Thomas Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University, has written several books dealing with early American religion, especially the Great Awakening, and with religion’s role in the founding of the United States. These interests came together in his new biography of that era’s most celebrated preacher and evangelist, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press). Elesha Coffman, assistant professor of church history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, spoke with Kidd—known to friends and colleagues as Tommy—about Whitefield’s fame, his flaws, and his long-term impact on American evangelical life.
What got you interested enough in George Whitefield to write a full-length biography?
I’d done work on the Great Awakening before, so I knew that Whitefield was such a major figure—really, the most famous person in America before the Revolution. I thought there was room to do a new scholarly biography, but one that would be accessible to regular folks who were interested in religious history.
Whitefield is an interesting character in that he was so famous, but he’s relatively unknown today. Some evangelicals know him, but Jonathan Edwards is much, much more famous today. In the 18th century, Whitefield was much better known than Edwards. With Whitefield’s 300th birthday coming up in December, I thought this would be a chance to reintroduce him and re-enhance some of the fame he’s lost over the centuries.
Why is more attention given to Edwards than to Whitefield?
I think Edwards deserves the attention that he gets, but his brilliance is more preserved in his writing. Whitefield’s brilliance came out ...1