300 years after his birth, Whitefield has staying power with evangelicals

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George Whitefield, hailed by scholars as the best-known evangelist of the 18th century.

Public domain photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery

George Whitefield, hailed by scholars as the best-known evangelist of the 18th century.

(RNS) If YouTube had existed in the 1700s, George Whitefield, hailed by scholars as the best-known evangelist of that century, would have been all over it.

Whitefield (pronounced WIT-field), who was born in England 300 years ago on Dec. 16, 1714, is regarded as a catalyst for the First Great Awakening. Here are five reasons why he remains a potent influence and a cautionary tale for U.S. evangelicals:

1. He was the master of mass media.

“A major part of his success is that he mastered the new media of his day,” said Thomas S. Kidd, author of the new book “George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.” Whitefield’s sermons and theological thoughts were spread broadly through newspapers, journals and prolific letter-writing.

Unlike many journal-writing Puritans who came before him, Whitefield chose to share his journals publicly.

“It’s like celebrities using Facebook,” said Michael A.G. Haykin, director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Future evangelists — most notably Billy Graham — followed a pattern set by Whitefield of making the most of the media available in their time.

2. He had his critics.

Media coverage of Whitefield wasn’t all favorable, but it expanded his fame beyond the thousands who sometimes heard him preach in churches in England and in fields in New England.

“Between 1739 and 1742 total output of colonial presses doubles and the whole new half is all Whitefield: It’s all Whitefield or anti-Whitefield,” said Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University, which held a symposium on the itinerant evangelist in November.

Actors felt threatened when Whitefield, an actor-turned-evangelist, decided to build a church called the Tabernacle in London just down the street from the theaters.

“He’s lampooned in really popular plays, the most famous being the ‘Dr. Squintum’ play, which is just a total sensation in Britain,” said Kidd of Whitefield, who was cross-eyed after a childhood ailment.

He had rotten eggs, turnips and stones thrown at him and once was saved from a stoning by his beaver hat, wrote Kidd.

Portrait of George Whitefield, attributed to Joseph Badger, circa 1750s.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Badger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of George Whitefield, attributed to Joseph Badger, circa 1750s.

3. He supported slavery.

In his early visits to the U.S., Whitefield condemned the beating of slaves by their masters and encouraged evangelizing slaves. But he later became a slave owner.

“I think he probably shares in some respect the sort of failure … of evangelicals as well as the larger culture to understand the horrors of slavery,” said Haykin, whose seminary held a conference on Whitefield in October. “He was the man directly responsible for the introduction of slavery into Georgia.”

Some scholars wonder what difference Whitefield could have made if he had condemned slavery — as fellow evangelist John Wesley did after Whitefield’s death in 1770.

“No one was more influential than Whitefield at the time. What if he had crusaded against slavery instead of advocating for it?” wrote blogger Alan Cross, author of “When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus,” in SBC Voices. “Would the United States have begun differently 30, 40 years later?”

4. He fostered friendships with influencers.

Just as Graham became an adviser to presidents and made connections with sports figures and Hollywood’s elite, Whitefield surrounded himself with influential people in the secular world — including Benjamin Franklin in the 1730s.

“He was far more famous than Franklin when they first met,” said Kidd of the mutually beneficial relationship that lasted for decades. “Franklin kind of hitches his wagon to Whitefield’s star.”

Across the Atlantic, the evangelist befriended members of the British aristocracy.

“Whitefield had connections even within the royal family in Britain,” said Kidd. “At one point, Whitefield was getting death threats and got an order from the king to investigate the situation.”

5. He disagreed with other evangelicals.

The battles that continue between Calvinists and non-Calvinists erupted between Whitefield and Charles and John Wesley, who like Whitefield were Church of England ministers who started the Methodist movement.

“His most famous falling out is with John Wesley and it’s over theology,” with Whitefield in the predestination camp and Wesley believing in free will, said Kidd. “He just was constantly falling out with other evangelical leaders and in some ways creating a pattern that persists through today.”

In the end it was Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, another key leader of the Great Awakening, who became better known through the ages: Wesley had the legacy of the Methodist denomination, while Edwards’ theological writings remain influential.

“His brilliance was in that moment,” Kidd said of Whitefield.

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  • Sarah James

    Whitefield was a con artist, a very successful one. Graham and the rest are all birds of the same feather; successful at selling their used car religions, nothing more. What awful wastes of their lives and other people’s money.

  • Actually, Whitefield was regularly in debt because he gave so much of his money away, and he spent most of his preaching tours raising money for the Bethesda orphanage. Hardly a waste of money.

  • Karla

    So true about the free will. We all have a choice to Repent or not. It’s our
    choice to Repent or not and that’s why so many people that claim to be a
    Christian will end up in hell. They refuse to Repent. Bible says that man
    shall perish because of their lack of knowledge! We see it everywhere with
    people that claim to be Christian yet their life/lifestyle hasn’t change at all.
    Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 that all drunkards go to hell and so do
    all of the sexually immoral greedy coveters yet many people in the church
    still get drunk,sleep around and covet. The Bible says that if you have a
    sharp tongue your religion is worhtless yet many people are mean,gossip
    and don’t bridle their sharp tongue. 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 whole chapters
    and also Luke 13 the whole chapter need preached! We all must Repent!

  • Sarah James

    No, actually, that’s not a true story.

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  • loren Haas

    A Calvinist pastor told me that a Spirit filled Christian could not be a persistent abuser because the Spirit would not permit such a thing. When I suggested slavery certainly was abuse and that Whitefield owned slaves and promoted slavery in Georgia he changed the subject.

  • David Eikenberry

    To get the whole and REAL truth about Whitefield, I suggest you read the two volume biography by Arnold Dallimore, who devoted more than 30 years of his life to the exhaustive research of Whitefield. His extensive research clarifies Whitefields “response” to the current slavery situation of the day, and reveals Whitefield to be a man after God’s own heart, who gave his whole life to the preaching of the Gospel and caring for orphans. While not perfect (like the rest of us) he most certainly was not the self centered opportunist, “SUPPORTER of slavery”, and “con man” portrayed in this article and some of the comments.

  • Goren Thicke

    I’ve read it. It’s rubbish. Dallimore was just uncritically parroting what others said in the same vein. Whitefield’s god supported slavery eagerly according to the bible, so even the premise of Whitefield being a “man of god” is a con of its own.

    Con on con on con means more con by neocon. Same old same.

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