Three hundred years after his birth, George Whitefield is regaining prominence for his role in the Great Awakening and American revivalism. Towers editor S. Craig Sanders asks historian Thomas S. Kidd about Whitefield’s influence and Kidd’s new biography, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.
1. What most intrigued you about George Whitefield to write this biography?
TK: Whitefield enjoyed unparalleled influence and fame in the 18th century, but he remains relatively unknown today, even among evangelical Christians. There are excellent, older Christian biographies of Whitefield, but I believed I could add a new historical perspective on Whitefield in the context of the Great Awakening and the culture of his British and American audiences.
2. Why is Whitefield important for us today?
TK: He is arguably the most significant evangelist since the Reformation, so Christians should probably want to know more about Whitefield! But the struggles he faced — with popularity, with rival pastors, and with charges of various indiscretions — often seem taken straight from today’s religious news. He was hardly a perfect man, and he had a difficult childhood, but he epitomized the way that God can use one person to bring about phenomenal change for the gospel.
3. Did any new discoveries fascinate you or increase your appreciation of Whitefield?
TK: I was struck by the sheer relentlessness of his preaching, in his career of more than three decades. He delivered tens of thousands of sermons, routinely speaking multiple times a day, and kept up a withering travel schedule (in an era where “travel” meant horses, carriages, and boats, not cars and planes). Friends and doctors often cautioned him to take it easy, but Whitefield figured there was no greater cause than to spend his life for the gospel.
I must admit that some discoveries were disheartening, such as the depth of Whitefield’s complicity in introducing slavery into the Georgia colony, where slavery was originally banned. On the other hand, this truth about Whitefield seems to fit with the scriptural mode: God uses deeply flawed people for great kingdom purposes.
4. In what way is Whitefield most influential today in America’s spiritual formation?
TK: The fact that this gospel-centered evangelist was the most famous person in America prior to the Revolution tells us a great deal about American culture at that time. Not that everyone in 18th-century America was a believer, of course, but they lived in a culture where even the least educated people often had a deep familiarity with the Bible, one that would probably surpass many churchgoing folks’ biblical knowledge today.
5. How did your study of Whitefield influence your understanding of Jonathan Edwards?
TK: Whitefield deeply admired Edwards and went out of his way to visit Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, on his busy American tours. But Edwards and Whitefield’s relationship was marked by tension, too, especially on Whitefield’s first trip to New England in fall 1740. Edwards was delighted by the massive number of conversions Whitefield was seeing in his preaching ministry, but he also worried that some of the results might be ephemeral, tied more to Whitefield’s celebrity than an authentic work of the Holy Spirit. Whitefield and Edwards were also not quite in agreement about how actively a believer could expect the Holy Spirit to lead a person on a day-to-day basis. But Edwards’ encounter with Whitefield prompted perhaps the most significant theological reflections of Edwards’ career, reflections that resulted in several treatises on the true signs of revival and how to discern the work of the Spirit of God.
6. What was Whitefield’s most interesting personal relationship?
TK: There’s no question about this: his most interesting personal relationship was with Benjamin Franklin, who was Whitefield’s key publisher in America and a friend of 30 years. Whitefield and Franklin both understood that Franklin was not a born-again believer, and although their professional relationship was productive (and lucrative for Franklin), Whitefield never hesitated to speak with Franklin about the state of his soul. Whitefield wrote to Franklin in 1752, for example, and implored him to consider his standing before God: “As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity,” Whitefield said, “I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth.”
Franklin outlived Whitefield, and recalled in his autobiography that the itinerant would “sometimes pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard.” But in public and private, Franklin consistently defended his friend as a pastor of impeccable integrity.
7. How do you comprehend Whitefield’s ability to preach in the open air to thousands of people?
TK: Franklin also supplied an answer to the puzzle of how Whitefield could be heard by audiences of tens of thousands, in an age without electric amplification. The printer was skeptical about the reports of huge crowds who came to hear Whitefield in London, so when the itinerant came to Philadelphia, Franklin went around the margins of the crowd, working to calculate how many could actually hear him speak. He was surprised at Whitefield’s effective vocal range, and concluded that 30,000 or more could hear him speak.
We know a great deal more about Whitefield’s audiences because of a recent study by Braxton Boren, a Ph.D. student in acoustics at New York University. Boren concluded that, in fact, Whitefield’s voice probably could have reached the kind of crowd sizes that Franklin estimated. But if he did, it signals that Whitefield — who had a background in the theater — was able to project his voice quite effectively, and that he could preach at an extraordinarily loud volume.
Even given those speaking gifts, we must understand that a colonial American audience would have understood that “hearing” Whitefield did not necessarily mean picking out every single word, particularly if you were not close to the front of the crowd. Some of the people on the margins would have been able to understand only a few words, or none at all. But a Whitefield sermon was such a sensational event that many people would have been willing to attend even under less-than-optimal acoustic conditions!
BONUS: If you could go on a time traveling adventure with George Whitefield, where would you go and why?
TK: I would love to go with Whitefield on his initial visit to Northampton in October 1740, when he met Jonathan Edwards and his family, and preached at Edwards’ church. It was an emotional moment: the normally somber Edwards wept during Whitefield’s sermon. As I mentioned, Edwards would develop certain reservations about Whitefield’s ministry, but overall Edwards regarded the Great Awakening — in which Whitefield was the indispensable human figure — as “the dawning of a day of God’s might, power, and glorious grace.”