George Whitefield

Life, Context, and Legacy

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Geordan Hammond , David Ceri Jones
  • NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Few figures, bar his friends, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, loomed as large in the history of transatlantic evangelicalism in the age of the Enlightenment as that of George Whitefield (1714-1770). These essays are a remarkable reappraisal of Whitefield in his personal, theological, ecclesiastical, philosophical, political, and geographic contexts. They consider issues such as his relationship with Wesley and Edwards, his critics within the Reformed world, his voice and literary effect, his impact on Georgia and the quest for Bethesda College, his relationship with hymnody, and the reception of Whitefield following his death.

Of particular interest is Boyd Stanley Schlenther’s essay on Whitefield’s personal life and character. One of the most intriguing aspects of the great evangelist’s personal life were his dealings with women. Whitefield appears to have held a highly rationalistic view of relationships, which permitted no place for romance, or, as he put it, “that foolish passion, which the world calls Love” (16). Despite such dispassionate sentiments, Whitefield’s relationships with women placed a question mark around his integrity. His dealings with the fiancée of Howell Harris, in particular, make for peculiar reading. Whitefield assured Harris that it was God’s will for Elizabeth James to become his wife, thus manipulating the broken-hearted Harris into handing her over to him. If his marriage did not have a good start, Whitefield’s subsequent treatment of his wife was even less to his credit. Two years into their marriage, Whitefield announced that God had informed him that their son, John Whitefield, would become a great preacher. Sadly, the baby died at four months old. While Whitefield was willing to admit to having misused biblical texts to justify his predictions, his frequent absences from his wife did him little credit. Marriage for an itinerant preacher was evidently not a wise move. Such was Whitefield’s judgmentalism and boastfulness that Dr. Schlenther claimed that “his lips [were] never far from his own trumpet” (20).

Of course, Whitefield’s involvement with slavery is a strong mark against his reputation. Whitefield was the most conspicuous evangelical defender and practitioner of black slavery. He opposed the prohibition against the institution in Georgia on the basis that it would expose the Africans to the gospel. In fairness, though, Carla Gardina Pestana’s chapter on Whitefield and empire reminds us that he laboured to ameliorate the institution of slavery, though it is something of an oddity that he never visited the Carribean. Pious admirers of Whitefield may find it uncharitable to highlight such character flaws. Conversely, given Whitefield’s Calvinistic doctrine of indwelling sin and imperfect sanctification in this life, it would be untrue to the man and his theology not to draw attention to them.

Mark Olson’s essay on Whitefield’s early theological development is of interest not only for Whitefield’s doctrinal development but also for the (albeit brief) discussion of the influence of Reformed theology that remained within the Church of England after 1660. In particular, the work of John Edwards of Cambridge influenced Whitefield to embrace Calvinism. While Olson characterises Whitefield as a moderate Calvinist (43), we should note that during the Free Grace controversy with John Wesley, Whitefield rejected the moderate Calvinist notion of the well-meant offer of the gospel. In other words, at this point in his career, Whitefield rejected the idea that God literally wants or desires to save those whom he has foreordained to eternal damnation. After reviewing the biblical texts that Wesley relied on to justify this notion, Whitefield told him, “Is it that God really Wills, and hath Pleasure in the Salvation of every Man? If so, Hell shall be an empty Region” (Free Grace Indeed! A Letter to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley, Relating to his Sermon Against Absolute Election [Boston, 1741], 34.) Although Whitefield may not always have held this position, as Geordan Hammond argues, he modified his commitment to absolute reprobation.

Whitefield was certainly never a hyper-Calvinist, and we must be careful not to think that his evangelistic interests trumped his commitment to predestinarian theology. William Gibson’s chapter on his relationship with fellow Anglicans demonstrates, however, that other orthodox and evangelical Calvinistic ministers in the Church of England did not universally endorse Whitefield. Such opposition though was nothing compared to that he faced in Scotland and New England. The Scottish Seceders deemed Whitefield to be a tool of Satan and a “false Christ” for spreading delusions through the Cambuslang Revival (145).

Frank Lambert’s essay on the Enlightenment helpfully reminds us that Whitefield’s Calvinism did not mean he rejected reason. Whitefield opposed the irrationalism of extremists such as James Davenport: “Whitefield deemed reason to be indispensable in fathoming biblical truth” (70). He denied that unaided human reason could give one a saving understanding of the gospel, but he believed that the gospel was still reasonable, and, as John Locke had argued, Christ was the embodiment of reason itself.

One of the most significant contributions to this collection is Stephen R. Berry’s chapter on Whitefield and the Atlantic, which considers the time Whitefield spent actually on the Atlantic Ocean apart from his transatlantic career. This point is important because the time he spent at sea afforded Whitefield time for the more sustained interactions of a settled parish than was normal for an itinerant preacher. Mark Noll’s chapter on Whitefield, hymnody, and evangelical hymnody is outstanding. He argues that evangelicalism is primarily a singing rather than a sacrament, doctrinal, or even a preaching expression of Christianity. Whitefield’s collection of hymns is perhaps most significant for what it omits rather than for what it includes: there is little about sacramental theology, the natural world, or even the doctrine of scripture.

This collection has made a significant contribution to the study of Whitefield and will hopefully encourage further scholarly inquiry into his life and times. My most significant criticism of the volume is that there is, at times, some repetition throughout the chapters that the editors could have omitted. Still, this point is only a minor complaint. There is also a helpful select bibliography of printed primary and secondary material relating to the great evangelist.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Ritchie is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Irish Research Council at the School of History, University College Dublin.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Geordan Hammond is Research Assistant for the Leverhulme Trust Project 'George Whitefield and Trans-Atlantic Protestantism' at Aberystwyth University and is Senior Research Fellow in Church History and Wesley Studies at Nazarene Theological College, Manchester.

David Ceri Jones is a Reader in Welsh and Atlantic History at Aberystwyth University


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