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A People So Favored of God Jun 6, 2006
Sometimes you want a satellite photograph of a region. You want the big picture showing only the main features. At other times you want to walk the ground yourself. Then you need the ordinance survey showing every rise and fall of the locality. George Harper's book is the ordinance survey of the religious life of Boston in the 1740s. This book is a model of meticulous scholarship. It has a clear, significant thesis. The thesis is supported by a mountain of primary data. The thesis corrects past misunderstandings. All further study of the subject will have to take his findings into account.
The thesis of this book is that there was a Great Awakening in Boston in the 1740s, that it was welcomed by the ministers who were pastors and opposed by those who were preachers, and that the pastors' congregations grew and the preachers' congregations did not.
Harper supports his conclusions with membership data from Boston's eleven congregational churches interpreted in the light of the pastoral practices of the various ministers of those churches. He finds that the ministers who followed Cotton Mather's precept and example of visiting among their people--ministers who catechized, discipled, and trained the members of their congregations--saw their churches grow as a result of the Awakening, and that those who hid in their studies all week and only emerged to read impressive sermons saw their churches stagnate or decline. He also finds that support for the Awakening does not follow doctrinal lines as so many previously assumed. The received wisdom about the Awakening was that those who were moving in a liberal direction, toward Unitarianism and moralism, did not support the Awakening, while those who upheld Trinitarianism and individual conversion welcomed it. Harper reveals that at least in the 1740s there was no incipient theological divide and that even Awakening opponents like Charles Chauncy could urgently preach the necessity of individual conversion.
Harper's is a work of micro-history, revealing the brute facts that are the foundations of all megahistories. If you want a accurate understanding of the Great Awakening, this is the place to begin.
Charles White Professor of Christian Thought and History Spring Arbor University