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 in his preaching as delivered. When you read Whitefield’s sermons today, they’re mature and sophisticated theologically, but I don’t think that they’re exceptional in the way Edwards’s writing and sermons are exceptional.

Whitefield is one of these classic cases where I wish we had YouTube videos. If we could see him, we would “get” him a lot better. There’s something about a Whitefield sermon that’s ephemeral. People have tried to reenact them today, and almost inevitably it lacks the spark that apparently was there in Whitefield’s talent for public speaking. It’s not that Whitefield’s brilliance is impossible to recover, but there’s an element we have to imagine rather than being able to see it on the stark, printed page.

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Do you see any connections between Whitefield and Billy Graham? Graham seems like another person whose presence comes across much more strongly in the moment than on the page.

I think that George Whitefield and Billy Graham are very, very similar. In the Anglo-American world, they are the two most important evangelists since the Reformation. They both have a unique gifting in preaching that is close to unparalleled. They were both very good at using modern media techniques to get the word out about their gospel message. Both of them are strongly non-denominational or inter-denominational in their emphasis on the New Birth. For both of them, there’s a way in which the only question that they really care about is whether you’ve been born again or not.

The parallels between Graham and Whitefield are many, yet Whitefield is the trailblazer. He’s really the one who begins this evangelical pattern of focus on the New Birth, downplaying denominations, and use of the media. A number of evangelists have come in Whitefield’s wake, and the most important of those is Graham.

Back in 1991, Harry Stout wrote a controversial biography of Whitefield, The Divine Dramatist. Stout’s book emphasized Whitefield’s background in theater and suggested to some readers that Whitefield’s preaching was just an act. John Piper called the book “the most sustained piece of historical cynicism I have ever read.” How did your approach build on or depart from that book?

I’m trying to bridge some of those divides between evangelical readers and academic biographers of Whitefield. I’m an admirer of John Piper and I’m an admirer of Harry Stout, so I think I’m in a good position to speak to both audiences. And I don’t think Stout meant to be as cynical as he came off to Piper and some others. There are just a few phrases in the book that might not seem cynical to an academic audience but did to evangelical readers.

When you look across the range of ways people might approach a biography of someone like Whitefield, at one extreme you could have someone who undermines everything Whitefield was trying to accomplish—and I don’t think that’s what Stout was doing. At the other extreme would be a Christian biographer who might present Whitefield as an unsullied saint who never did anything wrong. There’s a middle way of trying to understand Whitefield in his historical context. I think anyone reading my biography will know I’m not trying to steer away from the more negative things about Whitefield’s career that virtually anyone would acknowledge today, especially his complicity in slavery.

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I don’t fundamentally question Whitefield’s sincerity or motivations as a gospel preacher. One of the things I’m trying to emphasize, though, is that temptations come along with being a celebrity preacher. Whitefield called it “the fiery trial of popularity.” He weathered that trial pretty well, but he’s a man of his time, and he’s deeply imperfect in some ways. I think a Christian audience is able to receive that. However much you may admire somebody like Whitefield or Edwards, they’re just people, after all, and they have their blind spots.

You write that Whitefield encouraged the expansion of slavery into Georgia, but he also preached to slaves, something few Christians were willing to do at the time.

Whitefield was a middle-ground figure in his context, even though to us his advocacy of slaveholding seems shocking and reprehensible. Early in his career, when he started to recognize the appalling conditions for slaves in America, he published a really controversial letter that attacked the masters’ treatment of their slaves and called on the masters, especially on those who called themselves Christians, to treat their slaves in a benevolent way. He stopped short of saying that the problem was slavery itself. He would go on, in the 1740s, to become a slaveholder and the key advocate for getting slavery introduced into Georgia, where he had founded an orphanage. Slavery had been banned in Georgia for the first 10 years of the colony’s history.

Whitefield never got to the point of questioning slavery itself. Part of the reason for that is because, however much we might wish the Bible were clearer about the immorality of slavery, the Bible never quite gets around to condemning slavery per se. Instead, it seems to give advice about the treatment of slaves. I always ask my students, “Where is ‘Thou shalt not own slaves’?” Whitefield couldn’t find that in his Bible, and that probably would have been required for him to come around to a fully anti-slavery position.

It’s also important to realize that Whitefield had almost no one around him who was questioning slavery itself. He did have one or two pastoral colleagues who pushed him on the issue. But John Newton, who Whitefield did know, didn’t publish against slavery until long after Whitefield’s death. Neither did John Wesley. I like to think, being as charitable as I can, that maybe if Whitefield had lived 30 or 40 years later, he might have come around to being anti-slavery. That was just not a common position in his time. His position, in a nutshell, was that slavery was acceptable as long as Christian slave masters evangelized their slaves and took them seriously as people with a soul and an eternal destiny.

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Whitefield’s ideas about slavery definitely reflected his era, but the way he talked about the Holy Spirit seems much more contemporary. Was 18th-century evangelicalism more like 20th-century Pentecostalism than we’ve realized?

There are a lot of resonances between the charismatic movement and the evangelicalism of the Great Awakening period. Of course, this is disputed, and it was disputed among participants at the time. For George Whitefield, especially early in his career, what strikes him as being new about his converted state and his walk with God is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in his preaching and also in his personal devotional life.

One of the new discoveries I make in the biography is how central the Holy Spirit was to Whitefield’s whole understanding of the Christian life and his ministry. I looked at this unpublished Whitefield diary at the British Library in London. It’s relatively unvarnished, unedited—just Whitefield’s jottings about his early life and walking with the Lord. He writes in the diary, day after day after day, about how he was filled with the Holy Spirit. He would say, “Filled with the Holy Spirit for 30 minutes.” “Filled with the Holy Spirit for 4 hours.” I think that this struck him as the most distinctive and surprising aspect of his converted state.

Throughout his ministry, Whitefield tried to open himself to guidance from the Holy Spirit on where to go, who to talk to, what texts to preach on. He would go to the preaching scaffold, and he would think that he was going to preach on one text, but then as soon as he got up there, the Holy Spirit would tell him to preach about something else. One time, in Philadelphia, the Holy Spirit told him to preach against Deism, which was a topic he had almost never talked about. Later that day, someone said, “You know, there was this group of notorious Deists in the audience.” And Whitefield said, “Oh, that’s why the Holy Spirit told me to preach about that.” The level of practical guidance and tangible presence that he expected from the Holy Spirit—or the Holy Ghost, as he called him—was very, very high.

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You call Whitefield “America’s Spiritual Founding Father.” How did this Englishman become American, and what spirit did he bequeath to the country?

He gets adopted as an American partly because it’s clear that he is enormously fond of America. He thinks a lot about relocating to America permanently. I think that has to do with the relative flexibility of churches and denominations in America, with pluralism in America, and with his relative freedom to preach the gospel of New Birth. He finds more friends across more denominations in America than he does in England or Scotland.

It is important to remember, though, that Whitefield spends most of his career in Britain. He is English. He has as much success in England, Wales, and Scotland as he does in America. His evangelicalism was a fully Anglo-American, fully transatlantic movement. We tend to forget that, especially in more patriotic appropriations of Whitefield.

What Whitefield would have thought about the American Revolution, we don’t know, because he died six years before the Declaration of Independence. I suspect that he would not have supported the patriot movement, even though he had so many friends who were patriot leaders, because he thought the connection between Britain and America was a good and important one, not least for the spread of the gospel.

To call Whitefield “America’s Spiritual Founding Father” is, in part, just to acknowledge that before the Revolution he was the most famous man in America, period. I also think he represents a kind of evangelical faith that continues to have huge cultural traction in America in a way that it does not in the U.K. And in an inarticulate, symbolic way, Americans at the time of the Revolution appropriated Whitefield as their spiritual founding father.

The best example of this is when the Continental Army is on a 1775 campaign against Canada. They stop in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on the Sabbath, and they don’t want to march on the Sabbath, so they have a service in the Presbyterian church where Whitefield is buried. They go down to the crypt, the officers open up the crypt, and there’s Whitefield’s dead body. They take his clerical collar and wristbands, cut the things up, and pass them out to the troops. They never explain why they do this. It’s just something that seems like the right thing to do, because what Whitefield is about is what we’re about. Whitefield is somehow about liberty and freedom, and we love him, and he’s our hero. So this passing out of Whitefield’s relics just makes sense to the officers of the Continental Army in 1775.

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What can an encounter with Whitefield teach evangelicals today?

It teaches us how important evangelicalism was at the time of the American founding, which is a question a lot of people are very interested in. Beyond that, the issues that he struggles with, the issues he represents, are taken from the front pages of religion news today. Celebrity pastors. The accusations of all kinds of malfeasance, particularly financial malfeasance. The trade-off between true piety and mass media. The risk of the evangelical message being dumbed down. All of these things are very much with us today, and it turns out they were there right at the beginning of evangelicalism, in the person of its most famous leader.

The more you look at Whitefield, the more you see these enduring patterns. He’s not just someone people should know about because he was so influential and famous. He’s also quite relevant for today.

George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father
George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father
Yale University Press
2014-10-28
344 pp., 12.99
Buy George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father from Amazon