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A Review of
George Whitefield: American’s Spiritual Founding Father.
Hardback: Yale UP, 2014
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By Douglas Connelly
The year 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of George Whitefield’s birth (December 16, 1714 to be exact). Thomas Kidd, professor of early American history at Baylor University, has written a very readable and warm-hearted biography of the great evangelist to reaffirm and re-establish Whitefield’s place in the story of the Great Awakening in the 1700s. Spiritual revival swept the American colonies, England, Wales and Scotland, and George Whitefield’s preaching was the catalyst that sparked much of that spiritual stirring.
Whitefield (and the name is pronounced “Whit-field” rather than “White-field”) was probably the most celebrated preacher and religious leader of his day. John and Charles Wesley were part of the same evangelical revival in England and Jonathan Edwards led the way for renewal in America, but Whitefield crisscrossed the Atlantic thirteen times and was a major force for revival on both sides of the ocean. Wherever Whitefield travelled, throngs of people turned out to hear him preach. Long before large auditoriums or loud-speaker amplification existed, Whitefield raised his voice to speak to thousands of people and to call them to faith in Jesus Christ.
A Balanced Approach
Thomas Kidd brings a unique set of gifts to this new biography. He is, first of all, a scholar. Accuracy and balance mark his careful writing. But Kidd is not interested in writing just for other scholars. His language is clear and engaging. He does not assume the reader will know all the technical terms or historical references associated with Christian theology or 18th century culture. Kidd is very conscientious about explaining the terms he uses. Briefly and without a hint of condescension he weaves the background knowledge into the flow of his narrative. The book is based on extensive research, but it’s also a book the non-specialist can enjoy. We are never left is the dust of academic jargon or historical detail.
Just as importantly Thomas Kidd is a committed, evangelical Christian. He writes with evangelical warmth and understanding. That does not mean that his judgments on Whitefield are clouded. Kidd deals honestly with the man and his flaws and struggles. But he also identifies with Whitefield’s message. For example, Kidd understands the concept of the new birth that was the center of Whitefield’s preaching, nor is he confused by Whitefield’s references to the work and power of the Holy Spirit. His background in the evangelical Christian faith lets him speak to these issues with clarity.
One aspect of the book that I enjoyed was Kidd’s explanation of the controversy between Whitefield and the Wesleys over Calvinism and Arminianism. Whitefield was a committed, convinced Calvinist (along with Jonathan Edwards and other revivalists). Calvinists believe, for example, that once a person believes in Jesus, that person will be preserved in their salvation forever. A genuine believer can not lose his guarantee of heaven.
The Wesleys (and other Arminians) believe that a person can “fall from grace” by turning away from Jesus. A genuine believer can lose his place in heaven through the sin of turning away.
At times the Wesleys and George Whitefield were able to set aside these theological differences for the greater good of focusing on the proclamation of the message of redemption in Christ alone. At other times, the differences pushed their relationship to the breaking point. Kidd helps the reader see the ebb and flow of that controversy and its effect on the revival through the years of Whitefield’s life.