Pastor Greg Laurie Wrongly Tells Fellow Court Evangelicals that the United States Was “founded in a time of spiritual revival”

Laurie

Greg Laurie (left) and some of his fellow court evangelicals

Here is what Laurie recently told his congregation (as reported by the Christian Post) about his speech (and prayer) at the August 27 court evangelical celebration at the White House:

Laurie reminded those in attendance for the dinner that the U.S. was “founded in a time of spiritual revival.”

“One of our founding fathers named George — not Washington but Whitefield, an evangelist from England — preached the Gospel and thousands of colonists came to faith in Christ and it brought about moral change in a culture as a revival always does,” Laurie said. “We were able to sow the seeds of this new nation in that receptive soil of morality based on a faith in God. I don’t think we could have done it without it. I mentioned that not only are we founded with revival, we need to have another revival.”

I don’t know where to begin.

Let me start with a few quick facts:

  1.  George Whitefield died in 1770.
  2.  Church attendance and membership was at a low point during the American Revolution.
  3.  I can’t think of a legitimate historical work that proves the First Great Awakening brought about sustained “moral change” in British-American culture.

If I had to guess, I would say Laurie is getting his “history” here from Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  (Metaxas was also present at the White House dinner).

As some of you know, I wrote an extensive critique of If You Can Keep It.  The book is loaded with historical problems.  In fact, the entire argument is built on a bad historical foundation.  Here is my post on Metaxas’s belief that George Whitefield is somehow responsible for the American Revolution:

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.

The Christian Right continues to build their political argument on sinking historical sand.

The Author’s Corner with Peter Choi

ChoiPeter Choi is Director of Academic Programs at Newbigin House of Studies.  This interview is based on his recent book George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Eerdmans, 2018).

JF: What led you to write George Whitefield?

PC: It was a seemingly simple question that got me interested in George Whitefield, especially his later years: “What happened after revival?” I wanted to understand the Great Awakening in all of its various stages, including what I call in the book “revival twilight”––that is, “the long, calmer, and cooler aftermath of the white-hot bursts” of revival. It seemed sensible that to understand the long trajectory of revival I should attempt a study of the lifelong arc of the most important revival preacher. For such a well-known figure, the second half of his life is a surprisingly neglected feature of works on his life. The more I encountered this phenomenon, the more I wanted to know what he was like as he got older. Other questions arose along the way, like, What were the long-term effects of a spirituality of revival on Christian communities? Crucibles rarely leave things intact, and so, how did spirituality and theology change as a result of the fires of revival?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Whitefield?

PCThe evangelical revivals and early leaders like George Whitefield were products of an imperial age. Describing how evangelical Christianity emerged from a culture of empire building is therefore essential work for understanding the development of Christianity in America.

JF: Why do we need to read George Whitefield?

PCWith so many questions swirling about the relationship between religion and politics today, and myriad questions surrounding evangelicalism in particular, my book is one attempt to go back to the beginning in order to offer a reexamination of nascent evangelicalism. The past informs our present, and I’m convinced that it’s impossible to understand the state of American Christianity today (and broader issues related to culture and politics for that matter) apart from an honest assessment of the early evangelicals and their entanglement in the British empire.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PCAs an Asian American interested in learning about the history of Asian American Christianity, I received helpful counsel early on to study a topic that was related yet distant from the questions in which I had a more vested personal interest. Because of the significant influence of evangelicalism on Korean-American Christianity in particular, I was drawn to a study of revival history more broadly conceived.

Also, in the course of pastoral ministry, I began to see that historical questions interested me as much as, if not more than, theological ones. Beyond doctrine and belief, I became more interested in how Christianity had changed over time.

JF: What is your next project?

PCI’m in the early stages of a project on Christianity and race in the 18th century, attempting to connect the work I’ve done on Whitefield and slavery to other early evangelicals and their relationship to broader processes of racialization occurring in their era. 

JF: Thanks, Peter!

The Willow Creek Mess

Hybels

A couple of weeks ago I was lecturing about George Whitefield to a group of K-12 history teachers gathered for a summer seminar at Princeton University.  I was rambling-on about Whitefield’s celebrity and his ability to attract large crowds.  I talked about his ability to unite Atlantic provincials in a common evangelicalism.  I described his relationship with Ben Franklin, his founding of an orphanage in Georgia, and his leadership of the First Great Awakening.

At one point in the lecture, an elementary-school social studies teacher who had never heard of Whitefield raised her hand and asked, “So what happened with this guy?  As I hear you talk I am expecting some kind of scandal or moral indiscretion.  How did Whitefield fall?”  This teacher seemed surprised that Whitefield never got caught-up in some kind of sex scandal.  She assumed that the Whitefield story ended badly.  We stopped and talked about Whitefield’s self-promotion, his ownership of slaves, and the way he divided local congregations, but as far as I know there was never an Elmer Gantry or Jimmy Swaggart moment in Whitefield’s life.

I thought about this teacher’s question as I read more about Bill Hybels and his moral indiscretions while serving as pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.  She may have meant her question to be snarky or cynical, but I did not take it this way.  It seemed like she had just come to expect this kind of thing from popular and powerful evangelical preachers.

You can get up to speed on the recent developments in the Hybels case by reading Laurie Goodstein’s piece in The New York Times.  I also appreciate Scot McKnight’s critique of Willow Creek and Hybels at Jesus Creed.  McKnight once attended Willow Creek.

Here is a taste of McKnight’s post; “Willow Creek, Your Time is Now”:

The time is now to be guided by this independent council of wisdom to tell the truth about Bill, to tell the truth about the women and Bill’s inappropriate, sexual relations, to tell the truth about governance that protected Bill’s reputation rather than Willow’s congregation, to tell the truth about bullying by the leaders through the Human Resources and buying silence through NDA (non disclosure agreements), to tell the truth about how the WCA’s Board was told by the three who resigned when the WCA refused to investigate Bill Hybels, and to tell the truth about the need for an independent investigation. The investigators cannot choose those who have to be investigated. An independent leadership council must do the choosing. Willow must be willing to listen to the council.  It is also time to tell the truth, in spite of what has been said by leaders after his resignation, about Bill’s continued contact with leaders at Willow to shape decisions.

It is time now to find the truth, to be transparent, to investigate the governance, and to tell that truth honestly.

The women told the truth. The Willow narrative is a false and deceptive narrative.

Why was it so easy for the journalists at Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today to find stories from women but Willow’s so-called investigation turned up nothing?

The time is now. Willow, your time is now. Time to find the truth, tell the truth, and live into that truth.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Fred Witzig

41WNTjQqz9L._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Fred Witzig is Professor of History at Monmouth College. This interview is based on his new book, Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: I was introduced to Alexander Garden by George Whitefield. My interest in Whitefield and the Great Awakening began when I was an undergraduate and never ended. But I quickly noticed that while the scholarship on Whitefield is lively and expansive, historians had never even begun to adequately assess the enormous efforts of clergy who worked against him. Foremost among them were New England Congregationalist Charles Chauncy and the commissary of the Church of England in the Carolinas, Alexander Garden. Chauncy largely failed in his efforts against the Awakening, and he’s famous among historians today. Garden went after Whitefield with more creativity and energy than Chauncy did, and, impressively, he succeeded in squelching the Awakening in South Carolina. More broadly, Garden arrived in South Carolina at a seminal moment in its development; in the aftermath of the Yamasee War, the white colonists shifted the economic foundations of their colony squarely onto African slave labor. Garden lent his considerable leadership skills to this endeavor, and in the process made a place for the Church of England, and Christianity in general, in the South that would last for more than a century. Yet, historians sometimes confuse him with the botanist Alexander Garden, and his only biography—until now!—is an unpublished dissertation from almost forty years ago. I think it’s time he gets his due.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: Alexander Garden marshalled the resources of the Church of England in support of the burgeoning slave plantation economy of early South Carolina and applied a veneer of spiritual respectability to carnal exploitations of slave labor. In the process, Garden smothered the fires of a more egalitarian evangelical revivalism, burdened possibilities for the amelioration of the conditions of slavery with a Christianized paternalism that prevailed until the Civil War, and made the Church of England in the colony more influential than ever before.

JF: Why do we need to read Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: Are you interested in the long and sometimes sordid history of the entanglement of Christianity and slavery in North America; the history of the Christian Church, and especially the Church of England, in the South; the development of the southern social order that prevailed at least until the Civil War; the early efforts to educate and evangelize slaves (Garden founded the continent’s first major slave school); the reasons why the Great Awakening flourished and then died out in the Carolinas and Georgia; and the way non-evangelical colonial leaders challenged and shaped George Whitefield’s evangelical ministry? If you are, this is your book. I wrote it with undergraduates in mind, as well, so that faculty teaching courses on Southern history, evangelicalism, slavery, and other such topics could assign it to their students. In the preface I call it a dual biography: the story of the tragic but productive relationship between a refugee from Scotland and his colony on the edge of the British Empire.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

FW: Two events stand out. The first was when I visited Appomattox Courthouse with my family when I was probably seven years old. Standing outside on the rutted road there in Virginia, my dad told in dramatic fashion the story of General Grant’s meeting with General Lee, and then Lee’s surrender of his troops in the next couple of days. I knew then that history was the most fascinating subject anyone could ever study. The second event was when I was twenty-six and decided to change careers and become a teacher. What else would I ever want to teach?

JF: What is your next project?

FW: I’ve had a strong interest in public history for . . . years. Recently I started two websites. One is an attempt to reach smart but non-expert adults with thoughtful histories of the United States, the church at large, and a smattering of other topics. Eventually it will host resources for homeschooling high schoolers who, in my view, are at the moment stuck with a choice between ultra-nationalist Christian histories or secular histories that ignore or denigrate religious impulses in America and the world. The second website, not yet public, will host podcasts of conversations between me and a historian friend talking about Christians of the past whose stories can challenge us to evaluate current American evangelical assumptions.

JF: Thanks, Fred!

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

The Author’s Corner with Robert Caldwell

TheologiesoftheAmericanRevivalistsRobert Caldwell is Associate Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (IVP Academic, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Ever since my seminary days, I have been fascinated at the interplay between theology and Christian experience or spirituality, most specifically related to Christian conversion. As a scholar working on the First and Second Great Awakenings, I found that many revivalists had a well-developed theology that combined soteriology (doctrine of salvation) with insights related both to how Christian conversion was supposed to be experienced and how the gospel is to be proclaimed. I found that from 1740-1840 there was a rich genre of literature that combined these three elements, which collectively I call “revival theology.” 

Evangelical churches today have given little theological reflection to the nature of Christian conversion and revival. Much of what they do understand is practically oriented and often pre-theological. In this book I examine the numerous schools of theology that evangelicals employed at a time when there was much more theological writing and preaching on the subject. My hope is that Christians today will be both informed and challenged by the various schools of thought presented in the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Theologies of the American Revivalists argues that American revivalists from the First and Second Great Awakenings (1740-1840) thought, preached, and wrote extensively on what I call “revival theology,” which I define as the three-fold combination of Protestant soteriology, conversion expectations, and preaching practices associated with revival. The book identifies, explores, and charts the historical theological developments of the various different schools of revival theology of the period, with specific attention given to the major controversies and writers.

JF: Why do we need to read Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Revivals have been a fundamental feature of American evangelicalism. My hope is that the book has faithfully explored the multiple theological traditions that have undergirded the revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Theologians and historians will find an in-depth account these various theological traditions and practices. General Christian readers will hopefully come to appreciate the theological backgrounds to evangelical revivals and see just how deep the interplay is between theology and corporate Christian practice. As I mention in the introduction, the book is “fundamentally a theological history about what it has meant to ‘become a Christian’ during the age of America’s Great Awakenings.” (10)

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RC: I come to American history as a student of intellectual history and historical theology. I have always been fascinated by the interplay of thought and history. Numerous scholars shaped my work during my student days. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I was drawn to the history of science and Isaac Newton’s theology while taking several courses from Dr. Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs in the late 1980s. When I went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School I benefitted greatly from courses by Drs. John Woodbridge and Douglas Sweeney, both of whom know how to situate theology deeply in its historical context. There, my interests shifted to the history of theology of American evangelicalism, especially that of Jonathan Edwards. Studying Edwards, his theology and legacy, as well as the First and Second Great Awakenings has required me to become more proficient as a historian. In many ways I still feel like I am becoming an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I am working on two smaller projects now. The first deals with the lesser-known antinomian controversy that surfaced in the late 1750s upon the publication of James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio in England (1755). The controversy involved a broad cross-section of American and English non-conformists: New Divinity and traditional Calvinists, Sandemanians, Radical revivalists, Moravians, Methodists, and English Particular Baptists. Another study addresses Jonathan Edwards’s assessment of Isaac Watts. Both Edwards and Watts attempted to do theology while simultaneously engaging the enlightenment. Edwards found Watts’s strategies for doing this woefully inadequate, even though he admired Watts in many ways. Both studies illuminate some of the lesser-known intramural debates that existed among early evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

My Review Series on Metaxas’s “If You Can Keep It”: A Wrap-Up at RNS

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville

Six posts are enough.  I could say a lot more about Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, but I decided, for a variety of reasons, to bring the series to an end yesterday.

Today Religion News Service is running a piece that I envisioned, when asked to write it, as a summary and wrap-up post.

Here is a taste:

(RNS) In 1994, evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote about the “scandal of the evangelical mind.” The Wheaton College professor called out evangelicals for their anti-intellectual approaches to public engagement and urged his fellow believers to be more thoughtful in their political reflections.

I don’t know if Eric Metaxas has ever read “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” but since the release of his wildly popular biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer he has been touted as one of conservative evangelicalism’s leading spokespersons and public intellectuals.

Metaxas’ latest book, “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,” is soaring up the New York Times best-sellers list. The title comes from a popular story about Benjamin Franklin and the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.  When Franklin walked out of the Pennsylvania State House at the end of the convention he was met by Elizabeth Powell, a prominent woman in Philadelphia. She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged.  Franklin responded, “A republic … if you can keep it.”

Read the rest here.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 5

MetaxasWe 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.

Stay tuned.