A Sober Assessment of the Immortal George Whitefield

You wouldn’t know it from Tripadvisor, but the small coastal town of Newburyport, Massachusetts holds a unique attraction drawing thousands of visitors—in the last two years they’ve hailed from 41 U.S. states and 22 countries. No municipal signs direct travelers to the site, nor is it listed with the local Chamber of Commerce. Tourist revenues flowing to the city of Newburyport notwithstanding, one historical society officer groused that she is sick of hearing about the man whose reputation draws pilgrims from around the world.

In Newburyport lies the tomb of the Reverend George Whitefield (1714-1770). Whitefield, the most legendary evangelist in modern history, died in Newburyport on September 30, 1770 while visiting his friend, the Reverend Jonathan Parsons. Despite offers from admirers and allies to bury Whitefield elsewhere, Parsons quickly had him interred in the vault beneath his Presbyterian church. Mourning extended around the world. Journals on both sides of the Atlantic marked Whitefield’s passing just as someone today might recall where he was when President Kennedy was shot or the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

Sermons on the late reverend were numerous, including his official funeral sermon in his native England by Methodist founder and on-again-off-again Whitefield ally, John Wesley. Ben Franklin, who was Whitefield’s longtime friend and publisher in America, said of him shortly before his death, “He is a good man, and I love him.” The first published work of the poet Phillis Wheatley, a slave at the time of Whitefield’s death, was her beautiful elegy for the evangelist praising his American patriotism as well as his desire to see converted to Christianity the Africans brought here by force.

Visitors paying their respects to Whitefield today are tame compared to those who first began coming the church in the 1770s. In 1775, officers leading an expedition to Quebec stopped on the Sabbath, took Whitefield’s collar and wristbands from his body, cut them into small pieces, and distributed them to the soldiers as if they were the very sort of saintly relics that Whitefield himself abhorred. Others came to publish graphic reports on Whitefield’s remains. One visitor from England stole Whitefield’s right arm bone. (It was later mailed back.) Harvard Medical School is thought to possess one of Whitefield’s ribs and the Methodist Archives at Drew University are thought to have a finger bone. One visitor made a cast of Whitefield’s skull and sold replicas, thereby enabling a confident phrenologist in England to remark that the shape of Whitefield’s skull accounted for an emotional nature and therefore “his wonderful power over others.”

Whitefield’s immortality, reflected ironically by such remembrances of his mortality, is owed to a variety of achievements—touted not least by Whitefield himself. As a young man, he was his own biographer, offering (edited, and re-edited) published editions of his journals as he trekked across the Atlantic and up and down America’s coast during the Great Awakening. Whitefield also published numerous sermons and letters, some of which outsold all other publications in the United States. Between 1739 and 1745, American publishers released more works by Whitefield than by any other person. Thanks to Whitefield’s publicity machine, colonial newspapers from South Carolina to Pennsylvania devoted as much as two-thirds of their available space to Whitefield in the salad days of the Great Awakening.

But what Whitefield was most famous for was his oratory. He was known to preach to tens of thousands at once, often outdoors. Though his own estimates of crowd size were surely inflated, especially in early editions of his journal, the eloquence and force of his preaching were unequaled. His ability to be heard by such large crowds was tested not only by his skeptical friend Franklin but now by modern physicists. It has been estimated that Whitefield preached on over 18,000 occasions, sometimes as often as 60 hours per week. His total audience over the course of one particular summer may have reached a million people. And though the spiritual harvest of Whitefield’s sermons eventually waned, he drew large audiences even until his passing. It is probably correct to say that Whitefield, who lived to 56, preached himself to death. When confronted about his failing health and brutal schedule, Whitefield replied that he could rest in heaven.

Thomas S. Kidd’s George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father is the latest in a spate of studies of this first transatlantic celebrity. While biographies of Whitefield began to be published soon after his death, his legacy was generally eclipsed by that of John Wesley. Whitefield worked closely with John and Charles Wesley during the earliest years of his ministry, but growing theological differences over Methodist teachings on Christian perfectionism (the conviction that a true believer would not sin) and soteriology strained their relationship in public and private. (Wesley became a committed Arminian while Whitefield was convinced of Calvinism.) Admirers of John Wesley who were critical of Whitefield largely dictated Whitefield’s reputation for two centuries.

His modern revival began with Arnold Dallimore’s magisterial two-volume life, completed in 1980. Dallimore’s motive was to effect a spiritual revival in his own time, but even so, his lengthy work was not without academic admirers such as Allen Guelzo. Ten years later, Harry Stout employed Dallimore’s biography when writing his own biography of Whitefield but Stout unfairly dismissed Dallimore’s efforts as “filiopietistic.” Stout’s crediting of George Whitefield’s successes to a combination of acting talent and exploitation of budding publicity techniques elicited a sharp reproof. Dallimore, who sacrificed 30 years of his life as well as his own ministry to complete the mammoth biography, retorted (with his own lack of charity) that such reductionism brought to mind I Corinthians 2:14: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him.” Such are the stakes in accounting for a legendary evangelist even over two centuries after his death.

There have been admiring treatments since Dallimore’s, mostly from Christian publishing houses and evangelical authors; there have been recent academic analyses of Whitefield’s career, notably those authored by Frank Lambert and Jerome Dean Mahaffey. These last-mentioned are not full-fledged biographies, however. Kidd, a professor of history at Baylor University, states up front that his goal is to bridge academic and evangelical presentations. He does this essentially by giving us a straight, thorough, and chronological narrative of Whitefield’s life without much interpretation. It is the first true biography of Whitefield since Stout’s.

Kidd’s study eschews the interpretive lens of Mahaffey or Lambert, or even that of Stout. Mahaffey, for example, tried to situate Whitefield in his political milieu and thereby make him a de facto catalyst of the American Revolution. Lambert did the same, though his primary argument followed the lead of his mentor Timothy Breen and made Whitefield a creature of new transatlantic commercial movements. (Other historians such as Alan Heimert have attempted to link the Great Awakening and the Revolution, but the assertion remains more enticing than convincing.)

Though Kidd is an evangelical himself, he does not credit Whitefield’s success to a moving of the Spirit. Neither does he preclude it by cynically explaining away Whitefield’s success. The resulting presentation, neither thematic nor ambitiously interpretive, may frustrate evangelicals and secular academics alike. Whitefield’s faithful admirers would assert that the real drama of his life is recounting the work of the Spirit in enabling the New Birth. Traditional academics, by contrast, study Whitefield as a way into the study of social movements. Because Kidd keeps an appropriate scholarly distance from Whitefield and offers no explanations for his remarkable career, the book lacks both the drama and perspicacity of other studies.

But why complain? This leaves us with “only” a most thorough account of Whitefield’s life on both sides of the Atlantic. Though not as long as Dallimore’s (admittedly lengthened by long excerpts from letters and journals) nor as detailed as George Marsden’s recent biography of Jonathan Edwards, for example, Kidd’s biography of Whitefield is no less careful. And though it is a bit less readable than Stout’s, this one does not leave us to wonder about the author’s sources. Stout omitted academic notation, but Kidd is scrupulous with his endnotes and demonstrates great command of the relevant literature and archival material. It is also clear that Kidd wisely refuses to rely too much on Whitefield’s own biography.

Kidd’s accomplishment with this work lies in more than a potential rapprochement between students and scholars. His prudence keeps the reader from many of the academic pitfalls that characterized previous studies. We do not have to reconcile the “spirit-filled, caring minister” with the travelling salesman for the Holy Spirit who deploys the “dramatic artifice of a huckster.” Nor are we left to puzzle out how Lambert’s Whitefield, a commercial pioneer whose serial publications exploited the “consumer revolution,” saw diminishing success even as the market revolution was advancing.

Whitefield’s background in acting is acknowledged, as is his understanding of markets and advance publicity; but these do not become Kidd’s explanatory hypothesis or interpretive lens. This spares the reader from the questionable presumption that Whitefield’s use of such techniques constituted amusing irony, tantalizing contradiction, or shameful hypocrisy.

Kidd reminds us, for example, that Whitefield declined to publish, as Franklin suggested he do, a list of donors for Whitefield’s Georgia orphanage. To Whitefield’s mind, it might imply a lack of faith and bring in more funds than necessary. Also, a few years earlier in 1737, Whitefield had asked a printer not to run any more stories about his preaching.[1]

Neither is the reader forced to choose between the importance of Whitefield’s oratorical and dramatic talents (Stout) and his aggressive use of print (Lambert). Kidd demonstrates Whitefield’s power even in print by recounting the case of a converted bricklayer named Samuel Morris, who stimulated a revival in Virginia simply by reading Whitefield’s 1741 Glasgow sermons.

The author’s refusal to exploit Whitefield to leverage social theory also keeps us from having to choose between his enabling a coherent sense of American political identity (Mahaffey) or his forging of a transatlantic evangelical identity (Lambert). Contra Mahaffey, Kidd rightly asserts that Whitefield was far more vocal against his Catholic opponents in the War of the Austrian Succession or the Seven Years’ War than he was against the British Crown’s imposition of the Stamp Act of 1765. The evangelist’s support for American rights was often expressed privately and based (in the case of repealing the Stamp Act) more on speculation than evidence. Had Whitefield lived to see the Revolution, it is doubtful he would have become its ardent opponent in the manner of John Wesley. Might he not have been like ministers Jacob Duché (Anglican) or John Joachim Zubly (Presbyterian), for example, who ardently supported the defense of American rights but not American independence?

And readers will have plenty more to ponder, given the complexities of George Whitefield as they are ably laid out by Kidd. Whitefield’s soteriology wedded unparalleled evangelistic spirit with unyielding belief in predestination. He did not confuse marketing with grace, and exploited every contemporary means of promotion without ever presuming upon the sovereignty of divine grace. He moved from imprudent, uncharitable condemnation of his opponents to reflective and humble peacemaking.

Though criticized for his mass appeal to the “uneducated” and “enthusiastic” masses, Whitefield made frequent use of Greek and Latin, casually alluded to contemporary scientific discoveries, and was instrumental in the fledgling years of what became Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. His spiritual preparation was eclectic: Catholic monks (Thomas à Kempis and Juan de Castaniza), Scottish theologians (Henry Scougal), traditional Anglicans (William Law), and English nonconformists (Joseph Alleine and Richard Baxter).

Whitefield asserted that the world was his parish, defended the rights of dissenters, preached in any Protestant pulpit that welcomed him, and went to the fields when necessary. Yet he never discounted the sacraments (including paedocommunion), his denomination’s liturgical Prayer Book, confessional study (the Thirty Nine Articles), or catechesis (the Westminster Shorter Catechism).

He preached a gospel of vitriol against Catholic opponents in wartime, but not out of blind nationalism. He valued the British political system for its comparative religious freedom and constitutional liberties. He endorsed evangelistic efforts targeting slaves and blacks, yet worked to legalize slavery in Georgia as a means to economic prosperity.

American evangelicalism has since atoned for this last sin; it has taken off the taint of Whitefield’s greatest mistake. But it has yet to fully emulate the man’s virtues. Such emulation would indeed make George Whitefield what this book’s title suggests him to be: America’s spiritual founding father.

[1] “Power of God” versus “manipulation” is a prominent false dichotomy in the warring camps of Whitefield biographers. A better counterposition of Calvinist economic strictures with more permissive ideas of political economy is Mark Valeri’s 2010 book Heavenly Merchandize.