I always celebrate new books about George Whitefield, because so few have been written about him, especially compared to Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. Peter Choi’s lavishly researched and well-crafted book, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire, is the distillation of his doctoral research under the able guidance of Mark Noll. While many previous books on Whitefield devoted greater attention to the religious aspects of his life, Choi seeks to create a more balanced portrait that includes the social and political background.
The result is a more complex but comprehensive description of the transatlantic celebrity evangelist. Choi—director of academic programs at Newbigin House of Studies and a pastor at City Church in San Francisco—is interested in Whitefield’s imperial agenda and the advance of the British Empire of the 18th century. Whitefield’s ability “to constantly reinvent himself had roots in his theological convictions about the new birth,” Choi writes, “but also bore social and political implications for reimagining British imperial as well as American colonial identity” (4).
This book describes the tectonic shifts between how the empire “shaped the Awakening in its early phases and absorbed the revivals in their later stages” (2). Whitefield, of course, was instrumental in the shaping of this story—and was also transformed by it.
George Whitefield (1714–1770) is remembered as a spirited revivalist, a catalyst for the Great Awakening, and a founder of the evangelical movement in America. But Whitefield was also a citizen of the British Empire who used his political savvy and theological creativity to champion the cause of imperial expansion. In this religious biography of “the Grand Itinerant,” Peter Choi recounts a fascinating human story and, in the process, reexamines the Great Awakening and its relationship to a fast-growing British Empire.
Whitefield and Empire
Choi focuses on Whitefield’s imperial motives, particularly as manifested in the colony of Georgia. This undeveloped territory on the margins of the British Empire became Whitefield’s locus for experimentation and an incubator for his spiritual, social, and political endeavors in the colonies. His frequent correspondence regarding his Bethesda orphanage prompts Choi to boldly claim that Whitefield was more interested in establishing schools than churches in Georgia (64, 69–70). Additionally, Choi claims that charity and concern for orphans were at least as important to Whitefield as the revivals, if not more so (50, 56, 69, 70).
Readers will discover that the focus on the expanding British Empire elevates the Great Awakening of the American colonies over the Evangelical Revival in Britain. Also, Whitefield’s patriotic involvement is skillfully sketched but stops short of the American Revolution, arguably the most noteworthy demonstration of the theme of empire.
Challenging Common Perceptions
One mark of an outstanding book is that it challenges readers to consider new assessments of established insights. For example, it’s commonly held that Whitefield was unsophisticated and intellectually weak, but Choi asserts that he was thoughtful, creative, and always strategizing. In fact, he depicts the Anglican minister as a “disruptive theological innovator” who was highly skilled “in negotiating his way through” theological differences with others (34, 94). He adapted his thought over time: according to Choi, Whitefield’s signature sermon on the new birth evolved over the years and reframed the Puritan morphology of conversion (59–63).
Choi also challenges the common perception that while John Wesley was a strategic innovator who created an extensive network of religious societies to nurture new converts, Whitefield lacked any organizational ability. Instead, Choi identifies Whitefield as a shrewd leader who was simply more intentional about creating an expanding transatlantic evangelical network than smaller local religious societies (86).
Choi is at his best when providing valuable context to clarify key developments in Whitefield’s life. For instance, he offers background regarding Whitefield’s intentional preference for the South over New England (19, 31–35). He helps us better understand the drama regarding the thorny and embarrassing issue of slavery (134–42) and the reasons behind the Protestant fear of French Catholics (176–186). He also gives the back story that explains the development and significance of Whitefield’s longstanding interest in American colleges (194–232).
Because Choi privileges the social and political context of Whitefield, at times he diminishes spiritual themes. While he helpfully sketches the changing orientation of Whitefield’s support of slavery, he neglects to add that Whitefield was the first religious leader to insist that slaves also possessed a soul and needed the gospel (see for example, Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist, 111, 123, 197, 284–85). He also devotes minimal attention to the prominence of the Holy Spirit in Whitefield’s ministry.
Occasionally Choi attempts to analyze Whitefield’s motivations—with a tendency to pronounce with certainty the reason for his actions. For example, when discussing Whitefield’s reduced interest in regeneration, Choi declares: “This change must be understood in terms of the life cycle of a revival, which has an inevitable end” (100, cf. 231). But interpreting motivations is risky, and such proclamations should be made cautiously.
Peter Choi’s George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire is a welcome addition to the study of early evangelicalism, and combined with Thomas Kidd’s outstanding George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father creates a robust and balanced introduction to this transatlantic giant of great accomplishments and incredible flaws. Choi’s volume will stimulate much creative discussion.