George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father
by thomas s. kidd
yale, 344 pages, $40
In 1775, a group of American soldiers raided George Whitefield’s five-year-old grave in Newbury, Massachusetts. Hoping that his relics would secure their protection in battle, they extracted a clerical collar and wristbands from the celebrated preacher’s remains and divided the cloth among themselves. The staunchly Protestant Whitefield no doubt rolled in his grave when they returned him to his resting place.
Our surprise at this devotion to Whitefield reflects how underappreciated his legacy is today. In his new biography of Whitefield, Thomas Kidd attempts to restore him to his proper place as America’s foremost early Evangelical, providing a clear-eyed yet sympathetic portrait in the process.
Born into relative poverty, young Whitefield did not seem a promising candidate for the ministry. Despite fitful interest in spiritual things, he, by his own account, was lazy, lustful, and more interested in theater than theology when he began studying for ordination at Oxford. Only after an agonizing period of soul-searching there did he experience the conversion that shaped the rest of his life.
In his early years as a young Anglican minister, Whitefield was a firebrand. Famous for his moving delivery, he attracted massive crowds on both sides of the Atlantic, calling them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Some of his fellow clergy, stung by his vigorous criticism of their spiritual torpor, suggested that he was “pious overmuch.” Others, alarmed by the weeping and screaming and fainting of his audiences of thousands, worried that he preyed on “injudicious” people.
Whitefield, at least in his early years, was not at all bothered by the accusations of “enthusiasm.” He responded that “every Christian, in the proper sense of the word, must be an enthusiast—that is, must be inspired of God or have God in him.” Undaunted by criticism, or even cease-and-desist letters from his superiors, he continued to preach with excellent results, adding thousands to the rolls of churches in the regions he visited. Unfortunately, he was also unmoved by pleas for unity and broke with many clergy, including John and Charles Wesley, over questions of Calvinism.
Attributing Whitefield’s shortcomings—pride, failures of discernment, thoughtlessness—to extremism is tempting. Fortunately, Kidd avoids that trap. Whitefield’s humility and patience did increase as he aged, but these improvements were increases in virtue, not results of compromise in his doctrine. In one of the few instances of his views substantially “moderating,” the result was bad: His early objections to slavery had been half-hearted to begin with, and as he moved toward the center, he abandoned them to argue for slavery’s legalization in Georgia.
Not all of Whitefield’s converts persevered, but many did. Not all of the charismatic manifestations exhibited by his audience were genuine, but some were. Drawing on both his Christian and academic sensibilities, Kidd reports both Whitefield’s serious failures and lasting achievements. Today’s evangelicals would do well to sort through his legacy and learn.
Bria Sandford is an associate editor at Penguin Random House.
This review was first published as a Briefly Noted in the 2015 June/July print issue.