The History of Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name

Whenever the topic of George Whitefield comes up in my classes, I always have to tell the students, “I know it looks like you’d pronounce his last name White-field, but it is pronounced Whit-field.” Therein lies the reason why Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th century, also has one of the most misspelled names in history. In one of the odd accidents of English pronunciation, Whitefield’s name was not pronounced the way it is spelled. Thus from the beginning of his public career, people have been misspelling Whitefield’s name as “Whitfield.”

I see it all the time on social media. On Twitter, there are on average multiple tweets per day where his name is misspelled. (Figuring this out is made slower by the fact that one of America’s most prominent quarterback trainers is named—you guessed it—George Whitfield. I do not know if he’s named for the evangelist.)

One of the first misspellings of Whitefield’s name came in one of his first published sermons. In 1737 in London, a publisher produced an edition of what would become one of his signature sermons, The Nature and Necessity of the New Birth, but misspelled his last name. After that, most publishers were clued in to the correct spelling as he became arguably the most famous man in Britain and America during the mid-1700s.

But misspellings continued to pop up occasionally. Sometimes the name would be spelled correctly on the title page but wrongly within a publication. A 1771 Boston edition of John Wesley’s memorial sermon for Whitefield misspelled the name on the title page. (Ironically, Whitefield died in the Boston area in 1770. When word arrived in London, Wesley gave a memorial sermon at Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Road chapel, and the text of it made its way back across the Atlantic, where it was published in Boston, with Whitefield’s name misspelled.)

It appears that misspellings of his name became more common after Whitefield’s death in 1770. They started to appear in some significant publications, such as Olaudah Equiano’s remarkable slave narrative of 1789. There was also a different person named George Whitfield who worked in John Wesley’s book business and who appeared in Wesley’s will, which could have added to the confusion.

Another important reason for the chronic misspellings of Whitefield’s name in print was that spelling and editorial standards were, in general, lower in the 18th century than today. Thus a lot of misspellings of names and words showed up in a variety of publications. A notable accomplishment on this front was a hymnal (see image) that managed to misspell both Whitefield’s and the Wesleys’ names on the title page!

Learn more about Whitefield (hopefully with his name spelled correctly in every instance) in my 2014 Yale University Press biography of him.

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When Christians Began Speaking of ‘the’ Antichrist

A number of academic books include an intriguing 1840 quote, and editorial insertion, about Manifest Destiny and “the” Antichrist. The quote says that Manifest Destiny and the spread of Protestantism into Catholic lands represented the “beginning of the downfall of [the] Antichrist, and the spread of the Savior’s power of the gospel.” As we can see from the quote, Manifest Destiny was deeply tinged with anti-Catholicism.

But why do historians routinely assume that sources like this must mean “the” antichrist, even to the point of putting “the” in corrective brackets? The author meant to say “downfall of Antichrist,” not “downfall of the Antichrist.” It turns out that speaking of “the” antichrist is a relatively recent development. Inserting [the] before antichrist misunderstands the way that most Protestants before 1900 thought about the meaning of that eschatological term. For most observers between the Reformation and about 1900, “antichrist” was a power instead of a person.

Many readers will recall that 1 and 2 John are the only places that the term “antichrist” appears in Scripture. In the King James Version (the dominant English-language Bible well into the 20th century) “antichrist” appears four times in those books. None of the KJV references speaks of “the antichrist,” although 2 John 7 speaks of a deceiver who is “an antichrist”; 1 John 2:18 suggests that there is a single antichrist to come, but also notes that many antichrists have already entered the world. Of course, there are other references in the Bible, such as the “man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians and the beast(s) of Revelation, that commentators have associated with the antichrist.

Modern translations like the English Standard Version, New American Standard, and New International Version include “the” in most of the antichrist references in 1 and 2 John. My colleague David Garland tells me that in the Greek, “The definite article with antichrist appears in 1 John 2:22; 4:3, and 2 John 7. It is absent in 1 John 2:18, but that does not necessarily make the noun indefinite.”

Before the 20th century, most Protestant commentators spoke of “antichrist” far more frequently than “the antichrist.” For example, a search of Jonathan Edwards’s works gives 670 hits for “antichrist” but only 48 for “the antichrist.” Most of the latter are in editors’ words rather than in Edwards’s. Many commentators in this period, including Edwards, associated “antichrist” with Roman Catholicism, and sometimes with Islam. These were the great world religions they saw as opposed to the true interest of Christ in the world. Less frequently did commentators assert that the pope or Muhammad was “an” or “the” antichrist.

Edwards (as always) is instructive, writing about antichrist and “the antichrist” in a 1723 note on Revelation 13:11’s beast coming out of the earth. “This is he that is called Antichrist in Scripture,” Edwards wrote. He associated this beast with Catholicism, or “popery.” It was antichrist because of

the perfect and universal contrariety of popery to Christianity, and its peculiar opposition to it, beyond all religions that ever were; and because this is the contrivance of the wit of hell in opposition to the gospel, the masterpiece of all his inventions against the interest of Christ, the most cunning and subtle, the most effectual, of longest duration, the fruit of the greatest and longest labors and study: so that however there have been a great many antichrists, this is the Antichrist.

Satan was dreadfully surprised by Christ’s appearing in the world and the proclaiming [of] the gospel to all nations, and begun to look upon himself totally overthrown. But he, at length, thought of one thing more a means to defeat the design; and this was the last effort, and how wonderfully did he seem to succeed! Fitly, therefore, is this grand contrivance for opposing the gospel called antichristianism.

“Antichristianism” is closer in meaning to the typical concept before the 20th century than our modern concept of “the antichrist.” For these theologians, antichrist was a power, rather than a single individual, although a single individual might certainly be at the head of world antichristian power.

What changed in theological terminology so that “antichrist” without “the” started to seem like a mistake to historians? There was never a time when the usage of “the antichrist” vanished entirely, so it is hard to identify a single turning point when “the antichrist” started to become the norm.

But undoubtedly the advent of dispensational theology, with its elaborate end times chronology, was the key development. The Scofield Reference Bible, the most popular text of dispensational theology ever, emphasized the personal nature of the coming antichrist. “Antichrist the person is to be distinguished from the ‘many antichrists’” of 1 John 2, Scofield wrote (his italics). “The ‘many antichrists’ precede and prepare the way for the Antichrist,” he said.

In popular Western culture, the phrase “the antichrist” may have also become standard, ironically, in part because of Friedrich Nietzche’s furiously anti-Christian book of that name in 1895.

By the 1970s, wildly popular dispensational books such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth made it a commonplace that “the Antichrist” was a person who would come in the future. Lindsey and other dispensational writers construed him as a globalist political leader more often than a religious leader. Lindsey interpreted the beast out of the sea in the early verses of Revelation 13 as the Antichrist. “The passage is obviously talking about a person because the personal pronoun ‘he’ is used,” Lindsey wrote.

Such writers relegated the second beast of Revelation 13 to the status of the “false prophet,” or head of an apostate church that aids the work of the Antichrist. The best-selling Left Behind series of books in the 1990s and 2000s promoted a similar dispensational framework of the last days. Left Behind featured the Romanian politician Nicolae Carpathia as the head of the United Nations, and secretly, “the Antichrist.”

By the time of the Left Behind novels, it was hard to remember a time when most Protestants spoke of “antichrist” rather than “the Antichrist.”

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Alan Jacobs and Augustinian Anthropology

I recently read my friend and Baylor colleague Alan Jacobs’s erudite and accessible book Original Sin: A Cultural History. This book is a model of the kind of Christian apologetics that might actually reach non-Christians. Humankind’s flawed nature is an intractable problem that has vexed prominent observers from the ancient Greeks to the “New Atheists.” But explaining the reasons for that flawed nature has been trickier than observing it. Jacobs does not assume that his readers are Christians, but he does suggest that the Christian explanation for humanity’s propensity to sin is the best explanation of all.

Learned observers, including some liberal theologians, have been trying to jettison the doctrine of original sin (or our sin nature inherited from Adam) for millennia. But they haven’t come up with any more satisfactory explanations than the Christian one. That explanation was best advanced by Augustine and his theological descendants.

You must hold five distinct beliefs in order to affirm the Augustinian anthropology, Jacobs writes.

You must believe that everyone behaves in ways that we usually describe as selfish, cruel, arrogant, and so on. You must believe that we are hard-wired to behave in those ways and do not do so simply because of the bad examples of others. You must believe that such behavior is properly called wrong or sinful, whether it’s evolutionarily adaptive or not. You must believe that it was not originally in our nature to behave in such a way, but that we have fallen from a primal innocence. And you must believe that only supernatural intervention, in the form of what Christians call grace, is sufficient to drag us up out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves. (If we add to this list a sixth belief, that through the death of Jesus Christ God has provided this intervention, then we have the core of the theology that complements the anthropology. But that hasn’t been the concern of this book.)

Once the model is laid out in this way, with these five interlocking and necessary propositions, it may be surprising that anyone has ever affirmed it. Yet millions have, and millions more will. Perhaps that’s because each of these positions is well warranted by careful observation of human beings.

There’s a lot more to recommend in this book, not least Jacobs’s remarkable reading across many different times and places on the theme of sin and fallenness. It also displays a Christian willingness to speak to an interested non-Christian audience on their own terms. We must remember that the truths of the gospel will often seem implausible to outsiders, especially those who did not grow up in a Christian context.

Too often, pop Christian apologetics proceeds with the assumption that Christianity is so self-evidently true that you’d have to be stupid or dishonest to reject it. This is a bad approach for a number of reasons, not least that it implies that believers saw the light because they were smart enough to see it. For those of us with a high view of grace, such a smug view will not do.

Jacobs follows in a much healthier and theologically sound tradition of those such as C. S. Lewis who say to the non-Christian world, as it were, “I know that Christianity’s claims may sound crazy at first. But what if they actually make sense of life’s most besetting problems?”

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Is Jesus an Imperialist? The Problem of Missions and Empire

It has become a standard tenet of evangelical missiology today that missionaries overseas must not impose their extra-biblical cultural values on proselytes or converts. Critics say that missions by definition involves cultural imposition, if not outright imperialism.

There was a time in American history when missions advocates had no hesitation about combining the agendas of evangelism, “civilization,” and even empire. That backstory should make it clear why American Christians and other missionaries need to be careful to not let cultural or political assumptions infiltrate the gospel message. Yet the fact remains that it has always been easier for American missionaries to go where America has a strong business, political, or military presence. Like it or not, there has been a historic connection between empire and missions.

This was nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in the U.S. annexation of the Philippines in 1898, one of the first instances of the United States acting as a formal colonial power. It was also the first time that the United States had taken colonial possession of a territory with large numbers of Muslims living there.

As Karine Walther shows in her book Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921, prominent U.S. politicians and missions advocates made the case for annexing the Philippines on evangelistic and civilizational grounds. President William McKinley told a group of Methodist pastors that God had shown him that the United States should  “take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”

Senator Albert Beveridge added aspects of civil religion and racial superiority to bolster the case.

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race he has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man.

Some anti-imperialists accused the pro-annexation, pro-missions advocates of hypocrisy, as these same people would criticize Islam for having been spread by force. South Carolina senator Ben Tillman declared, “We are a Christian people and our missionaries, or those imbued with the missionary spirit, clamor for the annexation of the islands for the purpose of shedding over them the light of the gospel. We are asked to do as Mahomet did with his creed—carry the Christian religion to these people upon the point of a bayonet, as he spread Islamism over western Asia and eastern Europe and northern Africa on his scimitar.”

But in general, American missionary societies and other Christian leaders (including advocates of both Social Gospel service and direct evangelism) backed annexation as a boon for missions. One Presbyterian minister said that he believed “in imperialism because I believe in foreign missions. Our Foreign Mission Board can teach Congress how to deal with remote dependencies. . . . The Church must go where America goes.”

One religious periodical, the Missionary Record, even claimed Jesus for the cause of empire. “Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus was the most imperial of the imperialists?” they asked.

Evangelicals believe that the gospel is universally true and that they should share the gospel message with the hope of converting the world. How hard it has been to distinguish that conviction from other forms of cultural and political baggage! But we must be constantly vigilant against letting other agendas corrupt the gospel.

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