The Accidental Revolutionary
George Whitefield and the Creation of America
Publication Year: 2011
Patriots. Founding Fathers. Revolutionaries. For many Americans, the colonial heroes deserve special celebratory reverence. Yet while Washington's leadership, Franklin's writings, and Revere's ride captivate us, the inspiration and influence George Whitefield instilled within the revolutionary spirits of early Americans is regrettably unknown.
In this refreshing biography, Jerome Dean Mahaffey deftly moves beyond Whitefield's colonial celebrity to show how his rhetoric and ministry worked for freedom, situating Whitefield alongside the most revolutionary founders. As this Anglican revivalist traveled among the colonies, he delivered exhilarating sermons deeply saturated with political implications—freedom from oppression, civil justice, communal cooperation. Whitefield helped to encourage in his listeners a longing for a new, uniquely American nationalism.
The Accidental Revolutionary tells the story of this forgotten founder, who may not have realized the repercussions of his words as he spoke them. Now, Mahaffey delicately shows that Whitefield converted colonists not just to Christianity but to a renewed sense of unification that ultimately made possible the American Revolution.
Published by: Baylor University Press
Table of Contents
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Many people have heard of George Whitefield, and some might even know that he was a preacher from the colonial American period involved in the Great Awakening. But few can say more. Many history books don’t mention him, and those that do often only give him a paragraph. Yet I believe that Whitefield held as much influence on Americans as any other figure in history when placed in the...
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From the moment of birth on December 16, 1714, in Gloucester England, Elizabeth Whitefield sensed a destiny for her youngest son George. After suffering weeks of illness following his birth, she remarked that he would bring her more comfort than all her other six children. No doubt she noticed the child could cry. What a set of lungs! During his childhood years, we might imagine her telling him, ...
II. Launching the Ministry
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A crowded sanctuary, filled with people moved by the curiosity to hear one of their own sons, greeted George Whitefield when, at age twenty-one, he ascended to the pulpit at his home church in Gloucester to deliver his very first formal sermon. With the sounding board above his head, the congregation in pews at all sides, his voice rang out clearly and beautifully as he spoke from experience on...
III. A New Birth of Freedom
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Imagine yourself living on a farm outside of Philadelphia, working from dawn to dusk clearing trees, tending crops, and doing whatever you are told as an “indentured servant” to a wealthy landowner. You sold seven years of your life for your ticket out of England, a place on this farm, and the promise of your own land on the frontier. While life is tough, it beats the poverty and despair of London, ...
IV. A Revolutionary Message
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As George Whitefield leaned on the rail of the ship watching the American coast grow larger, he could hardly wait to get to the people and begin preaching. He had learned a few things back in England about revivals and was ready to bring his message to America. It was into a prosperous, stable American land that George Whitefield introduced himself with his focus on the spiritual...
V. Controversy: "I'm just getting started"
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George Whitefield may have been timid by nature, but when it came to God and the freedom to worship, he didn’t back down from anyone. When Alexander Garden turned against him, the issue was about Whitefield’s condemnation of Old Lights. He challenged the generality of the clergy, and desired I would make my charge to preach in his jurisdiction under threat of suspension. But since...
VI. Bishop Bashing
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If you asked Whitefield about his American tour, I believe he would have replied that everything was wonderful. He was certainly aware of disagreements over doctrine and the complaints about enthusiasm, but nothing in his journals or letters indicates an awareness of the deeper political fears. In fact, Whitefield would not be aware of the depth and stakes of the growing controversy in America until...
VII. New England: Overthrow or Unify?
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New England had just settled down a bit by late 1744 when Whitefield was crossing the Atlantic to visit again. The revival fires had cooled. Davenport had been run out of town, Tennent was taken sides. Colonial society was negotiating the shifts in its power structures in church and state as people were leaving the Old Light churches and joining the New Light congregations. Whitefield’s...
VIII. Between Two Extremes
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To his advantage, Whitefield found a unified contingency of ministers to which he could appeal, en masse, for reconciliation and thus initiate a cautious blending process between the New and Old Lights. After Whitefield gained the support of Dr. Sewall, Dr. Colman, Mr. Foxcroft, Mr. Prince, and others with whom Whitefield Whitefield’s responses (outlined in the previous chapter), then by...
IX. Good King, Bad King
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In February of 1745, the French-backed effort to conquer England and restore the Stuarts to the throne began. But as the French invasion with ten thousand troops crossed the English Channel to land at Essex, a powerful storm blew in and swamped the fleet. One ship sank with all hands, and the others were turned back to France. Bonnie Prince Charles was determined to gain the throne with or...
X. Church and State
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Jonathan Edwards, and most of the other leaders in the colonies believed that Christ would one day return from heaven and destroy those who do evil. Then, Christ would reign on earth over a kingdom of saints for a thousand years until the final judgment and the creation of a “new earth.” In light of this belief, colonial religious leaders interpreted the Great Awakening as a final outpouring of...
XI. France, Rome, and Hell
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The English and French, traditional enemies for centuries, were at it again in Europe in the mid-1750s. Although various and 1763 these two nations, in their efforts to dominate Europe and America, engaged in what many historians refer to as the first genuine world war. Whitefield worried about protecting his parish—the whole world—as it faced renewed threats of French-Catholic control. ...
XII. Reprisal from the Church of England
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On October 25 of 1760, George II, king of England, collapsed from an aneurysm while sitting in his water closet and died within minutes. Whitefield had praised this king as the “nursing father of the church.” His reign had empowered Parliament to a large extent and provided a stable climate in which Whig interests influenced British politics. His support of religious freedoms had...
XIII. The Deep Laid Plot
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George Whitefield was troubled. He knew what the thinking was behind the Grenville program and must have paced the deck of the ship deciding how to approach the matter when he arrived back in America. The historical record has some missing puzzle pieces in this period, but we can presume that Whitefield did what he usually did. He brought the message that was in his heart everywhere...
XIV. Preaching Himself to Death
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Whitefield managed a fascinating relationship with the Church of England. He was too popular for them to throw him out, and he never gave them the excuse to do so. He had learned how to manage his public image in the 1740s and was far more sophisticated at media relations than anyone of his time. Although Whitefield spoke frankly regarding the Roman Catholic threat in sermons such...
XV. Whitefield’s Legacy
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As 1770 drew to a close and George Whitefield was laid to rest in Newburyport, Massachusetts, whether colonists had recognized it or not, Whitefield’s influence upon them had been profound. Whitefield offered and persuaded colonists to an American identity birthed in conversion. He prescribed beliefs connecting political beliefs about arbitrary power and civil liberties. Whitefield...
XVI. A Political Man
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During his final days in America, Whitefield could clearly see the writing on the wall—Americans would go to war for their liberties. He sympathized with the colonists. He had been “warring” with his bishops over the right to preach outdoors since his public ministry began in 1738. His war included two assassination attempts, one more averted plot on his life, and countless instances of abuse at...
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Page Count: 214
Publication Year: 2011