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Posts Tagged ‘Great Awakening’

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light

Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

WiniarskiThis finely researched project is a gold mine for students of New England church history. Its author, a professor at the University of Richmond, has provided us a volume of nearly 600 pages, which cites over 200 manuscript collections and builds upon a database of more than 1,200 church admission relations (i.e. spiritual narratives) from dozens of different towns throughout the region.

Winiarski details what he describes as a catastrophic “breakdown” of New England Congregationalism under the stress of nascent evangelicalism during the Great Awakening. His is “a tale of insurgent religious radicalism” during and after the 1740s, “an avalanche of innovative and incendiary religious beliefs and practices” inspired by George Whitefield (pp. 8-9 and passim). “The middle decades of the . . . century were the dark night of the collective New England soul,” the author claims, “as ordinary people groped toward a radically restructured religious order. The outcome of that struggle—the travail of New England Congregationalism—transformed the once-puritan churches from inclusive communities of interlocking parishes and families into exclusive networks of gifted spiritual seekers” (pp. 19-20), and transformed their homeland from a “gospel land of light” (p. 115 and passim) to a land of spiritual stridency, belligerency, and schism.

The book has five parts. Part One, “Godly Walkers” (pp. 23-130), “examines the widely shared religious vocabulary through which church membership candidates during the period between 1680 and 1740 pledged to ‘walk answerably’ to their doctrinal professions.” This was the region’s golden age, by Winiarski’s telling, one that “was tolerant, inclusive, steady, and comforting” (pp. 17-18). Part Two, “In a Flame” (pp. 131-206), describes the strategies through which evangelicals like Whitefield called the region’s Congregationalists to swap the kindly faith of New England’s “godly walkers” for a born-again fissiparousness. Part Three, “Exercised Bodies, Impulsive Bibles” (pp. 207-284), interprets the ecstatic Spirit possession purportedly promoted by Whitefield and his followers by zooming in on efforts of a Hartford magistrate, Joseph Pitkin, to discern it in a young revival convert, Martha Robinson of Boston. Part Four, “Pentecost and Protest” (pp. 285-364), shines a light on the ministries of flame-throwing evangelical preachers like James Davenport, who burned the books and vanities of less divisive Christians, dubbed their neighbors hypocrites, and split the region’s congregations. Part Five, “Travels” (pp. 365-506), narrates the demise of the old church order that resulted as schismatics put an end once-and-for-all to the golden age of Congregationalism.

The protagonists in Winiarski’s tale are not usually intellectuals like Edwards, but layfolk empowered by their preachers to act up. Still, Edwards does play an important role in the story, throwing fuel on the fires that were burning down New England (perhaps unintentionally—it’s hard to tell) by insisting in the late 1740s that his people give him testimony about the work of the Spirit in their lives before joining the Northampton church officially. Not only did this move get him sacked, the author says, by inclusive church members. It encouraged the region’s radicals to become separatists, a trend that even an evangelical like Edwards had opposed. As Winiarski avers, “the Northampton qualifications controversy signaled the beginning of the end for the churches of the Congregational standing order. . . . Edwards’s dismissal from Northampton laid bare the gaping fissures that had emerged in the gospel land of light, as ministers and lay people struggled to distinguish traditional relations and professions of doctrine from the inspired narratives of conversion” required by evangelicals (pp. 459-60).

Winiarski’s story is a bit overdramatic. There had been schismatic Protestants as long as there had been Protestants, even in New England. Further, Edwards’ closest allies stayed within the standing order (just as Edwards had commended), transforming it with Edwards’ own evangelical principles, healing most of the rifts caused by more schismatic Christians, and fighting against their churches’ disestablishment to the end (in the 1830s). Winiarski projects a far-too-unitary image of New England church history on the eve of the Awakening, and a too-chaotic view of the same religious landscape in the wake of the revivals. The land of light did change over the long eighteenth century—in part as a result of New England’s Great Awakening–but not quite as darkly and explosively as Winiarski claims.

Just when many started to worry that colonial New England had been mined for too long–and had little left to offer serious scholars of religion–Winiarski’s research has proved them wrong. This is one of the best compendia of New England social history to appear in many years. Despite my reservations regarding the book’s thesis, I recommend it highly. Students of the region will be building on its findings for decades to come.

Dissertation Note: “Rhetoric of the Revival: A Pragma-Rhetorical Analysis of the Language of the Great Awakening Preachers”

Michał Choiński’s dissertation “Rhetoric of the Revival: A Pragma-Rhetorical Analysis of the Language of the Great Awakening Preachers”, completed at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, aims to analyze the “rhetoric of revival” in ten New England revival sermons from 1739 to 1745. Using the academic methodology of rhetoric, the author unpacks the “mechanisms of rhetoric and the persuasive use of language” employed by several well known preachers of the First Great Awakening including George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennant, Jonathan Parsons, and Andrew Croswell.

The study is organized into three parts: methodology, cultural and historical background, and sermon analysis. In first chapter, Choiński defines the scope of rhetoric, he selectively reviews the history of rhetoric including the classic taxonomy or the “canon of rhetoric”: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronunciatio. Combined with traditional rhetorical analysis, he utilizes the relatively new approach to rhetoric called the pragmatic approach defined as the “relations of signs to interpreters.”

Chapter two delivers an admirable historical and cultural overview of New England as it relates to the Great Awakening and to the subjects of his study. The author walks the reader through preaching practices in Puritan New England from 1620 to the dawn of the Awakening. He also considers the phenomenon of the Great Awakening from an historical standpoint and surveys some of the key historical interpretations. The author strikes a cautious but sympathetic tone in his treatment of his controversial topic. In the end, the author agrees that there was a general spiritual awakening in New England in the 1740s rather than a constructed or invented phenomenon on the basis of a few pockets of revival.

Chapter three, the bulk of the dissertation, is devoted to the analysis of ten sermons which the author selected to demonstrate the rhetorical range of material that was produced in the Great Awakening. His work here is largely composed of rhetorical commentary upon each of the sermons. The selections are Whitefield’s What Think Ye of Christ?, Abraham’s Offering Up His Son Isaac, The Lord Our Righteousness, The Conversion of Zaccheus, Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable, and The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Gilbert Tennent’s The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, Jonathan Parsons’s A Needful Caution in a Critical Day, and Andrew Croswell’s The Apostle’s Advice to the Jaylor Improved. A brief conclusion summarizes the findings concerning each of preachers. Concerning Edwards in particular, He observed “intricate rhetorical mechanisms” and “highly elaborate imagery and structured argumentation” as well as extended metaphors.

This dissertation will be useful for specialists who interested in the construction and delivery of revival sermons, especially concerning the preaching of the Great Awakening. The author’s expertise is in rhetoric, so his main contributions lie in that domain. A second group who may be helped by this dissertation are pastors who have formal training in rhetoric. These pastors could find sermon inspiration in this analysis of the “rhetoric of revival.” To be sure, this study’s aim is to describe the main rhetorical features of the selected sermons. While Choiński does pay close attention to the primary source materials in his study, he does not marshal any significant argument concerning the “rhetoric of revival.”

— Daniel Cooley, Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards’ Sermons on the Parables of Matthew

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume II, Divine Husbandmen (on the Parable of the Sower and the Seed), ed. Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume III, Fish Out of Their Element (on the Parable of the Net), ed. Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

The second and third volumes of Edwards’ sermons on the parables in Matthew are a treasure. Formatted in keeping with the conventions of this series (see my earlier comments on volume one), they begin with a preface and a note on Edwards’ text, contain a helpful introduction to the series by Wilson Kimnach (entitled “Edwards the Preacher,” reprinted in every volume), offer historical introductions to the sermons in each book (new material every time, usually by Minkema and Neele), and then provide the sermons themselves (edited in accordance with the rest of the Yale Edition).

In volume two, on the parable of the sower and the seed, we have one of the most important series of sermons Edwards preached. George Whitefield visited Edwards’ church in October 1740, preaching five sermons in town over the course of three days (October 17-19), stirring the hearts of Edwards’ people and fanning the sparks of the Great Awakening. Edwards reported to a friend that the “congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time.” He was thrilled but also concerned that people not be star-struck by Whitefield’s preternatural speaking gifts, but live as the kind of soil in which the Word can bear fruit. So he preached right away on the parable of the sower, telling his congregation to examine themselves “whether your religious affections are only superficial, or whether they reach the bottom of the heart (62), to “count the cost, or fully . . . consider the difficulties of being thoroughly and steadfastly religious” (87). Significantly, Whitefield preached on similar themes himself (a little-known fact), as is evident in his own sermon on Luke 8:18, “Directions How to Hear Sermons” (1739), which is printed as an appendix to this volume. (For more historical context on this sermon series and Edwards’ important friendship with Whitefield, see Ava Chamberlain, “The Grand Sower of the Seed: Jonathan Edwards’s Critique of George Whitefield,” New England Quarterly 70 (September 1997): 368-85.)

In volume three, on Jesus’ parable of the net, we get a fascinating glimpse of Edwards’ preaching as he completed Religious Affections (1746). Concerned more than ever with how to distinguish true Christians from his culture’s Christian hypocrites—who fooled themselves and others about the real state of their souls but would be found out at the judgment, when the good fish will be kept and the bad thrown away—Edwards used this sermon series to encourage his congregation to examine themselves honestly and openly. “That there are so many {resemblances between hypocrites and true converts}, thence the great danger there is of men’s being deceived. And what has been observed of the great and manifold resemblances {between them}, shows the straitness of the gate; and does yet more fully show how liable men are to be deceived, and what great need there is of care, and the utmost strictness and diligence, of watchfulness and inquiry, lest we be deceived” (40). These sermons are much more sketchy than the ones in volume two, but even their sketchiness is important, as it reminds us that Whitefield showed Edwards the raw power of extemporaneous preaching—and that, after 1740 (when Whitefield first visited Edwards), Edwards rarely wrote his sermons out in full before he preached them.

These volumes are essential for all serious Edwards scholars, and are highly recommended for fans and general readers as well.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards Defending the Great Awakening

Robert Davis Smart, Jonathan Edwards’s Apologetic for the Great Awakening, with Particular Attention to Charles Chauncy’s Criticisms (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

As I suggest in my endorsement on the back of this book, it offers the wisest, most extensive interpretation of the Edwards-Chauncy debate ever written.

Bob is a friend. He serves as the senior pastor of Christ Church (PCA) in Bloomington (IL) and he teaches and preaches widely as a pastor-theologian. His book began as a dissertation at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology (associated with the University of Wales, Lampeter; now the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David). It includes an insightful foreword written by Kenneth P. Minkema of Yale University (who will be teaching another J-term course at Trinity this year). And as Ken confirms therein, it offers “the first sustained effort devoted to considering the points of debate between Chauncy and Edwards”–the well-known leaders of the “Old Light” and “New Light” parties (respectively) at the height of the Great Awakening–“and to understanding them contextually, hermeneutically, and constructively” (p. ix).

The sum and substance of this book is a treatment of the controversy that swirled around the question whether New England’s great revivals were a work of the Holy Spirit. As a work of reception history, it is unparalleled in scope and attention to detail. Employing tools from social science, social history, and theology, Smart explains the terms of debate, shows how Edwards and his critics disagreed with one another, and offers an even-handed assessment of the legacies of their conflict from the 1740s and 50s to the present.

I recommend this learned work to anyone interested in the history of revivals in America—but especially to those with an interest in the pneumatological questions most important to Edwards himself, and to his heirs.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS