On Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name

ebb68-georgewhitefieldTwenty-five years ago I was writing an M.A. thesis on separatist fundamentalism in twentieth-century America.  One of the key figures in my research was a mid-century fundamentalist named Carl McIntire.  (I actually published an article about him in 1994).

As I read secondary sources that mentioned McIntire I was struck by how so many scholars–very good scholars–misspelled his name “McIntyre.”  But I digress.

I thought about the McIntire-McIntyre issue when I saw the title of Thomas Kidd‘s recent post at The Gospel Coalition: “The History of Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name.”  Kidd, of course, is the author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

Here is a taste:

Whenever the topic of George Whitefield comes up in my classes, I always have to tell the students, “I know it looks like you’d pronounce his last name White-field, but it is pronounced Whit-field.” Therein lies the reason why Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th century, also has one of the most misspelled names in history. In one of the odd accidents of English pronunciation, Whitefield’s name was not pronounced the way it is spelled. Thus from the beginning of his public career, people have been misspelling Whitefield’s name as “Whitfield….”

…One of the first misspellings of Whitefield’s name came in one of his first published sermons. In 1737 in London, a publisher produced an edition of what would become one of his signature sermons, The Nature and Necessity of the New Birth, but misspelled his last name. After that, most publishers were clued in to the correct spelling as he became arguably the most famous man in Britain and America during the mid-1700s.

But misspellings continued to pop up occasionally. Sometimes the name would be spelled correctly on the title page but wrongly within a publication. A 1771 Boston edition of John Wesley’s memorial sermon for Whitefield misspelled the name on the title page. (Ironically, Whitefield died in the Boston area in 1770. When word arrived in London, Wesley gave a memorial sermon at Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Road chapel, and the text of it made its way back across the Atlantic, where it was published in Boston, with Whitefield’s name misspelled.)

Read the rest here

One thought on “On Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name

  1. I’ve seen Whitefield’s name spelled as “Whitfield” in some texts, both contemporary and modern. But can we speak of misspellings in even late 18th century English? Any time spent reading texts from that era shows that English orthography was not yet formalized. Modern quotes of text from the mid-18th century are often riddled with “[sic].” And let’s face it; even modern English is an orthographic mess with its bizarre lingering old Germanic (“night,””two”) and medieval French (beautiful) spellings with their piles of pointless vowels. Whitefield (or Whitfield) had already lived 2/3 of his life by the time Johnson’s dictionary was published. Thomas Kidd may be expecting a more rigidly structured spelling regime in English than existed at the time.

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