Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England

Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England

Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England

Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England

Synopsis

This sweeping history of popular religion in eighteenth-century New England examines the experiences of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. Drawing on an unprecedented quantity of letters, diaries, and testimonies, Douglas Winiarski recovers the pervasive and vigorous lay piety of the early eighteenth century. George Whitefield's preaching tour of 1740 called into question the fundamental assumptions of this thriving religious culture. Incited by Whitefield and fascinated by miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit--visions, bodily fits, and sudden conversions--countless New Englanders broke ranks with family, neighbors, and ministers who dismissed their religious experiences as delusive enthusiasm. These new converts, the progenitors of today's evangelical movement, bitterly assaulted the Congregational establishment.

The 1740s and 1750s were the dark night of the New England soul, as men and women groped toward a restructured religious order. Conflict transformed inclusive parishes into exclusive networks of combative spiritual seekers. Then as now, evangelicalism emboldened ordinary people to question traditional authorities. Their challenge shattered whole communities.

Excerpt

Deep in thought, Hannah Corey stood alone among the gravestones of the Sturbridge, Massachusetts, burial ground, gazing across the common at the Congregational meetinghouse. She and her husband, John, had affiliated with the church in the west parish of Roxbury by owning the covenant shortly after tism shortly after their births. Now, during the fall of 1748, Corey faced serious— even supernatural—misgivings about her place within the sole, tax- supported religious institution in town.

Corey had arrived early that afternoon for Caleb Rice’s weekday lecture. As she sat in the empty pews awaiting the Sturbridge minister and her neighbors, the words of Jesus’s stern rebuke to the moneychangers in Luke 19: 46 suddenly darted into her mind: “My house is the house of prayer but ye have made it a den of thieves.” Corey had a strong intimation that this was no ordinary meditation, daydream, or idle musing. Instead, she interpreted the scrip-

1. Testimony of Hannah Corey, Apr. 5, 1749, Sturbridge, Mass., Separatist Congregational Church Records, 1745–1762, CL (available online at NEHH); Robert J. Dunkle and Ann S. Lainhart, transcr., The Records of the Churches of Boston and the First Church, Second Parish, and Third Parish of Roxbury, Including Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths, Admissions, and Dismissals (Boston, 2001), CD- ROM, s.v. “John Corey”; Vital Records of Roxbury, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849, 2 vols. (Salem, Mass., 1925), I, 76, II, 88; Vital Records of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850 (Boston, 1906), 39–40; Sturbridge, Mass., Congregational Church Records, 1736–1895, 37, 39, 61, MS copy, microfilm no. 863530, GSU. Previous studies of the Sturbridge schism include C. C. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740–1800: Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening (Middletown, Conn., 1987), 101–103; William G. McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 1630–1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), I, 457–460; Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Meetinghouse Hill, 1630–1783 (New York, 1972), 231–236; and John L. Brooke, The Heart of the Commonwealth: Society and Political Culture in Worcester County, Massachusetts, 1713–1861 (Amherst, Mass., 1989), 76–78.

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