Historical biographies are important for the health and development of individuals and ecclesial communities. While it may be true that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana is famous for saying, I’d like to think that a powerful reason to read historical biographies is because we can learn tremendous lessons from those who have gone before us. The lessons are both positive and negative, providing example of what to do and what not to do. Needless to say, I’m a fan of history and a fan of biographies.
One of my favorite historians is Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University. Kidd has written on the history of Evangelicalism, the Great Awakening, early American history, and even on miracles/healing in early American Evangelicalism (see his Amazon author page). His published work is widely respected and all that I have read from him has been deeply influential. Thus, I jumped at the opportunity to review his new book, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (available in both Kindle and Hardcover). While I enjoy Jonathan Edwards, I actually consider George Whitefield my favorite preacher, thinker, and person from the Great Awakening. I have read numerous biographies on Whitefield, along with many of his sermons. I’m fascinated by his life, training, experience, and overall theological thrust.
Kidd’s new biography on Whitefield is to be commended and read by anyone interested in either Whitefield or the history of Evangelicalism or the history of 18th century Britain and colonial America.
Starting with the first chapter covering Whitefield’s birth and upbringing, Kidd provides historical revelations pieced together to give readers a thorough understanding of both Whitefield’s childhood as well as the cultural context surrounding him as well as the ideas that shaped his theological moorings. Born on December 16, 1714, in the city of Gloucester, England, Kidd notes that “Whitefield was born in a time of profound political and religious transition.” Baptized as an infant in an Anglican church, the rector prayed for the child that God would “give the Holy Spirit to this infant, that he may be born again.” While some would balk at the baptism of an infant, few could argue that this prayer was not later answered.
A significant theological framework that influenced both Whitefield’s conversion experience as well as his later revival preaching was Original Sin. Whitefield is quoted as follows:
“I can remember such early stirrings of corruption in my heart, as abundantly convinced me that I was conceived and born in sin; that in me dwelt no good thing by nature, and that if God had not freely prevented me by his grace, I must have for ever banished from his divine presence.” (p.9)
It seems fair to say that Whitefield’s early childhood and entry into young adulthood was, for lack of better words, rather depressing. This is owed, I believe, partly to his constant wrestling with his “indwelling sin” as well as the cultural make up of the times. Yet, “as Whitefield moved into adulthood, he entered into a season of spiritual crisis.” This crisis led to what Kidd calls Whitefield’s “personal awakening.” Readers with a “charismatic” lean to their theology will be pleased to know that Whitefield’s early “experiences” were heavily pneumatological. Building on Whitefield quotes, Kidd writes:
“God was pleased to give me great foretastes of his love.” [Whitefield] began to experience “unspeakable raptures,” especially in one episode of St. John’s Church in Bristol, when he was “carried out” beyond himself. This was a common testimony of evangelical converts, the feeling of having one’s soul or spirit seemingly leave the body to comment with God and savor his grace and love.” (p.16)
These “experiences” were deepened around the Lord’s Table and Whitefield “felt great hungering and thirsting [for] the blessed Sacrament.”
Interestingly, after these “experiences,” Kidd writes that “Whitefield had not yet experienced conversion” and that “the sense of God’s presence wore off, replaced by surging temptations.” This, of course, raises questions related to soteriology, holiness, discipleship, etc. That being said, as a historian Kidd’s work on Whitefield’s early life is excellent for the very fact that he takes Whitefield’s own words serious enough to allow him a continuing voice.
The next two chapters trace Whitefield’s conversion experience while being trained for Anglican ministry, a curious order of events! Kidd relates the pietism that shaped Whitefield’s life and how his relationship with the Wesley brothers, Charles and John, formed. Additionally, we read of the “methods” of “strict piety” that this group of Oxford students lived by (prayer, meditation upon Scripture, fasting, etc.).
As an aside, historians of (p)entecostalism will find, once again, evidence of the pneumatological framework assumed within Methodism/Wesleyanism, which is considered both a historical and theological influence upon today’s charismatic leaning Christians. As Kidd notes of the early Methodists, “true holiness was available through the Holy Spirit.” Pneumatological depth, beyond mere charismata, is found throughout Whitefield’s life in Kidd’s biography.
Throughout George Whitefield, Kidd notes the homiletical fire produced by the revivalist. Over and against the common “polite, appreciative sermon,” Whitefield is said to have spoke with “some degree of gospel authority” as he was a powerful public speaker. His ability to make emotional appeals, causing tremendous emotional response, raises many questions, of course. Yet no one can deny his preaching prowess. Of this, Kidd makes it clear that Whitefield’s speaking abilities were unique and both loved and disliked by people.
The rest of Kidd’s biography explores Whitefield’s rise of popularity in England and his travels to colonial America along with the controversies he was a part of (Calvinism, Scotland, etc.). Being that Whitefield travelled to America seven times (making a total of thirteen trips across the Atlantic ocean) as well as having traveling to Scotland, Ireland, Bermuda, Gibraltar, and the Netherlands, Kidd has plenty of events to work with from Whitefield’s life and does a splendid job of recounting many of these formative moments.
Moreover, though Whitefield was certainly a product of his day and embraced horrific elements depreciating humanity in regards to slavery, Kidd provides excellent historical insights and elements of interpretation in regards to how Whitefield also stood out amongst many of his contemporaries by presenting the gospel to slaves as well as Native Americans. In many ways Whitefield is seen as being inconsistent in how he understood human ontology and the necessity of salvation by grace through faith.
Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield is, in my opinion, the best biography currently available on this early Methodist revivalist because it integrates the observations of a leading historian of this time period as well as the constructive interpretations and suggestions of a perceptive Evangelical. Kidd leaves no stone unturned and challenges many of the ways in which other historians have treated Whitefield. Kidd’s George Whitefield successfully bridges the gap between Dallimore and Tyerman’s earlier “confessional” biographies and the more “suspicious,” such as Stout’s The Divine Dramatist. It is well researched, the history wisely (and convincingly) interpreted, and the writing style so enjoyable that one can hardly put the book down.
For my part, I throughly enjoyed the way in which Kidd discussed two specific areas where Whitefield developed in his theological reflection. First, in Whitefield’s later years, he realized the necessity of discerning the difference between the work of the Spirit and the flesh. As Kidd writes, “looking back over the decade, Whitefield realized that he had not given enough thought to such distinctions between flesh and Spirit.”
Second, Whitefield was an advocate for a “calvinistic” understanding of salvation (i.e., his soteriology was Reformed). This differed from his fellow Methodist friends, the Wesley’s, who were more Arminian in their approach. Early in his ministry, Whitefield confronted the issue of predestination (election) head on with the Wesley brothers because he knew “that a definitive break with the Wesleys was imminent.” This led to a series of publications and open disputes, which Whitefield was heavily involved in. Yet later in life, that controversy seemed to be less important than the value of the friendship between the brothers. Kidd beautifully relates how Whitefield himself, trusted by the Wesley brothers, was able to serve as a peacemaker when Charles and John had a major disagreement that almost caused them to angrily separate.
These two areas of Whitefield’s life, as recounted by Kidd, were especially interesting. There are several historical facts that have been overlooked by other historians and Kidd does an excellent job of navigating through the challenges and questions in reaching helpful conclusions. Moreover, Kidd’s assessment of Whitefield’s influence upon the “founding fathers” of the United States is also significant in regards to understanding the revivalist’s popularity.
Reading this biography (twice now!) in 2014 and 2015 demonstrates that many of the very same challenges facing the church now were difficult to navigate then. Many of the same issues that we, as human beings, face today were faced in yesteryears. Concerns about “radical” spirituality, how to have theological disagreement, what is revival, how does the Holy Spirit work (and how do we discern what is the Spirit’s work), and what epistemological questions need to be asked concerning how religion and culture interact are still quite relevant. In order to understand how American Evangelicalism became a diverse movement of Calvinists, Arminians, Baptists, etc., one needs to understand the influence of Whitefield. Kidd’s George Whitefield has some insightful observations rooted in a thoroughly well written biography on arguably the most powerful and clearly the most head preacher from the Great Awakening.