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.
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.
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.
The Journal of East Tennessee History recently published the first of a two-part series of articles in which I chronicle the Shakers’ epic “Long Walk” from New York to Ohio in 1805. Part travel narrative, part missionary report, Shaker letters from the Long Walk shed new light on the controversial “bodily exercises” that dominated accounts of the Great Revival (1799–1805). Centered in the Kentucky Bluegrass Country, this powerful succession of Presbyterian sacramental festivals and Methodist camp meetings played a formative role in the development of early American evangelicalism and the emergence of the southern Bible Belt. The Shakers were eyewitnesses to some of the most bizarre spectacles associated with the western revivals.
Spurred by a newspaper report describing an outbreak of the strange somatic fits known as “the jerks” in the remote village of Abingdon, Virginia, Shaker leaders in New Lebanon, New York, dispatched three missionaries to investigate the Great Revival and gauge the prospects for evangelizing the western settlements. At the time, sectarian followers of British émigré Ann Lee, the “Elect Lady” and purported second coming of Christ in female form, had achieved widespread notoriety for their perfectionist theology, celibacy, pacifism, communal villages, and, especially, ecstatic dancing practices. Early descriptions of the Shakers “laboring” worship, as they called it, bore a striking resemblance to accounts of the bodily exercises of the western revivals.
Leading a packhorse encumbered by a large portmanteaux and bearing printed copies of a strident letter proclaiming the Shakers’ millennial new dispensation, John Meacham, Issachar Bates, and Benjamin Youngs set out on New Year’s Day, 1805. For more than two months they struggled through some of the worst winter weather of the nineteenth century. The Shaker missionaries traveled more than 1,200 miles south through New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, then up the Great Valley of Virginia, through East Tennessee, over Cumberland Gap, and into the Kentucky Bluegrass country—the heart of the Great Revival. By March 1805, the trio had reached the small settlement at Turtle Creek near Lebanon, Ohio.
Along the way, the Shaker missionaries were keen to meet with Scots-Irish Presbyterian “jerkers”—men and women who had experienced unusual somatic fits during powerful revival meetings. As they passed through Greenville, Virginia, Meacham and Youngs spent an afternoon interviewing members of the family of Robert Tate, a prosperous Presbyterian elder, Revolutionary War veteran, and slaveowner, about their experiences with the jerks. The record of that conversation, carefully recorded by Youngs in a letter, is arguably the most detailed account of the bodily exercises of the Great Revival ever written. Although the Shaker missionaries moved on from Greenville, they continued to encounter “jerkers” like the Tates throughout the western settlements. Within a few years, hundreds of these radical “revivalers” and their families had converted to Shakerism and gathered together in a network of five communal villages that the missionaries organized in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.
“Shakers & Jerkers, Part 1” presents an edited transcription of the missionaries’ January 31, 1805, letter, in which they narrated their progress from New York to Virginia and reported their encounter with the Tate family. Scheduled for publication in the 2018 volume of the Journal of East Tennessee History, the second installment in the series will cover the Shakers’ travels through Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as their early efforts to spread the gospel in southern Ohio. It also includes an unforgettable account of a Presbyterian society meeting in East Tennessee in which Meacham, Youngs, and Bates witnessed not only the jerks, but trance walking and other unusual somatic phenomena.
For colleagues seeking new readings for their courses on early American religious history, “Shakers & Jerkers” provides a vivid portrait of popular religion in the trans-Appalachian west. Graduate courses might effectively pair these edited Shaker texts with prominent studies of the Great Revival and southern evangelicalism: John Boles, The Great Revival: Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1972; Lexington, Ky., 1996); Paul K. Conkin, Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison, WI, 1990); Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York, 1998); Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001); or Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, N.J., 1999). Readers interested in learning more about the Long Walk and western Shakerism should begin with Stephen J. Stein’s definitive Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (New Haven, Conn., 1992); see also Carol Medlicott’s excellent biography, Issachar Bates: A Shaker’s Journey (Hanover, N.H., 2013).
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. 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. 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.”
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.”
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.” 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. 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. And yet only a handful of well documented lay men and women stand for whole: Nathan Cole, Hannah Heaton, and, most recently, Sarah Osborn.
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. 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. 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.
 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).
 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).
 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).
 Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2017), 79.
 Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival of Religion, 2d ed. (New York, 1835), 9.
 Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), ch. 2.
 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.
 Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, Conn., 2013).
 See, for example, Heather Kopelson’s recent critique of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light in the William and Mary Quarterly (75 : 194–198), in which she reprises her remarks at the ASCH panel.
 Robert A. Orsi, History and Presence (Cambridge, Mass., 2016), 8.
It took nearly two decades of patient archival research to assemble the sources for Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. Thankfully, many of the most significant manuscript texts in the book have appeared online in recent years. More turn up every month. Here’s a wonderful example: the commonplace book of Joshua Bowles (1722–1794). Owned by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, the Bowles manuscript is included in a recently published collection of fascinating eighteenth-century commonplace books.
The aspiring Boston furniture carver was only fifteen when he began inscribing family prayers in"Joshua Bowles his Book Anno 1737." Shortly after Gilbert Tennent arrived in Boston in three years later, Bowles transformed his record of private devotions into a makeshift sermon notebook. Throughout the peak months of the Whitefieldian revivals, Bowles crammed sermon notes onto nearly every open space in the manuscript. He recorded preaching performances by local ministers as well as touring evangelists such as Daniel Rogers, who delivered a powerful sermon on the “sandy foundations” of faith in Boston on July 10, 1741 (see below). Bowles's commonplace book is one of the most important surviving revival chronicles written by a layperson in colonial British North America. And the shift from his carefully ruled and beautifully written family prayers to hastily scribbled sermon notes stands as a powerful visual reminder of the abrupt changes the Great Awakening brought to countless people in eighteenth-century New England.
Other notable documents in the New England Historic Genealogical Society's new online collection include the commonplace books of puritan immigrant John Dane, Hampton, New Hampshire, minister Seaborn Cotton, and Baptist clergyman Samuel Maxwell. Published in John Demos's Remarkable Providences, 1600–1760: Readings on Early American History, rev. ed. (Boston, 1991), 60–69, Dane’s autobiographical "Declaration of Remarkabell Prouendenses in the Corse of My Lyfe" is an outstanding teaching text. For an excellent analysis of this narrative, see Michael P. Winship's "Encountering Providence in the Seventeenth Century: The Experiences of a Yeoman and a Minister," Essex Institute Historical Collections 126 (1990): 27–36. Cotton filled his commonplace book with poetry, theological notes, genealogical information, and church records (including the relation of John Clifford, Jr., on page 37). The Maxwell manuscript includes an unusual reference to a prayer bill written on behalf of the unconverted during the Whitefieldian revivals (see my "Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax" essay, pages 72–73). I discuss the Bowles manuscript in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 153–154.
In the months to come, I’ll be working to keep readers of The People Called New Lights Blog updated on exciting new collections like this one. And I’d love to hear from you. If you discover any Digital New Lights who have made their way online, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Through the generous support of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Richmond, I spent the spring 2017 semester as a residential fellow at the Library of Virginia. Here's a sneak peak at what I discovered in my new research: a court case from Rockbridge County, Virginia, involving the jerks, a controversial new bodily practice that developed among Scots-Irish Presbyterian new lights during the frontier revivals of the Second Great Awakening. Many thanks to John Deal for inviting me to contribute to the Library's "Out of the Box" blog!