A Junto Birthday Party: Whitefield at 300 Roundtable

Today’s guest poster, Thomas S. Kidd, is professor of history at Baylor University and the author, most recently, of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

A Long Afterlife (Jessica Parr)

george-whitefield-2-sizedThose familiar with the first great awakening will undoubtedly recognize George Whitefield as a key figure of eighteenth century evangelical culture in Britain and its American colonies. Like many associated with the Methodist movement in Whitefield’s time, the prolific preacher and publisher saw himself as an Anglican in discussion with the Church of England about reform and an allowance for a broader religious experience. However, his theology, the new birth doctrine, the gathered church, etc., all alienated Whitefield from the Anglican hierarchy within the first few years of his missionary career.

Both because (as Kidd notes below) Whitefield’s visibility across the British Atlantic, and his lack of permanent ties to any specific geography or institution, Whitefield’s influence did not end with his death. Rather, as a symbol, he became more powerful in death than in life.[1] Followers like John Gillies picked up Whitefield’s flair for publishing and released both a memoir, and new edited volumes of Whitefield’s journals. These edits became profoundly influential in the way successive generations of Christian writers have viewed Whitefield.

He was also co-opted into the discussions about Christianity and slavery. To wit, shortly after Whitefield’s death, Franco-American Quaker Anthony Benezet invoked Whitefield’s caustic criticisms of southern planters in his appeal to Selina Hastings, Whitefield’s patroness and executrix to manumit slaves belonging to the estate. Similarly, anti-slavery writers John Marrant, Olaudah Equiano, and Phillis Wheatley all noted Whitefield’s influence in their religious conversions, as they raised moral challenges to slavery. In addition to being a slave owner, Whitefield was a central figure in the defense and legalization of slavery in colonial Georgia.

The result of these competing images of Whitefield is that he has enjoyed an afterlife that is more complicated, but also more powerful in death than he was in life. It also contributed to the problems of presentism and presentation that Kidd describes below.

Whitefield at 300: Celebration or Commemoration? (Thomas S. Kidd)

On the occasion of his 300th birthday, there seems little doubt that we should commemorate George Whitefield as one of the most significant religious and cultural figures of the eighteenth century. He was the best-known person in America (and probably in Britain, too, aside from the king) before the Revolution, and the key figure in the Great Awakening. For many historians of religion–especially those of Christian convictions – there would seem to be much to celebrate. Yet even marginal familiarity with the man reveals manifest imperfections that might make some look back on him with dismay and regret.

The most obvious problem with Whitefield was that he not only became a slave owner, but was arguably the most influential advocate for slavery’s introduction into colonial Georgia, where it was originally banned. Admiring historians of Whitefield would make a serious mistake in avoiding this issue, and indeed I did my best to address it directly in my new biography of the itinerant. But at a popular level, handling the topic of slave owning by historical heroes is a tricky business–just this week I received a civil but admonitory e-mail from someone who had read my recent Wall Street Journal piece on Whitefield, who said that I was being “unduly harsh” to the preacher on this issue. It is a perennial historical problem that also applies to other “Founding Father” types from Washington to Jefferson to Franklin. How to be honest about people’s failings without engaging in judgmental presentism? This conundrum means that Whitefield’s 300th birthday is best left as an admiring and honest commemoration rather than an unalloyed celebration.

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[1] As I argue in my forthcoming book, Jessica Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Religion, and the Making of a Religious Icon (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi: 2015).

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