Reassessing the trans-Atlantic revivalist, George Whitefield

02 April 2014

Dr David Ceri Jones
Dr David Ceri Jones

Leverhulme grant aims to understand early evangelicalism

Evangelical religion is one of the most dynamic and rapidly growing religious movements in the world today.

While still a vibrant force in the USA evidenced in a recent evangelical President, that growth has taken place way beyond its traditional English-speaking heartlands to the Global South which includes China, South Korea, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

The present-day global evangelical movement had its origins in the religious revivals that swept the British Atlantic world in the middle decades of the eighteenth century.

Dr David Ceri Jones from the Department of History & Welsh History, Aberystwyth University, has been awarded a £115,527 grant from the Leverhulme Trust to better understand the early evangelical movement through a reassessment of the life, context and legacy of its inventor and chief inspiration, the trans-Atlantic revivalist, George Whitefield (1714-70).

George Whitefield was probably the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century, crossing the Atlantic at least a dozen times between 1738 and 1770.

A charismatic preacher, in London, Bristol, Boston and Philadelphia, Whitefield addressed some of the largest congregations that had ever been recorded; crowds of twenty or thirty thousand were the norm, occasionally there were considerably more.

A pioneer in the use of mass communication, Whitefield helped spread Methodism, especially his own version of Calvinistic Methodism, throughout the British Isles and created the ‘Great Awakening’ in the American colonies.

Whitefield produced a vast amount of correspondence during the course of his public life; it’s over 2,250 individual items make it one of the most remarkable epistolary collections from the period.

Dr Jones explains; “Whitefield’s correspondence has been largely untouched since some heavily edited, even bowdlerized letters, appeared as part of a six volume edition of the Works of George Whitefield shortly after his death.

“Whitefield has been particularly badly served by those who have wished to preserve his memory or hold him up as an exemplar to be followed. The real Whitefield remains also partially understood.”

The generous grant will enable Dr Jones to produce a complete edition of the letters of Whitefield for the first time.

The collection contains exchanges between Whitefield and many of the most prominent figures of his day, including John and Charles Wesley, Philip Doddridge, Howel Harris, the Countess of Huntingdon, the German Moravian leader Count Zinzendorf, and the Americans Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, as well as personal letters from otherwise anonymous evangelicals, including many women.

According to Dr Jones; “These letters give a remarkable insight into the nature of early evangelical spirituality and allow historians to piece together a much more textured understanding of early evangelicalism.”

The project will offer significant reassessment of Whitefield’s life and the early evangelical movement, through a conference at Oxford University, a volume of critical essays and a major new biography of Whitefield himself.

While this work will primarily attempt to investigate not only Whitefield’s life and the evangelical and Methodist movements, it will also cast significant light on relations between Britain and America in the closing decades of the colonial era, the growth of ‘democratic’ and egalitarian thinking on the eve of the American Revolution, as well as the evolution of attitudes towards race, class and gender.

The Leverhulme Trust

The Leverhulme Trust was established by the Will of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers. Since 1925 the Trust has provided grants and scholarships research and education. Today, it is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing over £60m a year. For more information about the Trust, please visit www.leverhulme.ac.uk

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Contacts

Dr David Ceri Jones
Department of History & Welsh History
01970 622840 / dmj@aber.ac.uk

Esther Eckley
Communications and Public Affairs
01970 621571 / ese6@aber.ac.uk