The Great Dissenter
The transatlantic origins of evangelical America
By MARK TOOLEY in the Weekly Standard Book Review
This new biography recalls George Whitefield, the 18th-century English evangelist, as probably the most recognizable celebrity of his age. He was certainly the most traveled, crisscrossing the Atlantic countless times and preaching to audiences, sometimes in the tens of thousands, up and down the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the British Isles at a time when the total population of Great Britain and its colonies was only in the several millions.
Powerfully converted when he was a very young man as part of the early Methodist revivals, Whitefield was a founder of the evangelical movement that persists today. He popularized outdoor evangelistic preaching, skillfully employed the media (including Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin) to publicize his works, and exploited his celebrity to make his theme of “new birth” in Christ socially acceptable among all classes.
Whitefield was also a model for the merger of evangelical faith and patriotism. He sanctified Great Britain’s Protestant constitutional system as a bulwark for liberty against “popish tyranny,” a liberty that protected his evangelistic appeals even as he defied the preferences of the established church. He championed all of Britain’s wars against France and other continental Catholic powers, and he rejoiced over the Hanover monarchy’s defeat of the Stuart Pretender.
American patriots for independence would appropriate Whitefield’s legacy after his death. Benedict Arnold, en route to seize Quebec during the revolution, visited Whitefield’s Massachusetts tomb to pay homage and clip relics from the corpse. Although loyal to the king, Whitefield had quietly sympathized with the colonists’ early struggles against taxation, having attended the parliamentary testimony of his friend Franklin against the Stamp Act. His ecumenical preaching and mass rallies from Maine to Georgia had helped fuel a new common spiritual purpose among Americans.
Although ordained in the Church of England, Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist who treated denominational affiliations as irrelevant. He appealed, in particular, to Protestant dissenters, who were especially prevalent in New England. And he seems to have warned against the imposition of a Church of England bishop on the colonies, which had long feared such a perceived attack on their religious freedom.
Whitefield was an unapologetic controversialist, perhaps another key emblem of his persona as an early international celebrity. He knew that controversy magnified attention for his sermons and, therefore, the Gospel. As a young man in his 20s, at the height of his fame, he denounced clergy twice his age whom he deemed unconverted. Bishops, in turn, denounced him for claiming direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit and for implicitly operating outside the authority of the established church. Harvard College, already prone to theological laxity, naturally rejected Whitefield’s critique. Some churches closed their doors to him, but his fame and oratory rarely failed to attract an attentive crowd wherever he preached.
As an orator, Whitefield was a sensation, projecting his voice so that audiences of perhaps 20,000, even 30,000, could hear him. Whitefield shouted, emoted, and wept, unashamedly deploying his early training as a dramatist. Sometimes audiences wept with him. Others fainted or cried out for God’s mercy as he detailed the torments of divine judgment. As a young man, Whitefield was handsome, tall with dark hair and noticeably white teeth, although slightly cross-eyed. From his tortuous preaching and travel schedule, though, he aged quickly, becoming fat and white-haired. Yet he pressed on, even when vomiting blood after preaching.
His fellow evangelist John Wesley, who was 12 years older and an early mentor, thought Whitefield aged tremendously even as the fastidious and disciplined Wesley felt and looked youthful. Their friendship, theological disputes, and rivalry endured for over 30 years, animating and dividing Methodism and evangelical revivalism. Both were expert preachers and could attract massive crowds. Whitefield was the more powerful orator, while Wesley was the better organizer. Their partnership frayed when Wesley denounced Whitefield’s Calvinism: Whitefield never retreated from his commitment to predestination and publicly assailed Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection.
Despite their frequent pamphleteering against each other, John Wesley and George Whitefield sustained an association that was often affectionate, with Whitefield sometimes even mediating disputes between Wesley and his hymn-writing brother Charles. Wesley probably had a greater intellect than did Whitefield, and he may have felt superior and resentful of the younger man’s greater transatlantic fame. But Wesley had too much in common with Whitefield to tolerate a full rupture.
They both endured rhetorical attacks from the established church and physical attacks from angry mobs unappreciative of the robust Methodist challenge to favorite pastimes such as bawdy theater, cockfighting, horse racing, and the frequenting of gin houses. Whitefield nearly lost his life when he was stoned by a Dublin mob, an experience with which Wesley and other Methodist preachers were familiar.
Upon Whitefield’s death in 1770 at 55, Wesley eulogized his colleague above all for his gift of friendship, a gift Whitefield also shared with Benjamin Franklin, despite Franklin’s declining to embrace evangelical faith.
Although Wesley had only visited America once when young, Whitefield eagerly moved back and forth from England to America. When most people shunned ocean travel as dangerous and wearying, Whitefield saw months at sea, however uncomfortable, as a respite from crowds and ceaseless attention. His American base was primarily Georgia, outside Savannah, where he founded an orphanage for which he endlessly fundraised and which still survives as America’s oldest charitable institution.
Georgia also showcased Whitefield’s lamentable support for slavery. The colony had banned slavery, which the evangelist urged overturning as a path to prosperity and for exposing Africans to the Gospel. Whitefield even imported slaves to support his orphanage before Georgia outlawed slavery. He preached to and was often well received by blacks, some of whom he inspired into full-time preaching ministries. At his death, he was rhapsodized as a friend of Africans in a widely disseminated poem by Phillis Wheatley, the Massachusetts slave who was America’s first black female published poet.
Like Wesley, Whitefield preached obsessively, and his spiritual ardor made his romantic relations with women awkward. Eventually, however, he married an older widow for whom he had no strong initial attachment but whom he deemed appropriate. Their 30-year marriage was probably not a happy one: Mrs. Whitefield suffered during her husband’s absences, helped to run his ministry, and was sincerely mourned by him at her death.
Whitefield, of course, was long outlived by the health-obsessed Wesley, and Wesley’s legacy soon outshone Whitefield’s thanks to the organizing power of Wesley’s Methodism in Britain—and even more in America, where it became the largest denomination. Whitefield’s Calvinist Methodist Association had a much shorter shelf life.
American patriots, especially New Englanders and Franklin, recalled George Whitefield as both a personal friend and a friend to America. Wesley, by contrast, gained notoriety here for loudly opposing the revolution. But Wesley’s version of Methodism and evangelical revival eventually prevailed. Moreover, Wesley’s opposition to slavery, although developed later in life, was emphatic and bolstered his long-term reputation as a religious and social reformer.
Two centuries later, the British prime minister David Lloyd George, himself from a nonconformist evangelical background, celebrated Whitefield and Wesley as the spiritual sealants of Anglo-American culture while touting the alliance against Germany in World War I. Not many politicians, on either side of the Atlantic, would likely cite either man today, especially Whitefield. But George Whitefield indelibly shaped America, the Anglosphere, the surging global evangelical movement—and modern notions of celebrity.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.