This thought-provoking look at Whitefield’s malleable reputation as a minister of the people rides the recent wave of interest in his celebrity with style. I would not recommend it as an introduction to Whitefield. But for those who have kept up with the recent spate of books on Whitefield’s life and larger significance, Parr offers the best treatment we have of Whitefield’s legacy with respect to race and slavery through the era of the Second Great Awakening.
An adjunct professor and Project Coordinator for Public History at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, Parr presents her famous subject as an ambiguous icon of Anglo-American Protestantism who represented powerfully the tensions felt by many other Christians in his day. On the one hand, he defied religious elites in the Church of England and campaigned for greater toleration of dissent. On the other hand, however, he remained a priest of the Church. On the one hand, he prophesied against southern planters in the Carolinas, especially. On the other hand, he owned slaves and promoted slavery. On the one hand, he democratized American religion. On the other hand, he died before the Revolution started and enjoyed his social status as an Anglican hierarch. It should come as no surprise, then, that Christians then and since have used his iconic status for a variety of ends. Parr pursues these ends well, in six, rather brief chapters, showing that all kinds of people made use of Whitefield’s legacy, and paying special attention to the people who employed it to negotiate debates over slavery, segregation, and black gospel preachers.
Parr’s book has little to offer those who work with Jonathan Edwards. It discusses Edwards briefly, but mainly as a shaper of Whitefield’s iconic legacy, and mostly for the way in which Edwards “saw Whitefield as a symbol of hope, an Anglican minister with whom those of dissenting Protestant sects could work toward a common goal of religious toleration” (85). Parr glosses over the fact that Edwards remained a proud, top-down, state-church pastor. He was never a big promoter of religious toleration.
Many thanks to Jessica Parr for another insightful treatment of the relationship between religion, race, and revival in the early-modern, Anglo-American world.