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Did George Whitefield Serve Two Masters?

A new biography helps us come to terms with the unsavory side of the great revivalist’s mission to America.
Did George Whitefield Serve Two Masters?
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs
George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Library of Religious Biography (LRB))
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Library of Religious Biography (LRB))
Author
Publisher
Eerdmans
Release Date
August 7, 2018
Pages
240
Price
$13.68
Buy George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Library of Religious Biography (LRB)) from Amazon

On the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, there sits a statue of one of the school’s co-founders: George Whitefield, the 18th-century British evangelist and hero of the Great Awakening. Underneath it, one finds a quote from Benjamin Franklin, the school’s other co-founder (and Whitefield’s longtime friend): “I knew him intimately upwards of thirty years. His integrity, disinterestedness and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work I have never seen equaled and shall never see equaled.”

Peter Choi’s biography, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire, explores various ways that Whitefield’s zeal for good works not only put him on a pedestal but also entangled him in a war against Catholicism and the promotion of race-based slavery. By exposing less-than-uplifting facts about Whitefield, the book illuminates unhealthy aspects of 18th-century evangelicalism’s intimate relationship with the British Empire.

Choi, who is a pastor of spiritual theology at City Church, San Francisco, and director of academic programs at the Newbigin House of Studies, is not out to undermine Whitefield’s reputation for piety or drag his work as a revivalist down into mere politics. Instead, Choi offers a revealing case study of evangelicalism’s “entanglement” with its host culture. The book is a good example of the maturity of evangelicalism’s scholarship about itself. Although some prefer to emphasize the heavenly side of evangelicalism’s history, the truth is, as Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and the tares, the heavenly and earthly grow together until the final harvest.

Encounters and Entanglements

Anglo-American evangelicalism was born in the context of a geopolitical war pitting British Protestantism against Spanish and French Roman Catholicism. Even after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the British Empire was weak and small compared to the empires of Spain and France. In the following century—beginning with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and continuing, after 1714, under the Hanover monarchs (the various King Georges we know from our history textbooks)—the British were energized by a belief that their Protestant empire was at war with the antichrist.

The Great Awakening in the American colonies cannot be understood without appreciating the looming threat of the Spanish and French from the North, the South, the backcountry to the west, and off the coast. There were many skirmishes that foreshadowed a sort of civil war within American Christendom. Meanwhile, Catholic missionaries were enjoying more success among Native Americans than their Protestant counterparts. To all appearances, British Protestantism’s hold on the eastern edge of the middle of North America was in danger.

The most audacious strategy undertaken by Britain in response was the founding of Georgia in 1732, an event that becomes a major focal point in Choi’s biography. From a close study of Whitefield’s activities in colonial Georgia, we can observe how Anglo-American evangelicalism joined hope to fear, philanthropy to religious bigotry, evangelism to geopolitics, and Protestantism to the British Empire.

In American history textbooks, the founding of Georgia has often been treated as little more than an interesting side story. Choi, however, follows more the recent scholarly recognition that the colony was actually at “the eye of the imperial storm.” In Georgia, he writes, the empire invested its “most potent mixture of patriotism and piety.” In the newspapers of London in the 1730s, Georgia—pressed close against Spanish Florida—was where Britain would prove that it was advancing the cause of Christ and stemming the rising tide of antichrist.

Choi describes how missionary zeal, Christian philanthropy, utopian social engineering, and bold military strategy came together in the creation of Georgia. In England, he observes, the founding trustees of Georgia “fanned the flames of euphoria in the early 1730s by hiring publicists to write about their cause across the empire.” Freedom, racial equality before God, respect for Native American rights, and all the rights and privileges of republican government were to flourish in a new colony named for King George II, leader of the Protestant world. As young men, the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield were swept up in the euphoria and traveled to Georgia as celebrity missionaries.

John Wesley went there unprepared, inspired by ideals too high to achieve. He then allowed himself to be distracted by romantic love before devoting time to evangelism among Native Americans. In Wesley’s failure, Choi sees the heights of British utopianism (a perspective he shares with the historian Geordan Hammond, author of John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity).

Whitefield, on the other hand, arrived in Georgia well prepared and without utopian delusions. Choi points out that the Georgia frontier offered Whitefield the freedom to experiment with his calling to preach about the “new birth.” It “represented a strategic location where he was free to nurture a form of religion that was experimental and entrepreneurial.” In Whitefield’s pragmatism, Choi sees the seeds of both his success and his failure. The evangelist established a philanthropic institution (the Bethesda orphanage), but he was not committed to upholding Georgia’s anti-slavery ideals, and he neglected the Georgia Trustees’ call for evangelistic work among Native Americans.

The orphanage was key to Whitefield’s role as “evangelist for God and Empire.” Established near Savannah, Georgia, it began as a hybrid of a trade school and a plantation. As Choi explains, “It mixed moral and religious goals with imperial and mercantile aims.” The orphans served as both laborers and students. Money was needed, which prompted Whitefield to become a traveling revivalist and fundraiser all at once. In this role, he sparked and gave direction to a transatlantic Great Awakening.

Fundraising for the orphanage was highly successful, but the flow of money eventually slowed when the revivals began to wane. Unwanted orphans were numerous when Georgia was growing fast, but their numbers also went into decline. At a time when Whitefield should have downsized his orphanage, he aspired to grow it into a university along the lines of the pietist institution that flourished at the time in Halle, Germany. Choi carefully follows Whitfield into Dickensian situations in which the preacher forcibly removed “prospective orphans” from their siblings and/or guardians.

Never an abolitionist, Whitefield bought a plantation in North Carolina and became a slave owner as a means to help fund his plans for Bethesda. Economic exigencies spurred his increasingly ardent calls for the Georgia Trustees to lift their ban on slavery. The economy of Georgia, he declared, would be strengthened by abandoning the colony’s anti-slavery ideals. “If any one person can be credited with responsibility for the introduction of black slavery in Georgia,” Choi writes, it should be Whitefield.

Choi separates his book into two parts: “Encounters” and “Entanglements.” The first half sets up the more analytical chapters in the second half on “Whitefield and Slavery,” “Whitefield and War,” and “Whitefield and His Colleges.” In the chapter on war, Choi notes that Whitefield, like most evangelicals, was a true believer in English liberty. “For Whitefield,” he writes, “there was little daylight between the cause of Christ and the fight for empire,” and the Catholicism espoused by the French and Spanish was antithetical to core political (and Christian) values of liberty and freedom. When the French and Indian War began in 1754, a conflict that soon erupted into a multi-continent clash between Catholics and Protestants, the British believed themselves to be “freedom fighters.” Choi notes that Whitefield and other evangelicals so identified with this mindset that they managed to shed some of the stigma attached to “religious fanatics,” thus finding “a more credible and respectable space for themselves” within the British establishment.

The last of Choi’s entanglements, “Whitefield and his Colleges,” takes us back to his role in creating the University of Pennsylvania and his broader support for Christian education. Choi emphasizes Whitefield’s hope that a network of regional educational institutions at the fringes of the empire would not only serve to teach British values on the frontier but also uphold the initial work begun in the enthusiasm of the Great Awakening. For his own Bethesda, Whitefield sought, against the advice of others, a royal charter as a university. He believed that the British crown best ensured the ongoing evangelical character of a frontier institution. Choi recognizes in Whitefield a “centrifugal vision of empire,” with the center held by the Hanoverian monarchy while far-flung imperial universities, colleges, and academies spread the political, economic, and evangelical benefits of the British culture.

The Wheat and the Tares

There’s no doubt that the portrait Choi’s biography paints is deeply troubling, at least in certain respects. Whitefield clearly crossed an important moral line when he allowed himself to advocate installing a race-based slave system in a colony that had established itself with the hope of undermining that system. Whatever else might be said of his dynamic preaching and missionary efforts, we have to reckon with the ways that Whitefield’s entanglement with British imperialism damaged the integrity of his Christian witness.

Does this mean Whitefield should be removed from the pedestal upon which evangelicals have placed him? Should his statue at the University of Pennsylvania come down? Choi’s theme of entanglement encourages sober reflection over precipitous action, in that it compels us to account for how wheat and tares can grow within the same field. Take, for instance, Choi’s account of Whitefield admonishing Benjamin Franklin that the proposed curriculum in Pennsylvania needed to convince students of their “natural depravity.” Even in his capacity as an evangelist for empire, it seems that Whitefield never truly ceased being an evangelist for God.

Whitefield’s entanglements with his culture have long been representative of evangelical entanglements in general. From Whitefield’s generation up to the present day, evangelicals have always had a tendency to join hope to fear, philanthropy to religious bigotry, evangelism to geopolitics, and Protestantism to empire. Like Whitefield, we confuse earthly and heavenly politics. Who can throw the first stone? Who deserves to stand on a pedestal if not Whitefield?

Choi notes that Whitefield, when writing to Franklin about the college they were founding in Pennsylvania, identified the need for “a well approved Christian Orator,” a teacher skilled in Christian thinking, wisdom, and citizenship. Choi becomes this teacher in the epilogue, as he discusses the tenuous position that Whitefield now occupies in the evangelical history. For what it’s worth, I would recommend pairing Choi with another “well approved Christian Orator”: Thomas Kidd, author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. Kidd and Choi agree on the facts of Whitefield’s life, but they emphasize different themes—different sides of the same man. Taken together, they offer a well-rounded picture of Whitefield’s efforts as a dual evangelist for God and empire.

Rick Kennedy teaches history at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as secretary to the Conference on Faith and History. He is author of The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans).

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