Darkness Falls on the Land of Light

Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England

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Douglas L. Winiarski
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , March
     632 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Douglas L. Winiarski’s Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is a brilliant, meticulous study of religious revivals in eighteenth century New England written in the vein of David D. Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (Harvard University Press, 1990). The text narrates the Great Awakening through the lives, experiences, and practices of its advocates and the response of its opponents. While George Whitefield appears regularly throughout, Winiarski focuses on less prominent itinerants and laymen—a feat made possibly by an exhaustive knowledge and use of primary sources.

The monograph consists of five novella-sized parts. Readers are introduced to the world of Congregationalism in New England prior to the arrival of Whitefield before they are plunged into the revivals. Winiarski focuses on conflict between the dissenting New Lights and the religious establishment, narrowing in on key figures and events that bring the scenes to life. As with other moments of religious revolution, personal experimentation led the new religionists into unusual paths. For some, this included beliefs in personal immortality and a type of perfectionism that problematized the bonds of marriage. Ultimately, Winiarski demonstrates how the Great Awakening instituted a balanced religious landscape between Old Lights and New Lights with both Congregationalists and Separate Baptists often having neighboring churches in the same community.

By highlighting the experiences of the average adherents, Winiarski emphasizes elements of the Great Awakening that will be new to all but a few experts. I was particularly impressed with his emphasis on the diversity of the era’s charismata. He describes revelations received as “biblical impulses,” in which the words of scripture came “as a detextualized voice that pierced their minds with supernatural force” (16). He includes accounts of believers who saw visions of their names in the Book of Life or who claimed supernatural discernment over the spiritual status of others. Winiarski has even documented the presence of demonic possession and exorcism among the New Lights of the eighteenth century.

The monograph deserves to be required reading for graduate students and scholars of American religious history. In addition to the wealth of new data and analysis, Darkness Falls admirably models how the methods and gaze of lived religion can expand and humanize well established narratives. Darkness Falls is likely too long for most professors to assign in survey courses. Instructors may consider assigning the concise epilogue that condenses the thrust of the larger narrative through an examination of four generations of one family. The University of North Carolina Press should be applauded for their scholar-friendly decision to use footnotes for this work, since they highlight Winiarski’s impressive research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher James Blythe is historian/documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas L. Winiarski is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Richmond.


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