22 Aug


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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