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The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America
Jerome Dean Mahaffey
Baylor University Press, 2011
195 pp., $29.95
Revivalist, Pop Idol, and Revolutionary Too?
A woman attacked him with scissors and a pistol, then opted at the last minute for something more satisfying: her teeth. Stones and dead cats were the weapons of choice for others. A man bludgeoned him nearly to death with a brass-headed cane. Another climbed a tree to urinate on him. Sardonic parodies attracted large audiences in bars and theaters. Fellow ministers pounced on him for what they perceived to be theological sloppiness. Reviled across the empire and shut out from churches, George Whitefield still managed to draw adoring crowds numbering in the tens of thousands to his open-air services—and to do so for decades. But Jerome Mahaffey, who mentions these and other riveting details, wants to do more than retrieve an interesting character from history's dust heap. His goal is to revive an old, some would say discredited, argument linking the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution. At stake? Nothing less than the religious nature of America's founding.
In a volume that is shorter, more accessible, yet more ambitious than his earlier Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation (2007), Mahaffey advances a provocative argument. Reckoning with Whitefield the famed British revival preacher, he posits, is essential for understanding the development of American identity. Never mind the religion of the founding fathers, his book might as well say—at least for a moment. Without the religious improvisations of Whitefield, the Revolution may not have occurred in the first place. Establishing these points is a tall order, but the outsized personality that emerges from his narrative might just be equal to the task.
Whitefield has proven an elusive subject for historians in the transitional era between two landmark epochs, the colonial Awakenings of the 1740s and the American Revolution of the 1770s. As such, he has been a controversial figure, polarizing historical treatments and dividing ...