Monday, May 12, 2008

Reviving the Great Awakening, Part 2

Back to blogging now, after a brief break. Also, thanks to Paul Harvey over at Religion in American History for linking the interview.

Baldblogger (BB): Keen readers of your work may notice that The Great Awakening is something of a sequel to your first book, The Protestant Interest. Your first book was about the creation of evangelical identity in America, and the second about identity and practice forged in the fires of revival. Is this an accurate observation, and if so, what do you see as the key connection between the two? (Perhaps the Christian Sparta book will constitute a trilogy—comment on this if you like too.)

Tommy Kidd (TK): The Great Awakening is something of a sequel to The Protestant Interest, although each book stands on its own. The Protestant Interest is concerned with the emergence of pre-evangelical culture in New England, and shows how New Englanders became particularly receptive to revivalism by the 1720s and 1730s. The Protestant Interest explains the cultural/intellectual background to the Great Awakening, while The Great Awakening is focused more on the revivals themselves, not only in New England, but across North America. My book A Christian Sparta: Evangelicals, Deists, and the Creation of the American Republic, which should be out with Basic Books in 2009, also expands on The Great Awakening by demonstrating that America’s religious culture, profoundly shaped by the Great Awakening, also heavily colored America’s rebellion against Britain.

BB: The Great Awakening is the first synthetic treatment of this event in many, many years, and as you point out in the introduction, scholarly snapshots of the colonial revivals have appeared consistently the last 20 years or so. In your own scholarly journey, when did you identify the need for a book such as this, and what was the process by which you carried out sketching the project and organizing it? Connect the dots for us.

TK: As was finishing my dissertation, which became The Protestant Interest, I began thinking about doing a book on the Great Awakening. Historians have noted for twenty-five years or more that the Great Awakening lacked an updated synthesis. This, to me, seemed a remarkable omission in the literature, given the Great Awakening’s status as one of the seminal moments of the American colonial era. As I looked more closely at the literature on the Great Awakening, however, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the usual interpretive framework of “Old Lights” versus “New Lights.” That rivalry just didn’t ring true to me, as I saw just as much feuding between different kinds of evangelicals, whom I call radicals and moderates. My hope is that this book both synthesizes the massive literature on the Awakening, and gives it an improved taxonomy of competing positions.

BB: If you can nail it down, what was the most important archival discovery you made in researching The Great Awakening? Why?

TK: The primary sources on the Great Awakening are fairly well raked-over, but I found that there were many sources, especially on radical evangelicals, were underutilized. I uncovered at least one source that was entirely neglected--the narrative of the miraculous healing of Mercy Wheeler, of Plainfield, Connecticut. I published an article on this episode in The William and Mary Quarterly in 2006, but I also discuss it in the book. Her healing perfectly illustrates the agency and creativity of radical laypeople in the Great Awakening, and shows how mystical experiences could empower lay women and men in the revivals.

BB: One of the points you make early in The Great Awakening is that contemporary accounts of the movement overlook the role of the Holy Spirit in evangelical revivalism. This speaks on the one hand to questions surrounding religious practice (i.e., “manifestations” of the Spirit), while on the other hand it brings a focus to the role of “enchantment” (to use a sociological term) in this history of evangelicalism. You effectively sustain this line of argument throughout the book. What exactly does understanding the role of the Holy Spirit add to our understanding of colonial evangelical revival and religious practice? (Reading between the lines here, are readers right to identify this angle of analysis a silent commentary on your own faith tradition?)

TK: The Great Awakening was shot through with mystical manifestations of the Spirit (trances, dreams, visions, healings, spirit journeys, etc.). Historians have often not known what to make of such episodes, and have only recently begun to look seriously at them as an integral part of evangelical history. Historian Douglas Winiarski has probably done more than anyone to alert us to the teeming presence of the miraculous in early evangelicalism. My sense is that the mysticism of the revivals fed their intensity, subversiveness, and individualistic tendencies. The belief in the Spirit led many common people to believe that they had a more profound experience with God than many of the state-supported, college-educated pastors. I certainly also have personal interest in the ways that experiences in the Spirit tend to fuel a kind of Christian egalitarianism.

UPDATE: Robert Orsi, from a popular Catholicism perspective, addresses this line of thinking and analysis in a 2007 article explaining religious mysteries and human encounters with the transcendent. For further reflections readers might also wish to read Orsi's 2006 interview in Historically Speaking. And of course in this context we should not fail to mention two recent books that help scholars to ponder analysis of the unseen: Orsi's Between Heaven and Earth and Thomas Tweed's Crossing and Dwelling.

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