They were the most famous men in America. They came from separate countries, followed different philosophies, and led dissimilar lives. But they were fast friends. No two people did more to shape America in the mid-1700s.
Benjamin Franklin was the American prototype: hard-working, inventive, practical, funny, with humble manners and lofty dreams. George Whitefield was the most popular preacher in an era of great piety, whose outdoor preaching across the colonies was heard by thousands, all of whom were told, “You must be born again.” People became excited about God. They began reading the Bible and supporting charities. When Whitefield died in 1770, on a preaching tour in New Hampshire, he had built a spiritual foundation for a new nation—just as his surviving friend, Ben Franklin, had built its social foundation. Together these two men helped establish a new nation founded on liberty. This is the story of their amazing friendship.
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About the Author
Randy Petersen has written more than fifty books on subjects ranging from history to relationships, psychology, sports, and even word games. Formerly an editor and writer with Christian History magazine, he also prepares curriculum for small-group Bible studies. Apart from his writing, Randy teaches public speaking at a community college, preaches occasionally at his church, and directs in area theaters. He lives in the Philadelphia area.
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The Printer and the Preacher
Ben Franklin, George Whitefield, and the Surprising Friendship that Invented America
By Randy Petersen
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Randy Petersen
All rights reserved.
The Friendship That Invented America
They were the two most famous men in America. Both had enormous impact on the colonies that would become the United States. In the decades before George Washington came to fame, while Jefferson and Adams were still in school, the strands of American DNA were being twirled together by a printer and a preacher: Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield.
With his dramatic preaching, Whitefield led the "Great Awakening" that established a spiritual groundwork for the American colonists. They were no longer merely Anglican, Presbyterian, or Baptist, but Christian—freed from the old establishment and united in an exciting new experience of faith.
With his wry writing and thirst for knowledge, Franklin helped to forge a uniquely American personality. His Poor Richard's Almanac set the tone. Americans could revel in their homespun humor, their hardscrabble common sense. Franklin's own life trajectory—from laborer to entrepreneur to politician to scientist to diplomat—proved his point. In this new world, no one had to bow to nobility. Success was available if you were willing to work for it. With this in mind, Franklin created a stunning array of social structures—a library, a fire brigade, a hospital, and many others—that knit together the citizens of the emerging country. Long before any talk of independence, he was already building a nation.
These two celebrities, George and Ben, knew each other, liked each other, supported each other, and challenged each other. Through conversations, letters, business projects, and meetings in Philadelphia and London, the two men carried on a meaningful friendship for more than thirty years.
The Odd Couple
They were an odd couple, to be sure. George was fully committed to his faith, and he openly shared the gospel of Jesus not only in his evangelistic meetings, but also in personal conversation and correspondence. More than once, he tried to get his friend Ben into a personal relationship with Jesus.
Franklin wasn't buying. He had constructed his own faith from various raw materials: the rough-hewn rocks of the Cotton Mather Puritanism he had learned in his boyhood Boston; the intricate machinery of the deism he had flirted with as a young man; and the sturdy timbers of his lifelong devotion to self-improvement. He believed in God, and he expressed a personal humility before his Creator, but he had difficulty accepting claims about the divinity of Jesus or his sacrificial death. Jesus was a good example of human behavior, as Franklin saw it. "Imitate Jesus and Socrates," he once included in his rules for living.
Of course, Whitefield called for more than just imitation. He preached Jesus as God incarnate, the Savior, the sacrificial Lamb through whom God offered salvation to his chosen ones. With power and passion, this orator urged his hearers to respond to the Spirit's call and be "born again." Thousands did just that—but not Ben Franklin.
Besides their religious differences, the two men also had very different styles of communication, at least in public. Whitefield was highly dramatic in his sermons, with a booming voice that could be heard a city block away, theatrical gestures, and emotional pleadings that were the envy of the best professional actors of that day. Franklin addressed relatively small groups, not crowds. His most effective communication was one-on-one or in writing.
The differences go on. George was an Oxford graduate, Ben a grammar school dropout. In spite of this, Ben was universally acclaimed for his brilliance (and got honorary degrees from some of the world's best colleges), while George was often disparaged for a dearth of scholarly content in his sermons. Some felt he lacked the intellectual ability to go beyond popular puffery.
George was an Englishman who loved America, crossing the ocean thirteen times in a period of thirty-two years (all the more stunning when you consider that each trip took two to four months). Ben was an American who loved England. He fell for London on one trip as a young man, and he spent most of two decades there later, representing American interests.
Ben became known for his flirtation and sexual affairs, while George had trouble romancing his own wife. It might be true that Ben's reputation was more fancy than fact, but he never seemed to be troubled by it. Meanwhile, George was a traveling man with thousands of female admirers, yet he knew that any hint of sexual impropriety would doom his ministry.
How on earth did these two very different men become friends?
It began as a business partnership. In 1739, Franklin was one of several printers to publish Whitefield's journals and sermons. Early letters between them refer to some of these projects. In a short time, Ben became the primary printer for George, joining his keen business sense with the preacher's knack for public relations to make a great deal of money for both of them. Franklin also edited a weekly newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, which often reported on Whitefield's public appearances throughout the colonies. Whatever their personal differences, they helped each other to stunning success.
Their friendship had some ups and downs, however. After Whitefield's first American tour, his critics became more vocal, and Franklin published their attacks. This has led some historians to suggest that there was no deeper friendship between the two men, that it was all just business. But a deeper look at their correspondence, which continued for more than two decades, reveals evidence of a growing relationship. Perhaps in the early 1740s Ben was asserting his editorial independence, proving he was more than Whitefield's publicity flack, but he later wrote powerful editorials defending George's reputation. And on a later tour of the colonies, when George needed a place to stay in Philadelphia, Ben opened his home.
In their letters over the following years, we find George sending regards to Ben's wife, not in a perfunctory way, but with a charm that suggests he was a frequent guest in the Franklin home, and Ben offering "cordial salutations" to "good Mrs. Whitefield." On a trip to Boston, George apparently met Ben's sister Jane. In a letter from London in the 1760s, Ben wrote to his wife that Mr. Whitefield had stopped by, with a casual air that implied both that George was a regular visitor and that Deborah Franklin would care about her old guest.
In another letter, written to George, Ben mused about starting a new colony with him in the wilds of Ohio, where the two of them would model the best of humanity—faith and philosophy together. Whatever distancing had occurred in their early acquaintance was now long gone. Even Ben's gentle rebuffs of George's proselytizing have the flavor of a conversation they'd had many times.
A Good Influence
While Franklin didn't agree with everything Whitefield was preaching, he did recognize the valuable effect Whitefield had on society at large. Ben was a champion of personal discipline, good citizenship, and charitable deeds. That was exactly what he saw in the behavior of Philadelphians, as more and more of them experienced the "new birth" that Whitefield was promoting. Critics could knock George's undignified delivery, but Ben was satisfied with the results—a better society.
Despite their religious differences, George and Ben shared a disdain for the rigid, sectarian, power-hungry, and often hypocritical church establishment. Though George was ordained as an Anglican minister, he was strongly opposed by many Anglican leaders in England and America. His theatrical style was popular with a lower-class crowd, and he encouraged emotional responses to his message. As a result, many traditional church folk were scandalized by the unchurchlike behavior of Whitefield's audiences, and some churches closed their doors to him. This forced him outside, where he could draw even larger crowds, free from church control.
Though Franklin supported and occasionally attended a couple of different churches in Philadelphia, he himself had experienced a few run-ins with church authorities. Especially troubled by rancor between different Christian denominations, Ben dreamed of setting up an academy in which different churches would share equally, and he did so. George supported this vision and actually helped him with this project. Ben would have loved seeing people from many different denominations thronging to George's outdoor services. In his sermons, George sometimes included a joke about searching in vain for particular denominations in heaven. Later in life, Ben was quoted telling a very similar joke.
This was more than a matter of religious taste. When Whitefield, with Franklin's support, broke down these denominational walls, he was clearing the way for the invention of America. Neither George nor Ben would have described it like that, but they both recognized the danger of religious division. George sensed that the gospel of Jesus had to break out of its ecclesiastical confinement. No single sect owned the truth about Jesus. The new birth was available to all who would receive it, regardless of their church loyalties. As a spectator viewing sectarian squabbles from the sideline, Ben understood that a strong American society would never be built unless Anglicans and Presbyterians and Quakers and others could all get along.
In a Class All Their Own
Another factor that might have drawn Ben and George together was social class—not only where they were, but also where they were going. Both came from working-class roots to find enormous fame, but neither was fully welcomed into the upper class.
We don't think much about class in America today. Any kid can grow up to be president, we say. If you apply yourself to your endeavors with pluck and grit, you can succeed, no matter what family you were born into.
It was Ben Franklin who taught us that. But in the early 1700s, those assumptions could not be made. "Gentlemen" lived in a different world, enjoying a different level of respect and receiving different privileges. A centuries-old vassal system lingered on, with nobility being a matter of money and manners. There were a few opportunities for upward mobility, and a constant danger of downward mobility, but to a great degree these castes still segmented society in England and, to a lesser degree, in America.
Gentlemen didn't work; they owned. Money came in through their holdings. They paid others to work their fields or run their businesses. They might occasionally inspect how things were going, but in general they were "men of leisure." If you worked for a living, that was proof you weren't a gentleman—no matter how rich or successful you were.
Ben Franklin was dyed-in-the-wool working class, born into the home of a common candle maker (and dyer). He learned the trade of printing and became phenomenally successful at it. Yet he still wasn't a gentleman. As he got more involved in civic affairs and then academic pursuits, he rubbed shoulders with many gentlemen, but he was never entirely included in their ranks. This was a sore spot for him.
George Whitefield was at a similar point on the nobility grid, though he got there a different way. His grandfather had been a gentleman, but the family had fallen on hard times, and George grew up in an innkeeper's family. He attended Oxford College as a "servitor," earning tuition by doing menial tasks for upper-class students. This humiliating work led to a college degree, which led to his ordination, which (he hoped) would restore his family's status. But Whitefield squandered any social-climbing opportunity with his insistence on preaching to those on the lower rungs of society. Still, he had supporters among the nobility, especially Lady Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who hired him as her personal chaplain and promoted him among her genteel friends.
Both Ben and George, then, had risen greatly from humble beginnings but still found themselves on the outside of the upper class looking in. Thanks to their fame, both moved among the gentlemen of America and Europe without being entirely welcomed into those ranks. Both of them saw the inadequacies of this class system but also felt the shame of being excluded, being denied the respect they deserved. Though both were fully ensconced in their class-based society and probably had trouble imagining a world without such structure, they still worked to break this chauvinism and empower common citizens.
Perhaps this is what led Ben to make that startling proposal to George: let's make a new colony with the Indians in Ohio. No kings, no "gentlemen," no artificial divisions, just people working hard to build a society and honor God. Maybe George would understand that dream better than anyone else.
This is essentially the America they invented, with Ben calling citizens to take responsibility for their own society and George calling souls into a personal relationship with God. No governor, no bishop, no monarch, no minister could establish a person's value, temporal or eternal. In their own ways, George and Ben invited Americans to act as if class distinctions did not exist, and while such distinctions were never completely eradicated, they mattered less and less.
Celebrity and Loyalty
George and Ben would have respected each other for gaining success through hard work rather than inherited status, and they might have commiserated about the rejections they both received from the higher-born. But there was yet another factor they would have understood about each other more than anyone else: celebrity.
Franklin and Whitefield were quite simply the biggest celebrities in the colonies. Some have suggested they were the first American celebrities. There simply was no previous publicity machine that came close to what Franklin and Whitefield created. Newspapers had existed, but it was Ben who harnessed their power. George employed advertising techniques that were cutting-edge for business enterprises and absolutely revolutionary in the church. As George conducted tour after tour in America, through town after town, up and down the coast, virtually everyone knew who he was. Whoever didn't get to see him in person could read about him in Franklin's newspaper, or in any number of publications from Franklin's sprawling network of printers. Ben's own fame grew steadily through the decades—first as a best-selling author, then as America's leading scientist, and then as a diplomat representing the interests of various colonies in Europe. For a century, the disparate colonies had pursued their own isolated interests. Why should Virginians care about Boston? But now, suddenly, they were all united in their fascination with this astonishing preacher from England, and over time they got to know their own printer-thinker-statesman, Dr. Franklin.
How would this unprecedented celebrity affect George and Ben? Both struggled to keep their own hubris in check, and they did fairly well with that, despite a few glitches. But how would celebrity alter their relationships with others? Both faced vilification as well as adulation. Both experienced betrayal from people close to them. Was this the price of fame? Were all friendships now twisted, poisoned by duplicity and opportunism?
Despite their differences, these two men could understand each other as no one else could. They could be authentic with each other because they had attained the same level of celebrity. Neither worshiped the other. Neither was angling for some sort of advantage. Early on, they had helped each other achieve their phenomenal success, but as the years went on, they didn't really need anything from each other anymore. No pretense was necessary.
And the letters that passed between them indicate a remarkable authenticity. Ben didn't try to be religious to impress the great preacher. George didn't dial back his evangelistic impulses. They said what they felt. With this level of openness in their correspondence, we can imagine that their personal conversations had an even greater honesty.
Of course, their friendship didn't start with such soul-baring intimacy. Journaling about their first meeting in November 1739, Whitefield didn't even mention Franklin's name. He was just "one of the printers" with an idea for selling books. Clearly George didn't recognize that Ben had been producing the wildly popular Poor Richard's Almanac for six years already. On his slow trajectory, Ben had achieved a modest height of fame, but George was already stratospheric.
Within the next year, George returned to Philadelphia several times, probably met with Ben about several publishing projects, and must have inquired about Ben's faith, because in November 1740 he wrote him a letter, saying, "I do not despair of your seeing the reasonableness of Christianity."
After a cooling-off period of several years, during which Franklin published pieces both for and against him, Whitefield took another preaching tour to the colonies and faced stronger opposition than ever. Especially damaging were accusations about misuse of charitable funds. Ben's support proved crucial to George, as he published a financial report, praised his ministry, and affirmed his "unspotted character."
Excerpted from The Printer and the Preacher by Randy Petersen. Copyright © 2015 Randy Petersen. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Friendship That Invented America 1
2 England and America 11
3 The Inn and the Candle Shop 19
4 Casting Characters 28
5 The City of Brotherly Love 38
6 Hoodwinked 45
7 Next Stage: England 50
8 The Play's the Thing 59
9 The Education of George Whitefield 66
10 The Continuing Education of Ben Franklin 73
11 Boy, Interrupted 82
12 The Leather Aprons and the Bible Moths 89
13 Conversion 100
14 A Better Place 110
15 Doppelgangers 123
16 Georgia on My Mind 131
17 Face to Face 143
18 Cooling Off 155
19 The Awakeners 165
20 Love, Maybe 172
21 Fireside Chats 183
22 The Arc of Friendship 196
23 Death and Taxes 205
24 Special Effects 217
Appendix A Before They Met 229
Appendix B George White field's Amazing American Tour 239
Appendix C Encounters 243
About the Author 267
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Randy Petersen in his new book “The Printer and the Preacher” published by Thomas Nelson gives us Ben Franklin, George Whitefield, and the Surprising Friendship that Invented America. From the back cover: Social mobility. Religious freedom. Hard work over class. We take these values for granted, but colonial America had to learn them. How? Under the care and nurture of two remarkable men: a printer and a preacher. Preaching in public spaces across the colonies, George Whitfield inspired the first Great Awakening. Simultaneously, Benjamin Franklin was printing his own brand of common sense in Poor Richard’s Almanac. But the two were not just working in parallel; their stories were intertwined in a thirty-year friendship that spread their influence around the globe. This is the story of that friendship. Of how Franklin first printed Whitfield’s sermons, how Whitfield defended his friend’s diplomacy, and how their mutual regard allowed each to flourish and shape an ever-growing population. The Printer and the Preacher provides a model for our time: a friendship across differing outlooks with room for disagreement and mutual respect. And in the course of that friendship, a nation that was yet to be born was given its defining traits. I know a little about Colonial America. I know a little about George Whitefield. I know a little about Ben Franklin. When I found out that I could learn more about all three and how they worked together I jumped at the opportunity. Mr. Petersen has given us a well written, informative biography that brings the two men and America, at that time, to life. I started out knowing a little, I finished knowing quite a lot more. I felt that I had been transported back in time and I was walking the streets of the Colonies with these men. If you are looking for an excellent merging of Christian biography and Colonial American history then you have to read this book. I recommend this book highly. Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
The Printer and the Preacher: Ben Franklin, George Whitefield, and the Surprising Friendship that Invented America by Randy Peterson is a book that attempts to explore the friendship of George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin and how that relationship affected the coming united American states. I have read some biographies on Whitefield (Dallimore's) and knew of Franklin's correspondence with Whitefield, and thought that the topic of this book looked interesting. Sadly, this book did not satisfy my hopes. First, though the author's writing style is not boring it is too unorganized for my taste. I have read books before where the narrative goes back and forth through time and I know that this can be done in an interesting, yet still unconfusing way, but this book does not do it well. On any given page, especially towards the first half of the book, one can be in Franklin's early life, then his later, or in Whitefield's early life, or his later life, then again in Whitefield's later life and then in Franklin's early life… and so on. It felt as though one was in a defective time machine so that when you put one foot out in 1776 the machine goes crazy and you actually step out for a momentary glimpse of 1730 but ultimately find yourself experiencing vertigo in 1765. At least in my opinion that was how it seemed, perhaps others won't mind it, but I would have preferred a more steady chronological approach. And then, I thought that Petersen wrote a bit too flippantly, especially in regards to Franklin's wrong beliefs. For a good deal of the book he seemed to be rather lighthearted about Franklin's rejection of the Gospel especially when writing about Franklin's perspective of morals and his piecing together his own form of religion. Peterson does show his own Christian views at one point, harshly critiquing Franklin's thought that being saved by faith alone (without works) is not a Christian doctrine, "But he [Franklin] was still dead wrong. It is certainly a 'Christian doctrine' that we are saved by faith alone and not by our deeds…" But then he continues his account of their lives in care-free style that seems to push aside the importance of eternity, and the seriousness of Franklin's rejection of the Gospel. I'm sure Peterson did not mean to do this, but that was how it came across to me. Other things bothered me as well, such as the author's harping on the emotional responses of the people towards Whitefield's messages and his emotional delivery of the truth. The author makes statements like this: "Throughout his career, George was accused of over-emotionalizing the Gospel. His dramatic antics got people so excited, they might agree to anything, or so the critics said. But that was the whole point. Whitefield knew that the Gospel broke into most peoples' lives through their emotions, not their minds…What they lacked, George felt, was a transformation of the heart - and that would best happen not through logical argumentation, but through an emotional appeal." I may be wrong, but I don't ever remember that Whitfield put emotion above words and logical thinking, especially in regards to the Word of God. And even if he did believe as the above statements say I would still have to flatly disagree. The Bible doesn't say that faith comes from emotion, rather it states that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). It doesn't say that emotion is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, rather the Word of God has those attributes (Heb 4:12). Emotion is an effect but not the cause of the New Birth. And then the author uses other statements, like, "…about the same time the great reformers were crafting a new faith." New? "Crafting"? Weren't they returning to the one and only Word of God? And again he says, "Whitfield bought heavily into the Calvinist theology…" I wouldn't use the term "bought into"… So, to put my opinion simply: Petersen had too flippant a perspective of the history of these two men who both have eternal souls and whose beliefs about Who, and what life is really about, really did matter when it comes to where they would spend eternity. I received a free review copy of this book from the Booklook blogger program in exchange for my review which did not have to be favorable.