The Author’s Corner with John Howard Smith

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?

JS: I started working on the First Great Awakening while I was writing my dissertation. I had gotten the idea for writing a new synthetic history of the Awakening in 2000, and I happened to meet Edmund S. Morgan at an American Society of Church History conference in Santa Fe, and I told him my thoughts about what was needed in such a work. He was incredibly encouraging, and agreed to read a few chapter drafts that I worked up after that meeting, and his comments and suggestions substantially guided the architecture of the book. I worked up a full-length manuscript proposal in 2004 and sent that to Harry S. Stout, who forwarded it to Kenneth P. Minkema, and both were very complimentary. I had to set it aside for a little over a year in order to publish my dissertation in 2008, after which I was able to devote myself completely to the Awakening. In the meantime Thomas S. Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelicalism in Colonial America had come out, but I knew that my approach was markedly different from his, and that another account approaching the Awakening from an opposite angle would be very interesting. I remain surprised that relatively few historians have endeavored to write a comprehensive history of the Awakening, and so much great work on it had emerged since 2007 that I thought needed to be incorporated into a history that was more secularist in its approach.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The First Great Awakening?

JS: The First Great Awakening is not so much the story of how evangelical Protestantism created a consistent American identity, but rather about how evangelicalism established fractious sectarianism as the defining characteristic of American Christianity. “The First Great Awakening” is a reassertion of the importance of religion to the colonial American mind, as well as of the fact that the Awakening was a significant intercolonial and international phenomenon that was sustained from the 1720s through the 1770s.

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?
JS: I have begun preliminary research for what I intend will be a new history of occultism, witchcraft, and witch-hunting in colonial America from the 1620s through the 1720s, centering of course on the Salem witch trials. I want to pull together the best of what can be found in the works of Jon Butler, Keith Thomas, John Demos, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Carol Karlsen, Bernard Rosenthal, and Mary Beth Norton, among others, into a comprehensive study that seeks to explain the evolution of the complex relationships between religion, belief in the supernatural, occultism, and Enlightenment rationalism over the course of a century of phenomenal change in colonial British America.
JF: Looking forward to reading about it! Thanks John.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

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