CFC Lecture

Thomas Kidd: George Whitefield, America’s Spiritual Founding Father

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Benjamin Franklin was one of America’s most important founding fathers, and in a recent lecture, Thomas Kidd of Baylor University discussed his enigmatic faith. (Watch now.) In this lecture, Kidd turns to America’s spiritual founding father — Franklin’s friend George Whitefield who at one time was “the most famous man in America.”

Watch the lecture above, or read an excerpt below.

Who was George Whitefield?

“The sensational success of Whitefield’s ministry was both a reflection of and a revolution against the traditional preaching culture of the colonies, especially in New England. In early New England, families routinely attended church multiple times a week to hear lengthy doctrinal sermons read from a manuscript. New England colonist who lived to an average age probably heard 7000 sermons in his or her lifetime.

“In spite of Whitefield’s relative lack of fame today, there have been a number of biographies written about him. Christian treatments of Whitefield have been highlighted by Arnold Dallimore’s monumental two-volume biography written in the 1970s. Most US history survey courses and textbooks also mention Whitefield thanks to two major academic biographies, Harry Stout’s The Divine Dramatist (1991) and Frank Lambert’s Pedlar in Divinity (1994). These biographies as well as a surge of recent studies about the Great Awakening have established Whitefield as a fixture in the standard narrative of American history.

“Stout, Lambert and other scholars have helped us interpret Whitefield within the framework of 18th century Anglo-American culture. Lambert examined Whitefield in light of the consumer revolution of the 18th century. As the ‘pedlar in divinity,’ Whitefield mastered the use of publicity, newspapers, and inexpensive print to promote his preaching tours and the gospel he expounded. Stout, on a related theme, presented Whitefield as ‘Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age.’ Even though Whitefield denounced the theater following his conversion, his background as an actor and familiarity with England’s theater culture prepared him, Stout said, for a fabulously successful preaching career.

Whitefield’s fame derives substantially from the power and notoriety of his preaching.

“In his recent book on Whitefield, communication scholar Jerome Mahaffey has expanded earlier proposals by Stout and historian Alan Heimert by considering how Whitefield became the ‘accidental revolutionary,’ or the man most responsible for shaping an American culture primed for the American revolution. Whitefield was the ‘central figure in the process by which disparate colonists became Americans, prone to think in zealous, adversarial terms about religion, rights and liberties.’ Whitefield’s awakening may not have caused the revolution, Mahaffey argued, but it had a profound conditioning influence on Americans as the revolution approached. Heimert memorably argued that whether Jefferson ‘the enlightened sage of Monticello knew it or not, he had inherited the mantle of George Whitefield.’

“So, Whitefield and commerce. Whitefield and religious celebrity. Whitefield and the revolution. All of these arguments have considerable merits, even if I have doubts about certain aspects of them. The main problem with these approaches, however, is that they don’t really focus on Whitefield’s primary significance, or the way that he viewed himself. My argument that I made in my book on Whitefield is straightforward, I think. George Whitefield was the key figure in the first generation of Anglo-American Evangelical Christianity.

“Whitefield and legions of other Evangelical pastors and lay people helped to establish a new interdenominational religious movement in the early 18th century, one committed to the gospel of conversion, the new birth, the work of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Bible across Europe and America. So my work on Whitefield places him fully in the dynamic, fractious milieu of the early evangelical movement. And of course Whitefield’s fame derives substantially from the power and notoriety of his preaching.

“Indeed, if people know anything about Whitefield, they know he was a remarkably gifted preacher and evangelist. Scenes from his ministry are among the most powerful from the whole Great Awakening of the 18th century, from the titanic throngs he drew to Moorefields and Kennington-Common in London as he began his field preaching ministry, to the pressing crowds who came to see him in America. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, more people came to his meetings in the colonies than in the entire population of the town hosting it.”

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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