Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America
The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America
Jerome Dean Mahaffey
Baylor University Press, 2011
214 pp., 40.66

Buy Now

Peter Choi

Revivalist, Pop Idol, and Revolutionary Too?

Whitefield’s place in American history.

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 authors and readers alike. To this day, conservative political commentators trumpet his legacy and evangelical preachers seek to emulate his charisma, while many academics view him as an example of all that is wrong with religious hype and hypocrisy. As Mahaffey points out, Glenn Beck recently exclaimed: "No Whitefield, no revolution!" The historian Robert McCaul, on the other hand, writing half a century ago, declaimed against Whitefield, insisting that he deserved "somewhat less than our complete admiration … for a clerical life marred by violence, rashness, and a certain spiritual arrogance."[1]

For Mahaffey, "connecting Whitefield to the Revolution is a very reasonable idea." More than any other person, according to the logic and evidence of this book, Whitefield moved colonial culture from an inward spiritual piety to an activistic political engagement. His pathbreaking ideas, at first religious and later political, paved the way for the radical transformation of scattered imperial outposts into a thriving republican nation. Where historians like Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood have studied the ideologies that undergirded the Revolution and created a new nation, Mahaffey traces the religious provenance of those ideas. For instance, he identifies important changes in Whitefield's itinerant work, observing that upon his return to America in 1744 he was no longer the firebrand of earlier revivals. Instead he wanted "to completely shed that image … and step back into the mainstream of American culture and politics." Over time, Whitefield's religious rhetoric against French Catholics, Mahaffey argues, found new targets "in Parliament and the king." When "political problems displaced revival stories from the newspapers," Whitefield's innovative use of concepts like the new birth and regeneration segued into political strategies. By providing the glue for "an intercolonial identity founded in the new birth," Whitefield prepared the road to revolution.

That Whitefield never stepped into overt political dissent, however, presents a problem for Mahaffey. When he concedes that "[p]ublic opposition to the British government was a line Whitefield never crossed," questions about the book's title come into sharper relief. If Whitefield was merely an "accidental" revolutionary, one may wonder, is that a fact worth celebrating? Not everyone, moreover, will agree with assertions like this one: "The simple raising of taxes, even to extremes, has never been the central reason that a population rebels against a leader. Powerful religious ideas are always involved." Always? Many will resist the preeminent role Mahaffey grants to religious and political rhetoric in refashioning the social order. Don't negotiations of power in any society have an economic dimension where (as in our own current economic crises) problems of cash flow trump ideals of human equality and freedom? Haven't the disruptive power of taxes and the effects of socio-economic discontent fueled revolutionary fervor elsewhere?

With Whitefield directly in view, historical causation seems more complicated than Mahaffey is willing to concede. Digging deeper into Whitefield's flip-flopping views on slavery as well as his lifelong investment in orphan relief as an instrument for social change might have led to fuller considerations of more factors at work between the Awakenings and the Revolution. Rather than a strictly limited choice between economics and politics, for example, we might confront a wide array of conflicting and parallel causes that culminated in the Revolution. If Whitefield was a "herald of liberty" in some senses, it is important to remember that he also bought a slave plantation in South Carolina and was one of the earliest to adopt slave labor in Georgia. Of course other slave owners also supported the Revolution, but they as well as Whitefield need to be explained when they proclaimed liberty while practicing human bondage.

In debates over causes of the Revolution where arbitrary battle-lines between whigs (who favor political ideas) and neo-progressives (who emphasize bottom-up social action) have stalled dialogue, more synthetic narratives are needed to heighten understanding. Mahaffey's work prods readers in that direction by highlighting Whitefield's ecumenical appeal and his refusal to let doctrinal differences impede concentrated Christian action. His analysis is especially shrewd when he highlights the need for Whitefield to maintain a strong pro-British position in order to reach as broad an audience as possible with his religious message. We learn along the way that beneath Whitefield's British patriotism lay an even more fundamental insistence on guarding liberty against tyranny in whatever guise it appeared, whether popish or British.

Questions remain, however. Mahaffey does not provide clear evidence for his charge that "Calvinism was counterproductive" for the preacher and responsible for decline in church membership from "the 1620s up through 1735." How was it that Calvinism hurt evangelistic efforts while a Calvinist rose through the ranks as the most effective evangelist of his time? Apart from conflating Jonathan Edwards' use of "affections" with "emotions" and describing his theology as a "friendlier version of Calvinism," Mahaffey does not substantiate his analysis. Given the book's heavy reliance on the sermons, journals, and letters of Whitefield, one might have wished for a subtler treatment of the profound theological and political shifts attributed to this fiery preacher.

Whatever criticisms might be raised about particulars in Mahaffey's arguments, his book makes a signal contribution in following the most famous revivalist well past the high point of revival. Most treatments of the Grand Itinerant's life have not acknowledged, beyond mere passing nods, that the Whitefield of the 1740s had some growing up to do. In treating those revival years as the pinnacle of his life, few have examined closely his repentance of youthful foibles during the Awakenings and the ways in which he might have evolved as a person and recalibrated his work by the 1760s. The paucity of serious studies of his later life attests to this neglect. By contrast, Mahaffey argues that tracking Whitefield into his later years and tracing the changes in his rhetoric not only gives us a fuller picture of his life but, more significantly, provides valuable evidence for the emergence of American identity from religious roots. Mahaffey's book represents a mature reflection on the long-range implications of religious ideals and their unexpected consequences. Building on Michael Warner's notion of "conflicted transitional identities," Mahaffey credits Whitefield with "introducing choices in religion [which] paved the road for republican politics," highlights his decision to "become a political man," and confers upon him the exalted title of "a father to the American spirit."

This book reminds us that long before Billy Graham and Rob Bell, a Christian minister freely promoted his celebrity status and toured the preaching circuit. Along the way, he showed little regard for parish boundaries and disrupted social order across the colonies. When religious revival ebbed, he was nimble enough to follow where political discontent flowed to find a hearing for his evangelistic message. Little doubt remains that his version of spiritual regeneration presented a powerful metaphor for imagining the birth of a nation that followed his death. If Whitefield was indeed the most ubiquitous preacher of his era and "the world's first pop idol," as Mahaffey claims, and if it is even remotely plausible that his religious work sparked political transformations that led to the Revolution, then more careful attention to his later life and legacy are imperative for understanding not only evangelical religion in America but the very heart of American identity. Mahaffey's second book on Whitefield succeeds in reintroducing religious ideas as key factors in catalyzing revolution and creating America.

Peter Choi is Senior Fellow at Newbigin House of Studies and on pastoral staff at City Church San Francisco. He recently completed his dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, entitled "George Whitefield, the Imperial Itinerant: Religion, Economics, and Politics in the Era of the Great Awakening."

1. Robert McCaul, "Whitefield's Bethesda College Project and Other Attempts to Found Colonial Colleges," Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3 (1960), p. 393.

Most ReadMost Shared