How George Whitefield Expanded the British Empire

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: Evangelist for God and Empire
Peter Choi

purchase

George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire
Peter Choi
Eerdmans (2018). 240 pp. $24.00.

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).

Spiritual Themes

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.

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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Being Truly Seen

When I watched Crazy Rich Asians, I cried. My husband teared up as well, and, according to my Twitter feed, lots of other people did too.

So why is a romantic comedy making people weep?

For a long time, neither Asian American faces nor experiences were well represented in movies. You have to go back 25 years to find a studio-backed film that had a mostly Asian American cast. So when my husband and I watched Crazy Rich Asians and saw people who looked like us and faced similar cultural struggles—feeling like the immigrant outsider—we were overwhelmed.

Why this widespread reaction? Because when we are seen and known, we are acknowledged as human beings with inherent dignity and value. We are neither mistakes nor outsiders. We belong. The beautiful uniqueness of who we are is celebrated, not whitewashed or marginalized.

For me, the experience of watching the film and feeling seen and known by it provided a beautiful reminder that there is One who sees and knows me fully. He is my Creator and perfect Father. When art like this functions as a mirror—when we recognize ourselves and feel seen by it—it can remind us that there is God who created us each uniquely and sees and knows us more intimately than anyone else does. It reminded me, for example, that God created me purposefully as an Asian American

God Made Me Asian American

Does it matter that I am a Christian and Asian? Does God care that I am Asian American?

The answer is resoundingly yes. In Psalm 139, the psalmist wrote that God “knitted me together in my mother’s womb,” that he was “fearfully and wonderfully made.” God is intentional in who he creates us to be.

We are all made in his image, and our Asian Americanness is a part of that. Our heritage, our struggle to fit into two (or more) cultures, our feelings that we are foreigners—these are all unique experiences that God can and will use for his glory.

Asian American heritage, our struggle to fit into two (or more) cultures, our feelings that we are foreigners—these are all unique experiences that God can and will use for his glory.

Part of why I was so moved by Crazy Rich Asians is that I saw these familiar experiences so clearly in the film. Rachel (Constance Wu) is off balance and uncomfortable in the extravagant world of Singapore. Not only is she in a different social class than the people around her, but she’s seen as an American outsider and not Chinese enough by her boyfriend’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).

Many white Americans might find it shocking to hear the word “American” said with pity or disdain, as Eleanor does in the film. But Asian Americans feel this tension constantly. In America, it is the “Asian” part that ostracizes us; but in Asia, it is the “American” side that disqualifies us. I am both, and I find no complete home in either place.

The reality is that all Christians should also feel like foreigners to this world. We know this world is not our home. Our citizenship is in heaven, so we should never feel fully accepted or at home here. As Asian Americans who are not quite accepted by our parents’ cultures and also perpetual outsiders in America, we can perhaps understand that aspect of our Christian identity more easily.

God Loves That I’m Asian American

Again, until I saw Crazy Rich Asians, I had never seen a movie celebrate aspects of my Asian and Asian American culture.

Take all the food scenes. I’ve been to Singapore twice to visit my husband’s family, and to that exact outdoor food court where Rachel tastes all that scrumptious food. It was refreshing to see satays, laksa curry, and ice kachang portrayed as delicious instead of just peculiar or cringe-inducing.

There’s another scene in the film in which Rachel’s boyfriend’s family makes dumplings together as a bonding activity. In American films, we might see families play board games or football in the backyard. But here, we see an Asian and Asian American tradition portrayed as the normal way families spend time together—doing an activity I did with my parents as a child.

There there’s the famous mahjong scene. Instead of a poker or chess scene to represent the conflict between Rachel and Eleanor, we are mesmerized by this game with its beautiful tiles and clicking sounds—sounds my husband grew up hearing whenever he visited relatives overseas.

God loves and celebrates us in our cultural distinctness. I believe he knows my favorite dish is gejang, a spicy crab fermented in soy sauce. I believe God sees and blesses many of my family’s cultural traditions, like bowing to our elders on New Year’s Day and eating seaweed soup on birthdays, knowing they bring our family members closer together.

I believe God was pleased by all the time I spent with my mother, learning to play with Hwatu (flower cards used to play a fast-paced strategy and matching game) or Gonggi, a game played with five grape-sized pebbles that you toss and catch. 

God Sees You

When people “get you,” it means they have been paying attention. They respect you, dignify you, and see you. In a culture (or even in a church) rife with misunderstanding one another, thinking the worst of one another, and painting the other with broad brushes, a movie like Crazy Rich Asians is a great reminder that one way we can love better is by being more attentive: listening, learning, seeing each other in our differences—differences God crafted and celebrates.

A movie like Crazy Rich Asians is a great reminder that one way we can love each other better is by being more attentive: listening, learning, seeing one other in our differences—differences God created and celebrates.

To my non-Asian American brothers and sisters reading this article, God sees and knows you too, and he delights in many aspects of your culture. Since we are in Christ, we are brothers and sisters in a deeper way than any of the familial bonds depicted in Crazy Rich Asians, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or any other “big ethnic family” film. But part of being siblings-in-Christ is loving one other amid our cultural differences, not in spite of them.

To my Asian American brothers and sisters, God sees you and knows you too. He loves that we are Asian American. But the validation we get from seeing ourselves in television or movies like Crazy Rich Asians is nothing compared to the affirmation we get from God, our Creator, through our union with Christ, his Son, through whom we are born again.

We are seen, we are known, and we are loved by God on high. That is something we can all weep over with joy and gratitude.


Editors’ note: A version of this article originally appeared at SOLA Network.

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