- George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy ed. by Geordan Hammond, David Ceri Jones
Edited by geordan hammond and david ceri jones
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016
George Whitefield! In the eighteenth century, his name deserved an exclamation point. Innovator, celebrity, phenomenon, he drew tens of thousands of people to his open-air preaching to hear the old message of the new birth in a new way. “How was his tongue like the pen of a ready writer? touching as with a coal from the altar! With what a flow of words, what a ready profusion of language, did he speak to us upon the great concern of our souls,” wrote the Rev. Josiah Smith, a South Carolina Congregationalist.
The awe, the silence, the attention, which sat upon the face of so great an audience, was an argument, how he could reign over all their powers. Many thought, He spoke as never man spoke, before him. So charmed were people with his manner of address, that they shut up their shops, forgot their secular business, and laid aside their schemes for the world; and the oftener he preached, the keener edge he seemed to put upon their desires of hearing him again! How awfully, with what thunder and sound did he discharge the artillery of Heaven upon us? And yet, how [End Page 486] could he soften and melt even a soldier of Ulysses, with the love and mercy of God!(A Sermon, on the Character, Preaching, &c. of the Rev. Mr. Whitefield [Boston, 1740], 67–68)
Famously, Benjamin Franklin, though not moved by the message, was so impressed by the performance that he emptied his pockets into the collection plate. In another well-known account, Connecticut farmer Nathan Cole saw Whitefield on stage as Christ’s angel, awakening saints in a sinful world.
Three centuries since his birth (in an inn—as he liked to point out— though not in a manger), we seem to be experiencing something of a resurgence of scholarly attention to the Grand Itinerant. The prolific Thomas S. Kidd has produced a new biography: George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (2014). Jessica M. Parr tries to connect him to timely questions about race in Inventing George Whitfield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (2015). The collection of essays under review here, as the subtitle concisely indicates, offers a variety of studies that deepen his biography, place him in his eighteenth-century transatlantic world, and describe how he was remembered and assessed in the centuries to follow.
The last scholarly boomlet in Whitefield studies occurred in the early 1990s. Harry S. Stout’s Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (1991) focused on Whitefield the former actor and skilled orator who straddled premodern and modern notions of charisma (spirit-filled to celebrity). Frank Lambert’s “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770 (1994) discussed the ways that Whitefield created communication networks and exploited the burgeoning world of print to promote his ministry. Both gave us a White-field who cannily marketed his message as a commodity to consumers. In so doing, the two books expressed and developed important themes in the 1990s cultural history of the eighteenth century: print and the creation of imagined translocal communities, speech and new appeals to sentiment and sensibility, and a consumer revolution that helped create new tastes and new selves.
The Whitefield that emerges from this new collection is a multidimensional, if perhaps less exciting, figure. Trying to bring Whitefield into focus, the reader flips from chapter to chapter, as if in an optician’s chair: “Better? [End Page 487] . . . Or worse?” (Surely this analogy has been used before in a review of a collection of essays on a single topic; the allusion to things ophthalmological, though, is not intended as a dig at the cross-eyed evangelist, who was mocked on the stage as “Dr. Squintum.”) After a brief, nuts-and-bolts introduction by the editors, the volume opens with a spirited essay on “Whitefield’s Personal Life and Character” by Boyd Stanley Schlenther. The author sketches...