This review originally appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.
Experiments flourish on the margins. It’s why visionaries and mavericks gather in places far from the watchful eye of social convention and official control. Think Donald Judd making his art and his mark in Marfa in ultra-West Texas. Think Brigham Young and the Mormons building Utah. Or think George Whitefield and his Georgia plantation. Wait…what?
George Whitefield has been hard for American religious scholars to classify. The 18th century transatlantic evangelist clearly had a major impact on the Great Awakening, but, as Peter Choi puts it in his new book on Whitefield, he has always been “a sort of third wheel among undisputed leaders of the evangelical awakening.” (233) The two big wheels being Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. “Edwards was the indisputable intellectual leader of the early evangelicals,” Choi says, “and Wesley the sophisticated organizer who laid the groundwork for worldwide Methodism.” (233) But what did Whitefield do?
He solidified an international Protestant movement, sought to consolidate the gains of the Awakening when the revivals faded, and became an agent and advocate of the burgeoning British Empire, all from the distant beachhead of America’s newest colony. So goes Choi’s argument in George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire.
If we don’t often think of Whitefield settling down as a Southern slaveholder, it’s because Whitefield never settled down. Like his fellow methodist, John Wesley, (Choi only capitalizes ‘methodist’ when it refers specifically to Wesley’s own movement), Whitefield was always traveling, earning his title as the Grand Itinerant. But Choi believes that too much of the scholarship about Whitefield focuses on his early successes during tours to the Americas from 1738-1741. The later years of Whitefield’s career reveal a man who is constantly innovating (and compromising) in order to advance his religious, economic, and imperial interests.
Choi’s organizing principle is, at heart, geographic. Whereas traditional portraits of Whitefield depict him preaching to rapt crowds in New England or walking the streets of Philadelphia with an intrigued Ben Franklin, Choi asserts that Whitefield’s primary interests were Southern.
Georgia in the 1730s was the fresh outgrowth of the Empire, the latest colony to emerge after 50 years of stasis on the colonizing front. The Trustees of the new colony were idealistic and had utopian dreams for Georgia. It would be a place with limited land tenure, favoring small farmers, and no slavery. Neighboring South Carolina was content that there was a buffer now between Spanish Florida and their own enterprise.
Such an environment attracted all kinds of holy experimenters, including John and Charles Wesley who traveled to Georgia in 1735 as Anglican missionaries and priests. Choi attributes Wesley’s disastrous run there (he left in 1738) not only to his romantic failures but primarily to his inability to adapt to living on the margins. Too much a man of the center, Wesley spent the rest of his career traveling and organizing in the British Isles. (I would note, however, that Wesley didn’t entirely neglect the Americas and, in fact, his own innovations allowed for the growth of an American Methodist movement that proved far more lasting than Whitefield’s. Choi neglects this story in bolstering the contrast between the men.)
When Whitefield came in 1738, he saw the possibilities immediately. “America is not so horrid a place as it is represented to be,” he wrote back to a friend. (50) Georgia in particular excited his imagination and he returned to London determined to secure a pastoral charge in Savannah, to get a commission to raise funds for an orphanage, and to get land in Georgia. The Trustees of the colony granted him all three.
Whitefield turned out to be a spectacular fundraiser but also an independent-minded firebrand who soon began to deviate from the path intended for him by his ecclesial higher-ups. During his time in the imperial center, Whitefield began to develop the theological and organizational novelties that both inspired hearers and riled detractors. Like Wesley, he found the existential and homiletical power of the doctrine of new birth, which emphasized a vibrant individual faith. He also began preaching outdoors and holding all-night love feasts that were fodder for all sorts of salacious rumor. By the time Whitefield returned to America in August 1739 he had reached full flower as an evangelist and was ready to bring all his powers to the revivals that were sweeping the colonies.
But what about that plantation? It’s in the second half of Choi’s book, titled “Entanglements,” that you begin to get into territory not covered in standard treatments of American religious history. Choi presents the Great Awakening, not only as a time of fiery outbreaks of revival, but as a consolidation of a Protestant identity for the expanding empire. Whitefield, in view of his personality and extensive travels, was one of the agents of that movement.
As the fires of revival cooled, Whitefield began to turn his attention to institutions that could further the work of spreading holiness. At the same time, he believed that some of those institutions would also enrich him.
The orphanage in Georgia had been an early philanthropic effort, but it struggled. With Georgia’s ban on slavery, the orphanage turned to some questionable practices to provide needed labor. Orphans themselves became laborers and to provide more of them, Whitefield “went out of his way to corral youth who had no need of assistance.” (150) Choi notes that “on more than one occasion, he appears to have forcibly taken children out of their homes because of the economic service they could render.” (151)
While Whitefield had earlier expressed ambivalence about slavery, he now moved very clearly to being an advocate for introducing the practice into Georgia. As Georgia colonists, attracted by the freedom of this place at the edge of the empire, chafed now against the idealism of the London-based Trustees, Whitefield joined their dissent. And when many of the Malcontents, as they were called, left to pursue economic advantage in other colonies where they could own slaves, Whitefield kept up the fight. “If any one person does indeed deserve blame for the introduction of slavery in Georgia,” Choi notes, “it may actually be George Whitefield.” (145)
The later Whitefield developed other strategies that seem morally compromised in hindsight. When the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War) erupted in 1756, Whitefield became a propagandist for the British crown and a virulent anti-Catholic. His final project, the failed attempt to establish Bethesda College in Georgia, was not only about educating colonists, but competing for prestige with northern educational institutions.
Still, Choi manages admiration for his subject. “That a transatlantic celebrity poured himself into cultivating the margins of colonial society, bypassing traditional centers of political and cultural power while locating religious creativity and activism outside the institutional church, provides the outlines of the story. At its heart stands a spirit of evangelical improvisation emerging in the context of a growing empire under duress.” (231-2)
If that sounds a little academic, it is. One of the drawbacks of Choi’s book is that it suffers from the excesses of academic writing, not only its aridity but its repetition. There is a great 100 page book here. Unfortunately the book has 236. Nevertheless, this is an important study and Choi has added important heft and nuance to the story of a pivotal figure in the story of America and Britain in the 18th century.