This book is better than its title might suggest. Although Charles Finney, the ‘father of modern revivalism’, considered George Whitefield to be ‘a progenitor of his own revival techniques’ (p.307), such comparison misleads far more than it informs. Whitefield adopted no conscious ‘techniques’ in seeking to achieve the great concern of his life, which was simply to reach as many people on earth with the gospel as he possibly could. In this aim he was uniquely successful. No evangelist in history has preached to so many without technological assistance.
Does this book do justice to the extraordinary labours of the man whom many consider the greatest preacher of all times? Well, that depends. Scotland treats his subject with genuine objectivity and considerable sympathy. Admirers of Whitefield will have little to complain about. The book is thoroughly researched, and benefits from a useful bibliography and excellent index.
The biography is mainly linear, though specific chapters deal consecutively with Whitefield’s itinerancy, preaching, social action, theology/churchmanship, and spirituality. Throughout, Whitefield is shown to be a man of huge energy, with an immensely powerful personality which could attract devotion or disgust in equal measure. His conflict with rationalistic Anglicanism is well documented, and his doctrinal disputes with John Wesley are probably covered as well as space would allow. Certainly Whitefield always seems to be given the last word!
As I write, the University of Pennsylvania has just agreed to remove the statue of Whitefield from its campus. There is no getting round the fact that Whitefield not only owned slaves but was a leading advocate for the introduction of slavery into the colony of Georgia. He argued that Georgia was suffering economically because of the prohibition of slave labour, and that his lifelong orphan house project in Savannah could not survive without it.
We are all children of our age but many Christians, including Wesley, were already demanding slavery’s abolition. I like to think that, had Whitefield lived as long as his good friend Benjamin Franklin, he too might have come to abhor and reject the great scandal in his old age.
Scotland deals fairly enough with this issue, as well as with some of Whitefield’s lesser failings – although his wife might dispute the word ‘lesser’. Indeed, the whole book is fairly balanced, and provides a good introduction to its subject.
So why am I left strangely dissatisfied? I think it is because coming to an account of George Whitefield’s life I should be stirred and thrilled. I should be inspired to throw myself on God’s mercy, determined to follow in his steps however far the Lord enabled. And, sadly, I am not. For that effect I still need to turn to the magisterial two-volume biography by Arnold Dallimore.