I recently discussed Darkness Falls on the Land of Light at the Massachusetts Historical Society with Stephen Marini, one of my favorite scholars of religion in early America. Here’s the YouTube video from MHS. Gulp!
Looking forward to catching up with friends and colleagues in Boston this coming Wednesday, February 13, from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I’ll be discussing Darkness Falls on the Land of Light in an innovative public forum moderated by Wellesley College historian Steve Marini. I’m grateful to the staff at the MHS for supporting my research for more than two decades; and I’m thrilled and honored that DFLL was selected for the 2018 Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize. One of my favorite illustrations in the book—an unusual overmantel painting depicting a Council of Ministers (see below and page 368)—hangs in a quiet hallway in Memorial Hall, not far from the pulpit where Professor Gomes delivered inspirational sermons and addresses to legions of Harvard students during his four-decade career.
Click the button below to learn more about the MHS event on Wednesday evening, which requires a reservation but is free and open to the public.
Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is now available in paperback. Happy reading!
My latest journal article just appeared in the new issue of the William and Mary Quarterly! “Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival” tells the surprising story of the “jerking exercise,” one of the most controversial religious practices in the history of early American Protestantism. Research for this project led me to dozens of archives from Michigan to Mississippi. Altogether, I uncovered more than 200 reports of this notorious somatic phenomenon. Most of these documents will soon be available in a curated digital archive. (Stay tuned!) For a student-friendly version of the article, consider downloading the OI Reader edition, which includes an interactive map and a selection of fascinating primary texts. Many thanks to Joshua Piker for championing this project and to Meg Musselwhite, Kim Foley, Becky Wrenn, and the OI apprentices for providing matchless editorial and design support. Hopefully, “Seized by the Jerks” will help scholars reconsider the origins of southern evangelicalism during the Second Great Awakening.
So thrilled that Darkness Falls on the Land of Light has been selected for the 25th Annual Virginia Festival of the Book! I’m looking forward to chatting about the “people called New Lights” on a panel with fellow OI author Robert Parkinson. Our session will take place in Charlottesville on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 20, 2019. More details coming soon!
Sometimes even a single manuscript I stumbled across while researching Darkness Falls on the Land of Light overturned everything I thought I knew about New England’s era of great awakenings. Consider the stunning letter (below) by Joseph Higgins, a coastal trader and merchant from Old Lyme, Connecticut.
In 1743, Higgins dispatched this strident missive to an unnamed clergyman. The recipient was likely Charles Chauncy, Boston’s vociferous opponent of the Whitefieldian revivals. Higgins was aiming to blow the whistle on his own minister, Jonathan Parsons. The letter contains a petition in which several parishioners in the Lyme Congregational church accused Parsons of nearly three dozen theological and ecclesiastical errors.
Here’s the unusual part: Parsons ranked among the most successful and respected ministers in eighteenth-century New England. Historians frequently point to his published account of the religious stir in Lyme—which was serialized in an evangelical magazine called the Christian History—as the paradigmatic revival narrative of the colonial era. In later years, Parsons presided over one of the largest congregations in New England: Newburyport’s Old South Presbyterian Church, the final resting place of George Whitefield himself.
But the figure in Higgins’s letter is nothing like the temperate clergyman of revival literature. Parsons abandoned all decorum in his church services and opened his pulpit to an array of gifted lay people. He brazenly declared that whores, witches, rakes, and hell hounds would find their way to heaven long before the “old Gray hedded” communicants his church. One of the aggrieved brethren even recalled hearing Parsons gloat that he would stand as a witness against unconverted sinners on the Day of Judgment; and he prayed aloud that hellfire might blaze out of their mouths. Most ominously, the Lyme minister zealously endorsed the “Enthusiastick Doctrines & Practices” of the most incendiary New Light itinerant of the era, James Davenport.
After discovering Higgins’s extraordinary letter, it took me several years to piece together the entire controversy. The search lead me first to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston; then to the Connecticut Conference Archives of the United Church of Christ in Hartford, the Library of Congress in Washington, and the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan; and finally to a unique cache of church papers at the Florence Griswold Art Museum in Old Lyme.
The Lyme controversy is one of my favorite sections of Darkness Falls. It’s a powerful example of the social and ecclesiastical costs of the Great Awakening—something scholars have been slow to acknowledge. Even still, the story of Lyme’s checkered religious history was quickly forgotten. Early in the twentieth century, artists and literary recast Lyme as the quintessential New England village. Immortalized in the vibrant colors and bold brushwork of American impressionist Childe Hassam, the Congregational meetinghouse emerged as an icon of simpler times, a pre-industrial community bound together by town and church.
Joseph Higgins knew better.
Higgins’s 1743 letter to an unidentified clergyman is part of the collections of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston (Mss. C 1345). For a detailed analysis of the Lyme controversy, see Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2017), 333–352. Jonathan Parsons published his “Account of the Revival at Lyme West Parish. . .” in Thomas Prince, Jr., ed., The Christian History, Containing Accounts of the Revival and Propagation of Religion in Great Britain & America (Boston, 1744), 118–162 (for excerpts, see Alan Heimert and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequence [Indianapolis, Ind., 1967], 35–40, 187–191, 196–200). Additional documents relating to the Lyme revival appear in Richard L. Bushman, ed., The Great Awakening: Documents on the Revival of Religion, 1740–1745 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969), 40–42, 53–54. See also the Records of the New London Association, 1708–1788 (available online at the Congregational Library’s New England’s Hidden Histories: Colonial-Era Church Records New England's Hidden Histories digital archive).
At your Request I have undertaken to Give you an Account of the Doctrine & Conduct of the Minister & People of this Place & I have Thought Best to Give you a Coppy of a Complaint Exhibited Against Mr. Parsons by Capt. Timothy Mather in the following things:
1. With Approving Attending & Encouraging Separate Meetings for Religious Worship.
2. With Allowing Approving & Encouraging Persons when moved with Imperssions (that are Common Among us) to Cry out with a loud voice in the Time of Divine Worship to the Disturbance of the Worshipping Assembly.
3. With Inviting & approving Unqualified Persons to preach & to Exhort the People such as Thacher Prince &c.
4. With Breaking Covenant with this people by Going to Long Island, to preach without any Necesary Call, when he knew the Church was in Great Danger of being led away from the Simplicity of the Gospel by the Enthusiastick Doctrines & Practices of Mr. Davenport.
5. With Recommending a Theif (Prosecuted found Guilty & [Recorded]) to the Charity of a Neighbouring Church without any Christian Satisfaction, tho he well knew the whole Matter.
6. With using his Endeavours to Admit a Baptist that had Apostatised from her Profession to Occational Communication with this Church.
7. With making an Unscriptural & unwarrantable Difference between Chirch Members of a Good standing in the Church by Giving the Appelation of Dear Brothers to Some & not to others (the new Lights are the Dear Brothers).
8. With Admitting Persons into the Communion of the Church that are Grossly Ignorant of the Principles of Religion &c.
9. With forbiding unconverted Persons to sing the 23 Psalm & such like Psalms.
10. With Publickly declaring Persons are converted Immediately upon their Experiences of these things, viz.: Distress & Terror of Conscience for Sin & their being afterwards filled with Joy, &c.
11. With Callumniating the Civill Authority (both in prayer & preaching) by Intimating that many of their Dictates are Unlawfull & unjust to be Imposed upon a Christian people terming of them Tyranny & a Bloody Inquisition &c. Praying that they people might not submit in Matters of the least Indifference.
Farther Capt. Mather laid these following Articles of false Doctrine, viz.:
1. That we have no Reason to think a man in a Goodd State let his life be never so Seemingly Religious, or Moral until he hath told his Experiences alledge its as a just Inference from our being, by Nature, Children of Wrath.
2. That an External Conformity to the Gospel is no Evidence that a person is a True Christian.
3. That multiplied acts of Gross Sins, yea sins of the Grossest kind is no Arguments or Evidence against a State of Grace.
4. That all Doubting in a Christian of his Good state was from the Devil.
5. That there is more hopes of a profane Swearer, Sabbath Breaker, Drunkard, whoremaster, going to heaven when he dies than that he will, that lives an honest Life & Strives to Serve God as well as he Can.
6. That he knows not but God might Save a Moral man but an hundred to one if he did for it was out of his usual way to save such.
7. He told us in a Sermon from Luke 14:13 that Christ Chose Sailors the worst of men to be his Companions, Highway & hedge Sinners a Company of Whores & Witches. That there was more hopes of a Rake Hell & hell hounds than Moral men & many things of the like Import &c.
8. That if he could get all the people to do nothing towards their Conversion he should not doubt but that they would all be converted in one Month.
9. That if God should Discover his glory to an unconverted person it would cause Hell in his soul & that hell flames would Blaze out of his mouth.
10. For a Person to Infer his Justification from his Sanctification was a Proof that Pharisees & Hypocrites have of their Justification.
11. That a Person Could draw no true Comfort to his own Soul when he does Justice, loves mercy, & walks humbly with God.
12. That he had often heard of a Humble Doubting Christian but never saw one that was a Humble Doubting Christian but was a Mear Chimera in Religion, an Imaginary Monster made up by Hypocrites & an Absolute Contradiction, a thing that never was nor can be & Such as Dream of Humble Christians Doubting were filled with pride & Opposition to God.
13. That Continued acts of Grose Sins of the Gosple Sort was no Evidence of a State of Nature or Sin & Death.
14. That St. Ambrose Says that to Call the Works of God the works of the Devil is the Sin against the holy Ghost though Ignorantly so Called.
15. That this is the Sin against the Holy Ghost (1) when Persons have Greived away the holy Spirit (2) turn again to Sin like a Dog to his vomit or the washed Sow &c. (3) Got to a heigher degree of Sin than before and then prayed oh that God would cause Some one now in this Assembly to Roar out to be a warning to others & that the Flames of hell might blaze out of all their mouths, for he knows of no Rule in the word of God to pray for Such.
16. That a Hypocrite may love God with a Sincere love.
17. That we had as much Reason to think Mr. Davenport was an holy Man as we have to think Peter James & John were.
18. In his Sermons he often tells us in an Angry manner I will Increase your Damnation in hell. I Expect to be a Witness against the Worst of you in the Day of Judgment, Though you have set under the Gospel 40, 50, 60 years the Bottom of hell I expect will be paved with the Soulls [Sculls?] of the most of you. You Cursed old Gray hedded Pharisees & Hypocrites &c. You Damn’d men & Damn’d Women &c.
19. You are Guilty of Adultery in the house of God. [You] Commit adultery in the Time of Divine Worship.
20. That in Conversion there is a Phisical Change that Conversion was one thing & Regeneration is Another.
21. The holy kiss Spoken of by the Apostle was meant in a Carnal Manner.
22. In opening them words, Judge not least ye be judged, he told us if he knew what the Rash Judging there meant was, it was Judging men converted before they had told their Experiences.
23. That the Apostle John had the Spirit on the Lords Day, but we read no more of it & we have Reason to think that the Spirit left him, without any more Returns.
24. It is no matter what Religion we are of if we beleive in Christ.
25. That if we have not Sensible Acts of Faith in Divine Worship we have not the Presence of God.
26. Forbids his hearers to read any of Dr. Tillitsons Works the whole Duty of man, & many others Authors & says that the Peice Entitled the French Prophets is the Cursedest piece of Stuf that ever was raked together on this hole Hell.
27. With speaking contemptuously of the Ministers of Former & Latter Days in saying these Churches have been Stuft with Damnable Stuff these 30, or 40 years & that the Substance of the Doctrines for 40 years past was such Cursed & Damnable Stuff.
28. That in Conversation a Man repents of all Sin both past & future & that Repentance is not necessary after Conversion.
29. That a person may Commit Gross acts of Sin such as fornication & Adultery having Grace in Exercise, yea that Grace in exercise sometimes prompts men to Sin.
30. When a Person was crying out in the meating house after service said Mr. Parsons you that are Dissatisfyed Go & take the words of the holy Ghost from that mans mouth.
31. That we have as much reason to beleive the Present work is the work of God as we have to beleive the Mission of Christ.
In the next place Capt. Mather Charges Mr. Parsons Prayers with being unwarrentable in these things:
1. Praying for the Miraculous Gift of Tongus (2) that Unconverted ministers may be converted or put out of the Ministry (3) that God would Appear in as Visable a manner as at that Memorable Sacrament when there was Crying laughing & talking even every thing [allmost] Imaginable.
These sir are the things Laid in against Mr. Parsons & there is no Doubt but they will be proved and many such more might be added. There are many meatings in this place where there is all these things acted in the mean time, Viz.: Singing Praying Groaning Exhorting laughing & Talking in the same Room & all manner of noises that may be Imagined &c. & one thing more I will mention that is, we may Command God the whole of his Kingdeom &c. & now Sir please to Send me your Opinion on these matters from your friend & Servant,
But Sir Mr. Parsons hath been well satisfy’d for 4 years. But this Day we had a Meeting & now he Demands £320—£350 in the Room of £240: though a very holy man & quite left of[f] Caring for this Worlds Goods.
P.S. I had the Request by my kinsman Mr. Israel Higgins known to yourself.
[Endorsed:] Charges Against Bishop Parsons
Here’s a deleted scene from Darkness Falls on the Land of Light involving Josiah Cotton, one of my favorite eighteenth-century New Englanders. Cotton was a cantankerous Plymouth, Massachusetts, civil magistrate and Indian preacher. For a time during the 1730s, he owned a haunted house. A decade later, he emerged as an outspoken critic of the Whitefieldian revivals.
Cotton’s annual memoirs and extensive correspondence contain vivid descriptions of the ecclesiastical chaos that enveloped the Old Colony of southeastern Massachusetts during the 1740s. He reserved his sharpest invectives for Andrew Croswell. Cotton utterly loathed the itinerating Connecticut firebrand who ignited a powerful religious revival in Plymouth during the winter of 1742. In one of his sermons, Croswell brazenly pronounced three quarters of the congregation unconverted hypocrites; and he filled the Plymouth pulpit with a motley assortment of children, women, and enslaved Africans who roused the audience into a frenzy of shrieking and convulsing bodies. Nearly one hundred people joined the Plymouth church in full communion in 1742—a figure ten times the yearly average. Newspapers and magazines carried reports of the “Great Awakening” in Plymouth throughout the Atlantic world.
Cotton watched with mounting frustration as the Congregational establishment came apart at the seams. Over the next decade, nearly every town in southeastern Massachusetts suffered through bitter church schisms. Isaac Backus settled in nearby Middleborough and organized a separate Baptist church. Radicals such as Sarah Prentice claimed to have achieved a state of spiritual perfection and bodily incorruptibility. Along the South Shore, liberal ministers peddling new “Arminian” theological doctrines drew many laypeople—including members of Cotton’s extended family—onto a path that would culminate the development of Unitarianism.
Cotton considered himself a religious conservative, a voice crying for moderation in a maelstrom of change. Yet his financial writings disclose a fascinating little secret: the judge did as much to accelerate the breakdown of New England Congregationalism as Croswell and his radical “New Light” contemporaries.
Consider this list of “Publick” and “Charitable” expenditures from Cotton’s diary and account book. The cramped, hastily scrawled entries recorded taxes paid to the province and county; gifts distributed to prisoners, paupers, Indian families, and the victims of fire and other misfortunes; and, especially, charitable contributions for the Plymouth Congregational church. As one of the town’s godliest walkers, Cotton made regular financial contributions to support minister Nathaniel Leonard. In a cash-starved economy, the judge usually paid in local bills of credit or hard currency—somewhere between one and two pounds annually. He also provided Leonard with staple goods during the lean winter months.
Cotton typically made no distinction between himself and his wife when he recorded his charitable contributions. After all, Hannah Cotton had suspended her legal identity when she married Josiah in 1708 and, thus, owned no property to bestow on individuals or institutions. But on May 6, 1742—just two months after Croswell’s raucous fortnight in Plymouth—the judge inscribed a curious entry of three pence for his “Wifes Contribution” at Leonard’s church. On several occasions later that summer, Cotton carefully noted “My Contribution” to the church at Jones River (now Kingston), located just north of his farm. Occasional entries for “My Wifes Contribution” continued throughout the summer and fall, including three shillings, eight pence on “Thanksgiving Day,” November 24. The next line in Cotton’s account book was even more cryptic: “My Contribution at New Meeting House.”
What did these subtle changes mean?
Shortly after Croswell’s departure from Plymouth, a small clique of disgruntled church members demanded a public meeting to discuss the recent “unusual Practices in Religious Exercises.” Cotton penned a proposal for a day of ritual fasting to heal the growing rift in the church. But minister Nathaniel Leonard refused to address their complaints. In response, Cotton and the aggrieved brethren withdrew from communion in the oldest Congregational church in New England. During the summer of 1743, a crew of eighty men constructed a new meetinghouse near the center of town and began auctioning pews; the Massachusetts General Court granted a petition to form a separate parish the following December. Nine members of Leonard’s church requested a formal dismissal to the new precinct. After a lengthy trial of probationary preachers, the separatists settled upon Thomas Frink as their minister. Boston’s Charles Chauncy, the most outspoken opponent of the Whitefieldian revivals in New England, delivered the ordination sermon.
Tucked away amid the minutiae of a sprawling account book, the records of Cotton’s charitable contributions disclose a startling revelation. Sometime shortly after Thanksgiving Day, 1743, Josiah and Hannah Cotton began worshiping in separate churches. He had become the very thing he despised: a Congregational separatist. Cotton never mentioned the split in his memoirs, but it must have been a galling experience for Plymouth’s leading revival opponent to continue supporting a church he no longer attended. For the rest of his life until his death in 1756, Josiah and Hannah spent their Sabbaths in separate meetinghouses, dividing their gifts of butter and wood, mutton and chocolate between the two ministers of Plymouth’s warring Congregational churches. No eighteenth-century text captures the costs of the Whitefieldian revivals better than these fugitive account book entries.
Cotton’s list of public and charitable contributions may be found in “The Cotton Diaries, 1733–1774,” 22–23, 33–34, 39–42, Cotton Families Collection, Pilgrim Society, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Mass. To learn more about Josiah Cotton’s opposition to Andrew Croswell and the Whitefieldian revivals, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, “‘A Second and Glorious Reformation’: The New Light Extremism of Andrew Croswell,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 43 (1986): 214–244; Timothy E. W. Gloege, “The Trouble with Christian History: Thomas Prince’s ‘Great Awakening,” Church History: Studies of Christianity and Culture 82 (2013): 125–165; and Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2017). For Cotton’s Indian “Business” and ownership of New England’s best-documented haunted house, see the Related Articles on this website. I am currently completing a critical edition of Cotton’s major manuscript writings for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
Gearing up to deliver the William and Mary Quarterly Prize Lecture twenty years to the month after I published my first journal article, “Pale Blewish Lights and a Dead Man’s Groan” (1998). I’m thrilled to be presenting this lecture honoring legendary Quarterly editor, Mike McGiffert.
The talk will bridge the argument in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light and my recent work on frontier Shakerism. I’m looking forward to sharing stories of murder, spouse swapping, genderlessness, celibacy, the jerks, and other New Light family values. Here’s the promotional blurb:
In this illustrated lecture, historian Douglas Winiarski examines the varied ways in which the “people called New Lights”—progenitors of today’s evangelical Protestants—resolved perplexing mind-body problems associated with their transformative conversion experiences. Drawing upon a wide range of examples from maritime Canada to the Carolinas and from New England to the trans-Appalachian frontier, Professor Winiarski will explore how the religious revivals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries fueled controversies over marriage, the family, sexuality, and the body.
“Death by Pancakes” will take place on Monday, October 22, 2018, at 4:00 in Blow Hall, room 201, on the campus of the College of William & Mary. Hope to see you there!
Darkness Falls on the Land of Light has been awarded the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Award from the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. This prestigious book prize honors the Rev. Peter Gomes (1942–2011), Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and a longtime supporter of the MHS.
The MHS is one of my favorite research haunts. I can still remember my first visit to Boylston Street over two decades ago. On that day, I discovered several important letters that anchor my analysis of the Great Earthquake of 1727. Over the years, regular trips to the MHS taught me critical archival research skills: from searching finding aids and card catalogs to handling rare books and manuscripts. I’ll always be grateful to the MHS archivists for sharing their incomparable expertise with unfailing good humor as I plowed through countless boxes and folders.
The award ceremony next February will feature a public forum in which I discuss DFLL with Wellesley College historian Stephen Marini. More details soon!
Ok, this post doesn't really belong on a blog about the People Called New Lights. But I was recently invited by the Richmond Times-Dispatch to reflect on "Richmond: City of the Dead," a material culture seminar I teach at the University of Richmond, and to share some thoughts on the plight of East End Cemetery, an important African American burial ground that has suffered from decades of neglect and vandalism. Here's a link to the interview, which also discusses the work of my colleagues in the East End Collaboratory. To learn more, check out the Collaboratory's innovative digital map of East End; Richmond Cemeteries, an interactive website created by Collaboratory member Ryan Smith (History, Virginia Commonwealth University); volunteer opportunities with John Shuck and the Friends of East End; and the haunting photographs and powerful essays of journalist and activist Brian Palmer.
American Heritage, the venerable popular history magazine, recently published an excerpt from the introduction of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light as part of their special issue on the George Washington Prize. Check it out!
Darkness Falls on the Land of Light has been selected as a finalist for the 2018 Virginia Literary Awards. Sponsored by the Library of the Virginia, the awards recognize works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry about Virginia or by Virginia authors. It's a great honor to be recognized by the LVA, and I'm looking forward to meeting the other finalists, including nonfiction authors Donna Lucey and Liza Mundy, at the awards dinner in October!
Kathryn Gin Lum's acclaimed Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) provides a fascinating itinerary for readers seeking to navigate the sprawling religious landscape of the early American republic. Check out my review in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture. Then read Gin Lum's deeply researched and beautifully written book!
At the annual Founders' Day celebration yesterday, the New England Society in the City of New York announced Darkness Falls on the Land of Light as the winner of their 2018 Book Award for nonfiction. Founded in 1805, the NES is one of the oldest social and charitable organizations in the United States. Notable members include presidents and politicians, bankers and industrialists, clergymen, reformers, artists, authors, poets, and other prominent American cultural figures with genealogical roots in New England. I was thrilled to learn that DFLL had been selected for this distinguished honor. Looking forward to the Book Awards Salon and Luncheon in June!
The Omohundro Institute recently reissued “‘Pale Blewish Lights’ and a Dead Man’s Groan: Tales of the Supernatural from Eighteenth-Century Plymouth, Massachusetts,” on their mobile app, the OI Reader. Originally published the William and Mary Quarterly in 1998, this essay has always been one of my favorites.
“Pale Blewish Lights” examines a richly detailed haunting incident. In 1733, tenants renting the Thompson Phillips mansion in Plymouth, Massachusetts, complained of strange lights and unusual noises, which they attributed to the specter of the recently deceased mariner. Phillips’s father-in-law, a civil magistrate and Indian missionary named Josiah Cotton, responded to the rumors by filing a slander suit against the loose-lipped tenants. The rich documentary record of the resulting lawsuits, which include trial depositions, Cotton’s memoirs and diary, and his unfinished essay, “Some Observations Concerning Witches, Spirits, & Apparitions,” provide a unparalleled opportunity to examine competing supernatural beliefs in eighteenth-century New England.
To access the article, install the free OI Reader from the App Store or Google Play and download the “Bancroft Prize 2018” file. In addition to “Pale Blewish Lights,” the download package also includes links to Part 3 of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light; my recent interview with Liz Covart, host of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast; and “Souls Filled with Ravishing Transport: Heavenly Visions and the Radical Awakening in New England,” which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2004. Many thanks to Nadine Zimmerli, Kim Foley, and the rest of the OI team for creating this exciting digital platform for my research.
Historians of religion in early America ought to be shouting “Huzzah!” for the Congregational Library these days. Since 2011, Jeff Cooper and a team of scholars at this important research archive on Boston’s Beacon Hill have been gathering at-risk Congregational church records from basements, bank vaults, and private homes. The goal of the library’s New England’s Hidden Histories project is stunningly ambitious: to preserve, digitize, and transcribe tens of thousands of pages of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century church records.
I’ve been fortunate to serve on the steering committee for the program, which is led by Cooper and the Congregational Library’s executive director, Peggy Bendroth. Many of the key manuscript collections cited in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light are now available online through the NEHH portal, while many others are coming soon.
Highlights from the NEHH collection (so far) include:
- More than 500 church admission relations from Haverhill, Middleborough, and Essex, Massachusetts—all in full, glorious color!
- Church records from the “praying Indian” church at Natick;
- Ministerial association record books from nearly every county in Connecticut;
- Lists of men and women admitted to the First Church of Ipswich, Massachusetts, site of one of the largest religious revivals of eighteenth-century North America;
- Minutes from the Grafton, Massachusetts, church record book, with transcription, detailing the troubled pastorate of the ardent revivalist clergyman Solomon Prentice and his separatist wife, Sarah;
- Disciplinary records resulting from the bitter New Light church schisms in Newbury and Sturbridge, Massachusetts;
- Miscellaneous church papers from Granville, Massachusetts, featuring letters by the celebrated African American preacher Lemuel Haynes;
- And a wide range of sermons, theological notebooks, and personal papers by eighteenth-century Congregational clergymen, including luminaries Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Hopkins.
Cooper and Bendroth have forged partnerships with New England’s leading history institutions, including the American Antiquarian Society and Peabody Essex Museum. And they have digitized An Inventory of the Records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches of Massachusetts Gathered 1620–1805, the indispensable guide compiled by Bendroth’s predecessor, Harold Field Worthley.
For teachers eager to show their students what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history is made of; for undergraduate and graduate students seeking primary texts for papers; for genealogists searching for baptismal records of long-lost ancestors; for scholars engaged in major book projects—NEHH is now the go-to hub for online research on the history of New England puritanism and the Congregational tradition.
As with all digital history initiatives, NEHH is a work in progress. They’re always looking for volunteers to support their crowd-sourced transcription projects. It’s a great opportunity to involve students in the production of new historical knowledge. For more information, contact Jeff Cooper or Helen Gelinas, director of transcription.
Thanks to a second $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bendroth, Cooper and their colleagues at the Congregational Library will be churning out high quality digital images and transcriptions of rare Congregational manuscript church records for years to come. Congratulations, CLA! Huzzah!
To read more about the NEH grant, check out this article from the Christian Science Monitor.
This week, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light was featured on Ben Franklin’s World, the popular early American history podcast hosted by Liz Covart and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Many thanks to Liz for this wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts on the state of religion in eighteenth-century New England!
Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God ranks among the most frequently studied and anthologized sermons in American history. But how successful was his storied performance at Enfield, Massachusetts (now Connecticut), on July 8, 1741?
Stephen Williams, the Congregational minister in the neighboring parish of Longmeadow, famously noted in his diary that Sinners elicited a dramatic outpouring of emotions and bodily exercises among the Enfield assembly. Edwards’s fiery imagery and vertiginous metaphors—especially the “loathsome” spider dangling over the flames of hell—ignited a wailing din of screaming and sobbing that filled the Enfield meetinghouse. The deafening noise was so “piercing & Amazing,” Williams remarked, that the Northampton evangelist was “obliged to desist.” Edwards never finished his “most awakening Sermon.”
And we also know that Sinners was part of a coordinated effort among the ministers of the Connecticut Valley to engineer what Williams called “the revivle.” Edwards spent nearly a week in the surrounding towns before preaching at Enfield. A few days earlier, he had celebrated the sacrament across the river in Suffield, where he delivered several equally potent sermons and admitted 95 men and women to full communion. Meanwhile, Joseph Meacham of Coventry, Benjamin Pomeroy of Hebron, and, especially, Eleazar Wheelock of the “Crank” parish of Lebanon (now Columbia), Connecticut, worked their way up and down both sides of the river north of Hartford. Everywhere they went during the first week of July, their powerful revival sermons on the necessity of conversion provoked “considerable crying among the people,” “shakeing & trembling,” and “Screaching in the streets.”
Although the Enfield Congregational church records have not survived, evidence from nearby parishes suggests that the collective efforts of Edwards, Wheelock, and their colleagues were extraordinarily successful. Hundreds of lay men and women joined Congregational churches throughout the region during the summer of 1741. And these young coverts were only the tip of the iceberg; perhaps three times as many existing church members began questioning their past spiritual lives. A little over a month after the Connecticut Valley revivals blazed to life, Edwards’s father reported to Wheelock that “Religion hath been very much revived and has greatly flourished" in his East Windsor parish. "There are above seventy, that very lately…have been savingly converted in this society, and still there is a great stir among us.”
What was his son’s contribution to this extraordinary harvest of souls? How many people claimed to have experienced conversion after hearing Edwards's performance of Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God? Misfiled for more than a century and published below for the first time , a letter written by Wheelock three days after the “Great Assembly At Enfield” provides the definitive answer. Given Edwards’s exploits at Suffield, Stephen Williams’s extraordinary diary entries, and his father’s glowing report the following month, Wheelock's figure seems oddly underwhelming: “ten or twelve Converted.”
Eleazar Wheelock’s undated letter to his parishioners in the North (or “Crank”) Parish of Lebanon may be found among the Eleazar Wheelock Papers, no 743900.1, Rauner Special Collections, Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, N.H. The missive bears a notation on the verso side in a later hand that reads “to his people at Lebanon 1743”; but the details indicate that he composed it two years earlier, on July 11, 1741.
For a detailed analysis of Edwards’s itinerant activities in the Connecticut Valley during the summer of 1741, see Douglas L. Winiarski, “Jonathan Edwards, Enthusiast? Radical Revivalism and the Great Awakening in the Connecticut Valley.” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 74 (2005): 683–739 (click here to download from JSTOR); and Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2017), 222–225.
The definitive edition of Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God (Boston, 1741) appears in Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1739–1742, vol. 22, Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Harry S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch with Kyle P. Farley (New Haven, Conn., 2003), 400–435. A typescript edition of Stephen Williams’s diary produced during the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration is available online at the Richard Salter Storrs Library, Longmeadow, Massachusetts (see volume 3, pages 375–379, for his famous description of Sinners and subsequent events in Longmeadow and Springfield described in Wheelock's letter). The extract from Timothy Edwards’s letter to Wheelock quoted above was published in William Allen, “Memoir of the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, D. D.,” American Quarterly Register 10:1 (August 1837): 12.
To the Church and People of God in Lebanon North Parish
I Came here to Winsor yesterday with a Design to Come to you this Day. The Lord Bowed the heavens and Came Down upon the assembly the Last night. The house seamd to be filled with his Great Power, a very Great Number Crying out under a sence of the wrath of God and the weight of their Guilt, 13 or 14 we Beleive Converted. My Dear Brother Pomeroy Came to me this morning from Mr. Mash’s Parish where the work was allso Great the Last night. We were Just setting out to Come home but a Number of people were met together and the Distress among them soon arose to such an heighth that we think we have a Call of Providence to Continue here over the Sabbath. Several have been Converted already this morning. There is now work Enough for 10 Ministers in this town & there is a very Glorious Work att Suffield And it was very marvellous in a Great assembly At Enfield Last Wednesday, ten or twelve Converted there. Much of his power was Seen at Longmeadow on Thursday, 6 or 7 Converted there and a Great Number wounded. There was Considerable Seen at Springfield old town on Thursday Night and much of it again yesterday Morning at Longmeadow. People Everywhere throng together to hear the word and I do verily beleive these are the beginning of the Glorious things that are Spoken Concerning the City of our God in the Latter day. I am much Concernd for Some that Remain yet Stupid and Blind. Among my Dear flock I Desire your Continual Remembrance of me your poor pastor in your prayers to God that I may be Strengthned in the inward & outward man to all that the Lord shall Call me to. I hope to be with you at the beginning of next week.
I am Your souls Friend & servant for Christ,
Earlier today, Columbia University announced that Darkness Falls on the Land of Light has been awarded one of three Bancroft Prizes for 2018, along with Waldo Heinrichs and Marc Gallicchio's Implacable Foes and Louis S. Warren's God's Red Son. DFLL is the first Bancroft Prize winner published by the Omohundro Institute since 2003 (James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins) and the third written by a current or former faculty member at the University of Richmond (Edward L. Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies; Woody Holton, Abigail Adams). Only a handful of books on American religious history have received this distinguished award since its inception in 1948. Among them are several important studies that have played a formative role in my intellectual development, including Richard L. Bushman's From Puritan to Yankee, John L. Brooke's The Refiner's Fire, Christine Leigh Heyrman's Southern Cross, and George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards. It’s humbling to think that my scholarship now stands alongside these and other works by the titans of early American history, from Henry Nash Smith and Edmund S. Morgan to Robert A. Gross, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Alan Taylor. I’d like to express my deepest thanks to Fredrika Teute, Paul Mapp, Nadine Zimmerli, and Kaylan Stevenson at the Omohundro Institute for bringing DFLL to life; to Chuck Grench and the University of North Carolina Press for co-publishing and promoting the book; and, especially, to the Columbia University Libraries and the Bancroft Prize selection committee for this amazing honor!