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. Continue reading

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Review: Church and State in America

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I have read a number of books on America’s religious history particularly in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, however, Church and State in America by James H. Hutson is one of the best by far. Even though it is brief, it is comprehensive in scope, giving just enough details to give a full picture of the issues without being superficial. The book is scholarly (Hutson is the Chief of the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress), yet very readable and in fact enjoyable. I could not put the book down. He covers a number of fascinating details I had not encountered elsewhere in the debate on church and state. For example, Hutson was involved in the recovery of a blackened out portion of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which the famous phrase “Wall of separation between church and state” appears. With the help of the FBI, in 1998, they uncovered deleted portions of Jefferson’s letter that casts a whole new light on what he meant by this phrase. The portion was struck out before being published upon advice of his attorney general for fear that it might have political repercusions. It appears Jefferson limited his understanding of the phrase to the function the president serves in matters of religion, not the government as a whole. Continue reading