The revivals that swept across the landscape of colonial British America in the early to mid-decades of the 1700s, reaching its peak in the 1740s and dubbed The Great Awakening by later generations, have proven to be a rich vein of study for historians.  This period, associated with preachers such as Jonathon Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, George Whitefield, James Davenport and John Wesley who traveled extensively through many of the colonies of British North America, was marked by passionate exhortations by preachers and the enthusiastic, often intensely emotion outbursts by the crowds gathered to hear them.

As with any major event, or series of events, the Great Awakening has spawned a wide variety of interpretations of its significance in American history.  This paper seeks to explore the general evolution of the historiographical record, outlining the dominant trends that emerged over the course of the last century by focusing on some of the most important works in the field while arguing that despite, or perhaps because of its controversial nature, Jon Butler’s 1982 essay “Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction” should rightly be considered the most influential work in the historiography of the Great Awakening.  This iconoclastic revision of the traditional interpretations has forced historians to question previous assumptions, challenged some of the most entrenched ideas about the period of revivalism during the eighteenth century, and forced nearly all later historians to address the charges made within its pages.

Although not the first of the major works about the Great Awakening—this distinction is held by Joseph Tracy’s 1845 The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion During the Time of Edwards and Whitefield—Vernon Parrington’s 1927 essay “An Anachronism in the Age of Reason” marks the first of the major interpretive paradigms in the historiography of the Great Awakening examined in this essay; the Great Awakening as an intellectual event.  Parrington approaches the period as a revolutionary event in the evolution of the American mind, using the conflict between Calvinist Puritanism and Rationalism to explicate the shift in colonial ways of thought, and to explain the changes in the religious landscape in 1740s America.

In this short essay, Parrington argues that the Great Awakening was the last ditch effort by New England Puritans to stop the declension of religion that was happening throughout British North America.  Revivalists like Jonathon Edwards, Gilbert Tennent and George Whitefield, were according to Parrington conservative defenders of the traditional Calvinist doctrines that ordered Puritan society, moved to action by the rise of Arminian rationalism espoused by anti-revivalists whose embrace of the new rationalist philosophies from the Old World threatened to upset the social order of New England.  By embracing this new way of thinking the anti-revivalists revealed the extent in which the intellectual life of the colonists was still firmly entrenched in an anachronistic sixteenth century Calvinist doctrine that was fast becoming obsolete, an ideology no longer reflective of the world that people found themselves living, a condition that the masses were slowly but surely becoming awakened as rationalism spread amongst the general populace.[1]

This rationalism had come to ascendency in Britain during the first years of the eighteenth century and as it developed, it brought a new sense of individual agency to the masses, which ultimately challenged the traditional authoritarian Calvinist notions of deference to authority while also acting as a force for social leveling.  This embrace of individualism by the colonists during the Great Awakening and the social leveling it brought about better-suited life in the colonies.  Parrington argues that the intellectual shift that occurred during the Great Awakening was a mini revolution, marking the end of Puritan formalism, the disintegration of the traditional parish system in New England as parishioners moved away from their old congregations into the folds of the Baptists and the Methodists, and in doing so weakened the ties between church and state.  For Parrington, the nascent rationalism, not the waning Calvinism, would be the force that shaped the American religious landscape of the mid-eighteenth century and beyond but would also shape the American mind.[2]

Parrington’s focus on New England is perhaps the greatest weakness of the argument as it seeks to extrapolate regional reactions to revivalism to British North America as a whole, an argument that Jon Butler later attacks with impunity.  Also troubling is the fact that Parrington provides little evidence of the widespread social changes that he sees taking place, offering no proof of the widespread influence of rationalism within a diverse and largely semi-literate population or an explanation how these ideas became popular among the general populace.

Wesley Gewehr’s 1930 monograph The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790 largely builds upon the work of Parrington but changes the area of focus from New England to Virginia.  For Gewehr, the Great Awakening is nothing less than the key to understanding the social, political and ecclesiastical changes that were taking place in colonial North America during the middle to late decades of the eighteenth century.  Religious dissent, social leveling and the democratic tendencies brought about by the new evangelical mindset informed the ideologies of the Revolutionaries, while the schismatic nature of the conflict between evangelical New Lights and anti-revivalist Old Lights led to the creation of new popular churches throughout the colony.[3]

Although Gewehr seems to accept many of the arguments of Parrington, there exist substantial differences in each historian’s interpretation of the Great Awakening.  Like Parrington, Gewehr argues that the period of revivalism took place in during a period of religious declension.  However, Gewehr places the source of this decline not in a conflict of differing philosophies but to the ineffectiveness of the Half-way Covenant in keeping the church vital and relevant to the changing social milieu, while the “lack of any effective control over the clergy by the proper ecclesiastical authorities” failed to stem the moral decline of the Anglican clergy, weakening its authority.[4]  While Parrington’s essay implies the inter-colonial nature of the Great Awakening, Gewehr explicitly argues that the Great Awakening be considered the first major inter-colonial event, with George Whitefield being the common factor, and part of a larger international spirit of revivalism that had swept Western Europe.[5]

Gewehr’s analysis of the Great Awakening broadens the scope of inquiry moving from a purely intellectual history of the period by incorporating social and cultural history into the mix, bringing with these changes new questions about the impact of the revivals on society-at-large.  However, such timeframe as used by Gewehr (1740—1790) seems inordinately large to be able to subsume all of the changes in society under the heading of a single and all-encompassing Great Awakening.  The tendency to interpolate from a single colony to make claims of colonial British North America based on the influence of a single itinerant preacher seems problematic and deserving of further scrutiny.  Finally, by bringing an international focus to the Great Awakening, Gewehr opens up a new line of inquiry but also allows historians to argue that the Great Awakening was not primarily an American event.

John C. Miller’s “Religion, Finance and Democracy in Massachusetts,” written in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression, shifts the focus of the Great Awakening back to New England and provides a Progressive interpretation of events.  Rather than being a conservative movement to preserve a religion in decline, John Miller argues that the Great Awakening was the first mass protest movement that engendered wide-ranging effects in Massachusetts society. [6]

In Miller’s analysis the revivalism of the day plays many roles: a means to assuage the burgeoning class conflict and social unrest brought about by the Land Bank scheme; the beginning of an anti-intellectual movement that pitted evangelical preachers and their followers against the learned elements of Massachusetts society; as a tool for social leveling, popular among the lower classes that leads to class conflict and schism within the Congregationalist churches that promotes dissent; and finally as the ideological framework that brought merchants into the fold of dissenters when Britain passed the Sugar and Stamp Acts in the mid-eighteenth century.  For Miller, as for those before him, the Great Awakening was an inter-colonial event.[7]

The 1950s marked a shift back toward intellectual history as the chief methodological tool for understanding the significance of eighteenth century revivalism.  Perry Miller’s 1952 work of intellectual history, Crisis and Americanization, asks whether the Great Awakening should properly be considered a peculiarly American phenomenon when seen in light of the broader trans-Atlantic revival movements, answering that question in the affirmative.  For Perry Miller, not only does the Great Awakening shape the American mind, but is of vital importance to the project of Americanization.  Like Parrington, Miller argues the Great Awakening marks the point at which a final and permanent break from the dominant medieval mindset of authoritarian Puritanism toward a new American social philosophy.  Miller argues that the declension of the Puritan religion due to the failure of the Halfway Covenant paves the way for radical change.  However, Miller argues that it was Edwards, not the anti-revivalists, that provided the setting for this radical shift to occur as colonists flocked to hear the challenge to absolutism that he preached to the masses in the form of a new ideology of education, social justice, and individual agency that would provide the fundamental building blocks of a uniquely American identity.[8]  Miller expands upon this earlier work in 1957s Errand into the Wilderness.  This work argues that the Great Awakening was the first in a series of crises in the colonies, marking “the point when the wilderness took over the task of defining the objectives of the Puritan errand” and in the process affecting all levels of society, forcing the colonists to search for new meaning amongst the ideological rubble left behind in the Great Awakenings wake.[9]

“Crisis and Americanization” and Errand into the Wilderness directly challenge John C. Miller’s anti-intellectualism thesis while shifting the source of cultural and ideological change from the radical anti-revivalists to Edwards and the other revivalist preachers, while maintaining the position that the declension of religion was an important factor in the history of the Great Awakening.  Miller seems to answer some of the questions that Parrington left unanswered but tacitly retains the inter-colonial nature of the Great Awakening while focusing almost exclusively on changes in New England.

Alan Heimert continues the trend of historians seeing the Great Awakening as a primarily intellectual event in American history in 1966’s Religion and the American Mind but uses the tools of hermeneutics during his analysis of a broad swath of primary documents to read between the lines in the search for the true meaning of the writings of the period.  For Heimert, the “liberalism” of the anti-revivalists is not the force for change as Parrington had earlier argued.  Rather these “liberals” were profoundly conservative, resisting any change to the social order that revivals wrought as they captured the popular imagination throughout the colonies.  In his analysis, Heimert agrees with Perry Miller’s thesis, providing a wealth of evidence to support Miller’s claims for the source of change in colonial society but arguing that this shift created two opposing forces that would vie for dominance throughout later periods of American history: evangelicalism and rationalism.[10]

For Heimert the emergence of these strands during the mid-eighteenth century set the scene for the radical social, religious, and political changes that were developing in pre-Revolutionary America, as well as helping explain the intellectual milieu of the 1960s America.  Heimert makes explicit the ties between revivalism and Revolution hinted at by previous historians, essentially arguing throughout the text that without the Great Awakening Revolution would have been improbable.

Like the majority of Great Awakening historians before him, Richard Bushman takes the declension of religion as conventional wisdom in his interpretation of the Great Awakening in 1967’s From Puritan to Yankee.  However, unlike Perry Miller, Parrington and Gewehr Bushman sees this declension involving more than the failure of the Halfway Covenant.  Bushman introduces an element of economic and social history using demographic data of communities in Connecticut as an integral part of his analysis.  In this respect, Bushman navigates the middle ground between the two Millers, John and Perry, and expands upon the elements of social history of the period introduced by Gewehr in the 1930s to produce a compelling synthesis of the history of the period.  Bushman’s move toward social and community history challenged intellectual history’s dominance for explicating the significance of the period, and was reflective of the rise of social history in the historiography of American history in the 1960s.[11]

Bushman expands upon John Miller’s economic analysis arguing that the rapid expansion of the economy produced disequilibrium in all levels of society as increasing wealth, avarice, and greed challenged traditional societal norms.  Revivalism exacerbated the tensions, undermining the social order and Puritan deference to authority, forcing people to develop a new way to order society.  Despite the radical nature of the revivals, these events also acted to assuage the fears that the breakdown of traditional norms and social patterns wrought and helped ease the passage from Puritan to Yankee.  In advancing this line of argument, Bushman supported Perry Miller’s Americanization thesis.[12]

October 1977 saw the publication of Harry S. Stout’s “Religion, Communication, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.”  Stout defends the underlying theme of Alan Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind while taking it in a new direction focusing on the impact of new modes of communication.  For Stout the most significant aspect of the Great Awakening was the development of these new styles of mass communication used by itinerant preachers that could be applied in a variety of social contexts to communicate important ideas.  These itinerants, not beholden to any local hierarchy, posed a major threat to the social order, eroded traditional deferential attitudes to authority and provided a new means of disseminating republican ideologies to the unlettered masses.[13]  Although, Stout seems to be in disagreement with Parrington as to the source of the rhetoric that changed American society, he answers many of the questions of how new ideas were disseminated throughout the colonies left unanswered by Parrington and Perry Miller.

By the end of the 1970s the Great Awakening was largely understood by historians as the seminal and turbulent period when English colonists became American; casting off the shackles of Old World scholasticism and deference to authority, a period ushered in by the failure of traditional Puritan religion (in New England) and Anglicanism (in the southern colonies) to meet the religious and philosophical needs of a rapidly changing society.  The passionately delivered but dire messages of the revival’s preachers intensified the unhappiness with the growing avarice and greed of the merchant class, and challenged religious and political authoritarianism, while empowering the masses with the tools for change in the form of a new philosophical framework of rationalism that espoused the merits of individual agency, democracy and social justice.  This change was inter-colonial in nature, affecting all elements of society, providing the seeds that would inspire pre-Revolutionary ideology that would mark America’s final and decisive break with Europe: the American Revolution.  The 1980s would herald in a new age in the historiography of early American revivalism.

In 1982, Jonathon Butler published “Enthusiasm Described and Decried:  The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction.”  In this revisionist article, Butler asked whether the Great Awakening warranted the enthusiasm of the previous fifty years of scholarship in explicating the changes in pre-revolutionary American society.  In answering this question in the negative, Butler challenged nearly every historian of note who had written about eighteenth century revivalism. [14]

Butler’s list of grievances is long.  Butler argues that the histories written by Bushman, Heimert and Perry Miller all over state the significance of the revivals: by using the term “Great Awakening,” they distort the true nature and extent of revivalism.  According to Butler, revivalism swept through only some of the colonies, leaving some relatively untouched and did so over a protracted period from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries.[15]  Furthermore, the arguments presented by previous scholars lead to unwarranted claims as to the effects and importance of the revivals, most notably over stating the effect of revivals on the American Revolution.[16]  Butler directly challenges Heimert and Bushmen arguing that Calvinism was never the dominant form of revivalism in the British colonies and that to argue so undersells the various other European influences on the American peoples especially in the middle colonies—Pietism, Freemasonry, Lutheranism, mysticism and other worldviews that informed revivalism.  In challenging the idea that the dominant mode of thought was Calvinist during the revivals, Butler supported Parrington’s thesis that it were the anti-revivalists whose influence was felt most in New England, yet tacitly rejects much of the rest of Parrington’s argument.[17]

In response to the traditional historiography of the subject, Butler argues that the itinerant preachers failed to challenge clerical hegemony, were not a source of radicalism, and that Edwards’ real influence on America was not realized until nearly a century after his death at the dawn of the Second Great Awakening.  Butler challenges Stout, arguing that there is little evidence to show that these new modes of communication influenced the spread or egalitarian ideas throughout the colonies.[18]

While these challenges to previous scholars serve to undermine individual arguments, Butler wishes to do more, to deconstruct the “Great Awakening’ paradigm itself.  For Butler, the lack of a coherent general narrative, the open ended dates for the beginning and end of revivalism, the fact that eighteenth century contemporaries never used the term “Great Awakening” when describing the revivals, and that the most important studies of the period all focus on local revivals move Butler to conclude that the “Great Awakening” did not exist as a singular event in American history, but that the “Great Awakening” was a interpretive fiction created by  Joseph Tracy in the mid-1800s in order to make sense of the events of the mid-eighteenth century.[19]  This labeling of the events during the period of revivalism is not problematic to Butler because it is a fiction; it is problematic in that it “does serious injustice to the minutiae that it orders.”[20]

While Butler systematically dissembles the arguments of the previous generation of historians of the Great Awakening, he concedes that the revivals in 1740s New England do represent a significant and important period of colonial history.  Yet by claiming that the label does, “injustice to the minutiae that it orders” Butler unfairly discounts the impact and importance of revivalism outside of the very limited geography and timeframe.  Butler, in tearing down the intellectual framework that built by the previous generations of scholars, leaves very little to build upon; Butler’s thesis was more destructive than constructive and did little to further historians understanding of this period of American history.  Furthermore, Butler seemingly seeks direct cause and effect relationships between the revivals, overlooking the possibility of subtle and indirect influences of revivalism on pre-revolutionary American thought.

Responses to Butler’s paper began almost immediately after its publication.  George W. Harper’s “Clericalism and Revival: The Great Awakening in Boston as a Pastoral Phenomenon”, published in 1984 took Butler to task arguing that his thesis undermined the importance of the Great Awakening’s social dimensions and the impact it had upon select groups throughout the different colonies.[21]  Specifically, in the course of arguing that the New Lights willingness to embrace new modes of pastoral work, creating irresolvable conflict between them and the Old Light conservatives, Harper shows that Butler’s article represented a gross misunderstanding of the revivals on pastoral work throughout the colonies.  By overlooking this detail, Butler failed to understand the radical nature of New Light evangelism.  This misconstrues the Great Awakening’s “origins, course, and its outcomes.”[22]  Harper’s effectiveness in explicating the radicalism of the revivals defends Bushman and Heimert’s theses and re-opens some of the problems that Butler thought he had dissolved.

Not all of the works published after 1982 addressed concerns raised in ‘Enthusiasm decried and Described.”  One important text that fails to make any mention of Butler is Patricia Bonomi’s 1986 book, Under the Cope of Heaven.  This work of social history focused on testing the arguments of Heimert.  In testing these arguments, Bonomi used church records to show that the declension of religion in the early to mid eighteenth century was an illusion.[23]  Reactions to the Great Awakening pervaded the entirety of British North America, influencing the wider public and provided a period of stabilization in which the basic civil and political philosophies that would inform the American Revolution first took shape, as evidenced by the embrace of the dissenting tradition by both the Denominationalists (the Baptist and Methodist groups formed after the break between New and Old Lights) and the Congregationalists (Old Lights).[24]

By openly engaging in rhetorical combat, the Denominationalists and the Congregationalists provide the spark for the wider public to see dissent as acceptable behavior, in turn promoting a philosophy of individualism and eroding the tradition of deference; providing support for the traditional historiographical interpretation of the Great Awakening.  This embrace of a dissenting tradition and its direct consequences affected all colonies and provided the model for later radicals, and marked the turning point in the cultural evolution of the colonies.  Like Heimert, Bonomi saw the Great Awakening as the key to understanding the origins of the American Revolution.

Bonomi’s work exemplifies the trend begun in the 1960s social history by looking beyond the elites and looking at history from the bottom up.  Most notably, Bonomi draws attention to a group that previous scholars had left unexplored; African-Americans, arguing that this group felt the Great Awakening’s impact most profoundly, providing a foundation for the later development of African-American culture.[25] While Bonomi never refers to Butler, her careful and well-argued analysis of the religious milieu of eighteenth century British North America highlights weaknesses in Butler’s argument, effectively allowing other historians to counter some of the more radical claims in his work.

Although Butler had sought to deconstruct the idea of a Great Awakening, interest in Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind still ran hot.  In late 1986, Bruce Tucker published “The Reinvention of New England,” taking a stand against both Heimert and Butler.  For Tucker, Heimert placed too much emphasis on the years after 1740 and their influence, or lack thereof, on the Revolution, while Butler was guilty of euthanizing the links between the Great Awakening and Revolution prematurely, while agreeing with Butler that the period of religious revivalism was just another event of no real immediate significance. [26]  According to Tucker, revivalism played a minimal, but not insignificant, role in the march toward Revolution.  Public perceptions of revivalism along with news from England confirmed the partnership that dissenting colonials felt with their brethren in the Old World, using victory in the French and Indian War as evidence of God’s blessing.  These bonds were strained during the 1760s as Britain sought ways to pay for the French and Indian Wars, with the colonists feeling a sense of betrayal by the Crown.[27]  Although seeking to challenge both Heimert and Butler, Tucker ironically opened a middle path between the two that while well argued is a rather unconvincing piece of intellectual history.

In “The Origins of Slaveholders’ Paternalism: George Whitefield, the Bryan Family, and the Great Awakening”  Allan Gallay directly challenged Butler’s assertion that Whitefield’s visit to Charleston bore no fruit, arguing that  a major legacy of Whitefield’s revivals in the South laid the foundations of slaveholder paternalism using the Bryan family’s experiences as a paradigmatic example of this influence.  The limited scope of this article is a major weakness, yet provides the groundwork for future investigations into the links between revivalism and its effects on the institution of slavery.[28]

By the time the 1980s faded into the past, Butler’s radicalism had waned.  1990’s synthetic work of cultural history Awash in a Sea of Faith saw Butler defend his overall thesis yet also moderate his position regarding the importance of the revivals as regional events, in effect adjusting his position in light of the recent scholarship, although such an admission is never explicitly made.  Despite the moderation of his position, Butler’s influence was just gaining steam, his interpretive fiction thesis gaining momentum in the world of Great Awakening studies and would soon become the dominant paradigm of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, shifting the focus back to intellectual history of the period.

Joseph Conforti largely agrees with the interpretive fiction thesis seeing the revivals of the eighteenth century as a series of loosely related events without enough cohesion to warrant the description of a “great awakening.”  However, Conforti breaks with Butler in his assessment, shifting the author of the fiction from Joseph Tracy in the 1840s to the revivalist ministers and preachers of the Second Great Awakening.  In his paper, “The Invention of the Great Awakening, 1795-1842” Conforti argues that the Northeastern New Divinity School and Southern Methodists did the inventing in an effort to provide historical roots and legitimacy for the revivals of the early to mid nineteenth century.[29]

Conforti’s analysis is much more satisfying than that of Butler and by attributing authorship of the fiction to a new generation of revivalists seeks to show the continuous nature of the American religious experience.  Less successful is the argument that this invention was wrought by the New Divinity in an attempt to de-radicalize the Revolution by shifting the focus of the American experience from the most recent past to “less problematic formative events in the colonial past.”[30]  This line of argument is never fully explored by Conforti making this assertion seem unfounded and out of place.

Frank Lambert was the first to seriously investigate Butler’s interpretive fiction thesis in an extensive study, publishing the monograph Inventing the “Great Awakening” in 1999.  Like Butler and Conforti, Lambert saw little evidence to support the claim that the period of revivalism in the 1730s and 40s merited the distinction of a Great Awakening.  But where Butler had argued that it was Joseph Tracy who invented the construct of a Great Awakening and Conforti situates the invention in the Second Great Awakening, Lambert sees other forces at work; participants of the eighteenth revivals themselves and those contemporaries in the printing industry who fought a battle for the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of the literate populace in pamphlets, broadsheets and other printed ephemera.[31]  For Lambert, the “Great Awakening” was “about contestation, a sustained, intensive struggle over meaning that may be termed an early American culture war” an idea hinted at by Heimert and Harper.[32]

By focusing on the role of the media in creating the idea of a “Great Awakening” Lambert’s analysis almost demands a comparative study between contemporary media’s portrayal of the twenty-first century culture wars and those of the eighteenth and the way ideological debates are presented to the public today.  However, Lambert’s analysis does little to explain the changes that the revivals had on American religious behavior, a task embarked upon by religious historian, Thomas Kidd.

In The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America published in 2007, Kidd seeks to use the interpretive fiction paradigm to explore the massive changes in religion that allowed the move from a Puritan and Anglican dominated religious landscape to modern Evangelicalism and its contemporary offshoots.  However, unlike Butler who argued that the revivals created little change within colonial religion, Kidd argues that  massive and important, inter-colonial and long-lasting changes occurring during the period, although he recognizes problems with calling this period of colonial history as “the”  Great Awakening.[33]

Kidd concurs with Lambert that the Great Awakening came about as a fiction created during the period of revivalism by the rapid expansion of the print industry and a growing mass of consumers with the means to buy the narratives, but by examining the changes in the religious landscape gives a more satisfying account of the import of the invention.[34]

Kidd also argues against the division of revivalists into New Lights and Old Lights, forcefully stating that a tripartite division of anti-revivalists, moderate evangelicals and radical evangelicals, with each group responding differently to the events of the day.  For Kidd the revivalists were a heterogeneous group, often with clear doctrinal differences that informed how evangelicalism evolved in the years before the American Revolution.[35]

Where Conforti and Lambert focused their respective studies on the elites of the period, Kidd takes a wider view, looking at the effect of revivals and the move to evangelicalism had upon women, minorities and the often overlooked homosexual men and women of the period Kidd notes that among the more radical evangelicals, women often rose to positions of leadership.  Kidd’s research and the questions that it raises regarding race, gender and religion in colonial America could provide the opening for the more in-depth study of these groups.  A strength of Kidd’s work is that it takes a much broader social perspective of revivalism than Perry Miller, Heimert, Lambert and Conforti had previously attempted. [36]

The period of revivalism generally known as the Great Awakening has inspired a considerable amount of scholarly attention over the last ninety years, with the historiography reflecting the general trends in American scholarship.  Since 1927, much of the literature written about the Great Awakening and its significance in American history has been in the field of intellectual history to the detriment of Great Awakening studies as a whole.  John C. Miller marked one of the only forays into an economic interpretation of events and the works by Bushman, Bonomi and Kidd have introduced the voice of the social historian to the debate.

Despite the work done by these scholars much more work needs to be done, especially in assessing the impact of the Great Awakening on Native Americans, slaves, women and other minority groups.  What effect, if any, did the women preachers have upon the revivalism as a whole?  Did the gospel of individualism and the erosion of deference to authority have upon slaves of the period?  Can historians better understand the Great Awakening by looking at patterns of consumption and trade?  How did ideological differences manifest themselves in the larger social sphere, if at all?  Only by answering questions like these will our understanding of the period be furthered.

While the historical paradigms posited by Perry Miller, and Alan Heimert have dominated much of the historiography before 1980, Butler’s revisionist challenge forced historians to think about the significance and interpretations of the Great Awakening in new and challenging ways.  The “interpretive fiction” paradigm has emerged as the dominant mode of thinking about eighteenth century revivalism and no new history of the period can proceed without addressing the concerns raised by Butler.  Despite, or perhaps because of its controversial nature, Jon Butler’s 1982 essay has become the most the most influential work in the historiography of the Great Awakening, an influence that by no means seems to be waning if the recent historiography is any indication.



[1] Parrington, Vernon L., “An Anachronism in the Age of Reason” in The Great Awakening: Event and Exegesis., ed. Darrett B. Rutman, New York: Wiley, 1970, 100-108.

[2] Parrington, 103ff.

[3] Gewehr, Wesley M., The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790.  Gloucester, Mass: P. Smith, 1965, 40 – 166.

[4] Gewehr, 3 36ff.

[5] Gewehr, 3, 262.

[6] Miller, John C., “Religion, Finance, and Democracy in Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 6, no. 1 (March 1, 1933): 29-58,,  Accessed 10/12/2011

[7] Miller, John C., 57.

[8] Miller, Perry, “Crisis and Americanization” in The Great Awakening: Event and Exegesis., ed. Darrett B. Rutman,  New York: Wiley, 1970, 139 – 156.

[9] Miller, Perry.  Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956, 154.

[10] Heimert, Alan.  Religion and the American Mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

[11] Bushman, Richard L., From Puritan to Yankee; Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967

[12] Bushman, x, 183 – 191.

[13] Stout, harry S., “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly 34, no. 4, Third Series (October 1, 1977): 519-541,  Accessed 10/31/2011.

[14] Butler, Jon. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction,” The Journal of American History 69, no. 2 (1982): 305-325,  Accessed 9/14/2011.

[15] Butler, 307-311.

[16] Butler, 308.

[17] Butler, 309.

[18] Butler, 321.

[19] Butler, 307ff.

[20] Butler, 308.

[21] Harper, George W., “Clericalism and Revival: The Great Awakening in Boston as a Pastoral Phenomenon,” The New England Quarterly 57, no. 4 (December 1, 1984): 554-566,  Accessed 11/26/2011

[22] Harper, 566.

[23] Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, 6ff.

[24] Bonomi, 9ff, 221.

[25] Bonomi, 124-126.

[26] Tucker, Bruce, “The Reinvention of New England, 1691-1770,” The New England Quarterly 59, no. 3 (1986): 315-340,  Accessed 10/31/2011

[27] Tucker, 331 – 333.

[28] Gallay, Allan. “The Origins of Slaveholders’ Paternalism: George Whitefield, the Bryan Family, and the Great Awakening in the South,” The Journal of Southern History 53, no. 3 (1987): 369-394,

[29] Conforti, Joseph, “The Invention of the Great Awakening, 1795-1842,” Early American Literature 26, no. 2 (January 1, 1991): 99-118, Accessed 9/29/2011

[30] Conforti, 102.

[31] Lambert, Frank, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton University Press, 1999),

[32] Lambert, 7.

[33] Kidd, Thomas S., The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009), xvi – xviii.

[34] Kidd, xviii.

[35] Kidd, xiv.

[36] Kidd, 77, 317-319.

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Posted by on August 22, 2017 in Uncategorized


On the Conflation of Daesh with Islam

In the last several months there has been an increased tendency for people to apportion blame for acts of terrorism to all Muslims, conflating extremism and extremist ideology with the religion of Islam. This is wrong. We should not come to hasty generalisations about an entire community of co-religionists based on the actions, ideology, or politics of the few.

Islam, like Christianity or Buddhism or Judaism, is not a monolithic faith. There are many variants. Like these other religions, some of these variants believe and preach intrepretations of the religion that differ radically from the mainstream. Daesh and their teachings are an example of this radical departure from religious orthodoxy. It is important to keep this in mind; Daesh’s ideology is not reflective of Islam as a whole, just as the Westboro Baptist Church is not reflective of Christianity, and Bodu Bala Sena is not reflective of Buddhism.

By conflating an extremist ideology such as Daesh’s with the mainstream forms of Islam, we distance ourselves from the overwilling majority of the world’s Muslims who want nothing more than to live in peace. By conflating Daesh and Islam we fall victim to Islamophobia, and in doing so, feed the extremists in our own societies who are all too happy to exploit our fears for their own political and social agendas. We have warrant to be phobic of Daesh, just as we have warrant to be phobic of violent Christian fundamentalist groups like the Christian Identity Movement. But being justifiably phobic of a tiny subset of any religion does not mean we have the justification to be phobic of an entire religion.

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Posted by on November 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


Remembering the Forgotten.

April 8th marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day set aside to commemorate, to mourn, and to reflect upon the six million Jewish people who were killed during the Second World War. This is a fine and noble aim; to remember those who perished and to meditate upon the atrocities that humanity is able to commit against itself is important. Lest we forget.

However, there are other atrocities that were played out closer to home that should also be commemorated and mourned, yet sadly are not. Home-grown genocides–in the United States, Australia, Mexico, Canada and elsewhere–in which countless millions were killed or forcibly disinherited of their lands and histories are a fundamental aspect of the historical narratives of these nations. These genocides, in which entire cultures, languages, and peoples were forever erased are hidden away behind a screen of more recent events and essentially forgotten.

To forget about the multitudes who died, were subjugated, or disinherited of their cultures is to silence an already voiceless people; an act that makes current and future generations as complicit in the genocides as those who committed the original atrocities.  It is the final act of erasure.

So why is there no day of remembrance for these countless millions?

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Posted by on April 8, 2013 in Uncategorized


Review: Carol Karlsen’s “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman.”

Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, was first published in 1987 and reissued as a paperback by W.W Norton from New York, NY in 1998 with a new afterword.  The Devil in the Shape of a Women focuses its attention on Massachusetts and Connecticut during an eighty-year period of history from 1630 to the early eighteenth century. Karlsen pays special attention to the outbreaks of witch hysteria that brought fear to New Englanders from the mid to late seventeenth century. Using the tools of the social historian and the anthropologist, Karlsen painstakingly reconstructs the demography of witchcraft in colonial New England to answer the question of why women were seen as witches in New England Puritan society, a question that Karlsen accuses previous scholars of the period such as John Boyer, Stephen Nissinbaum and John Demos of leaving unasked.[1]

Karlsen’s thesis argues that independent, older women who were the sole heirs of an estate, had acquired their estates through non-traditional means, or who were in a precarious social and/or economic situation were most likely to be accused of witchcraft because of the challenges to the economic, social and gender hierarchy these woman presented; challenges that threatened the precarious order of Puritan society.

Karlsen breaks the work into three main sections.  The first examines religious beliefs of the Puritans and early New Englanders arguing that belief in witchcraft was not an anomaly but an integral part of the ever-changing doxa and praxis of Puritan religion.  The second section delves into the demography of witchcraft, analyzing what seems to be the entire extant records of the period to discover the common social and economic characteristics of accuses witches.  The final third of Karlsen’s work uses the same set of primary sources and demographic data to explore the gender relationships that were predominant during the time-period and why the accused represented a challenge to the established order.

Karlsen’s work is thoroughly researched using what seems to be the entire body of extant records from the period to draw her conclusions.  These conclusions themselves are well-supported by the evidence presented to the reader.  The numerous tables and lists showing ages, economic status, inheritance patterns and other social and economic data conclusively support her claims as to the ages, social position and familial relationships of the accused witches. However, the latter third of the book relies more on anthropological analysis and inference than previous sections, making this part of the text most likely to be challenged by future historians.

The Devil in the Shape of a Women is an essential read for any who wish to understand witchcraft its relationship to the prevailing social and gender patterns of early colonial society and provides a wealth of information for the scholar of early American history and could be used as a starting point for understanding the ever-changing gender roles in US history.  Karlsen’s book could also serve as the starting point for an analysis of the few male witches brought to trial during the seventeenth century, to see if any of the same concerns apply to this overlooked demographic

[1] Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 212f.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction


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Review: Alan Taylor’s “American Colonies: The Settling of North America.”

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies: The Settling of North America, published by Penguin Books in 2002, presents to the reader an important interpretation of the early history of the United States that expands upon the traditional Anglocentric narrative.  Taylor’s work of historical synthesis takes in a broad sweep of history, looking back to the earliest peopling of the North American continent by Asiatic hunter/gather groups circa 13,000 BCE to the early national period c.1820 CE.  Taylor argues that the many different waves of colonization originating in diverse regions of the globe have had a lasting and profound impact on the history of the nation helping shape a unique American identity.[1]  In presenting this argument, Taylor moves the narrative away from the Anglocentric point-of-view that dominates the historiography of the period replacing it with a more dynamic, diverse, and holistic account.

By including the histories of the many different peoples who have inhabited the North American continent form the earliest Asiatic peoples who would become the forebears of today’s native peoples to the Spanish, French, Dutch, Russians, and English who freely choose to settle the “New World”, to the forced migrations of African peoples from a wide variety of nations, Taylor successfully forces the reader into thinking about American history differently through the use of a compelling narrative and a thematic approach to history.  By breaking history into small geographic and temporal segments, Taylor provides a framework that allows the narrative to explore individual groups and time-periods, while keeping the intercultural narrative of the text at the forefront of the reader’s attention.

Taylor’s work is an important text that should be at the top of any history buffs to-read list.  Those interested in colonial America, Native American history, the histories of non-Anglo colonial powers will find this large but eminently readable tome of great value while giving them a much more nuanced vision of the colonial period.

[1] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volume 1) (Penguin (Non-Classics), 2002). xii.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction


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Review: Richard Godbeer’s “Sexual Revolution in Early America.”

Published by the Johns Hopkins Press, Richard Godbeer’s 2002 monograph Sexual Revolution in Early America provides an in-depth look into sex and sexuality in the colonial and early national periods of American history.  Using the tools and methodologies of social and cultural history, Godbeer seeks to shine a light on an overlooked theme in American history, early American sexuality.

The bulk of Godbeer’s analysis focuses upon New England and the Puritans, with the occasional foray into Philadelphia, Virginia and the Carolinas.  The work takes in a period of two hundred years, from the years immediately prior to the British settlement of North America in the early seventeenth century, to the period immediately after the Revolutionary War in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Throughout the text, Godbeer argues that during the eighteenth century a new sexual ethos regarding sex and sexual culture emerged in British North America as the result of a culture war that pitted differing conceptions of proper sexual etiquette against one another.  This shift represented a move away from traditional conceptions of sex and society brought to the New World by English colonists toward a more individualistic worldview informed by, and predicated upon, the revolutionary ideology of the late 18th century.[1]  By showing the evolution in American sexual culture, Godbeer challenges conventional wisdom used by contemporary culture warriors that looks to the early years of American society as the exemplar of traditional sexual mores and shows this point-of-view to be little more than a wishful fiction.

Sexual Revolution in Early America begins with an examination of popular attitudes toward pre-marital sex, the sexual proclivities of exotic natives of the uncivilized New World, and inter-racial sexual relations as portrayed through English high and literary culture in the years immediately before permanent British colonization of North America.  Godbeer’s use of theses accounts works to show that these concerns were emerging but does little to show that these pre-conceptions were normative or even widespread in English society of the period.  Despite this shortfall, this small introductory section provides a foundation that highlights the contested nature of sexuality in early seventeenth century English society, and the existence of a multi-faceted discourse regarding sexual mores.[2]

Godbeer moves the focus of the discussion in the first part of the book to New England and its most famous inhabitants: the Puritans.  Here Godbeer challenges the traditional notion of the Puritans that dominates the modern mind, by showing them to be highly sexual beings exhibiting many of the same sexual foibles as modern Americans.  Furthermore, even the small group of Puritans who evangelized regarding sexuality were concerned not with controlling all sexual activity but with delineating licit and illicit behaviors and relations; relations then enforced through a punitive legal system and societal pressure.  This pressure by Puritan moral evangelists to enforce a rigorous moral code in a heterogeneous society is the first of the sexual revolutions in Godbeer’s account.

The second of the books three parts moves the narrative to the southern colonies, focusing heavily on the Carolinas and the special circumstances that many early settlers found themselves.  Many of those who lived on the border between civilization and the untamed wilderness found themselves having to create a new type of moral code suited to their new environment.  This pragmatic and unorthodox approach to sexual morality was in many cases in direct opposition to the prevailing religious and civil notions of correct behavior.  Religious and civil powers regulated licit sexual behaviors in an attempt to provide order in chaos.  Worries of miscegenation and its affects on English civility and civilization provided much of the impetus for a new set of mores—especially after the move from a society with slaves to a slave society—while the serial monogamy and seeming licentiousness of these frontiersmen and women spoke of a breakdown of civil society itself.  It is in this region that Godbeer first sees the identification of womanhood with virtuousness that would become a popular trope as the colonies moved toward independence and the new ideology of republicanism took shape.

In the third and final section of the text, Godbeer argues that with the declension of Puritan ecclesiastic power and the increasing complexity of civil society, the power of the state/church to enforce its own brand of sexual morality waned as other matters took legal precedence.  A moral code that had once been the purview of the legal system now relied more on the sanction of society to enforce sexual ethics.  A consequence of this move was that as society changed so to did the ideas about proper sexual etiquette.  As revolutionary ideas swept the colonies and the rhetoric of individual freedom seized the imaginations of the citizenry, especially those who lived in the urban north.  This philosophy of individual liberty clashed with the emerging concept of virtuous womanhood that came to the fore during and after the Revolutionary War.

The evidence mustered by Godbeer supports his thesis well.  The historian uses a wide variety of primary source material; court transcripts, plays and other fictional works, almanacs, newspapers, diaries, and sermons.   By highlighting a recurring theme of tension and conflict in American sexual history, Godbeer successfully shows that sexuality has always been a contentious issue in American society while undermining long-held but erroneous conceptions of the early American people’s and their attitudes toward sex.  Sexual Revolution in America successfully casts aside the stereotype of the Puritan, replacing the dull, staid, highly religious citizenry for a more nuanced vision that was intimately concerned with “proper” sexual relations.

One weakness is Godbeer’s almost exclusive focus on the British colonies of North America fails to account for the fact that during the colonial period people’s from all over Europe settled in what would become the United States.  As Alan Taylor argues so well in his 2002 monograph, American Colonies, these immigrants brought with them a wide variety of cultural and religious forms, which must surely have included culturally specific attitudes toward sex and sexuality.  By focusing so heavily on the English—and specifically the Puritans—these other cultures influence on the evolution of American society are seemingly discounted by Godbeer.

This book should benefit those with an interest in early colonial North America or human sexuality in history.  For the student of history, Sexual Revolution in Early America could be used as a starting point for a more comprehensive account of American sexuality by examining the whether the sexual attitudes of the German, Dutch, French and other non-Anglo colonists influenced American attitudes toward sex and sexuality.

[1] Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). 9-10.

[2] Godbeer, 1-4.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction, US History


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Thought for the Day

Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people.

The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.

The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.  – F.D Roosevelt

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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Quotations