The Billy Graham Of The 18th Century

by Dish Staff

Last week marked three hundred years since the birth of George Whitefield, whom Thomas Kidd, author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Fatherdescribes as “the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century, and the best known person in colonial America prior to the Revolution.” More background from Kidd:

George Whitefield, born on Dec. 16, 1714, was a Church of England minister who led the Great Awakening, a series of Christian revivals that swept through dish_whitefieldBritain and America in the mid-1700s. Whitefield drew enormous audiences wherever he went on both sides of the Atlantic, and his publications alone doubled the output of the American colonial presses between 1739 and 1742. If there is a modern figure comparable to Whitefield, it is Billy Graham. But even Mr. Graham has followed a path first cut by Whitefield.

What made Whitefield and his gospel message so famous? First, he mastered the period’s new media. Cultivating a vast network of newspaper publicity, printers and letter-writing correspondents, Whitefield used all means available to get the word out. Most important, he joined with Benjamin Franklin, who became Whitefield’s main printer in America, even though Franklin was no evangelical. Their business relationship transformed into a close friendship, although Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin, unsuccessfully, about his need for Jesus.

In an interview, Kidd draws out Whitefield’s importance for American history:

To call Whitefield “America’s Spiritual Founding Father” is, in part, just to acknowledge that before the Revolution he was the most famous man in America, period. I also think he represents a kind of evangelical faith that continues to have huge cultural traction in America in a way that it does not in the U.K. And in an inarticulate, symbolic way, Americans at the time of the Revolution appropriated Whitefield as their spiritual founding father.

The best example of this is when the Continental Army is on a 1775 campaign against Canada. They stop in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on the Sabbath, and they don’t want to march on the Sabbath, so they have a service in the Presbyterian church where Whitefield is buried. They go down to the crypt, the officers open up the crypt, and there’s Whitefield’s dead body. They take his clerical collar and wristbands, cut the things up, and pass them out to the troops. They never explain why they do this. It’s just something that seems like the right thing to do, because what Whitefield is about is what we’re about. Whitefield is somehow about liberty and freedom, and we love him, and he’s our hero. So this passing out of Whitefield’s relics just makes sense to the officers of the Continental Army in 1775.

Adelle M. Banks notes Whitefield’s support for 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?”

(Portrait of Whitefield, 1770, via Wikimedia Commons)