American Demagogue: The Great Awakening and the Rise and Fall of Populism

Pegasus. Nov. 2019. 400p. notes. index. ISBN 9781643132198. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9781643132914. HIST
In the 1730s and 1740s, an evangelical Christian revivalist movement swept across the Thirteen Colonies. Itinerant charismatics such as Gilbert Tennent and George Whitefield preached a gospel of hellfire to audiences numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. Worshippers wept, shrieked, danced, and deserted mainstream Anglican and Congregationalist churches in droves. The movement appealed especially to women, the enslaved, the working class, and other disempowered groups, whom revivalists allowed to worship alongside white male elites. Establishment leaders deplored the emotionalism and egalitarianism of the movement, but to little avail. According to independent historian Dickey (Rising in Flames), the Great Awakening's democratization of religious experience destabilized the colonial order. Amid church schisms and general turmoil, revivalism instigated a thirst for liberty and climate of dissent that fed the American Revolution. (Historians continue to debate the true extent of the Great Awakening's impact.) Dickey chronicles events and personalities, teases out nuances, and delivers insights briskly and clearly. One critique is that Dickey neither consistently uses the lens of populism to analyze the Great Awakening nor examines how the movement influenced later American demagogues, from Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump.
VERDICT Despite its misleading title, this work remains a thoughtful take on an intriguing period of American history.

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