Guest Post: “George Whitefield at 300” Conference Recap

Jessica Parr received her PhD from the University of New Hampshire at Durham in 2012. Her research interests are on race and religion in the Early Modern British Atlantic. Her first book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon is forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi (2015). She currently teaches at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester. Here she recaps the recent “George Whitefield at 300” conference.

In 1740, during George Whitefield’s first visit to New England, Connecticut minister Reverend Daniel Wadsworth wrote in his diary: “met with the famous life of Whitefield: but what is it?”[1] Wadsworth’s comments no doubt reflected both the excitement and the unease that Whitefield’s visit provoked among New England clergy, who both looked to him as a man who could renew piety and New England, but also feared his potential for exacerbating existing religious tensions. Nonetheless, it is a poignant question, and one anyone who is familiar with “the Grand Itinerant” might ask.

Until approximately twenty years ago, Whitefield was primarily of interest to Christian writers, including John Gillies and Arnold Dillimore.[2] From the 1990s onward, he has come under consideration from professional scholars: notably Frank Lambert, Harry S. Stout, Jerome Mahaffrey, and now Thomas Kidd and myself.[3] (As one participant at the conference quirked, if you can’t self-promote around a Whitefield conference, when can you?) As the tercentenary of Whitefield’s birth approaches in December of this year, there has been renewed interest in reassessing Whitefield, though it remains unclear whether he will ever hold the same interest as the Wesleys, or other better-known figures of the providential British Atlantic.

The conference opened with a keynote by co-organizer Geordan Hammond in the college chapel. Hammond explained that the conference was inspired by a lecture by David Ceri Jones on Whitefield as a polarizing figure. The participants realized that 2014 would mark the 300th anniversary of Whitefield’s birth, an event that begged revisiting Whitefield and his legacy. Following Hammond’s address, Jones led an interesting and provocative discussion of Whitefield archival material. Any scholar who has spent much time researching Whitefield is familiar with the challenges posed by these sources. Although there is a wealth of correspondence, scattered across the former British Atlantic, much of what is “known” of Whitefield comes from his published journals and the writings of his supporters and detractors. As one conference participant asked, “was the private Whitefield the public Whitefield, and vice versa?” The answer to that question is not entirely clear, but Jones believes that for historians and others to get closer to answering that question, it is necessary to revisit Whitefield’s original correspondence and to undertake new transcriptions.[4] Jones recently received a grant from the National Trust to undertake the collection and transcript of Whitefield’s correspondence.

The conference consisted of keynotes by senior scholars, many of whom will be familiar to readers of The Junto: Mark Noll, Frank Lambert, Carla Gardina Pestana, William Gibson, David Ceri Jones, and others. Between the keynotes were presentations by historians, theologians, literary scholars, and interdisciplinary scholars from the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada, the United States, Asia, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The participants of the Whitefield at 300 Conference engaged in three days of revisiting Wadworth’s question: Who was George Whitefield? What was his effect on print culture in the British Atlantic? About religious culture more generally? How did he fit into the greater debates about religious toleration? What about his personal relationships? What new approaches might scholars take examining Whitefield?

One of the most intriguing papers came from Braxton Boren, a PhD Candidate at New York University’s Music and Audio Research Lab. Boren’s current research uses technology to reconstruct Benjamin Franklin’s exploration of Whitefield’s vocal range.[5] Boren found that Whitefield’s preaching voice was approximately 90 decibels. Under the best possible conditions, crowds of 50,000 listeners were plausible, though the crowds were probably smaller. While there are acknowledged limitations to using Franklin’s data, Boren’s research is the closest anyone could possible get (absent a Tardis) to determining whether the crowds depicted by Whitefield and his followers were conceivable, or mere puffery.

A number of panels explored Whitefield’s effect on print culture. David Ceri Jones’ keynote discussed the editing and re-editing of Whitefield’s memoir, especially the careful and selective editing done by John Gillies that has had a long effect on conceptions of Whitefield.[6] Brett McInelly delivered a paper on textual warfare, with a particular focus on Samuel Foote’s infamous Dr. Squintum play. McInelly explored the themes of mimicry, as used to discredit Whitefield. There were debates in the middle of the eighteenth-century over whether using mimicry to explore religion was in good taste, but one of the implications of using mimicry to discredit Whitefield (and Methodism more generally) was an implication that Whitefield was the ultimate mimic, and that these were not genuinely held religious beliefs.[7]

Other interdisciplinary approaches to Whitefield and print culture included a paper on Whitefield portraiture by Peter Forsaith, and a textual analysis by Emma Salgard Cunha.[8] Mark Noll too, explored aspects of Whitefield and print culture in his keynote, especially his hymnody. Noll found that although Whitefield was in many respects radical, his approaches to hymnody were in fact, rather conservative in that he adhered to conventional verse format for his hymns.[9]

Where so much exploration of Whitefield tends to focus on his missionary work, familial and personal relationships were another important conference theme. Boyd Schlenther delivered a keynote address on this very topic.[10] Whitefield had a difficult relationship with his mother, and his stepfather, who was a bit of a scoundrel. Elizabeth Whitefield’s youngest son never approved of her decision to separate from her second husband. His criticisms and proselytization eventually alienated her from him. Aside from his patroness, the Countess of Huntingdon (to whom he was deferential), Whitefield’s relationship with women tended to be awkward and complicated. Following his disastrous attempts to court Elizabeth Dellacorte, a contemporary of his called Whitefield “the most awkward wooer ever to have wooed.”[11] Whitefield was more successful in courting Elizabeth James, but the marriage was a disaster. The sole time Mrs. Whitefield accompanied her husband to the colonies, he abandoned her in Bermuda, leaving her to find her own way back to England. His letters to her also lacked the warmth of those he sent to his friend James Habersham, which have led some to speculate whether Whitefield was gay. There is no evidence that Whitefield ever had a sexual relationship with another man (or woman), but for the most part, Whitefield’s personal relationships did seem to be opportunistic and/or superficial. There is, no doubt, much research left to be done on eighteenth-century male friendships.[12]

Another key theme concerned Whitefield’s relationship to empire, a topic connected to the historiographical debate over whether Whitefield would have supported the American Revolution. In her keynote address, Carla Gardina Pestana found Whitefield’s career superficially connected to empire and the Church of England. That is, he engaged in the culture of empire, but failed to bring new members into the Anglican fold.[13] Participants in the conference also took a closer look at Whitefield in Scotland, and Germany, which was valuable because most studies of Whitefield focus primarily on Whitefield in an English or colonial context.[14]

Other historians explored Whitefield’s relationship to various geographies. Stephen Berry explored Whitefield’s shipboard life, as a man who spent considerable time at sea. Ships, which Lauren Benton has called an extension of empire, served in Berry’s argument, simultaneously as a wilderness, a parish (depending on the prerogative of the captain), and a cloister for Whitefield.[15] My own paper used a combination of contested religious spaces, as well as points mined from newspapers, correspondence, and Whitefield’s publications as a new way of answering questions about Whitefield’s influence. The geography becomes a historic actor, rather than backdrop.[16]

And finally, there were a number of papers that explored Whitefield’s afterlife.[17] What was clear from the panels was that Whitefield has, in fact, enjoyed many “afterlives.” Andrew Atherstone’s keynote paper particularly explored how interest in Whitefield has been renewed at key historical intervals, with sometimes competing views about who had the right to memorialize Whitefield and why.[18] Collectively, all of these papers underscored Hammond and Jones’ opening points about the challenges of understanding and interpreting Whitefield, a polarizing figure of many layers.

The co-organizers expect to publish a conference volume with the keynotes and some of the individual papers.


[1] Diary of Rev. Daniel Wadsworth, Seventh Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Hartford With Notes (Hartford: Press of the Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co, 1894), 58. With thanks to Ken Minkema for this source.

[2] John Gillies, Memoirs of the Life of George Whitefield, 2 vols. (London: Dilly, 1771-72); Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1990).

[3] Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991); Frank Lambert, “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Jerome Dean Mahaffrey, Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield (Waco: Baylor, 2007); Thomas Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming); and Jessica Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (Jackson: Mississippi, forthcoming).

[4] Geordan Hammond, Welcoming Remarks, “George Whitefield at 300” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 25 June 2014. The lecture Hammond referenced can be found in David Ceri Jones, “‘So much idolized by some, and railed at others’: Towards Understanding George Whitefield,” Wesley and Methodist Studies 5 (2013): 3‑29; David Ceri Jones, “Whitefield at 300,” keynote presented at the “George Whitefield at 300” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 25 June 2014.

[5] Braxton Boren, “Acoustic Simulation of George Whitefield’s Audible Range,” paper presented at the “George Whitefield at 300” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 26 June 2014. More on Boren’s fascinating research can be found here.

[6] Jones, “Whitefield at 300.”

[7] Brett McInelly, “Performing the Revival: Whitefield, Foote, and Theatrical Mimicry,” paper presented at the “George Whitefield at 300” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 27 June 2014. Also, see Brett McInelly, Textual Warfare and the Making of Methodism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). Those who have studied Whitefield will be aware that in his youth, Whitefield was active in theater. In the same vein as other early evangelicals, Whitefield later came to see theater as sinful.

[8] Emma Salgard Cunha,”The Poetics of Evangelical Affect: George Whitefield in the Literary Tradition of the Affections,” and Peter Forsaith, “Preacher, Painters, and Portraits,” papers presented at the “George Whitefield at 300” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 27 June 2014.

[9] Mark Noll, “George Whitefield, Hymnody, and Evangelical Spirituality,” keynote presented at the “George Whitefield at 300” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 27 June 2014.

[10] Schlenther, “‘I am content to wait till the day of judgment for the clearing up of my character’: George Whitefield’s Personal Life and Character,” keynote presented at the “George Whitefield at 300,” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 27 June 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Guy (Ross) Beales, Professor Emeritus, College of the Holy Cross is currently engaged in research in this area. Rebecca Laird also presented a paper on this topic. See Rebecca Laird, “‘Dividing what Cannot Be Destroyed’: Susanna Wesley’s ‘Remarks’ on the Public Failures of Friendship between Mr. Whitefield and Her Sons,” “George Whitefield and Empire,” paper presented at the “George Whitefield at 300” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 26 June 2014.

[13] Pestana, “George Whitefield and Empire,” keynote presented at the Whitefield at 300 Conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 26 June 2014. Pestana’s exploration of “empire” was drawn from Emma Rothschild’s work. See Emma Rothschild, The Inner Life of Empires: an Eighteenth-Century History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

9 responses

  1. Thanks, Jessica, for this informative post. I’m glad that you and other scholars are beginning to recognize the broader impact of Whitefield at this point in time. It does seem, though, that the various disciplines are creating a refracted Whitefield, so that the different accounts seem to describe different individuals operating in very different historical accounts. What were some of the commonalties or cross-disciplinary features of GW that emerged from the discussion?

    • Dave – I think the challenge is that Whitefield had/has such broad appeal, both during his life and after. He’s not a figure that’s tied to any specific denomination, ethnicity, etc. He famously quoted John Wesley, one of his mentors “the World is my Congregation,” so I think we can understand this refraction/multi-dimensional Whitefield as an indication of success as far of Whitefield’s own desires to have the broadest audience possible – an audience that was (while Protestant) was quite pluralistic, and there was a lot of debate over “religious truth.” A result (and as I argue in my forthcoming book) is that he really became a religious cultural symbol that meant different things to different people. That is, especially after his death, people claimed him for different purposes.

      Much of what is “known” about Whitefield is really about perception – Whitefield’s perception of himself, etc. Plus, it’s known that a number of the biographies and memoirs were heavily and conspicuously edited to continue shaping his image after his death. (Comparing the Gillies memoir, which is very favorable, and the Tyreman memoir, which has some fairly critical points might be a useful exercise.) One of the questions in this conference really boiled down to “can we ever know the real Whitefield?” I think that’s part of what David Ceri Jones hopes that revisiting original correspondence will address. To a point, I think that Braxton Boren’s paper plays a role in that discussion. A lot of the reports of his preaching detail absolutely enormous crowds. Boren wondered, centuries before amplification technology, was this really possible, or was it all part of Whitefield’s mystique? While using Benjamin Franklin’s data has limitations, because you have to assume that everyone was Franklin’s height, what Boren’s research proves is that Whitefield’s reports of 20K-50K are scientifically plausible. As far as common threads, I think both the broadness of his appeal, and the effect he had on religious culture across not only the British Atlantic, but even other parts of Protestant Europe, were part of it. I also think this conference uncovered new, interdisciplinary (especially outside of history and theology) areas of inquiry about Whitefield. There were a couple of scholars who were talking about creating a Whitefield Studies sub discipline.

      • Thanks. One final thought: I think the literary reception of Whitefield (which is something I’m thinking about) becomes critical in relation to your “all things to all people” reading of Whitefield. Like other 18c celebrities (I’m thinking of Wilkes or Sterne or Franklin), his words and images were so widely disseminated, by himself and others, that he becomes impossible to reduce back to a single coherent individual in analysis. This seems to me very much part of the phenomenon of celebrity in this period, and GW’s characteristics as performer seem wrapped up in this as well: he seems quite conscious of this effect. So celebrity might be another way to understand and organize the multidimensional aspect of GW, and this helps to explain the backlash, too.

        As with Wesley, the issues of sexuality seem pretty fraught, too, but I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks!

        • True, although as a historiographical concept for the U.S., “celebrity” is something that really emerges after the Civil War. Certainly, much of what has been written about Whitefield has primarily explored his life and missionary career. Frank Lambert and Peter Charles Hoffer (whom I accidentally neglected to mention) do talk about his afterlife, and my own book goes up through around 1830. However, for those interested in exploring under-charted territory with Whitefield, there’s still a lot of room for research on the 19th and 20th century “Whitefields.” Andrew Atherstone’s fascinating keynote will be an important contribution for those interested in Whitefield’s afterlife, and especially public history applications for Whitefield. It will be among the contributions in this volume the conference organizers are planning, which I believe is under contract with University of Oxford Press, UK.

          • There’s certainly a qualitative shift in the 19c, but there’s also well-developed scholarship of 18c celebrity, at least in the British context (Braudy, Donoghue, Brewer, Engel, Clark) that would work just fine to talk about the transatlantic reputation of a figure like Whitefield. Joseph Roach’s work on performativity and celebrity in It also seems relevant here, too, and help to explain some of the ambivalence or outright hostility GW inspired.

            I think in consideration of the “afterlives” of GW, I would think about this transformation of GW from a broadly public figure available to everyone at a certain historical moment, to a key figure in denominational histories, which are essentially institutional and organizational histories. It would seem to me that lots of discordant information gets jettisoned at those moments.

            • Good point on the British celebrity scholarship. The challenge with Whitefield, of course, is that you’d have to look at both the British angle, and the American angle. You could be right about the jettisoning of the discordant information later on (certain aspects thereof anyway), but one of the things that Atherstone found was that even in the 20th century, continued tensions over who was “allowed” to memorialize Whitefield. It’s mainly in Great Britain, but as recently as 2004, a group from Savannah approached Old South Presbyterian Church about having Whitefield’s remains reinterred in Georgia. I’m afraid I don’t know all the specifics, but the current pastor of Old South would know. I’ve thought of writing an article specifically about the competing claims to Whitefield’s remains (really struck a cord after reading Michael Kammen’s final book), but I’d want to see Atherstone’s final article first. He’s pretty comprehensive, and I’d want to see that there’s actually something new to be contributed.

  2. Thank you, Jessica, for your report on the conference. I’m looking forward to your book’s appearance in 2015.

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: Reclaiming a Buried Past: Slavery, Memory, Public History, and Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground « The Junto


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