- The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism
First among this slim volume's virtues is its contrary ambition. The middle period (1690–1740) of North America's colonial history has never received the attention it deserves. This shortcoming is particularly noticeable in the otherwise extensive scholarship on New England. Between the Salem witchcraze and the Great Awakening yawns a valley of low regard. Thomas Kidd is not its only inhabitant, of course, but his contribution is rare enough to be very welcome. Kidd's thesis is straightforward: Puritanism could not help but change after the effrontery of the late Stuarts and the much-hoped-for but still intrusive Williamite settlement; yet this change was neither dramatic nor transforming. The Congregational order and its intellectual culture maintained their integrity by uniting their hopes with those of a transatlantic "Protestant Interest," which had coalesced to meet the Roman Catholic menace. Within New England, this Interest encouraged an evangelical ideology that was most vividly expressed in the revivals of the late 1730's and early 1740's.
One sign of competence is an understanding of the fundamentals—truths too often avoided for the sake of avoiding the obvious. For example, one cannot dwell too much on the anti-Catholicism of the colonial Yankee, and Kidd's work certainly does not err on the side of reticence. Furthermore, Kidd knows that to understand New England, one must wrestle with the notion of a "dissenting [End Page 293] establishment." The Protestant Interest rises to this task repeatedly, though this reader wishes the book had done even more to connect New England's establishmentarian instincts to the Union of England and Presbyterian Scotland.
Kidd's period saw the integration of New England into Britain's empire, and The Protestant Interest dutifully cites the neoimperial histories of David Armitage, Ian Steele, and Bernard Bailyn. But underneath the now familiar armor of "Atlantic" historiography beats a parochial heart. Kidd's evangelical Yankees are "cosmopolitan" only because they converse with other evangelicals elsewhere. The author misses a chance to compare George Whitefield's celebrity in America to that of Admiral Vernon in Britain (as described by Kathleen Wilson) because he is not interested in seeing the visitations of the Holy Ghost and the (almost exactly contemporaneous) celebrations of English bullishness abroad as analogous popular phenomena.
Kidd's portrait of Yankee evangelicals should keep his book in shops and on college syllabi for many years to come. Readers should not, however, expect a general history of early eighteenth-century New England or even a comprehensive treatment of religion in New England during the same period. Kidd tries to strike a balance between Anglicans and Congregationalists—he cannot and does not ignore the era's irenic impulses—but his focus on the latter pushes the former to the margins and toward ideological extremity. High Tories and churchmen seem to outnumber their moderate fellows. The latitudinarian strain in Anglo-American thought (which Norman Fiering brought to our attention over twenty years ago) barely rates a mention.
On the other hand, anyone interested in the New Lights will need to take up The Protestant Interest, though it should be approached in the company of Mark Peterson's The Price of Redemption (1997). Both texts bravely make the case for a continuous genealogy linking the Puritans to the evangelicals of the Great Awakening and beyond. The topical format of Kidd's book flattens the chronological narrative, but from sentence to sentence it is an easy and pleasurable read.