In 1740, Benjamin Franklin published the first American edition of Gospel Sonnets, by the eminent Scottish Presbyterian minister Ralph Erskine. The work, already in its fifth British edition, quickly became an American bestseller and remained so throughout the eighteenth century. Franklin was aware of what most scholars of American religion and literature have forgotten -that poetry played a central role in the "surprising works of God" that birthed evangelicalism.
The far-reaching social transformations precipitated by the transatlantic evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century depended upon the development of a major literary form, that of revival poetry. Literary scholars and historians of religion have prioritized sermons, conversion narratives, periodicals, and hymnody. Wendy Roberts here argues that poetry offered a unique capacity to "diffuse celestial Fervor through the World," in the words of the cleric Samuel Davies. Awakening Verse is the first monograph to address this large corpus of evangelical poetry in the American colonies, shedding light on important dimensions of eighteenth-century religious and literary culture. Roberts deftly assembles a large, previously unknown archive of immensely popular poems, examines how literary history has rendered this poetic tradition invisible, and demonstrates how a vibrant popular poetics exercised a substantial effect on the landscape of early American religion, literature, and culture.