Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Past (and Future) of Religious Revival

Considered by historians to be the most important social movement in North American prior to the Revolution, the Great Awakening is the subject of numerous books, countless articles, and endless fascination. Some denominations lay claim to revivalism’s legacies, for example, while others scoff at the emotional zeal exhibited by many of its participants. Professional study of this period of revivalism has elicited a range of interpretations--from class conflict and social upheaval to egalitarian religion and nascent democracy.

While we will focus on George Whitefield and his meaning in American religious history for much of tonight’s class, I’d like to draw your attention to some other important points of discussion.

First, you should be aware of the latest full-length study of the revivals, Thomas S. Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. Kidd's exhaustive history of the revival--mostly focused on New England--elegantly discusses the intricacies of the Awakening--two of which involved egalitarian politics as well as manifestations of the miraculous, an important point we can connect to previous class discussion about popular, or lived religion. On this point in a recent interview about his book, Kidd noted:

The Great Awakening was shot through with mystical manifestations of the Spirit (trances, dreams, visions, healings, spirit journeys, etc.). Historians have often not known what to make of such episodes, and have only recently begun to look seriously at them as an integral part of evangelical history. Historian Douglas Winiarski has probably done more than anyone to alert us to the teeming presence of the miraculous in early evangelicalism. My sense is that the mysticism of the revivals fed their intensity, subversiveness, and individualistic tendencies. The belief in the Spirit led many common people to believe that they had a more profound experience with God than many of the state-supported, college-educated pastors. I certainly also have personal interest in the ways that experiences in the Spirit tend to fuel a kind of Christian egalitarianism.

The egalitarianism about which Kidd writes expressed itself amongst those he identified as radical evangelicals. And one upshot of the egalitarian quality of the Awakening centers on dimensions of African American religion, the second major point in this post. While I will tell you the story of Rebecca Protten and read quotations from Jon F. Sensbach's fabulous Rebecca's Revival, SUNY-Buffalo historian Erik Seeman, in addition to his fine book Pious Persuasions, published an important article in 1999 on the topic that includes transcriptions of several accounts of African American women who, according to the evidence, underwent spiritual change as a result of the revivals. We find on-line an Appendix with these transcriptions. Read the intro to the Appendix, and then read the confessions of faith here.

Questions to consider: How do the responses to revival preaching--as communicated by Flora and Phillis, compare with those of Whitefield, Nathan Cole, and others your read about? From the perspective of popular religion, how can historians analyze and interpret religious sentiment and spiritual feelings? Be prepared to discuss in class.

**For those interested, other scholars are working on various projects related to the Great Awakening. I'm sure there are others, but these are some studies of which I am aware. Sensbach is working on revival in the Atlantic World,
Douglas Winiarksi considers the revival in the larger context of eighteenth century Congregationalismism, and John Howard Smith examines some of the dimensions of Native American revivalism. For my own part, I consider the religious conflict the Awakening produced, and its effects on congregational life, and find that questions of theology led to much of the unrest.

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