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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 382-383
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Inventing the "Great Awakening"
Inventing the "Great Awakening." By Frank Lambert. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1999; paperback, 2001. Pp. xiii, 300. $47.50 clothbound, $18.95 paperback.)
Historians in recent decades have disagreed sharply over the significance of the "Great Awakening," the series of revivals that swept British North America in the 1730's and 1740's. One catalyst of the debate was Alan Heimert's Religion and the American Mind (1966), which argued that the evangelical Calvinism of the Awakening, not the religious liberalism of its opponents, laid the ideological foundation of the American Revolution. Heimert's work drew retorts from Edmund S. Morgan and Sidney E. Mead, even as other historians, including Patricia U. Bonomi, Richard L. Bushman, Rhys Isaac, Gary B. Nash, and Harry S. Stout, developed in various ways the idea that the Awakening contributed to the egalitarian and democratic impulses of the Revolution. Then in a 1982 article, Jon Butler recast the debate by insisting that the Great Awakening was largely the fiction of later historians who misjudged the cohesiveness and the extent of the revivals. Joseph A. Conforti built on Butler's argument, suggesting that the first Great Awakening was actually invented by revival promoters during the second Great Awakening of the 1830's.
Now Frank Lambert, author of a biography of George Whitefield (Princeton, 1994), has opened a new chapter in the debate with this persuasive and carefully researched study. Building on Butler and Conforti's thesis of the Great Awakening as "invented," Lambert traces the act of invention back to the revivals themselves, when figures such as Jonathan Edwards in the 1730's helped popularize the notion of a general "Work of God" that would change the course of history throughout the colonies. Though the term itself, "Great Awakening," originated with later interpreters, Lambert convincingly shows that the idea of an intercolonial, and even transatlantic, resurgence of religion was integral to the rhetoric of the revivals and was extensively promoted in pro-revival books and periodicals.
Indeed, much of Lambert's study centers on eighteenth-century print culture and its complex relation to the "invention" of the Awakening. He explores the role of a variety of evangelical publications in America and Britain, including the magazine Christian History, inaugurated by Thomas Prince in Boston in [End Page 382] 1743, and Historical Collections, published by the Scottish revivalist John Gillies in 1754, in which the revivals were portrayed as nothing less than a second reformation. In such venues, the revivals were an "invention" in the eighteenth-century sense of discovering a thing hidden (namely, scriptural truth) or designing new means of channeling divine grace. But to opponents such as Charles Chauncy, the revivals were mere fabrications, or "inventions" in the negative sense. Lambert paints a vivid picture of this contest of meaning, while also providing a detailed publication history of the Awakening's "model script": Edwards' Faithful Narrative, first issued in London in 1737.
Replete with tables outlining revival events and publications, Lambert's book is a highly accessible account for specialists and nonspecialists alike. His attention to the importance of print, his appreciation of the role of transatlantic revival networks, and his sensitivity to the nuances of cultural "invention" make this a model of historical scholarship.
Peter J. Thuesen