We are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. You can get caught up here.
This post examines Metaxas’s understanding of the First Great Awakening and, specifically, the role in the Awakening played by George Whitefield. Since Metaxas devotes an entire chapter to Whitefield and connects the eighteenth-century ministry of the evangelist to the coming of the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America, it is worth spending some time exploring his treatment of this topic.
As Metaxas correctly points out (over and over again), George Whitefield was extremely popular. During the height of the evangelical revival known as the First Great Awakening he was, without a doubt, the most popular person in the British-American colonies. As the first inter-colonial celebrity, Whitefield’s message of the New Birth did play a unifying role in the colonies. The evangelist forged an inter-colonial community of the saved. Indeed, this is why many historians have traced the origins of American evangelicalism to Whitefield.
But after establishing Whitefield as an American rock star who brought the colonies together in unprecedented ways, Metaxas’s argument goes off the rails. First, it is worth noting that not everyone liked Whitefield. There were many who opposed him or simply did not care about what he had to say about the state of their souls. On p.112, Metaxas cites evangelical pastor John Piper as a historical authority on this issue. Since there is no footnote (there are only 8 footnotes in the entire book) I have no idea where Metaxas got the quote, but Piper apparently once said: “by 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion.” I like John Piper–but he overstates his case here.
Second, and perhaps most troublesome, is Metaxas’s effort to turn Whitefield into some kind of spiritual founding father of the American republic. Here are the passages worth thinking about more deeply:
p. 100: “During his lifetime [Whitefield] would cross the Atlantic thirteen times, but it was this second trip to America that would forever alter the landscape of the New World, which in turn would affect the rest of the world. Because it would unite that scatting of peoples into a single people, one that together saw the world differently than any had before and that was prepared to depart from history in a way none had ever done. What would happen during his time in the thirteen colonies would begin the process of uniting them into something greater than the sum of their disparate parts, would begin the process of preparing them to become the United States of America.”
p.103: “Americans were becoming united in the wake of his nonstop preaching. People were being offered a new identity that fit well with the American way of thinking. Some were German by background and some were French and some were English, but none of it mattered. They were all equal under God; they were all Americans. This was something new, an identity that was separate from one’s ethnicity or one’s denomination. To be an American meant to buy into a new set of ideas about one’s equal status in God’s eyes–and by dint of this to be accepted into a new community, to be an Americans.
p.112: “[Whitefield] united the colonies as they had never been united, articulating what they came to believe. So that everyone who accepted these views about liberty and independence–with all of their ramifications and corollaries–would have this in common with the others who did; and sharing these ideas set forth by Whitefield became a vital part of what it meant to be an American. All who believed these things began to think of themselves as Americans as much as–if not more than–they thought of themselves as citizens of Connecticut or Maryland or North Carolina, for example. The various members of the thirteen colonies thus slowly became a people; and these people–this people–would eventually seek political independence and would become a nation.”
Metaxas suggests that Whitefield paved the way for the American Revolution. At one point in his book he even describes Whitefield’s conversion, which took place while he was a student at Oxford University, as “a hinge in the history of the world–a point on which everything turns.” Not only does this imply that Whitefield somehow triggered the American Revolution and the birth of the United States, but it also feeds into Metaxas’s argument, which we will discuss in a later post, that God raised up America as an exceptional nation to accomplish His will in the world.
To be fair, there are several historians who have suggested a link between Whitefield (and by extension the First Great Awakening) and the American Revolution. The argument goes something like this: Whitefield’s egalitarian message taught the colonists that they were all equal before God and his preaching in local communities taught the colonists how to challenge the authority of ministers who had not experienced the New Birth. This new sense of equality and resistance to tyrannical authority was then somehow transferred to the political realm, thus explaining the colonial resistance to Great Britain in the 1760s and 1770s.
Those who make this argument today do so with a great deal of caution. But Metaxas throws caution to the wind. No legitimate historian would take this argument as far as he has done in the three passages I quoted above. The reason why so many historians tread lightly when connecting the evangelicalism of the Great Awakening to the American Revolution is because there is limited concrete evidence that the founding fathers, or the people for that matter, were specifically drawing upon evangelicalism as they articulated their political resistance to England.
Metaxas is basically trying to argue for the evangelical origins of the American Revolution. The New Birth, he suggests, melted away all other forms of identity–ethnic identities, local political identities, religious identities–into a unique and exceptional “American” identity. He offers a Whig interpretation of the American Revolution on steroids. It fails to explain the persistence of ethnic identity in the decades following the Revolution. It fails to explain the states-rights and local orientation of the Articles of Confederation. It fails to explain denominationalism as it developed in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. And it highly exaggerates the influence of Whitefield, evangelicalism, and the Great Awakening on colonial life. Metaxas fails to realize that religious belief was not particularly strong at the time of the American Revolution.
Finally, let’s remember that the First Great Awakening was a transatlantic spiritual movement. Whatever unity among evangelicals that Whitefield helped to create was not unique to the British-American colonies. Whitefield preached the same gospel message in England, Wales, and Scotland. The people in the British-American colonies who embraced the New Birth saw themselves as part of a movement that was transatlantic in nature. In other words, the Great Awakening made the religious and cultural relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies stronger, not weaker.
The Great Awakening was a deeply religious movement that had a profound impact on ordinary people and their relationship with God. Metaxas’s interpretation makes it into a political movement. When people experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit they were not thinking about the ways in which their newfound encounter with God was planting the seeds of rebellion against England. It is time to stop interpreting the Great Awakening through the grid of the American Revolution.