Godfather of (the) Soul

godfatherofsoul

I know I said my vacation was to be unplugged. But, in my defense, I did say it would be relatively unplugged. My wife is glaring at me as I type. And after reading the first few chapters of Harry Stout’s critical history The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism I couldn’t help but share a bit. (If it makes my wife feel any better, the two dudes wearing John-Deere caps and wife-beaters around the pool also gave me rather getting off-putting looks as I read such an Urkel-y titled book. They later exchanged whispers on the ferry ride to Downtown Disney. Maybe I should have been more Whitefield-like as he traversed the Atlantic on his way to Georgia with all those salty sailors and soldiers he determined to convert?)

Whitefield had an extensive background in theatrical performance. It became one of the things with which he had a love-hate relationship. In the introduction, which helps begin sketch out what the remaining chapters portray as a man more at home on stage than in a pulpit,  Stouts writes:

Before Whitefield, everybody knew the difference between preaching and acting. With Whitefield’s preaching it was no longer clear what was church and what was theater. More than any of his peers or predecessors, he turned his back on the academy and traditional homiletical manuals and adopted the assumptions of the actor. Passion would be key to his preaching, and his body would be enlisted in raising passions in his audience to embrace traditional Protestant truths.

Contained in this theater-driven preaching was an implicit model of human psychology and homiletics that saw humankind less as rational and intellectual than as emotive and impassioned. In eighteenth century actors’ manuals, the individual psyche was divided into a triad of feelings, intellect, and will in which feelings reigned supreme. An unfeeling person is a   nonperson, a mere machine with highly sophisticated mental functions. It is the passions that harmonize and coordinate intellect and will. In fact, they control and direct all the faculties.

We are familiar with the traditional Protestant formulation of understanding the human agent as being one comprised of intellect, affect and will, where the intellect (not the emotions) “reigns supreme” and is that which “harmonizes and coordinates emotions and will” and “controls and directs all the faculties.”  Note how instead of theological assembly Whitefield took the cues of theatrics, as well as slight-of-hand, and came up with a formula that helped make him what is arguably the Godfather of a modern revivalism which has, however apparantly slight, a fundamentally different and necessary arrangement on the human psyche.

So brilliant was Whitefield at acting instead of preaching, later Stout writes about the close relationship between Whitefield and deist Benjamin Franklin. He describes Whitefield as so absolutely masterful at his itinerant tasks and  theatrics that Franklin paid good money in order, as Tina Fey might say, to meet the felt need “to want to go to there.” What is remarkable is that Franklin did not believe one word of what the otherwise Calvinist Whitefield preached.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I would hope that if I were to ever have the weighty charge of preaching God’s Gospel it would give me great pause to know that  a perfect pagan wanted to hear me as much as  he didn’t believe me. It would suggest to me that what I was doing had more to do with me than my appointed task or he to whom I meant to point.

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15 Responses to Godfather of (the) Soul

  1. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I would hope that if I were to ever have the weighty charge of preaching God’s Gospel it would give me great pause to know that a perfect pagan wanted to hear me as much as he didn’t believe me. It would suggest to me that what I was doing had more to do with me than my appointed task or he to whom I meant to point.”

    Hear, hear!!

  2. RubeRad says:

    Before Whitefield, everybody knew the difference between preaching and acting. With Whitefield’s preaching it was no longer clear what was church and what was theater.

    I think that just says it all — and is so applicable today.

  3. RubeRad says:

    And hey presto! We have this old guest post from Echo that expands on the same theme of church vs. theater.

  4. Chris Donato says:

    Sure. But to be fair, that day is not ours, and there’s not a whole lot of Benjamin Franklin’s walking around (by which I mean ‘cultured despisers’ — to use Schleirmacher’s phrase).

    But also consider that Franklin knew exactly what and who he was rejecting: “[Whitefield used] to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard.”

    Note how careful Franklin’s word choice is here: he’s rejecting Whitefield’s christianism (revivalism), not so much the ancient faith (or do I give him too much credit?). Whitefield never had the satisfaction of believing…, which suggests to me that Franklin was certainly content not being “converted” to whatever it was Whitefield was preaching. In truth, Franklin detested much of what was practiced as Christianity in the eighteenth century. He probably scoffed at the concept of conversion in much the same way many of us do.

    So, who was closer to the ancient faith? Whitefield or Franklin? Simon Magus or Socinus?

  5. RubeRad says:

    or do I give him too much credit?

    I think you give him way too much credit. A quick google of Franklin’s religious opinions shows pretty clearly that he was a thoroughgoing Deist, and not a Christian.

  6. Chris Donato says:

    It’s precisely because I don’t google and garner information that I wrote what I did. I’m thinking he was not as pure a Deist as is commonly thought.

  7. RubeRad says:

    I figured that. If Franklin was not as Deist as, say, Jefferson, then I would think that Google would turn up some convincing evidence from other Christians that thought the same. But this page (where they obviously have an agenda to prove that the Founding Fathers were Christians), demonstrates to me that there do not exist quotes that show Franklin to be a Christian. The best that they can come up with is:

    I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and governed it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man. … I seldom attended any public worship… I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He used to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administration.

    If you read the “creed” he espoused from his deathbed, you will see that he believed in justification by works, and saw Christ as a great moral teacher, but probably not divine. Not even a clue in that creed that Franklin had even heard of the cross or credited it with any significance.

    Interestingly, in the same letter as that creed, Ben did show a good understanding of common grace and the Two Kingdoms:

    I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it [disbelief in Christ’s divinity] amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displeasure.

  8. Chris Donato says:

    Totally agreed. Not meant to insinuate that he was an orthodox Christian. On the other hand, I was being somewhat sarcastic with respect to google. I’m very hesitant to believe what I find when googling (there’s something sacrosanct about bound pages, it seems to me).

    So, there are some statements in his letters that betray a not-so-purely-Deistic belief in the creator’s continuing intervention, as well as complete agnosticism with respect to Jesus’ divinity.

    But the real question for me is stated in my first post: Who was more out to lunch, Whitefield or Franklin?

    According to the original post, Whitefield’s something close to a charlatan (even if inadvertently); at least Franklin rightly played the skeptic on this score (not unlike Kierkegaard in his day).

  9. RubeRad says:

    As for Google, I agree that the agenda and competence of authors of internets pages must always be held in suspicion. But when Google returns multiple, consistent citations of the same quotes (especially from sites with opposing agendas), I take the quotes at least to be reliable.

    Who was more out to lunch in an absolute sense? Definitely Franklin. But I think we can all agree that the point of Z’s article would support the assertion that Franklin was better/more consistent at being skeptic than Whitefield was at being Reformed.

  10. Todd says:

    Franklin was a half-deist. The two planks of deism are denial of special revelation and the wind-up clock idea. Franklin did deny special revelation, but did not hold the wind-up clock idea. Franklin, like his contemporaries, believed God (Providence) was active in the affairs of men (especially in the New World) and at one moment of rather fierce debate in Congress suggested all bow and pray for divine guidance. “Founding Faith” by Steven Waldman is a great 2k book on the subject.

    Todd

  11. Zrim says:

    But I think we can all agree that the point of Z’s article would support the assertion that Franklin was better/more consistent at being skeptic than Whitefield was at being Reformed.

    Correct, Rube, and well put. Give me a Franklin doing earth (including Google for real information) before a Whitefield doing heaven.

  12. RubeRad says:

    Franklin, like his contemporaries, believed God (Providence) was active in the affairs of men

    Maybe he was a bad Deist; but that doesn’t make him Christian. For that, he would have to believe in a God who justifies the wicked because of Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

  13. Chris Donato says:

    Rube, you must be used to people wandering around trying to make a case that the Founders were Christian. It’s okay to be precise as to many of their beliefs and not buy into the whole heritage foundation thing.

    As an aside, what makes one a Christian, at the most basic level, seems to be what Saint Paul penned in Romans 10:9. Believing that God justifies the wicked because of Christ’s substitutionary atonement (which is undoubtedly true), in any technical sense, is deeper than one’s first confession of faith. (Moreover, was not anyone Christian before Anselm? Most theologians emphasized quite another angle on justification and atonement.)

  14. Todd says:

    Rube,

    Franklin was far from a Christian, wasn’t implying anything different. He really disliked orthodox Christianity. He just wasn’t a full deist either.

    Todd

  15. RubeRad says:

    Rube, you must be used to people wandering around trying to make a case that the Founders were Christian.

    Yes, in fact I am. Thx to you and Todd for clearing up that I was reading you wrongly.

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