In the fading light of a cool autumn evening, 25-year-old evangelist George Whitefield ascended a platform on Boston Common on Oct. 12, 1740.
Before him stood 20,000 people. If the crowd estimates were reasonably accurate, this was the largest assembly ever gathered in the history of the American colonies. Boston’s entire population was only 17,000 in 1740.
Whitefield had already seen crowds this massive – even larger – in the great city of London, but the teeming New England throngs, gathered in the region’s small fishing villages and provincial towns, amazed him.
Sometimes the pressing people frightened him, too. There were volcanic outbursts of emotion. He regularly had to cut his preaching short, unable to be heard over the cacophonies of weeping and screeching.
At the Common, Whitefield implored the people to put their faith in Jesus Christ, the kind of sincere faith their Puritan forefathers embraced.
It did not matter if their parents were Christians. It did not matter if they prayed, attended church and read their Bibles. Whitefield wanted to know if they had experienced the “new birth” of conversion.
Concluding the sermon, his countenance falling, he told them that it was time for him to go; other audiences needed his gospel preaching, too.
“Numbers, great numbers, melted into tears, when I talked of leaving them,” Whitefield wrote. He had begun to forge a special bond with the American colonists. “Boston people are dear to my soul,” he confessed.
Reports about this wondrous boy preacher began to appear in the colonies’ newspapers in 1739. By 1740, he had become the most famous man in America.
Remember, in 1740 George Washington was 8 years old, John Adams was 4, Thomas Jefferson was not even born. Benjamin Franklin’s fame as a printer, which did not extend much beyond Philadelphia, was enhanced considerably by becoming Whitefield’s publisher.
Whitefield was probably the most famous man in Britain, too, or at least the most famous aside from King George II.
From his humble beginnings in Gloucester, England, no one would have guessed that Whitefield’s celebrity would reach so far, so high or so soon.
Three hundred years after his birth, George Whitefield is not entirely forgotten, but his fame now is far dimmer than it was on that fall evening in Boston.
Today, Whitefield’s renown is surpassed by friends of his, including Ben Franklin and Jonathan Edwards, the great pastor-theologian of Northampton, Massachusetts.
But we should remember Whitefield, for he was the key figure in the first generation of Anglo-American evangelical Christianity.
Whitefield and legions of other evangelical pastors and laypeople helped establish a new interdenominational religious movement in the 18th century, one committed to the gospel of conversion, the new birth, the work of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of revival across Europe and America.
Writing biographies, and writing religious biographies in particular, presents significant challenges. The temptation to write hagiography – the biography of a pristine saint – is ever-present.
In my efforts to place Whitefield in his new evangelical world, I am not offering an unsullied picture of a sanctified man, nor is my primary aim to edify readers spiritually.
Yet historians today know that none of us is fully “objective” – personal perspectives and commitments matter.
I know this is a challenge for me as I write about Whitefield, too. I don’t hesitate to admit it: I have a high regard for Whitefield. I identify personally with the religious movement he helped start.
Yet in my biography I try to be fair to his critics and transparent about his obvious failings as a man and minister.
Included in these failings were his besetting inability to maintain peace with evangelical colleagues, his appalling behavior in relationships with women, including his wife, and his advocacy of slavery and personal ownership of slaves.
In his 1747 autobiography, Whitefield addressed the difficulties of the genre. “In the accounts of good men which I have read,” he said, “I have observed that the writers of them have been partial. They have given us the bright, but not the dark side of their character.”
He added: “This, I think, proceeded from a kind of pious fraud, lest mentioning persons’ faults should encourage others in sin. It cannot, I am sure, proceed from the wisdom which cometh from above.”
Although he might not appreciate how I have highlighted some less attractive aspects of his life, Whitefield and I are in full agreement about the danger of fashioning “pious frauds” of historical memory.
This seems to be a special temptation for modern American evangelicals, one to which I try not to fall prey.
Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and is a senior fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He blogs regularly at The Anxious Bench, and you can follow him via his newsletter or on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from his newly released biography “George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.” It is available here.