An engaging, balanced, and penetrating narrative biography of the charismatic eighteenth-century American evangelist
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About the Author
Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. He lives in Waco, TX.
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America's Spiritual Founding Father
By Thomas S. Kidd
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Thomas S. Kidd
All rights reserved.
"The Circumstance of My Being Born in an Inn": George Whitefield and Eighteenth-Century England
Two inns in December, one in Bethlehem of Judea, and the other in Gloucester, England. These were the humble birthplaces of Jesus and, seventeen centuries later, one of his most celebrated disciples, George Whitefield. Whitefield himself made this connection to Jesus in the original edition (it was excised in later ones) of his Journals, one of the best-selling publications of the eighteenth century in England and America. (A Short Account of God's Dealings with the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, which covered his early life and conversion in college, was first published in 1740, a couple years after the initial publication of his early travel journals.) "The circumstance of my being born in an inn," he wrote, "has been often of service to me in exciting my endeavours to ... follow the example of my dear Saviour, who was born in a manger belonging to an inn."
The Gloucester of Whitefield's birth was a plain town, neither cosmopolitan nor rustic. It lay about a hundred miles west of London, England's vast metropolis. In spite of the ravages of the Great Plague and Great Fire of the 1660s, London's population still stood at about 500,000, making it one of the world's largest cities. Around 1660, the population of Gloucester was just under 5,000, making it one of the thirty largest provincial towns in England. An early nineteenth-century town booster, George Counsel, lamented that "it has been much the fashion with tourists to describe Gloucester as a dull heavy, place," yet even he—an Englishman enamored of the history of kings—claimed that from 1687 (a visit by James II) to 1788 (a visit by George III), "no interesting event" had occurred there. From the perspective of religious history, Counsel's statement is laughable.
Gloucester's economy was inextricably connected with Bristol, about thirty-five miles to the southwest. The Whitefield family was likewise deeply linked with that city. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Bristol's population was more than 20,000. It was England's second-largest seaport. The thriving town teemed with sailors, merchants, and customs officers. At a mile-long quay, dockworkers loaded and unloaded cargo from across the Atlantic world. Countinghouses, churches, sugar refineries, taverns, and coffeehouses ringed the town's wharfs and the river Avon. One of Bristol's merchants was Thomas Whitefield, George's father, who worked in the imported wine business, a longtime staple of Bristol trade. Later he would open Gloucester's Bell Inn. Whitefield's oldest brother, Andrew, also worked in Bristol, and George visited him there as a teenager. Bristol was a critical commercial hub for Britain and America, and Whitefield would regularly preach in and pass through the town during his career.
Whitefield was born in a time of profound political and religious transition for England. Nearly two centuries earlier, in 1534, King Henry VIII had broken with the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England, setting in motion a persistent conflict over faith, politics, and Britain's monarchy. By the end of Queen Elizabeth I's long reign (1559–1603), the English people had become firmly Protestant, but clashes over the denominational allegiance of the monarch persisted. Beginning in 1642, feuding between Parliamentarians (many of them Puritans) and Royalists (many of them moderate Anglicans) precipitated the English Civil War, leading King Charles I to flee London for his safety.
Gloucester played a key role in the war. The town was a Parliamentarian stronghold in the generally Royalist southwestern region of England. In August 1643, the king's army laid siege to the town, hoping to stage a campaign against London from Gloucester. Charles ordered a siege rather than an assault because of concern over the potential for high casualties. Gloucester's small garrison entrenched itself behind the town's ancient Roman-era walls, earthworks, and moat while the Royalist army—some thirteen thousand strong—began a fierce bombardment. The shelling continued through the warm nights of August, when cannonballs, according to one diarist, seemed to fly "through the air like a star shooting."
Gloucester's defenders had come perilously close to running out of supplies and ammunition, with only three barrels of gunpowder left, when town leaders called for a day of prayer and fasting (for noncombatants) on September 5. As watchmen peered over the Roman wall that day, they beheld a surprising sight: the Royalist army began burning its siege huts and retreating from the city. The king's men had received word that a Parliamentarian army of fourteen thousand was approaching from the east, having been raised in London to relieve beleaguered Gloucester. On September 8, the Parliamentarian army entered Gloucester, to the jubilation of its suffering residents. The Parliamentarians ultimately defeated King Charles I, leading to his arrest and public beheading in London in 1649. Following the siege, Gloucester rebuilt the damaged south gate of the city and placed an inscription upon it: "A city assailed by man, but saved by God." King Charles II (Charles I's son) reclaimed the English throne in 1660, and he remembered well Gloucester's resistance during the war. He ordered the city's walls to be torn down in 1662.
Even after the restoration of the monarchy, the question of the king's faith still stirred fear and resentment. Charles II converted to Catholicism on his deathbed in 1685. His brother and successor, James II, had embraced Catholicism earlier in life. Could Protestantism survive if England's king was Catholic? Many English Protestants thought not; they pointed to the cruel fate of the French Protestants, who had just suffered a horrific crackdown under the forces of Louis XIV following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the same year James II came to the English throne. Catholics were bent on utter domination, militant Protestants believed, and could never be trusted with political power in a Protestant nation. Moreover, James II kept unnervingly close connections with the French government. He repeatedly tried to free Catholics from various disadvantages imposed on them by English law. An anonymous pamphlet spoke for many, in anti-Catholic themes that George Whitefield would later echo, when it described Catholicism as the most "destructive religion in the world; as not deeming any people worthy to live upon the earth, but the slaves of papal jurisdiction."
When James's wife bore him a son in 1688, the prospect of a Catholic succession seemed more certain than ever. It was time to act. So Protestant leaders forced James II from the throne in late 1688 in what Protestants called the Glorious Revolution. He was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary—who apparently had no reservations about booting out her father—and her Dutch Calvinist husband, William of Orange. The couple were actually first cousins, both of them grandchildren of Charles I. James II was England's last Catholic king. William and Mary's coronation left no doubt that their Protestantism was of preeminent importance: for the first time, a copy of the Authorized Version of the Bible (King James's 1611 translation) was included in the royal procession to Westminster Abbey. The new king and queen had to swear, also for the first time, to rule according to the "Protestant reformed religion established by law."
William and Mary's assumption of the throne would have settled the matter of the monarch's religion, except that they were childless. When William died in 1702 (Mary had died of smallpox in 1694), the crown passed to Mary's younger sister, Anne. Anne suffered through eighteen pregnancies in her life, thirteen resulting in miscarriages or stillborn children. Compounding her tragedies, four of her five children who survived childbirth then died in infancy. Even her son William, who lived to age eleven, died in 1700. This development incited panic among monarchy watchers, for all of Anne's closest relatives—and candidates to succeed her—were Catholics. But Parliament passed the Act of Settlement in 1701, which stipulated that anyone who "should profess the popish religion" or who married a Catholic could not become England's king or queen. This law remains in effect in Britain today.
When Anne died in August 1714, five months before George Whitefield's birth, the crown of England passed over more than fifty of her closer Catholic relatives to Georg Ludwig (anglicized to George Louis) of Hanover, part of the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany), a fifty-four-year old nobleman who spoke almost no English. That linguistic deficiency did not matter, for George I was a Protestant (a Lutheran, to be precise). Most Protestants in England and the colonies celebrated the accession of George I as heralding permanent Protestant control of the monarchy. A Dissenting (non-Anglican) minister in London proclaimed, "The hand of Providence hath touched the Revolution over again." Even during the week of Whitefield's birth, the London Daily Courant reported on the celebrations honoring the new king in New York City, which were accompanied by fireworks, toasts to the king's health, and many "huzzas and great acclamations of joy." The colonists wanted George I to know that he had no better friends than the devoted Protestants of America.
George Whitefield's future celebrity in places like New York City and Boston seemed highly improbable when his mother Elizabeth gave birth at the Bell Inn on December 16. He was the youngest of seven children. Nine days later, on Christmas Day, baby George was baptized at his family's twelfth-century parish church, St. Mary de Crypt, which stood just a hundred yards down the street from their inn. He was baptized according to the tradition of the Anglican Church (and almost all other Protestants at the time), which sprinkled infants with water soon after birth. For more than a hundred years, the small Baptist movement in England had been insisting that baptism was not for infants—to them, only the baptism of adults by immersion accurately reflected the inner transformation of a believer saved by God's grace. Whitefield's parents had no such qualms. Baptizing their baby placed him under the protective canopy of the Anglican Church and, they hoped, set him on the path of salvation.
At Whitefield's baptism, the rector at St. Mary de Crypt, according to the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer and the language of the Gospel of John, prayed that God would "give thy Holy Spirit to this infant, that he may be born again." Many Anglicans believed that baptism was directly connected to this new birth, which would normally follow baptism as part of a believer's maturing devotion to God. Whitefield would remain an Anglican, yet he would come to sharply distinguish the wrenching experience of the new birth from infant baptism. The new birth, to Whitefield, was a discernible, sometimes torturous experience of renouncing sin and turning to God for forgiveness in Christ. People weren't born again because they were baptized, or because they were Anglicans, or because they were British. They had to surrender their lives personally to Christ. If they didn't, they remained subject to God's wrath and in danger of going to hell. Preaching the new birth would become the center of Whitefield's gospel ministry and the defining cause of his life.
At the outset of the baptismal liturgy, the rector intoned, "Dearly beloved, for as much as all men are conceived and born in sin ... I beseech you to call upon God." Ask God, he urged, to show the infant mercy and to make him part of the divine kingdom. Here the pastor identified the fundamental problem with humanity, even with the seemingly innocent baby before him: all people were tainted with sin—original sin, the sin of Adam—which separated them from their Creator.
Whitefield soon came to recognize the truth about his own sinful nature. In the best-selling account of his life, written for devotional and evangelistic purposes, Whitefield opened the narrative (following his December birth in an inn) by describing the darkness of his heart, in language directly repeating the rector's prayer: "I can remember such early stirrings of corruption in my heart, as abundantly convinces me that I was conceived and born in sin; that in me dwelleth no good thing by nature, and that if God had not freely prevented me by his grace, I must have been for ever banished from his divine presence."
The doctrine of original sin—the notion that all are corrupted by, and even guilty because of, Adam's sin—was coming under criticism by 1714, but the rector's prayer and Whitefield's wholehearted acceptance of the principle remind us that Whitefield grew up in a world largely convinced of the depravity of man and the brokenness of creation. These grim realities entered the world upon Adam and Eve's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. The idea of original sin was a hallmark of Reformation thought. John Calvin, the French theologian and pastor of the Protestant movement in Geneva, Switzerland, wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, "Original sin is a hereditary corruption and perversity of our nature ... All are tangled up in original sin and stained with its spots." Even children were fatally tainted with this sinful nature, Calvin wrote, so that their moral character could "only be displeasing and hateful to God."
To modern sensibilities, this talk of a perverse nature of humankind—even of children—and of God hating us for it, may seem extreme. But Anglo-Americans in Whitefield's world widely accepted Calvin's views, even if more liberal theologians had begun to question his tenets. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church (1563), a codification of English Protestant theology, defended the principle of inherent depravity. Original sin, said the ninth article, "is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man ... therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation." Recalling the misdeeds of one's childhood became a standard feature of evangelical autobiography. Belief in depravity was not just theoretical speculation by male theologians, either. If anything, evangelical women seemed to take a darker view of their sinful natures than did men.
Whitefield's English people did not just believe in sin because of statements like the Thirty-Nine Articles. They saw evidence for the brokenness of creation all around them. War, disease, fire, and crime ravaged their world. Just a year before Whitefield's birth, the Treaty of Utrecht had ended the War of the Spanish Succession, the latest in a long line of conflicts over religion, monarchies, and the European balance of power. The Battle of Malplaquet (1709), pitting allied British and Dutch forces against the French, was the bloodiest battle in eighteenth-century Europe, in which 120,000 troops suffered 30,000 casualties, resulting in a pyrrhic victory for the British. A devout British officer walked the battlefield afterward and found that his horse could not move without treading upon the bodies heaped across the bloody ground. "God makes the nations a scourge to each other to work his holy ends," the soldier mused, "by sweeping sinners off the face of the earth."
Most Britons needed no convincing about the world's pervasive iniquity. Whitefield, though, saw his sin manifested not in titanic battles or nefarious crimes, but in his mundane life as a child in Gloucester. Other than what is recorded in Whitefield's Journals, we do not have much information about his early childhood, but since he grew up in an inn, without a father in his house between the ages of two and eight (his father died in 1716), we might imagine that Whitefield had some exposure to the temptations of the flesh. He surely amplified his sinfulness for literary and theological effect, writing bluntly, "I was froward from my mother's womb." "Froward" is a term from the King James Bible meaning "wandering" or "perverse." Its first appearance in the Bible refers to the sins of youth: "They are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith" (Deuteronomy 32:20). That such words flowed easily from Whitefield's pen reflects his deep saturation in the rhetoric of the King James Bible, which a century earlier had become the standard Bible of the English-speaking world. Whitefield's preaching perpetuated the fame of that Bible, and its application to individual lives, in Britain and America.
Excerpted from George Whitefield by Thomas S. Kidd. Copyright © 2014 Thomas S. Kidd. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 "The Circumstance of My Being Born in an Inn": George Whitefield and Eighteenth-Century England 5
2 "The Day Star Arose in My Heart": Whitefield's Conversion 20
3 "God is Preparing Me for Something Extraordinary": Whitefield the Methodist Missionary 38
4 "The Fiery Trial of Popularity": George Whitefield, Field Preacher 58
5 "A Tour Round America": The American South and the Bethesda Orphanage 84
6 "To Revive the Flame Again": Whitefield Comes to New England 106
7 "Hearing Him Preach, Gave Me a Heart Wound": Calvinist Preaching, Calvinist Controversy 130
8 "Thy Maker is Thy Husband": Whitefield Goes to Scotland 148
9 "Close Attacks, But Strong Consolations": The Return to America 170
10 "Hunting in the American Woods": Whitefield, Slavery, and Evangelical Radicalism 188
11 "As I Grew Moderate": Whitefield Mends Rivalries 204
12 "This Pilgrimage Kind of Life": The End of Whitefield's Travels 225
Conclusion: "Jesus Christ Has Got Thee at Last": George Whitefield's Legacy 248