SUSAN JUSTER. Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. xi, 224. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 0801483883.

FRANK LAMBERT. “The First Great Awakening: Whose Interpretive Fiction?” The New England Quarterly 68 (1995): 650-659.

JON BUTLER. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction.” The Journal of American History 69 (1982): 305-325.

The readings for this week discuss the origins and relevance of the “First Great Awakening.” This is a term used to describe a series of religious revivals that occurred to a varying degree across the British colonies of mainland North America in the mid-eighteenth century, mostly between the 1730s and 1750s. In “Enthusiasm Described and Decried,” Jon Butler argues scholars should “abandon the term” because it is both an “interpretative fiction” and anachronism that “distorts the character of eighteenth-century American religious life and misinterprets its relationship to prerevolutionary American society and politics.” Contemporaries, as he states, were not the ones who used this label. Rather, the now-popular term of “Great Awakening” was invented by a nineteenth-century historian named Joseph Tracy. He projected the religious context of his own age—what is now referred to as the “Second Great Awakening” of the early national period—back onto the colonial era. In doing so, he “homogenized” a series of local, scattered, erratic, heterogenous, “politically benign,” and largely unrelated revivals; he re-cast them as a great, general, and uniform phenomenon. As Butler laments, a diverse lineage of scholars has followed Tracy’s lead since “the last half of the nineteenth century,” thereby furthering all sorts of gross mischaracterizations. Foremost among the distortions is a “fiction” that “the Great Awakening” undermined traditional structures of authority and paved the way for the democratic ideals of the American Revolution. [1]

Frank Lambert responds to Butler in his piece “The First Great Awakening: Whose Interpretive Fiction?” While Lambert agrees that “the First Great Awakening is an “interpretive fiction, he disagrees that it is an anachronism. “[I]t is not only Tracy and subsequent historians who have created a unified movement out of such disparate events,” observes Lambert. Instead, the idea that the eighteenth-century revivals were part “of a great and general awakening that was nothing less than a second reformation” was being forged during the era of the revivals themselves. To prove this argument, Lambert explores the active role that a small but influential group of preachers and printers played in formulating the “interpretive fiction” of the First Great Awakening during the mid-eighteenth century. He reveals direct connections between members of a transatlantic network of revivalists that stretched from western Massachusetts to Boston, London, and Glasgow. These revivalists solicited news about local events, edited the information they received so that it conformed to established genres that would advance their greater evangelical program, and then disseminated their finished products in newspapers, journals, and published histories. In short, these preacher and printers were not simply reporting on the events of a unified “Great Awakening.” In fact, they were creating the fiction of a unified” Great Awakening” with their reports.[2]

Whether the concept of the eighteenth-century religious revivals as a unified “Great Awakening” began with Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s or Tracy in the 1840s, Butler and Lambert suggest the concept may lend the age of revivals an importance to American history that is not justified by the historical record. Standing in contrast to this viewpoint is Susan Juster’s monograph Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England. Instead of drawing conclusions about the historical significance of “the Great Awakening” from a panoramic look at the colonies, Juster provides a detailed case study of the religious revivals among New England Baptists, the most visible group of northern evangelicals. More specifically, she examines the symbolic, discursive, and political role of gender in relation to the revivals. In doing so, she overcomes three weaknesses present in Butler and Lambert’s work: their preference for intellectual over social history, their emphasis on how the era of revivals was shaped by an exclusive group of formally educated white male ministers, and their uncertainty about, or outright dismissal of, a direct relationship between the revivals of “the Great Awakening” and the American Revolution.[3]

At the cost of over-generalizing, I will summarize Juster’s argument in one paragraph. She argues a “robust tradition of female piety” among Baptists was “invigorated” by the Great Awakening in the 1740s. In contrast to Butler—who stated that revivals “eschewed radical change in the position of women in the churches”—Juster claims that the revivals subverted the gendered ideals of orthodox Puritanism by giving women “unprecedented access” to “formal channels of authority within the church.” Baptist revivalism was based on a theological model of feminine grace, organic unity, and “glorious Oneness.” It was characterized by a liminality and a sexual and spiritual egalitarianism that, in transforming ideas of sacred space and rejecting correlations between the family and the church, allowed women to participate alongside men in nearly all aspects of revival society, with the exception of the pastorate. Nonetheless, this “sharing of power between the sexes” was tied to the Baptists’ marginal status in Puritan-dominated colonial society. As they moved into the mainstream, gained legitimacy, and adopted the political consciousness of the Revolution, Baptists underwent a “crisis in gender relations.” They began to interpret grace, femininity, and marginality as liabilities rather than assets. In doing so, they paralleled the development of the nation-state by embracing patriarchy and masculinity in a way that both disenfranchised Baptist women and re-cast femininity as the “essence of sin.” By century’s end, both the church and the nation-state had become “an extension of the domestic sphere.” Baptist women who once participate openly were now systematically ignored, silenced, expelled, and labeled as “disorderly.”[4]

As stated earlier, Juster’s Disorderly Women makes up for weaknesses in the articles reviewed here. First, instead of locating the relevance of the Great Awakening solely in how it is now portrayed by twentieth-century historians like Perry Miller, Gary Nash and Rhys Isaac, or how it was originally conceived by competing eighteenth-century intellectuals like John Gillies and Charles Chauncy, Juster explores how the revivals impacted the lived experiences of everyday female congregants. She shows how lay women like Hannah Heaton and Susanna Anthony received the revivalist message of spiritual/sexual egalitarianism. Later, she shows how others, like Joanna Gano, experienced the loss of that egalitarianism. Second, Juster avoids engaging in the teleological debate about whether historians should see the Great Awakening as a cause of the American Revolution—a debate that seems to bolster its own national fiction by assuming that the Revolution was an apotheosis for both freedom and democracy, and then reading that fiction back onto the prerevolutionary era. Instead of asking what effect the era of revivals had on the revolutionary age, Juster asks what effect the revolutionary era had on the theological, social, and political culture created during the era of revivals. In this way, Juster rotates the historiographical frame. She shows that, indeed, the relevance of the First Great Awakening can be seen in the revolutionary era; however, its significance rests in what was lost rather than what was gained.[5]

Notes:

[1] Jon Butler, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction,” The Journal of American History 69 (1982): 307-308, 322, 324-325.

[2] Frank Lambert, “The First Great Awakening: Whose Interpretive Fiction?” The New England Quarterly 68 (1995): 650, 656-657.

[3] Susan Juster, Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 8-10, 17.

[4] Juster, Disorderly Women, 2-3, 5-6, 12, 19-21, 35; Butler, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried,” 323-324.

[5] Butler, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried,” 305-306; Lambert, “The First Great Awakening,” 655, 657-658; Juster, Disorderly Women, 28-29, 60-61, 124, 145, 168.