- Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon by Jessica M. Parr
With her debut work, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, Jessica M. Parr offers a compelling contribution to a well-researched field that includes Thomas S. Kidd’s notable recent study, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven, 2014). It is understandable, then, that some of Parr’s broader conclusions about Whitefield as a transatlantic personality feel more well-worn than they might have otherwise. Nevertheless, Parr’s unique analytical perspective and her tight interpretative focus on Whitefield’s image allow her to make a significant contribution to the growing literature on the man and his world.
Skillfully employing a variety of sources, including diaries, letters, poems, sermons, newspapers, and memorial logbooks, Parr soundly argues that George Whitefield should be seen as the key figure who unified and shaped the unwieldy Anglo-American evangelical Christianity that emerged from the Great Awakening and extended into at least the nineteenth century. Central to her argument is the unique use of the concept of a religious icon as an analytical tool. To this end, Parr relies heavily on the definition of an icon expressed by the early Christian theologian St. John of Damascus. This iconic perspective reveals that “[i]t is no accident that evangelical Christianity took off in the British Atlantic around 1739, just as Whitefield’s missionary career took off. Whitefield embodied a religious culture that he helped to shape and promote” (p. 7). The process of making or “inventing” Whitefield into “a model by which a diverse group of observers could find spiritual fulfillment in an emerging, diverse, and nebulous religious culture” was not uncontested, and there were multiple contributors (p. 7). Whitefield himself used print as his preferred medium to carefully construct his transatlantic image as a reforming Anglican revivalist who emphasized the New Birth and religious toleration and who could be readily accepted by Protestants from every denomination. But he was not alone. Both during and after his life there were others who worked to shape Whitefield as an icon, such as John and Charles Wesley, Selina the Countess of Huntingdon, Phillis Wheatley, Nathaniel Whitaker, Anthony Benezet, Olaudah Equiano, and John Marrant. They co-opted his memory for their own varied purposes, which ranged from pro- and antirevivalism, to pro- and antislavery efforts, to support for the American Revolution.
Throughout, Parr clearly and persuasively makes her case, and she succeeds in this effort by focusing closely on her main interpretative claim. This limited scope is seen, among other places, in the narrow endnotes and the lack of tangential historiographical digressions. The result is a book that is refreshingly straightforward and accessible. Unfortunately, the book’s few difficulties also stem from this approach. For instance, Parr primarily focuses on Whitefield and his image during the 1730s, the 1740s, and the period after his death [End Page 658] in 1770. The wealth of evidence available for these years helps explain this emphasis, but the strategy leaves the 1750s and 1760s largely overlooked. Another curious oversight can be found in the treatment of Whitefield’s wife, Elizabeth. She is never mentioned by name, and when she is briefly addressed it is on the occasion of her death. While the book’s single-minded and carefully limited focus is generally a benefit, these few instances reveal a need to read Inventing George Whitefield alongside a more thorough account of Whitefield’s life. In the end, though, this should not seriously detract from Parr’s convincing argument regarding the significance of George Whitefield’s iconic image in shaping Anglo-American evangelical Christianity from the First Great Awakening through the Second Great Awakening and beyond.