Book Review – George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father

More years ago than I like to admit, I left a small bookshop with the first adult-level book I recall purchasing, a biography of George Whitefield. It was not my first introduction to the famed evangelist, but it did begin a life-long interest in his ministry. My most recent book purchase was also a Whitefield biography, this one by Thomas Kidd, history professor at Baylor University and author of “Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.”

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There are two primary reasons I recommend this book: We need Whitefield’s story in our day, and we need Professor Kidd’s approach to it.

As the first evangelical “celebrity” Whitefield provides an example of successfully navigating the dangerous channels of popularity. As the prototype for the modern evangelist, his use of innovative methods (outdoor preaching, magazines, writings) establish a model for subsequent similar ministries. (For example, there seem to be numerous similarities between Whitefield and Billy Graham.) As one of the early leaders of evangelicalism his life provides insight into common issues that are still faced in the contemporary iteration of the movement – such as the mutual struggle for unity despite doctrinal distinctions.

Even an understanding of his flaws are beneficial. As an early and strangely contradictory proponent of slavery he presents a strong caution against the danger of myopic focus on one aspect of the Gospel. Admittedly Whitefield is a complex character and, as with any historical figure, it is convenient to judge him by modern standards. Yet from any viewpoint his position on slavery is glaringly inconsistent with his message. It seems Whitefield was so engaged with the conversion aspect of the message that he missed the practical implications of living out the Gospel. As the author notes, it is comparable to the perplexing dissonance between the ideals and practice of some of America’s founding fathers.

This biography achieves balance in several important areas. It combines scholarly research and readability, something not often achieved. Dr. Kidd writes with deliberate frankness despite a professed bias. It is common among biographers to profess objectivity and yet fail. Although openly acknowledging his personal appreciation of Whitefield, he seeks to present an honest appraisal of his subject. This goal that is achieved in this book. Beyond the acknowledgement in the introduction, this bias is essentially imperceptible. He also balances the historical with the theological. Unlike many Christian biographers, Kidd does not dodge Whitefield’s theology, its implications, or his conflicts with others over it.

The common perception of Whitefield is as merely a skilled orator who stirred the emotions of his hearers. To view him as such is to see only one side of a multifaceted character and miss his sound theology, philanthropic spirit, innovative methods, and increasingly moderate demeanor. These characteristics make him more than a “Spiritual Founding Father” for America, they make him a man for our time as well.