Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize Ceremony @ MHS

Yuqi Wang,  Peter Gomes  (2015). Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 86.4 cm. Harvard University Portrait Collection.

Yuqi Wang, Peter Gomes (2015). Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 86.4 cm. Harvard University Portrait Collection.

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.

Unidentified Artist,  Council of Ministers  (circa 1744). Oil on wood panel, 77.3 × 106 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Dr. Francis L. Burnett and Mrs. Esther Lowell Cunningham.

Unidentified Artist, Council of Ministers (circa 1744). Oil on wood panel, 77.3 × 106 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Dr. Francis L. Burnett and Mrs. Esther Lowell Cunningham.

DFLL Selected for 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book

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!

DFLL Receives Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Award from MHS

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!

DFLL Finalist for Virginia Literary Awards

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!

Review of Gin Lum's Damned Nation

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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!

DFLL Wins New England Society Book Award

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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!  

Pale Blewish Lights: 20th Anniversary Edition

Frontispiece from Joseph Glanvill,  Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions  (London, 1682). Image courtesy of the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Frontispiece from Joseph Glanvill, Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (London, 1682). Image courtesy of the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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.

Digital New Lights 2: New England’s Hidden Histories

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.

Testimony of Hannah Corey, April 5, 1749, Sturbridge, Mass., Separatist Congregational Church Records, 1745–1762, Congregational Library, Boston (available online at  NEHH )

Testimony of Hannah Corey, April 5, 1749, Sturbridge, Mass., Separatist Congregational Church Records, 1745–1762, Congregational Library, Boston (available online at NEHH)

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.

DFLL on BFW

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!

Edwards at Enfield (July 1741)

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.”

Detail from Thomas Jeffrys, A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of New England ([London], 1755). Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (available online).

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

Dearly Beloved,

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,

Eleazar Wheelock

Eleazar Wheelock to the North Parish Church, July 11, 1741. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.

DFLL: Bancroft Prize!

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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!