Experiencing a religious revolution

February 22, 2018
Religious studies professor's latest book looks at the role of religious revivals in colonial times

In 1680, 75 to 80 percent of New England families belonged to the Puritan church. By 1780, that number was cut in half.

What caused such a monumental shift? That’s what religious studies professor Douglas Winiarski, an early American religious historian, wanted to find out. His research led to his recent book, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England.

“The book is about how ordinary people in 18th century New England learn to experience religion differently than previous generations,” Winiarski said. “It’s not a book about theology, ministers, or elite members of a community, it’s about ordinary people who lived during that time, so the research base for it is diaries, letters, relations of faith documents, and manuscript writings that I’ve compiled over 20 years of working in archives, from big ones like the Massachusetts Historical Society, to tiny little churches, local historical societies, and town clerks’ offices.”

The answer to the decreasing membership in the congregational church turned out to involve a series of powerful religious revivals that took place mid-18th century. The revivals began with an Anglican minister named George Whitfield, who traveled up and down the east coast visiting all the colonies. “He had a preaching style that was captivating to ordinary people, and his message was that there’s only one thing that matters in your religious life, which is whether or not you have experienced the conversion or rebirth,” said Winiarski. “Whitfield tried to persuade people that many of the things they thought mattered to their religious lives, like knowing the right theological doctrines, believing the right things, coming from a good family, and participating in the rituals of the church, counted for nothing unless you had experienced this rebirth.” 

In his wake, trailed a wide variety of local New England ministers who adopted his preaching style, and took to the roads themselves, trying to engineer these revivals and preaching a similar message. Collectively, those groups of itinerant preachers, many of whom were lay people who claimed the right to preach on their own without being ordained or licensed, persuaded tens of thousands of people to see things differently, which affected not only their spiritual lives, but the relationship they had to their neighbors, friends, and community. “The most radical members of the community, who no longer felt home at congregational churches, many of them migrated out of town with others who shared their beliefs,” Winiarski said. “All the way up to today, the religious diversity you find in northern New England is much greater because of that push for people to look to practice religion in their own way, unfettered by the state.” 

The research archive Winiarski compiled while working on the book has also found a role in his teaching, which includes classes like Richmond: City of the Dead, which explores attitudes toward death in early America and includes field work at cemeteries, museums, and Civil War sites in Richmond; and Devil in the Details, a first-year seminar that explores how scholars research and write gripping historical narratives. “I love looking at 18th century manuscripts, and I realize our students do too,” he said. “Increasingly, I teach my students not just content, but about the sources that survive that allow us to understand what we consider to be the content of American religious history.”

Each semester, Winiarski opens up his research archive of photographs of manuscripts, sermon notes, relation of faith documents and diaries to his students. “I want them to experience the thrill of discovering something new and having something new to say by giving them texts that other scholars who teach in my field wouldn’t be able to give their students,” he said. “In my field, we produce new interpretations of history, and I want my students to have that experience.”