America’s Spiritual Founding Father, George Whitefield

"The popular preacher helped define American evangelicalism as a broad, inclusive movement."

By Published on February 17, 2015

The early 18th century was not a time of religious vibrancy and high church attendance. The upheavals of the previous century — collectively, if misleadingly, called “religious wars” — had seemed to discredit fervent belief. Yet at the height of his popularity in the 1740s, George Whitefield, the Anglican preacher and greatest evangelist of the First Great Awakening, was probably the most famous person in the English-speaking world, with the exception of the king himself. That a preacher should have generated international controversy and celebration—particularly a preacher who embraced a conservative Calvinism rather than some scandalous new heterodoxy—could not have been predicted in, say, the year of Whitefield’s birth, 1714.

Although Whitefield died before the American Revolution, in 1770, Thomas S. Kidd contends that he was profoundly influential on the American nation’s founding. An Anglican, he embraced baptists, presbyterians, Lutherans and even — with apprehensions — Moravians. He simply refused to countenance doctrinal divisions except in cases of (as he saw it) obvious heresy. George Whitefield did not invent American evangelicalism, but he made it, as we might say, a cohesive demographic.

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Michelle Cushatt
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