Sweeney’s Booknotes: George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father

Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014)

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of George Whitefield (1714-1770) and historians have been making hay in the tercentennial sunshine. Academics have been gathering to commemorate Whitefield in places like Pembroke College, Oxford (where Whitefield went to school), Cape Town, South Africa (at George Whitefield College) and, closer to home, Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The most important fruit of their labors comes from our friend, Tommy Kidd, whose new monograph on Whitefield is about to be released.

Some will know Professor Kidd as the author of other books on eighteenth-century America: God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution; Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots; and The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America.

Others will know him as an historian who blogs about religion and its relevance today at The Anxious Bench.

Less learned folks may know that Kidd appeared on Glenn Beck (the former conservative TV program on the Fox News Channel) to share his knowledge about Whitefield. Here’s a recording of his appearance and a transcript.

Much like Whitefield himself, Kidd is a skillful media maven with a knack for plain speech. Though his books are erudite, they are also clearly written and remarkably even-handed. Kidd is certainly not the first to write a book about Whitefield. His does not offer a great deal of new information. But it does provide a calm and comprehensive presentation of an evangelical star—not an easy thing to do–who maintained a long friendship with Edwards.

Most of his predecessors have taken fire for either over-identifying with Whitefield’s spirituality or explaining it away as a product of his own social and psychological history. As Kidd has confessed in his book’s introduction:

Writing biographies, and writing religious biographies in particular, presents significant challenges. The temptation to write hagiography—the biography of a pristine saint—is ever present. In placing Whitefield within the new evangelical world, I am not offering an unsullied picture of a sanctified man, nor is my primary aim to edify readers spiritually. Yet historians today know that none of us is fully objective—personal perspectives matter. So let me admit it up front: I have a high regard for Whitefield. I identify personally with the religious movement he helped start. Yet I hope that I have also been fair to his critics and transparent about his obvious failings as a man and minister (3-4).

This kind of honesty and clarity have enabled Kidd to write a book on Whitefield for everyone—fans of Glenn Beck and supporters of the Clintons, home schoolers and cosmopolitans, evangelicals and their critics. It deserves a wide readership.

If you want to know more, join us at Dr. Kidd’s lecture in our Jonathan Edwards Center, Wednesday, October 29, 1pm, in Hinkson Hall, “George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and the Eighteenth-Century Calvinist Network.”