- When Benjamin Franklin Met the Reverend Whitefield: Enlightenment, Revival, and the Power of the Printed Word by Peter Charles Hoffer
When Benjamin Franklin Met the Reverend Whitefield is part of The Johns Hopkins University Press series “Witness to History,” of which Peter Charles Hoffer is an editor. These books are short, secondary source–based volumes geared toward an undergraduate audience. In that genre, Hoffer’s book works well. It is deeply attuned to the scholarly literature, not only on Franklin and Whitefield, but on the eighteenth-century Atlantic world generally.
Hoffer is adept at packaging the current state of the historiography in ways that will remain interesting to students; for instance, in an evocative section on London as the key hub in the Anglo-American commercial empire, Hoffer tells us that “coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, and other imported caffeinates and energy sources kept the middle classes at their desks longer. . . . Sugar made tea and coffee as popular as alcoholic beverages, and far more likely to keep one awake and busy than beer” (47). Such passages have abundant citations in endnotes, not just to books in general, but to specific references within them.
Franklin and Whitefield are representative, for Hoffer, as ambitious, self-fashioning men of the eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic world. Franklin is the great advocate of Enlightenment, Whitefield of Awakening. Given the nature of the book, few details here will surprise scholarly experts, but Hoffer comfortably weaves Franklin and Whitefield’s life stories with the Atlantic histories of Philadelphia, Boston, London, Bristol, and other significant locales.
Hoffer paints a convincing picture of Franklin and Whitefield’s friendship and respective worlds, but while he overtly admires Franklin, he never seems quite comfortable with Whitefield. Much of this is a matter of tone. The “needy” Whitefield, a “master of manipulating the emotions,” preached out of his “neediness,” Hoffer contends, winning over people whose middle-class “anxiety . . . bred the need to find and adhere to evangelical preaching” (41, 47, 64).
More substantially, Hoffer suggests that even as Whitefield “clung” to the prescriptions of his Calvinist theology, the preacher was surprised that Calvin’s stern God would save so many in the Great Awakening (20, 48). I see no evidence that Whitefield’s (or Edwards’s, or others’) surprise about the revivals was shaped by Calvinism. Calvinists do not profess to know how many people God intends ultimately to save. But this book holds that [End Page 549] Whitefield wittingly or unwittingly undermined Calvinist theology by preaching, in Hoffer’s words, that “rebirth was the first step that a person could take on the road to salvation” (91).
This reflects a common misunderstanding of Calvinism: critics have often been perplexed at how Calvinists could preach a gospel of free grace, when they knew that only the elect could respond. But that theological tension was evidently no problem for Whitefield, Edwards, or the Calvinist evangelicals who dominated America’s Great Awakening. Rebirth, they preached, was not a “step” that anyone could take him- or herself, nor did that experience put the reborn on the “road” to salvation; it was salvation itself, accomplished by God’s grace and power.
Some of Hoffer’s approach to evangelicals seems informed by present concerns: he tells us that because Whitefield believed in the divine origin and authority of Scripture, he would be termed a “fundamentalist” if he were around today (58). Similarly, from his “modern perspective,” Hoffer asserts that Whitefield’s childhood sins, meticulously described in the itinerant’s account of his early life, simply mean that he was a “normal child—craving attention and acting out to get it.” But, in Hoffer’s reading, we don’t know whether Whitefield’s autobiography reflects his “actual experience” anyway (38). Ultimately, Whitefield’s piety here is a “mask” and an “affectation” (49). Because of these skeptical assessments of the itinerant, the book struggles to explain what made Whitefield so driven, and so compelling.
Yet Hoffer does see merit in Whitefield. The...