John Howard Smith is Associate Professor at Texas A&M University– Commerce. This interview is based on his new book, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775 (Fairleigh Dickinson, December 2014).
JF: What led you to write The First Great Awakening?
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The First Great Awakening?
JF: Why do we need to read The First Great Awakening?
JS: My goal is to challenge the accepted definition of a religious awakening, and specifically of the First Great Awakening, to include particularly the revival and reinvention of American Indian religions in the ‘middle ground’ of western Pennsylvania. Also, I try to give greater attention to African Americans and women than practically all other book-length studies have done. I follow Doug Winiarski in emphasizing the professedly mystical aspects of eighteenth-century revivalism to identify charismatic behaviors as essential to understanding the Awakening, which I think most other historians have downplayed in one way or another. I disagree with Jon Butler that the Awakening was a nineteenth-century invention, and with Frank Lambert that it was invented by the eighteenth-century revivalists, but rather that it was a creation of ordinary people as well as of the revivalists and their critics alike. I think that my attempt to reframe and redefine the Awakening offers a challenging alternative to what has become the traditional interpretation of it. I’m not trying to obliterate prior interpretations, but I do think that the vast bulk of it is shaped by a combination of tacit and overt pro-Christian precepts. However, I want to clarify that while I am a secular humanist, I am not anti-religion. I believe that religion can allow human beings to exhibit some of their best qualities, and my depiction of the ordinary and extraordinary people who were part of the Awakening is executed with sympathy and respect. My view of the Awakening is of an event that was shaped by the vigorous and sometimes contentious interplay between reason and revelation.
JF: How and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JS: I think I was almost destined to be an early Americanist. When I was eight years old, I studied a biography of Thomas Jefferson for a merit badge in Cub Scouts, and was fascinated by him (and the fact that we share the same birthday!) and by eighteenth-century America in general, which seemed to be everywhere on TV during and just after the Bicentennial in 1976. I maintained that fascination ever since. In 1986 I saw the Alan Alda comedy “Sweet Liberty” and was enchanted by the notion of being a college professor, and resolved that that was what I would do with my life. However, I started off as an English major at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and only about halfway through did I declare a second major in history. I was guided by a great early Americanist, Milton Ready, who always pushed me to do more and be better at what I do, and my best work was always in the early American field. By the time I graduated in 1991, there was no question that I was going to go to graduate school to become an early Americanist, which I eventually did under the fatherly tutelage of Prof. Sung Bok Kim at the State University of New York at Albany. Besides, with a name like John Smith, how could I not be an early Americanist?
JF: What is your next project?