A few weeks ago, I reviewed Philip Jenkins’ book commemorating a major anniversary in 2014, the centennial of the launch of World War I. This year marks another important anniversary in religious history, the birth of George Whitefield three centuries ago. And Thomas Kidd, a colleague of Jenkins at Baylor University, has done us the service of writing a new biography of the great evangelical preacher, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014; source: publisher).
In this volume, Kidd approaches Whitefield as an academic historian who also identifies with Whitefield’s evangelical movement. He has “high regard” for Whitefield, but does not hesitate to share his warts (4). What one finds, then, is a narrative that sympathetically helps readers understand what motivated Whitefield’s indefatigable preaching of the gospel while setting the flawed itinerant in his context. It is this kind of balanced history that best guides readers in wrestling with the past in constructive ways.
Whitefield’s story is one of drama. A young boy in a broken home grows up against all odds to become “perhaps … the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever seen” (263). In the telling of this nobody-to-celebrity story, Kidd brings out a number of themes that I’d like to highlight.
The overarching theme of the book is to present Whitefield as “the key figure in the first generation of Anglo-American evangelical Christianity” (3). To understand Whitefield, then, is to understand the roots and nascent identity of evangelicalism. Here I might quibble slightly with the subtitle of the book. While Kidd definitely attends to Whitefield’s influence on America, in my view he aims less to present Whitefield as the “spiritual founding father” of America and more to present him as the central figure in early evangelicalism—something he does very well.
A key element in that role was Whitefield’s central message, the preaching of the new birth. In preaching regeneration, Whitefield spotlighted the Holy Spirit in ways that would shape and define evangelicalism. In fact, the Holy Spirit featured prominently in most evangelicals’ preaching of the day.
Because of this emphasis, Kidd calls for tweaking our definition of evangelicalism, specifically David Bebbington’s quadrilateral. He argues that the Bebbington quadrilateral, with its four defining characteristics—conversionism, activisim, biblicism, and crucicentrism—“does not account for the enormous weight that evangelicals such as Whitefield put on the Holy Spirit’s ministry. Along with conversion, the experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power was what struck Whitefield and other evangelicals as the most novel aspect of their newborn lives” (36).
Another defining characteristic of evangelicalism that Kidd’s biography underscores is its interdenominational nature. Whitefield was a pioneer in working across denominations, a precursor to the nondenominational nature of modern evangelicalism. But for all Whitefield’s interdenominational efforts, he discovered that holding together people with different theological convictions is no easy task, and his life was filled with both new partnerships and ongoing tensions and schisms.
On the one hand, Whitefield remained constantly committed to interdenominational efforts. He despised denominational factions and sought to preach the simple gospel at any church that welcomed him, whatever the denomination. This interdenominational impulse annoyed some of his supporters, and in our nondenominational evangelical culture today, we may miss the novelty of this sentiment. Yet Whitefield represented a shift that the evangelical movement ushered in, one that sought to promote cooperation across denominational lines to spread the gospel.
On the other hand, despite Whitefield’s pursuit of a broad, interdenominational unity among evangelicals, he also helped define specific factions of evangelicalism through breaks with other leaders. Most notably, he broke with John Wesley, who had been a spiritual father to him. In this schism in England, Whitefield helped define the Calvinist wing of evangelicalism, eschewing Wesley’s doctrines of free will and perfection. In the American colonies, he contributed to the definition of moderate revivalists as opposed to radical revivalists. While he sought to keep up connections with both camps, he ended up promoting a moderate version of evangelicalism, one that sought spiritual freedom and revival while avoiding ecclesiastical and social chaos.
This tension in Whitefield’s life illustrates the difficulty of pursuing unity while holding to narrower doctrines that differentiate one camp from another. As Kidd observes, “principles of theology and church government kept dividing his evangelical cohort. … While we may speak of an evangelical movement that emerged in the late 1730s, centered on Whitefield, we should not overstate evangelicals’ ability to maintain a united front” (153). One can’t help but wonder if, even today, evangelicals have failed to achieve any real sense of unity as well.
For all the similarities one finds between Whitefield’s evangelicalism and twenty-first evangelicalism, the two are not identical. As one contrast highlights, Whitefield had a firm knowledge of church history, referring in his sermons to the likes of Ignatius, Tertullian, Polycarp, and Martin Luther. Kidd observes that “Whitefield and his audiences lived in a world in which even modest home- and church-based educations centered on theology and Christian history” (156). On the contrary, such biblical and church historical literacy eludes most evangelicals today.
Readers will find illuminating discussions of other aspects of Whitefield’s life in Kidd’s treatment, including his fascinating relationship with Benjamin Franklin, his less than impressive romantic engagements, his willingness to take risks via transatlantic travel to preach the gospel, his philanthropic efforts at the Bethesda orphanage in Georgia, his moderating tendencies later in life, and his participation in slavery. On the last issue, while Whitefield called for converting slaves—a revolutionary action in the time—he also helped introduce slavery into the formerly free colony of Georgia.
In George Whitefield, Kidd provides the kind of helpful contextualization that one would expect from an academic historian. We see not only Whitefield’s life, but his life within the context, for example, of the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century and the French and English imperial struggles of the mid-eighteenth century. To help us understand Whitefield, Kidd constantly connects him to larger movements—not least of which is the burgeoning evangelical movement of the day.
And he does all of this in an engaging manner, using vibrant prose, good storytelling techniques, and incisive historical commentary. In the end, Kidd achieves his goal of giving us a “scholarly biography of Whitefield that places him fully in the dynamic, fractious milieu of the early evangelical movement” (3).
Kidd offers a model of historical writing, and I recommend reading him to study how to write good history. I also recommend reading Kidd’s George Whitefield on this year that we commemorate the great itinerant’s birth to grapple with the meaning of the birth of evangelicalism.
*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.