Atlantic Awakenings

Heath Mayo

The Great Awakening, as a subject of historical scholarship, has produced numerous accounts that seek to explain the notable increase in religious enthusiasm and spiritual revival across the Atlantic world during the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. Within these narratives a number of important historiographical debates exist that continue to be engaged by modern scholars. While the early scholarship suggested the Awakening was largely driven by faith and that it was relegated to the northeastern United States, scholars since the 1960s have written to contest these claims. The historiography on this subfield of religious history is thus varied and contested, separating off into a number of competing groups that this bibliography will seek to organize.

The centerpiece of Great Awakening studies was written in 1842 by Joseph Tracy. In his account, Tracy argued that the movement was divinely inspired and rarely ventured from his consideration of lay enthusiasm and religious leaders to question the motives behind the actors’ spurt of religiosity. This thesis has generally come to be recognized as the traditional Great Awakening narrative that most scholarship has sought to either rebut or support.

In the 1960s, several authors published works that sought to clarify Tracy’s account, arguing that the Great Awakening in New England came in response to a decline in piety and enthusiasm among Protestants in the late-seventeenth century. Works by C.C. Goen and Edwin Gaustad exhibit this declension model analysis. Then, in the 1980s, scholars like Alan Heimert and David Lovejoy sought to link the Great Awakening to the individualism of the American Revolution, arguing that the religious fervor and egalitarianism that the revivals encouraged incited political rebellion. Finally, there is the approach by Richard Bushman and J.M. Bumsted which seeks to describe the Awakening as a product of social conflict between the elite class and lower social ranks. These contesting narratives are all grouped under the General Narratives heading.

Another notable moment in Great Awakening scholarship occurred in 1982, when Yale historian Jon Butler wrote a scathing critique of Tracy and other Awakening scholars. In his article, Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction, Butler contended that the Awakening never actually occurred and had instead been constructed by nineteenth century historians attempting to use the narrative for their own religious purposes. This study of the Great Awakening as myth sparked a key debate in the historiography and characterizes a separate corner of the scholarship that has been designated in the bibliography.

More recently, the trend in Great Awakening scholarship has been to expand the scope of the movement and point to connections both internationally and throughout the Atlantic world. Grouped under the headings of International Awakening and Atlantic Awakening, these works seek to show how movements in the colonies were united in their theological and cultural impact and often hitched to parallel movements occurring in continental Europe. W.R. Ward is perhaps the most notable scholar to have studied these relationships, pointing out the connections between colonial evangelicalism and the Pietist movement of continental Europe. Alternatively, studies on Atlantic awakenings have recently sought to show how the egalitarian thrust of the Awakening served to contest social boundaries, involving to a large extent African Americans, Native Americans, and women.

Finally, a group of important denominational and regional case studies are included. These works are widely cited in the general narratives and, as such, any student of Great Awakening scholarship should be aware of them.

While the scholarship on the Great Awakening has not lain to rest many of the questions and debates initially provoked by Joseph Tracy, it has moved forward to explore new questions over the past half-century. Did the Great Awakening have a starting point from which the various revivals spread? Was it a unified, transatlantic phenomenon disjointed, yet linked in its revival and evangelical tendency? Was there even a Great Awakening to begin with? These questions have driven and continue to drive Great Awakening scholarship, while continually begging new ones.

General Narratives

Bumsted, J.M. and John E. Van de Wetering. What Must I do to be Saved? The Great Awakening in Colonial America. Hinsdale, IL: Dryden Press, 1976.

This study is widely cited as one of the earliest synthetic histories of the Great Awaening that is focused explicitly on the American context. Their narrative insists that the movement was a widespread popular one that began in the cities and was spread outward into rural communities by itinerants like George Whitefield. Moreover, this study argues that piety was the major factor that propelled the movement forward.

Bushman, Richard. From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Bushman offers his version of the evolution of the social character of Connecticut as that colony moved away from its days as an encapsulated Puritan experiment toward the Revolution, and beyond, toward the America of Jackson and Tocqueville. He argues that the “law and authority embodied in governing institutions gave way under the impact first of economic ambitions and later of the religious impulses of the Great Awakening. The individual’s relationship to the old social order was radically changed through things like the growth and dispersal of the population, the resulting sectional conflicts within and emigrations from older towns, the boom of speculation in land and trade in the undeveloped eastern part of the colony, the demand for “cheap money,” and finally the consequent political tensions, of which the Great Awakening was only a part.

Gaustad, Edwin. The Great Awakening in New England. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.

In Gaustad’s study, Whitefield, Tennent, and Davenport are seen amidst an abundance of well-identified minor awakeners who give the narrative a sense of depth and breadth. Generally, Gaustad’s work reinforces the thesis that the Awakening represented a “watershed” between the traditionalism and scholasticism of the seventeenth century and a Protestant era variously described as sectarian, pietistic, and evangelical. Again, Gaustad falls into the same boat as Goen, by neglecting the cultural matrix the Great Awakening occurred within and leaves the reader to understand the movement as strictly motivated by divine sources.

Goen, C.C. Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800: Strict Congregationalists & Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening. London: Yale University Press, 1962.

Goen outlines the split between New Lights, who insisted on the need for conscious conversion, and the Old Lights, who were considered rationalist theologians who put morality in the place of religion and opposed the revival. Goen describes in detail how the New Lights first of all came to separate from the existing ecclesiastical order in new England, and then, in many cases, came to adopt Baptist beliefs and organize what, in the eighteenth century, were called Separate Baptist churches. In the long run, “The Separate Baptists bequeathed to Baptists the revivalistic tradition, in which the prophetic individualism of the early Puritans was fully institutionalized.” Goen’s account is excessively theological in that he believes that basically there was only one underlying cause of the Awakening: Protestant pietism.

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

A central work in the area of the American Great Awakening and its relation to the Revolution, Heimert argues that the Calvinists who generated much religious fervor and enthusiasm during the 1730s and 40s stimulated the democratic movement that resulted in the Revolution.

Kidd, Thomas. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Thomas Kidd seeks to expand both the chronology and geography of the Great Awakening as typically understood. Kidd argues that the Great Awakening involved interconnected revivals that stretched up and down the entire eastern seaboard, included a surprising range of denominations, contributed to an emerging egalitarianism, lasted for almost forty years, and gave colonial Americans a framework for thinking about political independence in the Revolutionary War.

Lovejoy, David. Religious Enthusiasm in the New World: Heresy to Revolution.  Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Lovejoy engages in a study of religious enthusiasts who migrated to, or were born in, the American colonies. By enthusiasts Mr. Lovejoy means “a variety of unconventional but religiously devout sectarians who would not, could not, contain their zeal within the organizaed limits of religious convention.” The point he stresses is that religious enthusiasm of the Familist sort early found its way to the New World. It was this type of enthusiasm that people like George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennant brought to the colonies in the 1730s and 40s.

The Myth of Great Awakening

Butler, Jon. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction.” Journal of American History 69 (October 1982).

Capitalizing on the weaknesses in the scholarship leading up to the early 1980s, Butler argues that the concept of a unified, inter-colonial Great Awakening has been nothing more than an exercise in “interpretative fiction” on the part of historians. Indeed, Butler claims that the Great Awakening was nothing more than an invention concocted by the 19th century evangelical historian Joseph Tracy from 18th century accounts of local revivals occurring at different times and places.

Lambert, Frank. Inventing the Great Awakening. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Lambert continues where Butler leaves off, but also contributes to this myth interpretation in a new way. In his work, Lambert argues that revivalist leaders of the 1730s and 40s themselves tapped newly-available resources of print and transatlantic communication to invent the Awakening. In the process he illuminates how powerfully print and commerce had become in shaping the social realities of the 18th century British Atlantic world.

European/International Awakening

Balmer, Randall. A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Analyzing the tensions among members of the Dutch Reformed church in early New York, Balmer’s work is important for his commentary on the Great Awakening and the degree to which it influenced and in turn was influenced by events in England. In order to repel the force of the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Dutch Reformed Church of New York initially sought to tie itself more closely to the ecclesiastical authorities in Holland.

Crawford, Michael J. Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context. Religion in America Series, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Crawford focuses on the themes of revivalism and the struggle for religious liberty. He attempts to place the Great Awakening in New England into the British context – a context that most notably includes revivals sparked by George Whitefield in Scotland. In doing so, Crawford responds to scholars of the Great Awakening who frequently remind each other that the revivals of the 1730s and 40s ought to be placed within a broader geographic context.

Kent, John. Wesley and the Wesleyans: Religion in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Kent contends that there was no evangelical revival and that Wesleyanism was popular during the 18th century because it met the needs of the “primary religious impulse” of ordinary people. Though he never explicitly outlines what primary religion is, it seems to have involved “harnessing supernatural power” for one’s personal benefit.

Schmidt, Leigh. Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Schmidt analyzes the revivalism of the mid-eighteenth century both in the United States and Europe on the basis of shared “sacramental occasions” that drew large numbers of people to festive participation in the Lord’s Supper. Specifically, Schmidt links the practices of Scottish evangelical Protestants to the Kentucky Revivals use of the “Holy Fair,” which was marked by outdoor preaching and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with great numbers of communicants in extended services that lasted five days.

Ward, W.R. The Protestant Evangelical Awakening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

In this wide-ranging study of revival in the Protestant world, Ward offers more than a survey of the specialist literature. His synthesis contains an important thesis, namely that for all their regional and temporal variations, revivals reflected the existence of an international Protestant culture, a ‘Protestant frame of mind’.

Ward, W.R. Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History, 1670-1789. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

This book represents a pioneering study of discussions within the evangelical movements from Central Europe to the American colonies about what constituted evangelical identity and of the basis of the fraternity among evangelical leaders of strikingly different backgrounds. Through a global study of the major figures and movements in the early Evangelical world, W. R. Ward aims to show that down through the eighteenth century the evangelical elite had coherent answers to the general intellectual problems of their day and that piety as well as the enlightenment was a significant motor of intellectual change.

Westerkamp, Marilyn. The Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1625-1760.  London: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Believing that the Great Awakening was not primarily a social but a religious movement, Westerkamp utilizes a definition of religion as a “belief system about a deity which provides meaning for the logically meaningless to analyze the Presbyterian ritual symbolism of revivalism and communion and the interaction of the clergy and the laity. She found that Presbyterians in Scotland and Ireland developed certain rituals that helped people cope with the level of political chaos that might otherwise have destroyed their communities.

Atlantic Awakenings

Brekus, Catherine. Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Brekus’ work uncovers the powerful story of female evangelical preaching between the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century and the Millerite movement of the 1840s. Brekus argues that the women of the First and Second Great Awakenings were moved by genuine, even overwhelming, religious conviction, rather than feminist ideology or desire for personal glory. A deep faith in God and the desire to fulfill an ordained mission drove most of these women to witness, exhort and finally preach.

Fisher, Linford D. The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Frey, Sylvia and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Hall, Timothy. Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Shaping of the Colonial American Religious World. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

Hall’s work draws on state-of-the-art concepts from anthropology and literary theory in a study of itinerant preaching during the Great Awakening. Hall argues that recent historiographical divisions have obscured the religious revivals pivotal role in the transformation of 18th century colonists’ self-understanding. In Hall’s view studies that focus on the vigor of transatlantic devotional traditions and regional or ethnic perspectives have paid insufficient attention to cultural anxieties provoked by the changing commercial context within which the revivals occurred.

Hindmarsh, Bruce. “The Revival of Conversion Narrative: Evangelical Awakening in the 18th Century.” Ch. 2, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

The approach taken by Hindmarsh is to set the subject of 18th century evangelical conversion narrative within a broad chronological frame, beginning with the rise of the genre in the mid-17th century and ending with the fall of the genre in the non-Western context of some early 19th century missionary enterprises.

O’Brien, Susan. “A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Network, 1735-1755.” Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development, Fourth Edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Susan O’Brien argues that Jonathan Edwards’s Connecticut Valley revivals of the mid-1730s probably aroused more interest in London than in Boston, which was not eager to receive its piety from the hinterland. O’Brien’s essay concentrates on Whitefield’s circle of correspondents. She demonstrates the extraordinary ability of these men to incorporate their individual efforst into a transatlantic network of remarkable strength and effectiveness.

Sensbach, Jon. Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Sensbach profiles the life of Rebeccas Protten, a slave and then freed woman of mixed white and African descent, who became an integral part of the Moravian movement to convert slaves to Christianity on the island of St. Thomas during the 1730s. Sensbach shows how slaves could play an integral role in the Awakening and how the evangelical movement was spread into the broader Atlantic world.

Denominational and Regional Case Studies

Hatch, Nathan and Harry Stout. Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

This collection of essays focuses on the teachings of Jonathon Edwards and places his evangelical work in the context of the broader Awakening. While this book mainly serves as a biographical sketch of Edwards, it is an important addition to the canon of literature on the Great Awakening since many believe that “great men” like Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield are in large part responsible for propelling the movement.

Hempton, David. The Religion of the People: Methodism and Popular Religion, c. 1750-1900. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Hempton asks how it was that religious movement with broadly similar theological content and organizational structures had such different patterns of growth, not only within England, but right across the North Atlantic world in the Age of Revolution. Moreover, he argues that Methodism was an international religious movement (with roots in European pietism and with branches all over the world), not an English epiphenomenon

Maxson, Charles. The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1920.

Using material from books, pamphlets, newspapers, and manuscript sermons, Maxson adds to Tracy’s original story by expanding pietism to the Middle Colonies. The situation there was markedly different from the homogeneity of race and ecclesiasticism found in New England. . At the core, his argument falls into the declension model camp and suggests that the German, Dutch and Scotch-Irish revival beginnings, independent in origin but affecting one another, made the country “ready to be swept by a wave of emotionalism.”

Seeman, Erik. Pious Persuasions: Laity and Clergy in Eighteenth-Century New England. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Employing a host of manuscript diaries, letters, and church records, Seeman explores the gradual process by which an increasingly assertive New England laity grew ever more distant from learned ministers. The core of the study revolves around four thematic chapters that examine popular attitudes toward death and dying, the contested meanings of meetinghouse rituals, the persistence of magic and religious heterodoxy, and the continuities of eighteenth century revivalism.

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