The New Definitive Book on the Great Awakening in New England

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I recently read my friend Douglas Winiarski’s new book, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New EnglandThe book comes from the University of North Carolina Press, one of the most distinguished outlets for books on early American history. And it follows mounds of scholarly articles that Winiarski, who teaches at the University of Richmond, has published on aspects of the Great Awakening in New England.

Winiarski has long since established himself as the master of the archives related to religion in 18th-century New England. I borrowed liberally from his work and advice in my book on the Great Awakening in America, published a decade ago.

So it is no surprise to me to find my expectations fulfilled in Winiarski’s long-awaited book. It is now the best, most comprehensive book we have on the revivals in New England, surpassing Edwin Gaustad’s The Great Awakening in New England, published 50 years ago this year.

Winiarski emphasizes, to a greater extent than I would have, the novelty of George Whitefield’s teachings and the “Whitefieldarian” tactics that drove the awakening. (I would have spent more time discussing evangelical theology’s roots in the Puritan, Presbyterian, and Pietist traditions before it.) He also argues implicitly that colonial New England before the Great Awakening had not entered a state of decline. It was not mired in “nominalism.”

Instead, Winiarski suggests that New England Congregationalist churches were dominated by the beliefs and practices of the “godly walkers.” They would have of course emphasized the need for God’s grace and the power of God in regenerating sinners, but in practice they heavily emphasized religious duty and longtime holiness as the signs of saving faith.

In stark contrast to the “godly walkers,” the new evangelicals, led in a singular fashion by Whitefield, argued that good works could easily deceive sinners about their acceptance before God. Many (including some pastors) came to believe that in the midst of their external conformity to Christianity, they had missed the whole point: the new birth of salvation.

In my Great Awakening book, I also emphasized how much the new evangelicals—especially the radicals among them—focused on the Holy Spirit as both the cause of true revival and of conversion. Early in his career, Whitefield distinguished the evangelicals’ faith as one that felt and understood the movings of the Holy Spirit. Then and now, such an emphasis makes critics nervous—who can tell what is a real move of the Spirit, and what is just overwrought emotion?

This is a classic tension within biblical Christianity itself. God is not a god of chaos, but he is also not a god of serene predictability, however much we would like to put him in a box. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” Jesus said in John 3:8. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Winiarski’s book, intentionally or not, sounds at times like a defense of the Old Lights. In the tradition of the arch-antirevivalist Charles Chauncy, Winiarski details endless instances of exotic spiritual phenomena like dreams, trances, and visions that transfixed the minds and hearts of radical evangelicals. Likewise, he details innumerable disputes and church splits that conflict over “New Light” beliefs caused. These all fatally disrupted the robust but peaceful Congregationalist culture that had existed before Whitefield stormed onto the scene. “Darkness falling on the land of light” sounds just the opposite of how evangelicals understood what was happening during the Great Awakening.

There’s no doubt that there were many devout Christians prior to the Great Awakening who had never experienced a wrenching conversion, but who showed every sign of having embraced the faith of their parents and who lived lives of quiet godliness. Some of these believers felt that the Whitefieldarians disparaged the value of that kind of godly walk.

But there were also many New Englanders—and people elsewhere in the colonies and in Britain—who realized during the Great Awakening that their “faith” actually was routinized, focused on duty, and effectively lifeless. Legions of people, then and now, practice religious rituals. Fewer people know and experience the saving power of God in conversion.

Some of the radical evangelicals did implicitly criticize the value of holy living, knowing that good behavior did not lead to salvation. But many other evangelicals devoted themselves to lives of godliness precisely because of their dramatic conversion. Holy living sprang from their gratitude for God’s gracious favor.

We humans go to extremes. In the Great Awakening, there were critics who disparaged any claims about the work of the Spirit. And there were radicals who grievously mistook the flesh for the Spirit. Surely there is a biblical middle way.

Although I am not as sympathetic to the Old Light critiques of the awakenings as Winiarski appears to be, his massive record of the Great Awakening and its effects in New England will spark vigorous historical and theological debate. Whatever you think about the effects of the revivals, and the religious culture that preceded it, this book is an absolute must-read for students, scholars, pastors, and laypeople who care about the legacy of the Great Awakening.

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