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Inventing George Whitefield

Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Inventing George Whitefield
    Book Description:

    Evangelicals and scholars of religious history have long recognized George Whitefield (1714-1770) as a founding father of American evangelicalism. But Jessica M. Parr argues he was much more than that. He was an enormously influential figure in Anglo-American religious culture, and his expansive missionary career can be understood in multiple ways. Whitefield began as an Anglican clergyman. Many in the Church of England perceived him as a radical. In the American South, Whitefield struggled to reconcile his disdain for the planter class with his belief that slavery was an economic necessity. Whitefield was drawn to an idealized Puritan past that was all but gone by the time of his first visit to New England in 1740.

    Parr draws from Whitefield's writing and sermons and from newspapers, pamphlets, and other sources to understand Whitefield's career and times. She offers new insights into revivalism, print culture, transatlantic cultural influences, and the relationship between religious thought and slavery. Whitefield became a religious icon shaped in the complexities of revivalism, the contest over religious toleration, and the conflicting role of Christianity for enslaved people. Proslavery Christians used Christianity as a form of social control for slaves, whereas evangelical Christianity's emphasis on "freedom in the eyes of God" suggested a path to political freedom. Parr reveals how Whitefield's death marked the start of a complex legacy that in many ways rendered him more powerful and influential after his death than during his long career.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-499-8
    Subjects: Religion, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-2)
    (pp. 3-10)

    This project began on a rainy London summer afternoon in 2008 while I was carrying out research in the Fulham Papers and the Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), both at the Lambeth Palace Library. In 1726, letters between the bishop of London and various Anglican clergymen in the American colonies surveyed planters’ attitudes toward missionary work among slaves.³ Most of the correspondence indicated that the planters opposed catechizing their slaves, as there had long been questions over whether English law permitted the permanent enslavement of Christians. This was all connected to the process of...

  4. CHAPTER ONE Origins of an Icon
    (pp. 11-37)

    Early in the nineteenth century, an English admirer of George Whitefield’s stole Whitefield’s humerus bone from his coffin and sent it in a parcel to England. The gruesome parcel’s recipient, a Mr. Bolton, had expressed a desire to “obtain a small memento of the great preacher,” but he later saw the theft of Whitefield’s bones as paramount to sacrilege and returned it to its resting place in the crypt of the Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts.¹ A procession of two thousand admirers of Whitefield followed the bone through the streets of Newburyport as it was returned to its...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The World Is My Congregation
    (pp. 38-60)

    In May 1738, George Whitefield secured passage aboard theElizabeth, along with an entourage of eleven friends and supporters. Later tours led him back not only to South Carolina and Georgia, but also to the Middle Colonies and New England. As Whitefield became entrenched, and indeed synonymous with the religious culture of the First Great Awakening, he acquired greater popularity and found more opportunities for transdenominational encounters. His activities during these tours also escalated the controversy surrounding him and alienated him from key figures in the hierarchy of the Church of England. The events of this second tour denoted not...

  6. CHAPTER THREE That Province, Under God, Will Flourish
    (pp. 61-80)

    The next phase of Whitefield’s transformation to iconic status came through his defense of slavery. It was a process that was tied to the greater discourse in the British Atlantic World over the tensions between Christianity and slavery. More broadly, it was also part of his growing reputation as a polemic itinerant and of the competition for moral authority between orthodox Anglicanism and revivalists.¹ Given his past criticisms of slavery and of the excesses of slaveholding society, Whitefield became a symbol of the hypocrisies that his opponents saw in revivalism, and Whitefield particularly. It is especially significant, given the frequency...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR In the Footsteps of the Pilgrims
    (pp. 81-106)

    Whitefield’s first visit to New England occurred during his third missionary tour, in 1740. Most of his visits to the region took place during a period when New England’s religious culture was deeply divided.¹ It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the fiery and emotional sermons from revivalist preachers met with mixed reception from New England clergy. Much about revivalism undermined the established character of New England, and Whitefield was, in many ways, a lightning rod for those concerned with revivalism’s impact on New England religious life.² This trip was the first of several visits that Whitefield would make to New...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Inventing George Whitefield
    (pp. 107-125)

    George Whitefield’s funeral was a veritable spectacle. He was mourned on both sides of the Atlantic. His entombment in the colonial church that he helped to found and the subsequent pilgrimages to his grave solidified his status as an icon of transatlantic religious revivalism. Any chance of Whitefield having a legacy as an Anglican who simply wanted reform of the church came to an end, particularly with his enshrinement in a Presbyterian church. Often accused in life of sowing religious discord, it is with some irony that he was buried in a region where members of the established church felt...

  9. CHAPTER SIX A Transnational Icon
    (pp. 126-154)

    An article that appeared in 1781, following the burning of New London, Connecticut, by General Benedict Arnold and his band of British troops, claimed that the image of Whitefield “frightened them into a burnt offering of all their finery,” on threat of damnation.¹ This referenced Whitefield’s 1740 sermon, delivered in New London, in which he encouraged listeners to hand over their finery—silks, damasks, emeralds—all constructs of a corrupt life of excesses, to be burned on the common in a bonfire.³ General Arnold, now a British officer, had by this time visited Whitefield’s tomb along with fellow members of...

    (pp. 155-158)

    The early nineteenth century marked the rise of the nationalist period in the United States and elsewhere. This Era of Good Feelings produced an interest in the preservation and invention of tradition, shepherded by self-appointed custodians.¹ For the United States particularly, the competing visions of Whitefield as an American icon versus a simultaneous, competing Atlantic religious icon were effectively an exercise in defining the young country’s position within the greater global community.² The shaping of tradition continued and evolved well after the early national period, with both regions of the United States and Great Britain fighting to claim him. In...

    (pp. 159-162)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 163-208)
    (pp. 209-228)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 229-236)