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Sweeney’s Booknotes: George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy

Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones, eds. George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 352 pp. $105/£65.

Whitefield300OUPThis is the most important scholarly book ever published on Whitefield (1714-1770). It derives from a major conference at Pembroke College, Oxford (Whitefield’s alma mater), “George Whitefield at 300,” held in June 2014, which featured presentations from more than 40 scholars from several different countries (the U.K., Germany, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand). The sixteen here (see the table of contents, below) are among the best of the bunch. Well-researched and up-to-date, they represent well the state of Whitefield studies, a field plowed often since the publication of Harry Stout’s book, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, in 1991.

This is certainly not an effort in hagiography. Apparently embarrassed by the largely uncritical assessments of Whitefield by Protestants before the 1990s, rather, Boyd Stanley Schlenther, in the book’s opening chapter (“Whitefield’s Personal Life and Character,” pp. 12-28), mainly catalogues Whitefield’s numerous shortcomings—a rather striking compensation for his predecessors’ sins, some would say an overreaction.

Chapter 7, entitled “Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Revival” (pp. 115-31), is the only one that treats this blog’s subject in detail. Written by Kenneth P. Minkema, it is premised on the fact that most scholarship on Whitefield and Edwards in the past “centred on Whitefield’s first visit to Edwards’s home and church in Northampton, Massachusetts, in late 1740, a visit that, while dramatic in terms of impact, left the pair at an emotional and theological distance from one another.” Minkema reviews this remarkable encounter but also covers the rest of the story of this pair, “showing that there were initial points of friction between the two—points over which Edwards, true to character, confronted his visitor. However, Whitefield’s subsequent moderation, combined with Edwards’s evolving views of the revivals, resolved the friction to a large extent. In the end,” Minkema summarizes, “Edwards’s public support of Whitefield as an instrument of God and as a fellow labourer in the revival vineyard reflected a consensus they had reached about the nature of the subjectivity of spiritual experience” (p. 115).

My other favorite chapters include the one by Beebe and Jones, “Whitefield and the ‘Celtic’ Revivals” (pp. 132-49), a subject about which I knew precious little; Boren, “Whitefield’s Voice” (pp. 167-89), which employs acoustical models to estimate the size of Whitefield’s largest outdoor crowds (concluding that he could have reached 50,000 people amid ideal conditions, and thus that contemporary estimates of 20,000-30,000 “seem acoustically reasonable,” p. 188); and Berry, “Whitefield and the Atlantic” (pp. 207-23), which focuses on Whitefield’s life and ministry at sea. (“George Whitefield spent over two of his fifty-six years of life on board ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. If one adds the days and weeks spent coasting along the British and American shores, he passed nearly three full years of his life on water, or roughly 8 per cent of his adult ministerial career.” Impressive numbers indeed. Why had no one thought to investigate this subject matter before?)

Here is the book’s table of contents:

“Introduction,” Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones

1. “Whitefield’s Personal Life and Character,” Boyd Stanley Schlenther
2. “Whitefield’s Conversion and Early Theological Formation,” Mark K. Olson
3. “Whitefield and the Church of England,” William Gibson
4. “Whitefield and the Enlightenment,” Frank Lambert
5. “Whitefield and Empire,” Carla Gardina Pestana
6. “Whitefield, John Wesley, and Revival Leadership,” Geordan Hammond
7. “Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Revival,” Kenneth P. Minkema
8. “Whitefield and the ‘Celtic’ Revivals,” Keith Edward Beebe and David Ceri Jones
9. “Whitefield and His Critics,” Brett C. McInelly
10. “Whitefield’s Voice,” Braxton Boren
11. “Whitefield and Literary Affect,” Emma Salgard Cunha
12. “Whitefield and the Atlantic,” Stephen R. Berry
13. “Whitefield, Georgia, and the Quest for Bethesda College,” Peter Choi
14. “Whitefield, Hymnody, and Evangelical Spirituality,” Mark A. Noll
15. “Whitefield’s Reception in England, 1770-1839,” Isabel Rivers
16. “Commemorating Whitefield in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Andrew Atherstone

Bibliography

This is must reading for students/scholars interested in Whitefield and the rise of transatlantic evangelicalism.