George Whitefield

America’s Spiritual Founding Father

Author: Thomas S. Kidd

Publisher: Yale University Press

ISBN: 978-0-300-18162-3

review by Robert Strivens

Accounts of George Whitefield have to date tended to fall into one of two camps, epitomised, on the one hand, by the inspiring but somewhat hagiographical two-volume study by Arnold Dallimore and, on the other, by works arguing that Whitefield’s success was largely down to his acting skill and marketing ability. Thomas Kidd writes as both an academic historian (professor of history at Baylor University) and as an evangelical Christian. He has produced an authoritative biography of Whitefield which presents the Gloucester-born man as a very great evangelistic preacher responsible under God for spiritual blessing on multitudes in Britain and America, yet not without his faults.

Kidd takes a chronological approach and tells the story of Whitefield’s life very well. The style is not ponderous or academic, though one is constantly aware of the detailed scholarship which underlies the account. A few Americanisms occasionally left me slightly perplexed. What brings this book alive and makes it so worthwhile is the quality of its analysis. Kidd leaves the reader in no doubt of Whitefield’s sincerity and integrity, his extraordinary abilities in preaching, his intellectual attainments and his all-consuming desire to reach as many as possible with the gospel. The means that Whitefield used to publicise his preaching are persuasively explained as part of his zeal to spread the gospel, rather than (as others have suggested) a cynical attempt simply to gain popularity. In his disputes with John Wesley, Whitefield is portrayed as the more pacific and, indeed, honest of the two men in his desire to uphold Calvinistic truth while, to the extent possible, maintaining peaceful relations between them.

A number of aspects of the book stood out, compared with other works that I have read on Whitefield. Firstly, proportionately more space is given to the work in America than that in Britain (entirely right in a book written by an American for an American audience). As a result, one gains an excellent impression of the breadth and scale of Whitefield’s influence from Georgia up to New England. At the same time, I will need to revert to Dallimore for a detailed account of the preacher’s work in England, Wales and Scotland (though Kidd does not neglect these).

Secondly, Kidd makes plain that the most overwhelming reponses to Whitefield’s preaching occurred over a relatively short period, in the few years around 1740. Later on, his preaching continued to attract very large crowds, but the response was not on the scale of the earlier years. Kidd also brings out very clearly the development in Whitefield’s views and practices, becoming somewhat more moderate over time. In his later years, the preacher questioned some of his earlier practices: too great a readiness to follow impressions, for example, and an over-reliance on emotional response as an indicator of spiritual fruit.

Kidd examines in some detail Whitefield’s attitude to slavery and asks some significant questions about it. Even for the age in which he lived, Kidd suggests that Whitefield could have been less positive about slave ownership than he was. Kidd produces evidence that even points to the infringement at Whitefield’s Bethesda orphanage of Georgia’s anti-slavery laws (before 1750).

This is a fine biography of one of the greatest preachers of the gospel on either side of the Atlantic. It is in my view the best one-volume account of George Whitefield now available.

 


 

 

About the reviewer

Robert Strivens

MA (University of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College)
ThM (Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia)
PhD (University of Stirling)

Having trained for the pastoral ministry at LTS, Robert pastored an evangelical church in Banbury for 8 years. Prior to training for the ministry, he was a solicitor in private practice, working in London and Brussels. He has been involved in training pastors in French-speaking West Africa. He teaches New Testament and Greek and also lectures on Contemporary Issues. His doctoral research was on Philip Doddridge and early 18th century Dissent. He is married to Sarah and they have three sons.