- Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England by Douglas L. Winiarski
Douglas Winiarski's new book charts the rise of evangelicalism, and the concomitant waning of establishment congregationalism, in eighteenth-century New England. Employing a nuanced sociology of language, Winiarski's work identifies changes in religious language and situates these discursive shifts within the lived experiences of ordinary men and women. Using the Whitefieldian revivals of the 1740's as the "historical fulcrum" on which New England tilted away from a traditional, shared congregational religious discourse toward a new, chaotic language of evangelical experience, Winiarski's work painstakingly describes how clashes between "distinctive vocabularies" led to the rending of churches and communities (9, 13). Exploring the fracturing of the discursive and social unanimity characteristic of early eighteenth-century congregationalism into the mid-century cacophony of competing religious ideas and sects, Winiarski provides a compelling account of the disintegrative impact evangelical discourse had on New England churches, towns, and families. In Winiarski's book, words have the power to radically transform society.
Using a phrase, much used in contemporary accounts, Winiarski describes New England in the years before the Whitefieldian revivals as a "land of light" (76). Utilizing hundreds of church admission relations from across the region, he convincingly delineates a common religious discourse that, in turn, produced a shared religious culture. In the sixty years before 1740, he argues that New England was largely united in a common establishmentarian congregationalism that adequately balanced individual spiritual concerns with a larger emphasis on community. "Godly walkers," as Winiarski calls these pre-revival Christians, focused on living pious and prayerful lives, meeting religious obligations such as participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and passing the faith onto their progeny through baptism. Church admission in this period, Winiarski maintains was more often "a measured choice" than the "outcome of a protracted crisis" (37). Indeed, governed by shared phrases and scriptural references, church admission relations became a ritual part of a parishioner's life – occasionally incited by natural disasters or outbreaks of disease but more often precipitated by life transitions such as marriage and family formation. [End Page 927]
Winiarski contends that, after 1740, evangelical discourse challenged and irrevocably changed New England's congregational "land of light." An army of "riding ministers"—itinerant, emotive, and extemporaneous preachers unleashed after Whitefield's 1740 tour—carried both an evangelical somatic style and a theological emphasis on the new birth to the far corners of the region. Deriding Godly walkers as "formal professors," evangelicals emphasized the necessity of being born again (149). Winiarski convincingly shows that the new evangelical rhetoric transformed the steady cadences of church admission relations into emotional conversion experiences replete with ecstatic bodily manifestations, visions, and claims to spiritual possession and direct revelation.
Discursive changes in parishioners' soteriological understandings heralded significant societal changes. Perhaps the most interesting portion of Winiarski's book concerns the social implications of the discursive clash between Godly walkers and evangelicals. The new religious discourse of evangelicalism challenged social hierarchies by pitting laypeople against ministers. Emboldened by their experiential awareness of spiritual regeneration, unlettered laypeople claimed spiritual authority to preach unfettered by parochial boundaries or denominational ordination. Large numbers of evangelicals withdrew from their congregational churches to found independent churches. The institutional fracturing continued among these separate congregations whose members regularly questioned each other's purity. As Winiarski clearly shows, the new reality of competing soteriological discourses, unleashed by the Whitefieldian revivals, manifested itself in split congregations. "The land of light," he writes, "devolved into a competitive marketplace of denominations and sects" (373).
The strength of this book lies in the exhaustiveness of its research. Winiarski's work boasts a cast of hundreds. Well-known voices from the period, including Isaac Backus, Jonathan Edwards, Hannah Heaton, and Nathan Cole are well-represented. So too are large numbers of everyday New Englanders: pastors, converts, Godly walkers, journaling laypeople, and suffering evangelicals. Winiarski seemingly leaves no...