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.  Continue reading “Historical Fictions: Readings on the Origins and Relevance of the First Great Awakening”