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!

DFLL Wins New England Society Book Award


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.


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!


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!

Toward a History of Transatlantic Popular Religion

With a nor’easter battering the east coast followed by a brutal cold snap, getting to and around the American Society of Church History/American Historical Association meetings in Washington, D.C., last month was no easy task. For colleagues unable to attend the conference, here’s my response to the insightful reflections on Darkness Falls on the Land of Light presented by Jon Butler, Heather Kopelson, Jon Sensbach, Adrian Weimer, and Molly Worthen (with special thanks to Laurie Maffly-Kipp for stepping in to read Molly’s paper).

It’s so great to be here this afternoon. I’m thrilled and honored to have an opportunity to talk about Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. I’d especially like to thank T. J. for putting this roundtable together, to the American Society of Church History for sponsoring this event, and, especially, to Jon Butler, Heather Kopelson, Jon Sensbach, Adrian Weimer, and Molly Worthen for taking time out of their busy academic schedules to read and reflect on my book.

Where do we go from here? Jon Butler’s question is an important one, and well worth considering as a group this afternoon.

And I should probably start by acknowledging, somewhat sheepishly, that Darkness Falls, as Jon Sensbach has suggested, is a resolutely local study. Or, as I like to think of it: it’s a charmingly old school, throwback book. Many of my models and interpretive frameworks derive from the New Social History scholarship of the 1970s. I’ve tried not to argue beyond the local. This is not a book about the New England origins of the evangelical self. But it’s nonetheless a regional study of a people who, I believe, led spatially circumscribed religious lives.

And yet it’s equally clear from the panels and papers at this conference that scholarly interests have moved on in recent decades. Atlantic world, transatlantic, global histories now dominate nearly all areas of historical inquiry—and for good reasons. Just look at the scholars assembled for our roundtable today. Consider Jon Sensbach’s landmark microhistory of Rebecca Protten, an Afro-Moravian woman who flourished in the West Indies and Europe; T.J.’s recent examination of almanacs reframes the study of religion around a critical genre of literature that was immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic; Heather’s innovative approach to the “puritan Atlantic” and careful study of increasingly racialized religious bodies and their troubled relationship to the body of Christ; Adrian’s deep history of martyrology in Old and New England.[1] To this list we could add the recent works of Emily Conroy-Krutz, Kathryn Gin Lum, Christine Heyrman, Susan Juster, Carla Pestana, Erik Seeman, Mark Valeri, and many others who are contributing to the study of religion within the emerging paradigm of #VastEarlyAmerica.[2] And yet, despite these considerable gains, the field of early American religious history still lacks a definitive history of transatlantic popular religion. There are, as yet, no transatlantic heirs to David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment or Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith.

To advance the field in this direction, we might consider taking a brief step backward—back to a critical moment late in the 1980s, when Butler, Hall, and other scholars were calling for historians to engage more deeply with European scholarship on popular religion. And here I’m thinking of Butler’s revisionist “Transatlantic Problématique” and “Historiographical Heresy” essays, as well as Hall’s several historiographical review articles on New England puritanism. During the years leading up to the emergence of “lived religion” as a conceptual framework in the mid-1990s, both scholars were challenging colleagues to study lay religiosity: things like comparative supernaturalisms; gender, family strategies, and the life cycle; healing practices; various conceptions of religious time (family or evangelical); and the “spiritual convictions of the unchurched and the ambivalently churched.” Their watchwords were syncretism, eclecticism, intermittences, horse-shed Christians. “We are challenged,” Butler pressed in 1985, “to write a history explicitly focused on the spiritual life of an entire population, not just of clergymen and prominent laypersons.”[3]

This was the issue that energized me when I began working on Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. Early in my career, I possessed a kind of arrogant, Annales school confidence in my ability to write a total history of the religious culture of eighteenth-century New England. (And, I suppose, that obsession helps to account both for the length of my book as well as the longue durée of its publication!)

But what if we returned to the Butler-Hall popular religion paradigm, blended it with a few regional insights from Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, and applied the results to Atlantic world history? What might such a future study look like? I’m not sure—and such a project is surely beyond my skill—but here are a few thematic issues that we might want to consider. Four, to be precise:

First, future students of transatlantic popular religion should probably steer clear of measuring religion by volume—either by the loudness of particular religious communities or by the sheer number of surviving sources in a given archive. Jonathan Edwards left behind an incomparable body of publications and manuscripts, but this fact alone doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that he was a more effective or influential pastor than, say, his good friend Ebenezer Parkman, the unassuming minister of Westborough, Massachusetts, who carefully shepherded his congregation during his impressive six-decade pastorate.

The godly walkers who inhabit Part One of Darkness Falls, moreover, were a pretty quiet lot. They weren’t especially anxious or concerned about salvation—whatever their Calvinist upbringing or puritan heritage. Neither were they rationalistic or unemotional, dull or formalistic, nominal or unchurched. Prayer bills are the classic godly walker texts: brief, patterned, regular, orderly. These people were far more concerned with the here and now of their religious lives. Indeed, one of my favorite quotes in Darkness Falls comes from a 1750 letter of thanks by a New Hampshire man to his parents for providing him with a rigorous religious upbringing. “God saith that the Children of the Righteous upon the account of their parent[s] have no more cause to hope for being Saved on that account than the Children of the wicked,” he admitted. Then he added, “but God reward[s] the Children of Righteous often times on account of their Parents tho’ not [with] Eternal Salvation yet with the good things of this Life.”[4]

So when the Whitefieldian revivals came and the people called New Lights began to rail against their unconverted, but godly walking neighbors and ministers, we should recognize such attacks for what they were: a formidable critique of a particular way of being religious, rather than evidence of “getting” religion altogether. The loudness of James Davenport and his considerable lay following doesn’t mean that they were somehow more religious than those whose beliefs, practices, and experiences they so vehemently criticized. To put things bluntly: I sharply disagree with Charles Grandison Finney’s famous claim that “A ‘Revival of Religion’ presupposes a declension.”[5] After all, from a historical numbers standpoint, it’s quite possible that New England’s era of great awakenings produced more Anglican conformists than Whitefieldian new converts between 1740 and 1770.

Here’s my second suggestion: the bible is important, of course, but it was much more than a book for eighteenth-century Protestants. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking of “biblicism” as a cornerstone of incipient transatlantic evangelicalism. For a half century prior to 1740, Congregational church admission relations (and, as a quick aside, it important to remember that these texts aren’t “conversion narratives,” as many scholars have assumed)…that these texts were studded with biblical quotations and allusions. More than one church membership candidate in Haverhill, Massachusetts, described the bible in conventional terms as a “perfect rule of faith and practice.”

Yet something else happened over the course of the eighteenth century: Whitefieldarians began to experience the bible differently. Scratch any mid-century conversion narrative, from Sarah Osborn to Nathan Cole, or peruse the church admission testimonies from white hot revival communities such as Ipswich, Granville, or Middleborough, Massachusetts, and you’ll find lay men and women talking about “them words that came to me” during their darkest hour of distress. Of bible verses that “dropped” into their minds; “rained” on their souls; even “followed them around” as they pursued their daily routines. Nothing worried Jonathan Edwards more than his parishioners’ fascination with these unruly biblical “impulses” and “impressions.”

And this way of experiencing scripture—if we can use that phrase—grew increasingly elaborate as the century progressed. Within a decade of the Whitefieldian revivals, people began hearing composite biblical impulses: a string of unrelated verses patched together into a single message. “Them words” occasionally came from the hymns of Isaac Watts; some impulses that triggered the conversions of more radical New Englanders had no biblical referent at all.

Taking a page from Leigh Schmidt, I’d suggest that people heard the bible sounding in their minds as much as they read it—especially during the most transformative moments in their spiritual lives.[6] A transatlantic history of popular Christianity, therefore, should pay close attention to the role of biblical impulses in the spiritual narratives of, say, enslaved Africans or English Methodists. Not surprisingly, no statements were more often excised from the accounts of conversion taken down by Scottish pastors during the Whitefieldian revivals in Cambuslang, Scotland, than passages that began with the phrase “them words came to me.”

My third suggestion is this: theology, denominations, and ecclesiastical institutions count too, but the myriad ways in which people arrived at, conformed to, or rebelled against these sources of religious authority are probably more important. Or to restate the point in a somewhat different way, we need to think of the religious lives of lay men and women as becoming rather than being. Instead of defining puritanism or evangelicalism—or Methodism or Anglicanism—and then applying these definitions to one set of texts or another, we should consider routes into and, perhaps, through various religious traditions. This is not to say that formal theology isn’t important. But rather, as Butler and Hall maintained, we need to keep examining the ways in which religious ideas and institutions were embraced, resisted, reinscribed, or reshaped by lay men and women. This way of approaching the study of religion is deeply indebted to concepts such as Hall’s “family strategies”—the logic by which people affiliated with organized religious institutions at specific moments in the life course. It’s also one way to make sense of the pervasive metaphor of religious “travel” that the people I discuss in Part 5 of Darkness Falls used a synonym for experience.

Much of my book is devoted to tracing the paths of religious travelers. The godly walkers of Haverhill needed to take only a few relatively short steps to the place where they had always belonged: church membership in the Congregational land of light; but on the other side of the Whitefieldian revivals, the spiritual travels of Nathan Cole or Sarah Prentice lasted for decades and led them to religious worlds unimaginable to their young adult selves.

Lastly, I think we should resist the urge to reduce or translate the study of popular religion into other, seemingly more real or important, realms of history. Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is a book about religious experience—about the ways in which lay men and women in eighteenth-century New England learned to experience religion differently and the different, often competing, vocabularies, idioms, and story frameworks they inherited, devised, debated, and improvised to give shape and meaning to their worlds. I embarked on this project with a nagging suspicion that we needed a thicker description of what ordinary people experienced in their religious lives over the course of the long eighteenth century.

We know so much about the leading ministers of this period. Consider the sheer number of biographies written over the past half century from Edmund Morgan’s Gentle Puritan to George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards.[7] And yet only a handful of well documented lay men and women stand for whole: Nathan Cole, Hannah Heaton, and, most recently, Sarah Osborn.[8]

And so the book that emerged from my reading of a wide array of understudied manuscript sources eventually evolved into a series of meditations on the languages of experience, of the bible as it was experienced as much as read, of visions and embodied presences of the Holy Spirit, and of the ways these kinds of experiences changed over the long eighteenth century. Only on a secondary level is Darkness Falls a book about the social costs of the changing religious experiences that I associate with the rise of Whitefieldian evangelicalism. Readers interested in learning about gender, or race, or politics may come away from the book dissatisfied.[9] Or they’ll need to take a further interpretive step (and I hope they will) to apply my readings of eighteenth-century popular religion to these and other historiographical agendas.

In our conversation today, we should definitely discuss the questions that Adrian Weimer and Jon Sensbach have proposed: what can the category of religious experience tell us about, say, transatlantic print culture or the American Revolution. I thought long and hard about the latter as I wrote, before concluding that I just didn’t have much to say about politics—or, to be more precise, that harnessing my argument to broader social forces would have obscured the broader point of the project.

But on another level, we should also think carefully about whether or not these are the questions that need answering, even at this current moment in our politics where the humanities are under siege and, perhaps in response, scholars feel compelled to advocate for the scholarly relevance of their work among a broader reading public.

Here, I’m reminded of Robert Orsi’s recent work on what he has provocatively called the “real presence” of the holy.[10] Orsi has challenged scholars to move not merely beyond the category of belief but also beyond the common tendency to translate or reduce religion to symbols, or power, or race, or any number of other, seemingly more “real” forces. For Orsi, the study of religion must engage head-on the often troubling claims of people who believe that the gods (or in the case of my book, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in particular) are physically present agents in the world—that the gods make history as much as politics, or economics, or social structures.

Let me be clear here: I don’t think Darkness Falls comes anywhere near approaching the kind of radical new religious history that Orsi envisions. But getting the experiences of the laity right—or as right as we can—is a necessary first step. And it may well be the missing piece in our rapidly developing historiography of religion in the early modern Atlantic world.




[1] Jon Sensbach, Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, Mass., 2006); T. J. Tomlin, A Divinity for All Persuasions: Almanacs and Early American Religious Life, Religion in America (New York, 2014); Heather Miyano Kopelson, Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic, Early American Places (New York, 2016); Adrian Chastain Weimer, Martyrs' Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England (New York, 2011).

[2] Karin Wulf, “For 2016, Appreciating #VastEarlyAmerica,” Uncommon Sense—The Blog, Jaunary 4, 2015, https://blog.oieahc.wm.edamau/for-2016-appreciating-vastearlyamerica/ (accessed February 2, 2018).

[3] In addition to David D. Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge, Mass., 1989); and Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People, Studies in Cultural History (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); see Butler, “The Future of American Religious History: Prospectus, Agenda, Transatlantic Problématique,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 42 (1985): 167–183 (quotations 177–178); Hall, “On Common Ground: The Coherence of American Puritan Studies,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 44 (1987): 193–229; Butler, “Whitefield in America: A Two Hundred Fiftieth Commemoration,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 113 (1989): 515–526; Butler, “Historiographical Heresy: Catholicism as a Model for American Religious History,” in Thomas Kselman, ed., Belief in History: Innovative Approaches to European and American Religion (Notre Dame, Ind., 1991), 286–309; Hall, “Narrating Puritanism,” in Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart, eds., New Directions in American Religious History (New York, 1997), 51–83; Hall, “‘Between the Times’: Popular Religion in Eighteenth-Century British North America,” in Michael V. Kennedy and William G. Shade, eds., The World Turned Upside Down: The State of Eighteenth-Century American Studies at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (Bethlehem, Pa., 2001), 142–163; and Hall, ed., Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton, N.J., 1997).

[4] Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2017), 79.

[5] Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival of Religion, 2d ed. (New York, 1835), 9.

[6] Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), ch. 2.

[7] Edmund S. Morgan, The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727–1795 (New Haven, Conn., 1962); George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, Conn., 2003). For a list of similar works, see Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 372, n. 8.

[8] Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, Conn., 2013).

[9] See, for example, Heather Kopelson’s recent critique of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light in the William and Mary Quarterly (75 [2018]: 194–198), in which she reprises her remarks at the ASCH panel.

[10] Robert A. Orsi, History and Presence (Cambridge, Mass., 2016), 8.

A New Relation (Boston, 1757)

Church admission testimonies, or “relations” as they were called, form the bedrock of my argument in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. They afford one the best means of gauging broad changes in popular religious experience in early New England. I’m always on the lookout for examples of this distinctive genre of puritan devotional literature. Recently discovered by a researcher at the Congregational Library, the 1757 relation of Lydia Bourk of Boston’s First Church opens up some intriguing research questions.

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Looking forward to a spirited discussion of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light with Jon Butler, Heather Miyano Kopelson, Jon Sensbach, Adrian Weimer, and Molly Worthen at the upcoming winter meeting of the American Society of Church Historians in Washington, D.C. The panel will take place on Friday, January 5, from 3:30–5:00 p.m. in the Foxhall Ballroom of the Dupont Circle Hotel. Many thanks to T.J. Tomlin for organizing and moderating. Hope you'll share this post with interested friends and colleagues. Click here for the full ASCH conference program.