The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America

By Harrell, Kevin | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July-October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America


Harrell, Kevin, South Carolina Historical Magazine


The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. By Thomas Kidd. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Pp. xix, 392; $22, paper.)

When American soldiers famously removed fragments of clothing from the remains of the celebrated itinerant George Whitefield five years after his death in 1775, they revealed perhaps more than they realized. More than just an evangelist, Whitefield had transformed into a legend and personified a powerful episode in the social development of early America. Scholars grapple over how to properly define the movement collectively known as the "Great Awakening," measure its impact on sectarian groups such as Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, and gauge its influence on the rising tide of democracy. Some historians such as Jon Butler deny the existence of the movement outright, arguing that the revivals of the mid eighteenth century were too diverse and unorganized. Denial coupled with the struggle to describe and set boundaries to the movement have made this a particularly difficult subject to codify.

Thomas Kidd in The Great Awakening rewrites the old historiographical questions, however, by taking a different look at "the enormous body of primary sources including some sources previously ignored" to establish "a single, coherent narrative of evangelicalism's development in America over its first fifty years" (p . xvii) . While Kidd believes Butler's skepticism about the existence of the Great Awakening is "overextended," he recognizes how the critique forces scholars to rethink and redefine previously accepted notions (p. xviii). Kidd agrees with Perry Miller's assertion that the revivals of the 1740s were the wellspring of covenant renewals in New England that began in 1670s. Natural disasters such as the New England earthquake of 1727 coupled with threats from nearby Indians and French aided revivalism's growing momentum .

According to Kidd, the First Great Awakening was part of a movement that launched evangelicalism internationally. Not to be studied simply as a socially subversive force that eventually led to the American Revolution, the First Great Awakening is an important chapter in the story of evangelicalism's emergence into the mainstream of world history. But Kidd's attention to evangelicalism's global impact is done more through inference in the earlier chapters of the book. He makes no secret of the fact that he seeks to provide a synthesis to "the American side of the story," leaving readers to speculate further about his perspective on the "worldwide scale" of the movement (p. xvi).

Kidd argues that evangelicalism's distinctiveness stems from its emphasis on "seasons of revival, outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and converted sinners experiencing God's love personally" (p. xiv). This definition of evangelicalism is necessary to understand his argument. These distinct characteristics are also what spark antagonism among three factions to whom Kidd devotes a great deal of attention: the antirevivalists, moderate revivalists, and the radical revivalists. Complicating the traditional paradigm of Old Lights versus New Lights, he portrays a more nuanced picture of the revivals.

Controversy among these groups seems to have rested primarily on varying interpretations of how the Holy Spirit functioned within the believer. Radicals welcomed enthusiastic physical signs of conversion that often involved outbursts, trances, laughing spells, and visions. In addition, they ministered to uneducated whites, black slaves, and Native Americans, permitting these groups to practice their own forms of itinerancy and exhortations at revivals. …

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