England tours, and many historians have argued that Edwards' style was better-suited to New England's town-church heritage, but Winiarski shows that it was really Whitefield who caused an irreparable break with the puritan past. By introducing new preaching styles and theologies, Whitefield set fire to the region; he and others in his vein led hearers to criticize their churches, demand emotional fulfillment from their faith and even question the validity of conversions that they no longer took to be authentic. The people who were attracted to this new religious sensibility increasingly embraced the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which had faded in importance in Congregational worship but now came to define revivalism. The Holy Spirit imbued believers with mysticism and catalyzed individualistic religious experiences, far different from the religion of communal ties that had prevailed before. Under the Holy Spirit's influence, believers saw visions, responded to conversions with bodily spasms, and divined their own interpretations of the Bible and other sacred books. Ministers like Jonathan Edwards, who had promoted the revivals, now cautioned that with no guiding authority, it would be impossible to know what was God's work and what was Satan's. But the awakened laity seemed to know the difference. Increasingly confident in their convictions, this "radicalized cohort of new converts" asserted the authenticity of their miraculous experiences and shouted down ministers (in person and in print) who cautioned against error (281).
Increasingly, the laity claimed independence from religious authority, and their idiosyncratic spiritual impulses destroyed the foundations of puritan communalism. They did not do so without inspiration. First Whitefield, and then charismatic leaders like James Davenport and Daniel Rogers, along with small armies of itinerants, encouraged ordinary men and women to upend religious authority and disrupt peaceful (and complacent) congregations. But then the laity took the lead. In Winiarski's telling, ordinary believers declared war on the old order by confronting opponents of revivalism, claiming the authority to judge the authenticity of others' religious experiences, and insisting on the right to exhort whether the clergy wished them to or not (318). The result was the collapse of the Congregational hegemony as...