- A “Great Awakening”?
The Anglican preacher George Whitefield toured the British North American colonies from 1739 to 1741 and became a sensation. Benjamin Franklin famously marveled at the former stage actor’s persuasive oratory. Thousands flocked to hear the Grand Itinerant preach about the necessity of being born again, an old message delivered more powerfully than they had ever heard it before. Connecticut farmer Nathan Cole rushed from his fields and joined his excited neighbors to hear Whitefield preach from a scaffold by the river. Whitefield “[l]ookt almost angelical,” Cole recalled, “ … as if he was Cloathed with authority from the Great God . . . . And my hearing him preach, gave me a heart wound.” New England pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards preached Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741) without Whitefield’s theatrics, but congregants shrieked and wailed at the thought that they were dangling over the pits of hell like a spider about to drop into a fire. Other preachers tried to match Whitefield’s passion and Edwards’s intensity, and criticized ministers who did not. New Jersey Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent argued that clergymen who thought something amiss in these emotional religious revivals might not have experienced conversion themselves, and unconverted ministers were “dead Dogs, that can’t bark” and “murderous Hypocrites” endangering the souls of those under their care (p. 60). James Davenport, a Long Island preacher traveling in Whitefield’s wake, went further, publicly denouncing local pastors by name and burning a pile of devotional books (along with other vain idols, including the breeches he was wearing) on a New London pier. Some lay men, women, and children had their lives turned upside down by the revivals: they prayed, wept, fainted, glimpsed heaven, found Jesus, and wondered if God’s millennial kingdom might be at hand. Others thought it madness. Neighbors quarreled, ministers battled, churches split apart.1
What are we to make of all this? For many decades history teachers, textbooks, and scholars of early America have understood these dramatic events under the rubric of “the Great Awakening.” Especially for historians who had [End Page 13] lived through the turmoil of the 1960s, the concept of a “Great Awakening” in colonial America pulled some heavy historiographical freight. An introduction to a collection of documents published in 1970 called it at least as powerful as “the civil rights demonstrations, the campus disturbances, and the urban riots of the 1960s combined.” Intellectual historians could see the Great Awakening as the breakdown of the American mind, the Puritan synthesis of piety and intellect splitting into cool cosmopolitan rationalism and hot camp meeting revivalism. Social historians eager to give agency to the common folk saw women, children, the poor, and even some blacks and Indians at the center of a mighty popular movement, taking control of their religious lives and demanding to be heard. Practitioners of what would come to be called cultural history could borrow the notion of a revitalization movement from anthropology and depict the Great Awakening as a profound cultural and ideological transformation. Such a prodigious force could not but be seen as intimately connected—somehow—to that other great eighteenth-century transformation, the American Revolution.2
This interpretive balloon may not have been popped, but certainly much of the air was let out by a provocative historiographical essay that appeared in 1982. Jon Butler began “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction” by noting that despite all the historical importance given to it, the Awakening had a “slim, peculiar historiography” that lacked “even one comprehensive general history” since Joseph Tracy wrote The Great Awakening in 1842. The power of Butler’s critique may explain why in the quarter century since his essay no one had the temerity to attempt such a comprehensive general history—until, that is, Thomas Kidd. “The label ‘The Great Awakening,’” Butler argued, “distorts the extent, nature, and cohesion of the revivals that did exist in the eighteenth-century colonies, encourages unwarranted claims for their effects on colonial...