Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Whitefield and Public Religion

I'm doing some work on George Whitefield, the eminent 18th century evangelist, known for bringing his pulpit into the fields and marketplaces in England, Scotland and America. He interests me for a few reasons, prominent among them is how much of a public figure he was; Harry Stout of Yale calls him, "Anglo-American's first modern celebrity" (Divine Dramatist). Through the mediums of print and preaching Whitefield helped facilitate the emerging public sphere, as well dominated public opinion. However, it had its costs, Stout records this in his biography of Whitefield,

Instances of mob violence against Whitefield and his Methodist
allies grew increasingly serious as the movement grew increasingly popular [...] Sometimes the mob would target the speakers; other times they would wade into the crowd and simplyassault without regard to gender or age. (176)

Stout goes on to give greater detail of the recorded happenings, which included being pissed on, guns to the face, severe beatings, and one incident where Charles Wesley was beaten while women in the crowd were stripped.

Most interesting about this uncalled for violence is exactly how uncalled for it was. Whitefield preached a simple message of conversion--and though at times railing against clergy, his railings were nothing altogether new. The only point of conflict is the actual competition Whitefield offered the marketers. While preaching he would drown out thehockers and ask for charity for the Georgia orphan house.

Reflecting on it seems that the competition was more than noise and money but was the message of the sermon itself. When listeners began to find the message of a new birth taking root in their hearts they, I'm speculating, also found their affections and desires reordered so that acquisition lost its luster and standing to hear the Word and giving to those in need became, dare I say it, attractive.