The Surprisingly Democratic Roots of Evangelicalism


Mr. Kidd is associate professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale) and The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s).

In early 1742, during a major revival of religion in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a new convert named Mrs. Whipple found her public voice for the first time. Only days before, she had been wondering whether she could be saved from God’s wrath. But then she broke through to conversion, experiencing the overwhelming joy of forgiveness. That evening Mrs. Whipple started exhorting in the meetinghouse, speaking out against various sins including pride and covetousness. She even began “calling herself Mary Magdalene,” the devoted follower of Jesus who was traditionally thought to have been a prostitute prior to her conversion.1 We do not know exactly what Mrs. Whipple meant by calling herself Mary Magdalene, but her speech produced a mixed response. Some in the congregation reached new heights of spiritual ecstasy, while some men scowled at her impromptu, enthusiastic address.

The most remarkable thing about Mrs. Whipple’s exhortation is that the key male revivalist in Ipswich, the former Harvard tutor Daniel Rogers, publicly defended her right to speak. Women rarely spoke publicly in colonial America, and this kind of controversial speech was especially unusual. Rogers, however, told the congregation that some of them were too worried about tradition and order, and that “we must be willing that God should carry on his Work in his own Way.” God had started the revival, and if God chose to inspire women--or African Americans, Native Americans, the poor, and children, for that matter--to speak in the revival meetings, then the truly spiritual would listen and learn from these Spirit-filled sisters and brothers.

In our time when popular books warn of the theocratic intentions of conservative American Christians, it may seem surprising that in early evangelicalism we find one of the most powerful resources of egalitarian and democratic thought in American history. But in countless scenes like that of Mrs. Whipple’s exhortation, the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century opened new opportunities for traditionally silent people to lead and speak in the most important social institutions of colonial America, the churches.

The Great Awakening was an enormous upsurge of religious excitement that peaked in the years 1740-43. Some revivals of religion, in which numbers of people experienced conversion almost simultaneously, happened prior to the Great Awakening, with the most famous revival transpiring in Jonathan Edwards’s Northampton, Massachusetts, congregation in 1734-35. The arrival in America of the young Anglican itinerant George Whitefield precipitated the heightened fervor of the Great Awakening, as Whitefield toured the colonies from Maine to Georgia with an electrifying preaching style. Before the Great Awakening, colonial Protestant churches tended to feature orderly services with long, doctrinal sermons during which no one spoke out of turn. The revivals disrupted traditional practices with emotional turmoil and mystical phenomenon like dreams, visions, and trances. Critics lamented that the disorderly evangelicals were too “noisy.”

The historical literature on the Great Awakening has almost universally characterized it as a contest between “New Lights” who supported the revivals, and “Old Lights” who did not. While there was undoubtedly something to this division, the more interesting contest played out between radical and moderate evangelicals. All evangelicals agreed that they should seek mass conversions, but they disagreed about the extent to which the revivals represented a new era of spiritual power for the outcast. Evangelicalism had (and still has) varying social implications. While the moderates did not envision dramatic social transformation emerging from the revivals, the radicals encouraged the exhortations and mystical experiences of lay people and non-elites. Radicals also assaulted the state church establishments, which they often found lacking in zeal. They flouted colonial statutes forbidding the creation of unauthorized congregations and requiring all citizens to provide tax support to the established churches. The colonial governments often fined and occasionally even imprisoned the radicals for slander, tax evasion, and subverting the social order.

Radicals also transgressed conventional boundaries of religious leadership in their churches, giving people like Mrs. Whipple the right to speak authoritatively in their meetings. Sometimes they went a step further and ordained African Americans, Native Americans, and men without college educations as pastors. Women also found new opportunities to testify about God’s dealings in their lives, and in some of the truly radical evangelical churches women were ordained as deaconesses and even eldresses. From the perspective of modern America, these innovations may seem modest, but they represented the first major Anglo-American uprising against traditional authority of the colonial period.

In the early years of the revivals most evangelicals publicly supported them without hesitation, but as the radical aspects of the awakenings became more manifest, evangelical unity began to deteriorate. The ministry of radical leader James Davenport of Long Island irrevocably split the evangelical camp. Davenport adopted George Whitefield’s style of open-air emotional preaching, and raised questions about whether many of the established ministers of the northern colonies had actually experienced conversion. Davenport more intentionally sought out the disenfranchised of colonial society than did Whitefield, with spectacular results among the poor, African Americans, and Native Americans. Alarmed newspapers reported how he led crowds of these people singing through the streets of colonial towns.

Connecticut passed a 1742 anti-itinerancy law that was meant to trap Davenport, and indeed, he was expelled from the colony for violating it. Hardly deterred, Davenport moved on to Boston where he denounced a number of ministers, including moderate evangelicals, as unconverted. He was arrested and charged with slander, but the court declared him non compos mentis and released him. In a final incendiary episode, Davenport returned to Connecticut in early 1743 and hosted a book and clothes burning in New London, Connecticut. When Davenport called for his supporters to burn their fancy clothes, his supporters balked and Davenport was humiliated. He subsequently moderated his style in order to recover his pastoral career. Historians have often accepted the Boston’s court’s pronouncement that Davenport was out of his mind. Such diagnoses are difficult to make from such historical distance, but it seems almost certain that Davenport was not mentally unstable. He was simply the leader of New England’s radical evangelicals.

With leaders like Davenport at the helm, radical evangelicalism threatened to become a socially dangerous movement. Moderate evangelicals and Old Lights alike denounced the radicals’ chaotic style. But for evangelicals like James Davenport and Mrs. Whipple, the Great Awakening inaugurated an unprecedented era of spiritual power and public authority for the poor and outcast. It was an egalitarian upheaval unlike anything seen before in the colonial period. The radical evangelicals had launched their own American revolution.

1 Diary of Daniel Rogers, New-York Historical Society.

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