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The great revivalist

Whitefield (© National Portrait Gallery, London )


The great revivalist

George Whitefield’s enduring relevance

The most authoritative yet readable book on the 18th century’s greatest preacher is Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014), which I praised last year; but two others published this year are also worthwhile: James Schwenk’s George Whitefield (P&R) and Randy Petersen’s The Printer and the Preacher (Nelson), which examines the relationship of Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield. 

As Schwenk notes, Whitefield preached wherever he could find an audience. One of today’s troubling demographic trends is the movement out of churches by blue-collar workers. Whitefield found his calling in 1739 when he preached to 200 miners just emerged from the coal pits: Whitefield loved how men “just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” Maybe someone reading this page will become a new Whitefield, preaching to those whom more fashionable pastors neglect.

Whitefield was a compassionate conservative who saw his life’s work not only as preaching but also helping the poor: He founded and constantly raised funds for an orphanage in Georgia (and in one example of the blindness that affects us all in different ways, he became a slaveholder, deeming work by slaves essential to Bethesda and rationalizing it as fitting well with a hot climate). 

Schwenk shows the theological differences between Whitefield’s Reformed understanding and John Wesley’s Methodism. Petersen writes how a romantic infatuation that went sour forced Wesley into a pre-dawn hike through the Georgia swamps to avoid constables—and Whitefield “determined to never let courtship derail a ministry.” He had many female admirers—including Sarah Edwards, Jonathan’s wife, who relished Whitefield’s preaching—but, like Billy Graham in recent times, Whitefield avoided even the possibility of scandal.

Petersen also tells the famous story of Whitefield’s preaching pushing Benjamin Franklin to empty his pockets to contribute to the orphanage, and relates how one of Franklin’s friends did the same. Franklin never became a believer, but he loved the orphanage, and that’s a reminder for us today: Yes, it’s worthwhile leading a skeptic to living water by emphasizing compassion, but only God can make him drink. 

The subtitle of Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God (Basic, 2015) shouts its theme: “How corporate America invented Christian America.” Such a statement would have surprised Whitefield, who experienced both Christian America and anti-Christian America: He received tremendous support but sometimes had to talk over drummers and trumpeters, dodge rocks and pieces of dead animals, and keep preaching despite an assassination attempt. Still, if you want to understand how some see faith in Jesus as a capitalist tool, Kruse’s tome is useful. 

The notion that Christianity is a political gimmick would also surprise those Muslims struck by grace, as Nabeel Qureshi shows in Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity (Zondervan, 2014). Maybe some “rice Christians” have praised Jesus in return for a free meal, but who risks death unless truth is overwhelming? 

Short stop

This is the year many Christian colleges will have to come to grips with transgenderism, and Regent University professor Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria (IVP, 2015) is a good middle-of-the-road introduction to the debate. Yarhouse rightly connects the disorder to mankind’s fall in Eden but doesn’t forget the opportunity for redemption. He offers three frameworks through which we can assess those who are trans: integrity, which sees them as moral failures; disability, which emphasizes compassion; and diversity, which celebrates them. 

Yarhouse also assesses the theory that prenatal genital differentiation and brain differentiation occur at different times so hormonal exposure could rarely lead to physical and mental differences, but he notes research discounting that. He looks at psychosocial factors while pointing out that God has a purpose in creating us male and female. He points out the problem if churches focus on behavior first, followed by belief and belonging, and suggests a “missional” order: First belong, then believe, then become, a word he prefers to behave. It seems to me, though, that belief comes first. —M.O.