Reassessing George Whitefield

George Whitefield

George Whitefield

11 November 2016

One of the authors of a book on the life and work of 18th century American evangelist George Whitefield says its publication is timely in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections.

Aberystwyth University historian Dr David Ceri Jones co-edited George Whitefield: Life, Context and Legacy (Oxford, 2016) with Geordan Hammond, also from Aberystwyth University.

The collection of essays explores many aspects of the eighteenth-century evangelist’s life and influence.

“With evangelicals much in the news over their critical role in the election of US President Elect, Donald Trump, a reassessment of the life of George Whitefield seems particularly timely,” said Dr Jones.

“The evangelical movement, such a powerful force in contemporary US politics, has its origins in a series of religious revivals that took place throughout the British Isles and the North American colonies in the mid eighteenth century. Led by George Whitefield and John Wesley in Britain, and by Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in America, they gave birth to a new religious movement, Evangelicalism.”

Largely forgotten outside religious circles today, George Whitefield was one of the best-known public figures of his time, and the most widely travelled evangelical revivalist.

An Anglican clergyman, Whitefield inspired a Protestant renewal movement as a result of his charismatic preaching.

The Calvinistic Methodist movement he founded in partnership with the Welsh Methodists brought the Welsh into the eighteenth-century Atlantic World.

“With his trans-Atlantic itinerant ministry, and his near celebrity status, Whitefield was the effective leader of this new religious community. Called the ‘Apostle of the English empire’, Whitefield preached throughout the whole of the British Isles, and in nearly every town along the eastern seaboard of America. He was Anglo-America’s first genuine celebrity,” said Dr Jones.

“Highly malleable, Whitefield’s persona was shaped by many audiences during his lifetime, and these essays demonstrate that he continues to be a highly contested figure.”

As well as his relationships with his evangelical contemporaries, the book attempts to set Whitefield within a wider context, exploring how he was shaped in some regard by the Enlightenment, how he was a citizen of the Atlantic world, and simultaneously an agent of integration between the new world and the old, and a force pulling both sides of the Atlantic further apart in the decades leading up to the American Revolution.

Hailed as ‘the most important scholarly book ever published on Whitefield’ (Douglas A Sweeney, Trinity International University), Dr Jones hopes the work will encourage fresh reassessment “of one of the most significant and intriguing figures of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world”.

In 2014 Dr Jones was awarded £115,527 by the Leverhulme Trust for his project ‘George Whitefield and Trans-Atlantic Protestantism’ and earlier this year (2016) he signed an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish Whitfield’s letters in full for the first time. The first of seven volumes is scheduled for publication in 2018.