Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
In this work, Kidd seeks to articulate definitively how the Great Awakening influenced American culture in the mid to late eighteenth century and beyond. In so doing, he delves deeper into the theological and political history before and during the revival to discover the root cause of the thinking which led to the expectation of revival as well as the necessity of promoting revival in the local church. He further presents “evangelicalism as having fluid boundaries [between] three points on a continuum … antirevivalists … moderate evangelicals … [and] radical evangelicals” (xiv). His specific emphasis throughout is the “domestic contest between radical and moderate evangelicals” (xvi).
Contra the plethora of available resources on the spiritual messages of the Great Awakening, Kidd seeks to clarify the human element of revival. That is, he describes the earthly means used by God to bring about salvation to many people across denominational lines and throughout many regions. In so doing, he shows “a single, cohesive narrative of evangelicalism’s development in America over its first fifty years” (xvii) while still giving glory to God for what He accomplished through man.
Thomas Kidd’s thoroughly researched work has proven foundational to his academic career. His persistent analyzing of the Colonial era and evangelicalism, particularly as expressed in the events of the Great Awakening, has provided greater depth to this history. Fisher concurred in his review when he stated Kidd “seeks to expand both the chronology and geography of the Great Awakening as typically understood.” To this end, Kidd successfully accomplished this goal.
One of the frustrations encountered while reading this history is the chronological confusion as Kidd jumps around in time from chapter to chapter. He sets the stage in the first chapter by arguing for the foundation of revival in the colonies beginning in the early to mid-17th century and then using Jonathan Edwards’ A Faithful Narrative as his primary source material before jumping backward a few decades almost immediately as a kind of resetting. Later in the book, he weaves the history of various colonies and people groups chapter by chapter but with much overlapping in time. Though this was his stated goal, the organization was perplexing as historical figures overlapped one another and dates became more obscure as the information diversified. Attempting to recall which pastor influenced whom and which theologian was responding to this criticism or that charge and where they were located at the time became problematic.
The reader would have been served better by dividing this book into two parts. The first part could have written a chronology of the various revivals and the many locations where they took place. This would have oriented the reader in both time and geography before delving deeper into the theology and personalities of those who cultivated the revivals. The second part, then, could have consisted of the many figure heads and how they interacted with one another. It seems easy to organize even this part in a loose chronology rather than weaving between persons and regions from chapter to chapter.
Constructively, however, this is evidence for how difficult it is to delineate the breadth and length of the Great Awakening. While hard dates and specific locations are preferred by historians, the Lord, who is not bound by time or location, moves according to his own will and plan. Ava Chamberlain’s review acknowledges the complexity of the problem as she pushes against Kidd’s redefining of terms when she states, “In retaining this term [the First Great Awakening] he signals his commitment not so much to the ‘firstness’ of the Awakening as to its ‘greatness.’”
Though he does a masterful job of showing the difference between the radical and moderate evangelicals, these categories he introduces as descriptors did not age very well. Reading the book in 2021, they presented an unintended language barrier that was a bit difficult to overcome at first as those terms have taken on new meanings in the current political and religious climate in the United States. Politically, moderates have come to refer to a primarily liberal view while radicals are extremists on either side of the aisle.
Theologically, both moderate and radical have come to refer to those who do not believe in the historic orthodox Christian faith yet try to claim the title of evangelical. Nevertheless, by the end of the book, the reader understands the difference and significance of the two primary evangelical persuasions even if there remains a struggle with the terminology.
His emphasis on the eschatological aspect of the revivals was extremely beneficial in helping the reader understand the motivating factors behind the expectation of revival as well as the urgency of preaching so that everyone might have the opportunity to repent of their sins and be saved. In every chapter, there was an emphasis on the eschatology of the preaching and the preacher with a quick update as to what was occurring in the world. More, however, could have been written on the eschatology of the slaves as motivation for their salvation.
As he works through the issue of evangelicalism and slavery in the south, he would have done well to simply acknowledge the views of the south as being what they were. A few paragraphs explaining how they supported their theological understanding of slavery would have been more beneficial instead of his attempts to soft-peddle the colonist’s financial and political reasoning. It is one thing to properly call out sin, even across time, but it is wholly another to attempt to rewrite the historical record through one’s explanation. To not directly consider the subject matter in its own historical context, irrespective of how controversial in the current moment, only obscures the issues and hinders the ability to learn from the past.
A final need that would have strengthened this research would have been a look at how the established churches functioned within the colonies. A constant theme throughout the book is those who pushed back against the established churches and eventually separated or continued with an itinerant ministry. It would have benefitted the reader greatly if there was more information on the various established churches in the colonies and how they functioned ecclesiologically and politically. As it is, today’s reader typically is unable to appreciate the historical significance of Whitefield’s open-air preaching or the traveling schedule of many of the revivalists.
It must be stated that Kidd’s purpose of expanding the historical context and understanding of the Great Awakening is not only met but exceeded. Despite criticisms leveled in this review, Kidd is to be commended for accomplishing this goal. With the amount of extant information still available, Kidd skillfully explains an extremely complicated time in the earliest history of the European settling of what later became the United States while also adding to the ongoing conversation.
The Great Awakening, as evidenced by Kidd’s academic career, remains invaluable today. This title continues to serve as a foundation from which Kidd regularly builds upon to strengthen the understanding of the importance of revival in Colonial America. An importance that is largely lost on secular historians today.
Not only did Kidd successfully shift the historical conversation from when the revival occurred to simply how great the Great Awakening was, he helped to set the record straight that revival was instrumental to the founding of the United States. Though he acknowledges that it is difficult to understand just how influential revival was to the cause, he rightly realizes that it remained integral to the culture. Therefore, the founding of America cannot be properly understood apart from the religious perspective.
Theologically, he appropriately articulated how the intricate details of Christian denominationalism weave together to tell one master story of the theological underpinnings of the birth of a nation. In adding to that facet of the conversation, he unearthed many future studies on the complexities that is Christianity. Future critical assessments of this perspective will serve church historians and theologians.
Every one of the chapters from The Great Awakening deserves its own treatment. Additionally, there are enough statements peppered throughout the book that need further research. For example, research into the planning of the itinerant preachers along with those who remained as the pastors of the local congregation following Whitefield’s tours would be a most excellent study offering insight into the synergism between the Lord and his chosen instruments of mercy.
Due to the amount of information available, the Great Awakening remains a subject of great research. Thomas S. Kidd has added to the conversation in a manner worthy of emulation. By telling the story of a few, he merely whets the appetite for more. The church is indebted to Kidd for his research in The Great Awakening.