26 Mar

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (1991)

The Divine Dramatist traces the biography of George Whitefield, “Anglo-America’s most popular eighteenth-century preacher” (xiii). Harry S. Stout recounts this life story through Whitefield’s published writings and diaries, letters, magazines, and newspapers from the eighteenth-century. This book examines Whitefield’s popularity in terms of social and cultural history. Stout argues that Whitefield “bequeathed a new, more modern sense to the term evangelical. His field preaching competed not only with the ‘velvet-mouthed’ preachers of his church, but also with the vendors, sportsmen, and entertainers of the marketplace” (65-66). According to Stout, “It was left to Whitefield to become Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age” (xvi). Whitefield infused religion with modern forms of consumption and helped shift the meaning of “revival” by employing modern notions of epistemology to conversion. Stout concludes that Whitefield was an American icon, a Pauline evangelist, and an American patriot.

Summary

The young Whitefield enjoyed theatre, but scorned secular entertainment after an epiphany at Oxford. As a “boy preacher,” Whitefield harnessed the power of the press to debate Anglican Bishops and publish sermons. While in Georgia, Whitefield continued publishing in the Journal to maintain his religious audience. In the 1730s, Whitefield induced revivals in London, colonial America, and Scotland. He transformed the sermon into “a dramatic event capable of competing for public attention outside the arena of the church—in fact, the marketplace” (66). By 1750, America and Britain experienced the first seeds of a “consumer revolution” (xvii) that focused on the marketplace, manufacturing, capital, and leisure. The new language of consumption did not include religion and “threatened to overtake social discourse” (xviii). Whitefield integrated religious discourse into this language of consumption to show that “preaching could be both edifying and entertaining” (xvi). Whitefield attracted international attention, especially among women, as well as controversy. Samuel Foote satirized Whitefield as Dr. Squintum and criticized his use of theatrics to market religion.

In the 1740s, Whitefield worked to restore relationships with religious authorities and continued his revivalist mission. Stout argues that Whitefield “helped introduce a new concept of religious experience that grew throughout the nineteenth-century into a recognizably ‘evangelical movement’” (xx). This concept of religious experience was grounded in revivals, typified by Whitefield, that were based on personal conversion experiences. Whitefield’s revivals in the mid- eighteenth-century departed from Puritan revivals. This departure resulted from a shift in epistemology. Puritans “denied that conversion could be experienced by those who were ignorant of the theological terms on which it rested. This meant that the teaching function of the church had always received primary interest” (206). Whitefield reversed this emphasis so that “individual experience became the ground for a shared theology” of conversions and, therefore, revival. Stout traces this shift to Lockean epistemology, which focused on sensation and experience: “As sensation represented the only avenue for natural knowledge in Lockean epistemology, so the supernatural experience of New Birth became the sole authentic means to spiritual knowledge in the evangelical revivals” (205). Modern evangelicalism is marked by a shift in the ways Christians experienced conversion and revival. Conversion and revival transformed from “a mysterious, local, communal event to one that was predictable and highly subjective” (xxi). The conversions and revivals of Whitefield were based on individual, personal, and emotional experiences of the supernatural.

Historiography

The Divine Dramatist is an important contribution to the study of American religion. Stout provides a much needed historical account of George Whitefield’s itinerancy. As Stout notes, “Studies of Whitefield have too often abstracted him from the age in which he lived” (xvi). Scholars often present hagiographies of Whitefield, not historical analyses. Stout does much to correct this. However, Stout’s biography may overstate the degree to which Whitefield embodied “American” values. Stout suggests that both Whitefield and Americans “chafed against authority and arbitrary powers” (91). This reading presupposes “the revolutionary spirit” of “Americans.” Many colonial Americans, especially males, supported the white, male hierarchy of the colonies. Women, slaves, and non-landowning males had little political, social, or economic authority and could not challenge established order. A stronger biography might fully situate Whitefield within this hegemonic, Anglo structure. Whitefield was an Anglo-American in the sense that he, like other Anglo-Americans, were British subjects.

Stout also presents Whitefield as the driving force behind the integration of religious discourse into the marketplace. Whitefield is presented as a phenomenon and innovator for his use of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology. Whitefield is a lone hero who transcended the public sphere and transformed religion: “Only Whitefield thought to transcend denominational lines entirely and, in effect, ply a religious trade in the open air of the marketplace” (xviii). In presenting Whitefield as a hero, Stout borders on elevating Whitefield’s biography to hagiography. To be sure, Whitefield was a popular itinerant preachers who achieved international celebrity. However, as Charles G. Finney remembered in “Measure to Promote Revivals,” Whitefield was not always so popular in British-America. According to Finney, “When Whitefield came to this country, what an astonishing opposition he raised! Often he well nigh lost his life, and barely escaped by skin of his teeth. Now, everybody looks upon him as the glory of the age in which he lived.” Many British-Americans did not recognize Whitefield as an American hero as Stout suggests.

Moreover, as other historians have shown, Whitefield’s tactics were not all that new. He did not initiate preaching outdoors, using the press for religious discourse, or calling for revivals based on personal experience. As David Hall argues in World of Wonder, Days of Judgment, print media were an integral part of popular religion in seventeenth-century New England. Moreover, Sarah Rivett challenges notions that Puritans were not modern. In The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, Rivett shows how sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritans employed Lockean epistemology to experience the supernatural for personal conversions. Whitefield was more of a product of his social and historical surroundings than Stout suggests. Nevertheless, Stout’s work remains significant for its recognition of the centrality of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology to eighteenth-century Anglo-American religion, particularly Whitefield’s evangelism.

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