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?” 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. 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. (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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.” 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
And finally, there were a number of papers that explored Whitefield’s afterlife. 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. 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.
 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.
 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).
 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).
 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.
 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.
 Jones, “Whitefield at 300.”
 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.
 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.
 Mark Noll, “George Whitefield, Hymnody, and Evangelical Spirituality,” keynote presented at the “George Whitefield at 300” conference, Pembroke College, Oxford, 27 June 2014.
 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.
 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.
 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).