Sweeney’s Booknotes: The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775

John Howard Smith, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775 (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015)

9781611477146_bigThis important new history of the eighteenth-century revivals offers what Smith calls “a secular interpretation” of the phenomena (p. x). Or as this history teacher at Texas A&M University-Commerce claims throughout the book, this is a reinterpretation of the first Great Awakening and its role in charging American national culture with a lively current of fractious, supernaturalistic, and even mystical piety—a current that helped to catalyze the War of Independence and then characterized much of the new nation’s Christianity.

Smith contends that previous books on the eighteenth-century revivals take for granted an all-too-narrow Anglo-Protestant frame of reference. However, in Smith’s retelling, both African and Native religions contribute to their outcomes, as do a longer and more diverse cast of characters (German, Dutch, and female characters, especially).

Smith features Jonathan Edwards most clearly in chapter four, “‘A Glorious Work of God’s Infinite Power’: Jonathan Edwards and Revivalism in New England, 1734-1741.” But Edwards appears in other places in the narrative as well, looking rather more conflicted over the work of radical New Lights than traditional interpreters have made him out to be. In spite of Edwards’ “reputation for being a moderate,” says Smith, he “nevertheless endorsed some of the more radical expressions of evangelicalism. Recent reexaminations of his own written works paint a slightly different picture of him—one that does not exactly conform to the consistently even-tempered New Light found in the pages of most accounts of the Awakening” (p. 152).

Smith sensationalizes evangelical faith and fervor frequently, majoring in the most exotic tales told by Old Light opponents of the Awakening. He notes “a subsequent rash of suicides” in the wake of Joseph Hawley’s death in 1735, though we have no actual evidence of any more suicides in Edwards’ neck of the woods during that devastating year (p. 99: suicidal thoughts, yes, and one earlier attempt; suicidal deaths, no). He features Old Light claims regarding New Light eroticism, claiming that “many New Side and New Light ministers” were accused of “having fornicated with enamored female adherents and even to have fathered bastard children” (p. 163: a few accusations, yes; many accusations, no). He asserts matter-of-factly that “women in the Old Testament are little more than servants and instruments of Satan—irrational, undeserving of honor or respect, and responsible for the Fall” (p. 167: where to begin?). And he refers to the era’s evangelical Calvinism as a form of “fundamentalism” (pp. 57, 265, 296, and elsewhere: a twentieth-century label from a very different world). Maneuvers like this may attract undergraduates, but they leave such students misinformed about the past.

Though not as accurate or helpful theologically as Noll or Kidd, Smith does incorporate a broader array of contextual material than anyone. His book is not as new as he says (as attested by his excellent use of the best recent scholarship on eighteenth-century America). But it is the most comprehensive single-volume interpretation of the first Great Awakening to date.