George Whitefield

Evangelist for God and Empire

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Peter Y. Choi
Library of Religious Biography
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802875495.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his new monograph, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire, historian Peter Choi explores the “later stages” of the 18th-century British Atlantic awakenings. While there has thus far been a preponderance of studies concerning the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, Choi reminds us, there has been a “woeful lack of attention” (2) paid to early evangelicalism in the years immediately following the movement’s most vibrant seasons in North America, England, Wales, and Scotland. By centering the 1750s and 1760s, a period largely glossed over by scholars, Choi highlights the integral relationship between Whitefieldian religion and British political and economic ambition, illustrating for readers how a “view of empire shaped the Awakening in its early phases and absorbed the revivals in their later stages” (2). Put simply, emergent evangelicalism “could not resist imbibing the values of the British state formation” in the mid-18th century (2).

Choi anchors his narrative in the life and ministry of George Whitefield—easily the most famous leader of the transatlantic revivals. While the “Grand Itinerant,” as he was often dubbed, is most commonly known for his far-flung travels, widespread evangelism, and heartfelt promotion of the “new birth,” little has been said about his intimate relationship to British imperial interests. This connection was at the heart of Whitefield’s Atlantic activities, underpinning his later American tours, colonial investments, and ministerial strategies. Especially after the red-hot revivals of the late-1730s and early-1740s, when Whitefield was searching for new, fresh ways to maintain public influence and finance his itinerancy, it became increasingly clear that he was both an “evangelist of Protestant renewal” and a “British explorer in America” (14).

Choi chiefly investigates Whitefield’s imperial attitudes by focusing on the preacher’s confusing and (seemingly) contradicting involvement in major British political and economic affairs. He was “entangled,” Choi writes, in the empire’s far-reaching theater of war and business of bondage (123). This study is especially adept in its telling of the latter. Despite Whitefield’s impassioned criticism of southern plantation owners’ treatment of slaves, most clear in his “A Letter from the Rev. Mr. Whitefield, to the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South-Carolina” (Pennsylvania Gazette, 1740), the Anglican awakener never issued a definitive condemnation of the British Atlantic slave industry. In his words, he did not consider such a decision “upon me to determine” and, nearer to the 1750s, openly declared he had “no doubt” of its necessity (Whitefield quoted, 132–33). With pointed and clear research, Choi depicts Whitefield’s synthesis of “religious zeal” and full-fledged support of the enslavement of African men and women (131). Much of this discussion takes place in colonial Georgia, the site of Whitefield’s earliest American visit. The famous itinerant aggressively pursued the legalization of slavery in Georgia (accomplished in 1751), and he viewed ownership of black men and women as a valuable revenue stream for the colony’s struggling economy and his own Savannah-area Bethesda Orphanage.

Furthermore, as Choi notes, “Whitefield was a realist,” and he ultimately found no problem blending evangelicalism’s populist impulse with his personal “pursuit of economic freedom and profit” (142–43). The minister’s business-like approach to black bondage reveals a stark conservatism often lost in narratives about early evangelicalism’s egalitarian traits. In the end, as Whitefield put it after a visit to Bermuda, he had no desire to give enslaved people the “least umbrage to flight or behave imperiously to their masters” (Whitefield quoted, 160).

Choi’s book is an important one. As other historians like Ava Chamberlain have noted, early evangelicals like Whitefield and Johnathan Edwards are sometimes (mostly?) white-washed as heroes of a pure faith, immune to or ignorant of the worldly temptations and vices ensnaring their contemporaries. Though Choi could provide readers a more specific definition of “empire” and “imperial,” he convincingly exhibits the moral and theological quandaries that came with Whitefield’s southern colonial ventures. In this detailed and careful study, Choi genuinely shows readers how the celebrated revivalist functioned within the Atlantic slave trade and colonial commerce, and does so without any glaring presentism. Thus, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire joins recent scholarship like Jessica Parr’s Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (University Press of Mississippi, 2015) in helping scholars and students engage the “good” and “bad” of the 18th-century’s foremost evangelical, equipping us for further conversations regarding the moral boundaries of “evangelicalism.” Choi forces readers to critically and historically assess the complicated and shifting nature of evangelical Protestantism, leaving no room for flimsy veneration or faulty adoration. Though a crude reduction of Choi’s excellent monograph, this reviewer found his book’s most essential point to be simply this: George Whitefield was an evangelical, and he was a slave-owner.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tucker Adkins is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
January 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Y. Choi is Director of Academic Programs at Newbigin House of Studies and a pastor at City Church in San Francisco. Specializing in eighteenth-century American history, he has taught history of Christianity courses at Calvin Theological Seminary and the University of Notre Dame.

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