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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.