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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


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

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards’ Sermons on the Parables of Matthew

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume II, Divine Husbandmen (on the Parable of the Sower and the Seed), ed. Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume III, Fish Out of Their Element (on the Parable of the Net), ed. Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

The second and third volumes of Edwards’ sermons on the parables in Matthew are a treasure. Formatted in keeping with the conventions of this series (see my earlier comments on volume one), they begin with a preface and a note on Edwards’ text, contain a helpful introduction to the series by Wilson Kimnach (entitled “Edwards the Preacher,” reprinted in every volume), offer historical introductions to the sermons in each book (new material every time, usually by Minkema and Neele), and then provide the sermons themselves (edited in accordance with the rest of the Yale Edition).

In volume two, on the parable of the sower and the seed, we have one of the most important series of sermons Edwards preached. George Whitefield visited Edwards’ church in October 1740, preaching five sermons in town over the course of three days (October 17-19), stirring the hearts of Edwards’ people and fanning the sparks of the Great Awakening. Edwards reported to a friend that the “congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time.” He was thrilled but also concerned that people not be star-struck by Whitefield’s preternatural speaking gifts, but live as the kind of soil in which the Word can bear fruit. So he preached right away on the parable of the sower, telling his congregation to examine themselves “whether your religious affections are only superficial, or whether they reach the bottom of the heart (62), to “count the cost, or fully . . . consider the difficulties of being thoroughly and steadfastly religious” (87). Significantly, Whitefield preached on similar themes himself (a little-known fact), as is evident in his own sermon on Luke 8:18, “Directions How to Hear Sermons” (1739), which is printed as an appendix to this volume. (For more historical context on this sermon series and Edwards’ important friendship with Whitefield, see Ava Chamberlain, “The Grand Sower of the Seed: Jonathan Edwards’s Critique of George Whitefield,” New England Quarterly 70 (September 1997): 368-85.)

In volume three, on Jesus’ parable of the net, we get a fascinating glimpse of Edwards’ preaching as he completed Religious Affections (1746). Concerned more than ever with how to distinguish true Christians from his culture’s Christian hypocrites—who fooled themselves and others about the real state of their souls but would be found out at the judgment, when the good fish will be kept and the bad thrown away—Edwards used this sermon series to encourage his congregation to examine themselves honestly and openly. “That there are so many {resemblances between hypocrites and true converts}, thence the great danger there is of men’s being deceived. And what has been observed of the great and manifold resemblances {between them}, shows the straitness of the gate; and does yet more fully show how liable men are to be deceived, and what great need there is of care, and the utmost strictness and diligence, of watchfulness and inquiry, lest we be deceived” (40). These sermons are much more sketchy than the ones in volume two, but even their sketchiness is important, as it reminds us that Whitefield showed Edwards the raw power of extemporaneous preaching—and that, after 1740 (when Whitefield first visited Edwards), Edwards rarely wrote his sermons out in full before he preached them.

These volumes are essential for all serious Edwards scholars, and are highly recommended for fans and general readers as well.

Sweeney’s BookNotes: The Sermons of George Whitefield, 2 vols., ed. Lee Gatiss (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012)

George WhitefieldThis handy collection of sermons has been edited by the Rev. Lee Gatiss, an Anglican minister, a doctoral student at Cambridge, director-elect of the Church Society (a Church of England ministry), visiting lecturer in church history at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and editor of the British internet journal, Theologian.

Published first in the UK in the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Library (REAL, which belongs to the Church Society), these volumes feature 61 of Whitefield’s best-known sermons, most of which are taken from the fifth and sixth volumes of The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, ed. John Gillies (1771-1772) and presented in a nearly canonical order. Seventy-nine Whitefield sermons are available in print, in one place or another, but only 57 of these were authorized (and thus revised) for the press by Whitefield himself, who felt that many of his early talks proved much too “apostolical,” impulsive, and judgmental for publication. Gatiss here reissues Whitefield’s 57 favorites, along with two others judged by Gillies to be fit for publication and another two that Gatiss deems too precious for exclusion (“The Method of Grace,” on Jeremiah 6:14, and “The Good Shepherd,” on John 10:27-28).

Gatiss himself has written a helpful introduction to the sermons, placing them in historical and theological context. His footnotes offer further information about the texts and their historical references. Gatiss has updated the sermons by lightly modernizing their grammar, spelling, punctuation, and paragraph breaks, adding numerous subheadings in order to serve the sermons to readers in bite-size helpings. He has modernized some of Whitefield’s English Bible quotations (most of which were taken from the King James Bible), but has not provided an index of any kind.

Gatiss aims these volumes at Christians, mainly evangelical Anglicans, whom Gatiss hopes to inspire to a more bold and faithful witness. Students will also want to use them, but should bear in mind that very little text-critical scholarship has been done on Whitefield’s sermons, few of whose manuscripts survive, and many of which may well be based on auditors’ transcriptions.

It is high time for someone to publish a critical edition of the extant Whitefield corpus. David Ceri Jones of Aberystwyth University is trying to raise funds to pay for a scholarly edition of the correspondence of Whitefield (roughly 4,000 letters, nearly 600 of which have not been published heretofore). May his efforts come to fruition. May they expand, in fact, to comprehend the whole of Whitefield’s corpus.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS