Book Review: The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America

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While teaching a class on the Great Awakening I decided to read Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. Although this is an informative account of the 18th century American revival, I cannot wholly endorse it. While Kidd is a great scholar, the book suffers from several things. Before I discuss those, let me first say that Kidd does a good job of surveying source materials for the Great Awakening and we learn a great deal about many of the American participants in the revival. He evenly treats the revival’s impact across the colonies without undo focus on New England, as is sometimes the case. He also shows the connection of the revival to the American Revolution and many subsequent developments such as the rise of Baptists in the south and the impact of the revival on African and Native Americans. I like the fact that he shows how the revival demonstrated some of the first attempts at addressing the abolition of slavery in the American colonies (It is of interest that the parallel Awakening in England directly led to the abolition of slavery there through the efforts of William Wilberforce and others).

Having said that, here are three problems I had with Kidd’s analysis. First of all, perhaps because the book is strictly a scholarly treatment, he does not capture the marvelous aura of the revival and what a remarkable work it was. While his writing was not necessarily dry, it was not exactly inspiring either. I am not of the opinion that works of historical scholarship have to be dry and uninspiring, even for a specialized audience. Furthermore, although Kidd is an Evangelical Christian, he tends to treat the revival strictly as a human work with some strange phenomena that is not easily explained. As a Christian, I believe the main thrust of the revival was a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a nation whose spiritual condition was in serious declension. Kidd fails to capture this reality. Unfortunately, I believe he falls into the category of many Evangelical historians who tend to ignore divinely providential explanations of history in favor of strictly human ones. This is one era of history where that simply doesn’t work. There are too many remarkable coincidences and phenomena that cannot be adequately explained apart from divine intervention. But of course this approach to history does not sit well in the secular dominated Academy and this is the milieu out of which Kidd operates. As a Christian I believe this skews the whole enterprise of historiography. If God is the God He has revealed Himself to be in the Bible, a Christian historian must recognize His providential control and purposes in history or risk misinterpreting history as something merely anthropocentric.

Secondly, I felt like Kidd focused too much on the strange and extreme aberrations of the Awakening – i.e. the ‘enthusiastical/ fanatical’ aspects that tended to sour the Awakening. Reading his account, you almost get the impression that the Awakening was marked primarily by religious hysteria. While such things prevailed in some quarters, I feel as though Kidd gives the impression they represented the main thrust of what was happening. He also provides woefully inadequate treatment of Jonathan Edwards’ reasoned response to such extremes. Edwards was the preeminent leader and shaper of the interpretation of the revival’s impact which had a profound influence on subsequent Evangelical history. Kidd underplays this important reality. If this is the only book you read on the Awakening you might walk away thinking it was a period of a great deal of uncontrolled religious hype and foolishness. In fact, I think Kidd fails to demonstrate how the Awakening birthed modern Evangelicalism.

This leads to my third criticism. Kidd fails to place the revival in its broader context. I realize he is narrowly focused upon the revival as it unfolded in the American colonies, but this is short-sighted. The revival in America was intricately tied to similar events in Great Britain, with simultaneous awakenings in England, Wales, Scotland and to some extent, Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the role of the Moravians (Germany) was instrumental in what took place both in America and Great Britain. These things receive little or no notice. Although much is said about George Whitefiled in America, we learn little of other key leaders like Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland in Wales; James Robe and William McCulloch in Scotland; and other leaders like the Countess of Huntingdon in England. John Wesley is given some mention, but his role in the broader Awakening is underplayed. In this regard, Mark Noll’s book,The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (History of Evangelicalism Series) does a better job of drawing these connections. Furthermore, it is much more readable than Kidd’s book, probably because it is addressed to a general audience. Also, Noll makes a better case for how the Awakening shaped modern Evangelicalism.

I don’t dismiss Kidd’s work altogether because much is learned here that is not readily available elsewhere and he does draw some important insights into the revival. But I would compliment his treatment with Noll’s book. I also highly recommend an older work on the Awakening, A. Skevington Wood’s The Inextinguishable Blaze: Spiritual Renewal and Advance in the Eighteenth Century (Advance of Christianity Thorugh the Centuries). Wood is an older Wesleyan scholar whose book focuses mainly on the Evangelical Revival as it is called in Great Britain, particularly England. But he also does a good job of showing the broader context to what was happening elsewhere that Kidd does not. What I also like about Wood is that although his treatment makes use of the scholarly sources available at the time (1960), his narrative of events is warm, inspiring and not afraid to demonstrate that the revival was largely a work of the Holy Spirit. He combines scholarship with a pietistic fervor for the sort of revival fires he describes. As a Christian, he views history as something God orchestrates and thus it serves to encourage Christians by its examples for our spiritual edification and not for mere historical interest or intellectual reflection. I had hoped Kidd’s work would have done the same. Sadly, it did not. It left more of a bad impression about the Awakening and that is very unfortunate, because in spite of some of its unhappy excesses, it was a wonderful work of God that is sorely needed again in our time. O God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us again!

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