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George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father
Thomas S. Kidd
Yale University Press, 2014
344 pp., $40.00
A Sinful Saint
A new publication from the prolific pen of Thomas Kidd—professor of history at Baylor University—is always a welcome event. Though only 43 years old, Kidd has already produced several standard works on 18th-century America, focusing on the development of evangelicalism in particular. His latest contribution is a scholarly yet readable biography of George Whitefield (1714-1770), the "Grand Itinerant" of the transatlantic First Great Awakening. Yale University Press published this book in time for the tercentennial anniversary of Whitefield's birth, which was celebrated in December 2014.
Someone has recently commented that to be labeled a "Christian celebrity" today is akin to being named the world's tallest miniature horse. It is an honor, to be sure, but the qualifier mitigates the sense of accomplishment. Whitefield, on the other hand, was truly famous, as well known in Anglo-America as George III and George Washington and with even better name recognition than his friend and publisher, Benjamin Franklin. Whitefield was not only the first internationally famous evangelist but also the first transatlantic celebrity of any kind. In analyzing this phenomenon, Kidd acknowledges the difficulty of discerning motives and suggests that Whitefield may have blurred the line at times between marketing and piety with his innovative techniques—a problem with us to this day—but he reminds us that theological conviction undergirded Whitefield's gospel preaching and promotion, that fame need not imply vacuity, and that some people become famous simply because they are extraordinarily good at what they do.
Reading the written transcripts and notes from Whitefield's sermons can certainly be no substitute for having heard his outdoor preaching, which attracted thousands. His rhetorical powers were such that the preeminent English actor David Garrick observed that Whitefield could "make men weep or tremble by his ...