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

Thomas S. Kidd
Published by Yale University Press in 2009

At first glance it might appear that Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening is simply one more addition to the assortment of books on the topic, but upon further reflection it becomes clear that this work constitutes a significant revision of the eighteenth-century revivals. Examining the roots of evangelical Christianity in the British North American colonies, Thomas Kidd, associate professor of History at Baylor University, synthesizes the activities and events which comprise the “Great Awakening.” One of the major contributions of this book is its attempt to weave the history of early evangelical Christianity in America into one cohesive narrative while not doing damage to the variety and diversity of the movement. In order to accomplish this task, Kidd, the proverbial tour guide, takes the reader on a well-traveled journey beginning in Nova Scotia and culminating in Georgia, along which he highlights well-known facts and in addition reveals new details. One wonders how difficult this narrative was to construct for Kidd given the smoothness of the journey (read: keen ability to synthesize, excellent handling of primary sources and lucid writing style).

The first four chapters (of nineteen) explore the influences of earlier Protestant movements which helped pave the way for the awakenings as well as define the faith and practice of early evangelicalism, namely, English Puritanism, Continental Pietism, and Scots-Irish Presbyterianism. In this endeavor, Kidd shows himself attuned to the trans-Atlantic connection of the revivals. Beginning in chapter five and continuing through the remainder of the book, Kidd examines the trans-denominational nature of Anglo-American evangelicalism which arose from the cross-pollenization of these earlier Protestant movements. The remaining fourteen chapters are an investigation into evangelical revivals in the various American colonies, and while a large portion of the section is devoted to the revival activities of major revival figures in New England, such as Jonathan Edwards and George Tennent, it also focuses on lesser-known revivalists, such as Samuel Buell, Native American missions, and African Americans. These chapters, moreover, assess the controversies, debates, crises, and fractures which traveled on the back of the revivals while evaluating the legitimacy of the revivals and their ability to transform lives and convert sinners. The concluding argument is that these new emphases on the “outpourings of the Holy Spirit and on converted sinners experiencing God’s love personally” transformed American religion and created a new movement known as evangelicalism (xiv).

While chronicling the life of early evangelicalism, Kidd unmasks several common misconceptions concerning the nature and extent of the awakenings in the North American colonies. First, Kidd maintains that the standard framework of the “First” and “Second” Great Awakenings, separate periods of revival assigned to the 1740s and 1810s, is misleading (xix). Kidd is of the opinion that a more accurate picture of the awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries is one in which boundaries become more fluid, stretching and expanding to include revivals which occurred before Edwards’s Northampton revival and continued through the American Revolution to the Civil War. This new picture, says Kidd, emerges when “a long-term turn toward Baptist and Methodist piety” punctuated by new revivals, like the one at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801, is taken into account (321). The result of this new portrait leaves the author arguing that there really was no “Second” Great Awakening, but one protracted First Great Awakening.

Second, Kidd corrects the popular assumption that without George Whitefield there would have been no awakenings. He argues rightly that many revivals in the colonies had begun to take shape prior to Whitefield’s arrival. Local ministers, such as the Log College educated John Rowland, had been stirring the flames of revival in southwest New Jersey, Virginia, the Carolinas and elsewhere. Thus, Whitefield’s religious activities in some of these regions reinforced and reinvigorated the existing revivals rather than ignited them.

Finally, Kidd revises the “Old Lights—New Lights” framework and presents instead a more nuanced view of the controversy created by the revivals, in which the social order is taken into consideration together with the disagreements over tactics and emotions. He shows that the evangelical movement was divided not only between anti-revivalists and radicals but between moderates and radicals as well. Even amidst these divisions, however, evangelicals were able to cooperate with one another, as Kidd demonstrates, for instance, in the life of the evangelical moderate Josiah Smith (chapter 6).

A few minor observations follow. While analyses of the exotic revival phenomena as fiction still loom large in the minds of many, this reviewer appreciates Kidd’s attempts to treat the mystical experiences of the revivalists as potentially genuine encounters with God. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the portrait of evangelicalism that emerges in eighteenth-century America appears to have more in common with modern-day Pentecostal expressions of evangelicalism than of populist or cosmopolitan expressions.

On another note, while not detracting from the overall compelling narrative, it is sometimes unclear what distinguishes a moderate evangelical from an anti-revivalist. At what point does a moderate evangelical, who affirms “the great and good work of God” while simultaneously closing his pulpit to radical evangelicals because he is fearful and apprehensive concerning their conduct, cross the line and become an anti-revivalist?

This book presents a fair and balanced account of the people, places and events that contributed to the rise of evangelicalism in the American colonies. It buoys the belief that evangelicalism was not by any means a uniform movement in eighteenth-century America, but one that was diverse, flexible and multiform.

Cite this article
Andrew Tooley, “The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:1 , 151-152

Andrew Tooley

Wheaton College
Andrew Tooley, Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, Wheaton College