George Whitefield is the greatest evangelist in American history. He is also perhaps Britain’s greatest evangelist. Indeed, few figures in church history have made such a seismic impact for the gospel as Whitefield.
Whitefield was born December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England. God used his preaching as one of the primary human catalysts to spawn the revivals of the mid-1700s known to posterity as the First Great Awakening. In honor of Whitefield’s 300th birthday, Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd has written a new biography on the famous evangelist: George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale). Kidd has researched and written extensively on the colonial period of America and revival in what would become the United States. His other works include The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale, 2009).
Working with Kidd, The Gospel Coalition is pleased to make available to you additional resources to share with your Sunday school classes and small groups to commemorate Whitefield’s birth and his vital role in building the evangelical movement. Kidd has written three short lessons suitable for distribution and aid in teaching others about Whitefield’s passion for the gospel, his theology and break with John and Charles Wesley, and his tragic efforts to expand slavery in colonial America.
I asked Kidd about Whitefield as a man and a minister and what lessons modern evangelicals might glean from the great preacher’s life and ministry.
What did you learn about Whitefield while writing this new book?
I was impressed again by what an influential and celebrated figure he was in the context of his time and how incredibly hard-working he was for the gospel. He made 13 transatlantic trips, any one of which could have easily resulted in his death and he knew that. He probably preached something like 18,000 or 20,000 sermons in his career, often speaking two or three times a day, every day of the week. His doctors would often advise him that he take it easy or else he was risking permanent health damage to his voice, to his body. He was driven and relentless.
We wonder what made George Whitefield the most famous evangelist of the 18th century—the most famous man in America before the American Revolution and the most famous man in Britain too, perhaps aside from King George III—what made him that way was that he was so incredibly disciplined and hard-working. I vaguely knew that, but just going through the day-to-day of his life, that is one of the things that amazed me.
Take us through the process of researching and writing the book: How long did it take from start to finish?
I probably started working on the book in 2011 or 2012. I did a book with Yale University Press in 2007 on the Great Awakening, so in a way I feel that I have been working on this book for a long time. The Whitefield book gave me an opportunity to systematically walk through all of Whitefield’s letters, his sermons, his journals. Many, many were published during his lifetime and shortly after his passing. I was able to understand the background of the Great Awakening, to understand that Whitefield was hardly the only figure of the Great Awakening. Whitefield was the great leader, but in tandem with many, many local pastors, so I think I understood the context pretty well going in, and then what I needed to do for a couple of years was to sit with Whitefield’s own writing and preaching and try to understand what made him tick.
It seems to me that Whitefield and his contemporary Jonathan Edwards were diametrically opposite personalities. Do you think that is true, and do they represent a clear illustration as to how God uses all types of people to accomplish his work?
Yes, Edwards and Whitefield were different. They meet for the first time in the fall of 1740 when Whitefield goes out of his way to make a visit to Northampton, Massachusetts. He deeply admires Edwards and is even more impressed when he meets Edwards’s family. But it’s not too long before the differences start to surface. Edwards thinks that Whitefield is a little incautious about some of his criticisms of ministers, raising the suggestion that some of them are uuncoverted. Edwards was also worried about Whitefield’s emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the individual believer’s life, especially early on. Whitefield was very interested in the way the Holy Spirit would lead you individually through impulses in your mind and in your spirit, that the Spirit would guide you directly about what text you should preach on, what you should say in the sermon, what town should you go to next. Whitefield had a high view of that guidance, and Edwards thought that was showing some radical tendencies and showing some overly individualistic emphases.
Whitefield left feeling like Edwards was unhappy with him, so their relationship was admiring but a little distant from each other. Edwards was, of course, very very bookish and incredibly learned, where Whitefield was a bit more of a man of action. Whitefield kept an incredibly rigorous preaching schedule, where Edwards itinerated just a little bit, but mostly stayed home. So in the ministerial tactics and the philosophical bent versus action bent and their view of the Holy Spirit, there were a lot of differences.
In his 1991 biography of Whitefield, Harry Stout presented him as “the divine dramatist” due to his background in theatre and what he perceived as perhaps a bit of flamboyance and showmanship in his preaching. Do you think that is an overstatement, or was it an intentional part of his ministry to be what we might today call a “big personality”?
Harry Stout is a friend and a mentor to me, and I know a lot of evangelicals were bothered by that book. I think some of the implications that Stout made in the book were maybe a little overstated about Whitefield’s motivation and his public persona being focused on that rather than the gospel. I know that Stout didn’t really mean for it to come off that way. There seemed to be fundamentally a question about sincerity. Whitefield is, undoubtedly, the great celebrity of his era, not just religious celebrity, but celebrity period. I think a part of that was because Whitefield was enormously talented as a public speaker, and we can’t fault him for that. He did have a background as a teenager in the theater. I’m not sure I would call him the divine dramatist, but he brought his background in the theater into his preaching, so he didn’t use notes, and he would take on the character of those in the biblical stories. He would act out the prodigal son, not just talking about the prodigal son, but he would take on the voice of the prodigal son in his sermons and act it out in a very dramatic, emotional way.
When you say he was theatrical, that raises the question, “Was he sincere?” I think he was entirely sincere. I think he believed that those sorts of new methods would bring maximum exposure to the gospel, and I think that is what he was trying to do fundamentally, to bring maximum exposure to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, did he ever struggle about this being about his own aggrandizement, his own celebrity? He said specifically that he did struggle with that. He called it “the fiery trial of popularity.” And I think that anybody who is a Christian and who becomes a celebrity is going to struggle with those temptations to arrogance, temptations to cutting ethical corners, to not being accountable the way they should. Whitefield said specifically that he struggled with that. But I think in some ways that that is the first step in being able to defeat those temptations is to admit that they are temptations. So I am on the side of believing that Whitefield, though hardly a perfect man, weathered that trial of popularity pretty well.
What lessons can we learn from Whitefield’s example, both positively and negatively, that can help us in the church today?
One of the things you can learn on the positive side is realizing that a big part of his success was his incredibly hard work. I don’t want to discount that. Sure, he was enormously talented, but he was also I think the hardest-working pastor of his time. He worked tirelessly at the risk of his health—which is not a good idea—but it’s not all just God-given talent, he had to exploit that talent through incredible devotion, discipline, and hard work. He was also not averse to trying new things. A lot of pastors have worked really hard, but they’ve tend to work in the same ministry tracks of perhaps prior generations. That’s not Whitefield; for Whitefield, “We’ve never done it that way before” is not a problem. So Whitefield becomes I think a very wonderful combination of a hard-working pastor [who is] orthodox theologically in the evangelical Calvinist realm. But he was also a master of new media and new public-speaking tactics, [that were] totally cutting edge.
This helps to explain his longtime relationship with Benjamin Franklin. Their relationship in Philadelphia begins because Whitefield asked, “Who is the best media man in town?” And the people he talked to said, “Go talk to Franklin, because he is the best publisher and publicist in town.” So their relationship starts that way even though Franklin was not a born-again believer. Whitefield believed, “I’ve got to work with the very best people in media because the gospel is that important.” I love that about him—that he was willing to be cutting edge on media communications technology for his time. So he was a wonderful combination of innovation, discipline, and orthodox theology, and a lot of that undergirds the incredibly successful and famous preacher that he became.
You have spent a lot of time these past few years with Whitefield, so what are your impressions of him as both a man and as a minister?
Anyone reading the biography will see that I like Whitefield a lot. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was that I find him to be such an admirable person and minister and believer. There are problems with Whitefield too, and I try not to sell those short in the biography. For instance, the most obvious problem [was] his being an advocate of slavery and his personal ownership of slaves. Earlier biographers, including Arnold Dallimore, have noted this. One of the disappointments I had in writing the biography was in seeing how important Whitefield was in getting slavery introduced into Georgia. I think he was the key advocate in getting slavery into a place where it was originally banned. Whitefield thought that law was stupid and that slavery should be introduced. One of the new factual discoveries in the biography was one that I did not want to make—I think Whitefield illegally allowed the introduction of slavery into Georgia before the colony had legalized it. I didn’t want to find that letter, but I did.
So I am trying to be honest about who he was, and you can see it in 300 years of retrospect in these huge blind spots. I hope I’m not arrogant about that, wagging my finger at him and saying, “No, you should have known better,” because many, many people of the time didn’t know better, including many of America’s founding fathers. I wonder what people 300 years from now will say about us when they see our blind spots. It is a sober warning for us, I think, about how deeply influenced we are by the surrounding culture in ways we often have a hard time seeing. Whitefield was that way, but I think we are that way too.