December 27, 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of George Whitefield’s birth. This triennium has brought with it renewed interest in the man Charles Spurgeon “admired as the chief of preachers.” Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father is the most recent addition to the triennial observance, and perhaps the most helpful one as well.
Kidd strikes middle ground between more pastoral and popular Whitefield biographies like those by Arnold Dallimore and Steven Lawson, yet without lapsing into the scholastic cynicism of Harry Stout. Kidd readily acknowledges, “I am both a university-based historian and evangelical Christian, so perhaps I can bridge the academic and Christian perspectives on Whitefield that have clashed in recent decades.” He states his aim is to produce, “a scholarly biography of Whitefield that places him fully in the dynamic, fractious milieu of the early evangelical movement.”
Though admittedly sympathetic with Whitefield’s ministry, Kidd avoids hagiography by presenting Whitefield holistically, warts and all. He acknowledges Whitefield’s besetting sins, at times combative personality, many relational challenges, and his callous use of people, including his wife and even slaves, to further his ministry objectives.
Though not overlooking Whitefield’s infelicities, Kidd’s biography unpacks, with meticulous research, the peculiar life and world-changing ministry of George Whitefield. Thus, Kidd gives substance to Whitefield’s mystique, a mystique that still lingers a quarter millennia after his death.
Indeed, there is an appropriate aura about Whitefield’s life and ministry that Kidd well captures. This aura includes preaching to crowds numbering tens of thousands. In fact, Whitefield drew crowds in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia that outnumbered the total populations of those cities. None other than Benjamin Franklin himself painstakingly verified the crowd estimates.
Humanly speaking, Whitefield’s appeal and influence seems attributed to at least three elements, and Kidd expounds upon each. First, Whitefield benefited from a kind providence, humanly equipped with extraordinary gifts of oratory, imagination, and vocal projection and stage presence. Moreover, he enjoyed a charisma and magnetism rarely witnessed among men. His considerable gifts were refined in his pre-ministry days, having studied drama and recitation as a boy.
Yet, behind Whitefield’s gifts was an unremitting passion to preach the gospel. This passion compelled Whitefield to cross the Atlantic Ocean 13 times, undergoing one harrowing voyage after another. Then, after arrival, he scurried from city to city preaching so forcefully and so often that his adult life was lived in near-constant exhaustion and physical ailment.
This passion drove Whitefield to preach through pronounced physical pain, belittling reviews, mocking onlookers, disruptive mobs, and even assassination plots and attempts. Whitefield’s unflagging ambition to reach the world for Christ prompted him to reflect, “The whole world is now my parish. ‘Tis equal to me whether I preach in field or in a church.”
The last half of Whitefield’s life, and in particular his last decade, was marked by near-constant physical ailments. Whitefield journaled, “God knows how long I am to drag this crazy load along . . . I am sick of myself, sick of the world, sick of the Church and am panting daily after the full enjoyment of my God.” Yet, even during such travail, Whitefield managed still to preach some 15 times a week.
In addition to his rhetorical gifting and underlying gospel passion, Whitefield also utilized the tools of his day, most especially print media, to circulate his sermons, letters, and journal entries. Whitefield’s embrace of magazines and print media was cutting edge, and proved to further his ministry reach.
George Whitefield, by any estimation, was a sensation, and by Kidd’s estimation, he was America’s spiritual founding father. In life he was a titanic figure, owning a transcontinental following. In death, his appeal persisted, even prompting grave robbers, who would repeatedly enter his tomb for relics and talismans.
Clearly, Whitefield was God’s primary human agent to spark the Great Awakening, which strengthened America’s Christian foundation. Even unbelievers admired him greatly, including Ben Franklin, who reflected, “ I knew him intimately upwards of 30 years: his integrity, disinterestedness, and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work, I have never seen equaled, I shall never see exceeded.”
Just as Thomas Kidd acknowledged partiality, so must I. I so admire Whitefield that I took my family this past summer to Newburybort, MA wherein we retraced Whitefield’s final steps and explored every nook and cranny of the Old South Church, including the crypt where Whitefield still rests.
Yet, even with my impartiality in mind, I concur with Kidd’s conclusion, and as you read his book, you may well do the same: “Whitefield was the first great preacher in a modern evangelical movement that has seen many. Perhaps he was the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever seen.”
 Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 2.
 Ibid., 200–202.
 Ibid., 84, 85.
 Ibid., 148, 170.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 226.
 Ibid., 53, .
 Ibid., 150.
 Ibid., 253.
 Ibid., 263.topicsBook Reviews, George Whitefield