The First Great Awakening

Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775

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John Howard Smith
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
    , December
     2014.
     356 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781611477146.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Recently, several historians of religion in early America have reconsidered the meaning of “the Great Awakening.” Previous scholars such as Edwin Gaustad defined the term chiefly with reference to religious revivals led by evangelical Calvinists such as Jonathan Edwards in New England, Gilbert Tennent in New Jersey, and the itinerant Anglican George Whitefield from 1736 through 1743 or so. From the 1980s on, several specialized studies brought other subjects into view: women preachers, Moravians, revivals outside the northeast corridor, ecstatic religiosity, Native American revivals, African American slave religion, and the spread of evangelical Protestantism through the South during the 1760s and 1770s. Now, we have begun to see synthetic histories of the Awakening that encompass this new range of material, reading the revivals as more expansive than previously understood and as more central to the making of American identity and culture.

John Howard Smith’s The First Great Awakening stands out as a particularly lucid and reliable effort toward this new, enlarged understanding—the best to date. Smith takes into account most of the important secondary literature, which illuminates previously neglected forerunners and Revolutionary-era successors to the Whitefield-Edwards-Tennent cast of characters. Smith weaves this material together into the most coherent account yet given of this expanded meaning of the Great Awakening. In the first part of the book, we read, for example, of pietistic movements among Dutch-speaking colonists, such as the Labidists, and how such movements affected evangelicals such as the Tennent brothers. In the second part of his study, Smith also provides a close, helpful reading of the outburst of mystical or ecstatic spiritual experiences during the 1740s. He also incorporates a new synthesis of studies about other matters: the sexual misbehaviors of radical evangelicals, the innovation of Moravians, and women’s preaching.

In the third section of his book, Smith offers chapters on the conversion of African American slaves—the so-called Indian Awakening—and the development of revivalism into anti-Catholic expressions that were given political expression during the Seven Years War. He argues that revivalism was not eclipsed by political concerns in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. It spread through the southern backcountry and the Appalachian frontier in the form of Baptist groups, with their women exhorters and separatist ways.

Although Smith has synthesized most of the relevant literature into a very helpful survey, there are two weaknesses to this book. First, as a capacious account, it often lapses into general summaries and occludes a sense of the theological and social particularities of the different people and events under consideration. Second, it claims that the Great Awakening was integral to the formation of American character, but does not sustain that argument convincingly. The connections between revival and the politics of American independence, for example, remain fairly tenuous. The book, as a whole, offers a series of important facets of the revivals, including their spread beyond white New Englanders, yet it does not give a compelling, integrated argument that might explain how the Awakening shaped social and political life beyond evangelical precincts. This book shines as one of the best surveys of the Awakening in America, but it also suggests the need to do more work on that vexing issue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Valeri is Professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University, St. Louis. 

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Howard Smith is associate professor of history as Texas A&M University-Commerce.

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