Godfather of (the) Soul

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.

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, Stout 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 apparently slight, a fundamentally different and necessary arrangement on the human psyche.

So brilliant was Whitefield at acting instead of preaching that 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 to meet the felt need, as Tina Fey might say, “to want to go to there.” What makes this 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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10 Responses to Godfather of (the) Soul

  1. John Yeazel says:

    If one contrasts Whitefield and Edwards one would have to say that Edwards was quite wooden but got the same sort of responses from his audience in his preaching. How do you explain that? I guess the point is that they both appealed to the emotions rather than the intellect in their style of preaching and they were not really confronted with this. Although I have read some things that Edwards was confronted with this by Archibald Alexander but never changed his preaching style. But isn’t that the American way? This stuff is deeply entrenched in the American psyche. It is hard to argue with success and those who try to confront it usually get a mouthful of backlash. Emotional appeals and will worship make us think the Holy Spirit is really moving. This stuff is very subtle and elusive.

  2. Zrim says:

    But as you say, they were confronted, John. The response was more than to not change, it was also to charge amonsgt the dissenters “the dangers of an unconverted clergy” (Tennent), etc., which was a tyrannical way of saying that to oppose the bench was a mark of impiety and being unregenerate. Edwards tried to distinguish between good subjectivism and bad, an impossible task, which isn’t to unlike some who want to distinguish between revival and revivalism instead of revival and Reformation.

  3. John Yeazel says:

    Bingo!!- And therein lies the problem; we are just saying what the Old Measures types were saying in their critique of some the bizarre and weird happenings taking place in the “revivals.” Edwards did try to do what you stated and veered off from his reformation heritage. He should have known better. Sometimes giftings, intelligence and success can make someone almost untouchable and uncorrectable. That is why it is always wise to stay under the objective measures of the word of God, creeds, confessions and the ordinary means of grace. Some of these people involved in the charismatic type Churches and even the New Calvinism are very gifted and talented and even have some substance in their theological thinking but they are being duped by the extraordinary, the mind blowing spiritual exhilarating experiences and other such things. Scott Clark documents this stuff quite nicely in his Recovering the Reformed Confession book. I am sure you already know that.

  4. John Yeazel says:

    Another point, Clark attributes the errors in Edwards thinking to his propensity and attraction to the Enlightenment thinking of Berkeley and John Locke. Some of the professors at Princeton caught on to this and they developed the Scottish Common Sense Realism of Thomas Reid as the antidote to some of Edwards philosophical thinking. The history of this is very interesting and Riddlebarger gets into it in his Phd dissertation on Warfield.

  5. sean says:

    It’s an interesting problem, and difficult to confront. It’s not dissimilar in my mind to the Mr. Roger’s, winsome, affected persona and execution of what can only be termed reformation lite. Can some seminary out there please start teaching these guys how to do redemptive historical again, please. Contextualization combined with this manufactured “Winsome” personality which in ordinary parlance is just simply manipulative and dishonest is another way to bypass the intellect, this time by anesthetizing it.

  6. RubeRad says:

    Can some seminary out there please start teaching these guys how to do redemptive historical again, please.

    WSCAL is on the job. Search their catalog of “Practical Theology” courses for “preaching”.

    Also, check this out

  7. sean says:

    WSCAL has been the only bright spot for some time now. Now if we could get them to leave the municipalities along PCH we might make some inroads. Flyover country is real people too. I guess Mid-america turns out a few every now and then. However, Somebody needs to dismantle CTS and just start over. Maybe in another decade West east will recover from the Shepherd Gaffin Logan legacy.

  8. John Yeazel says:

    Nice courses- I’m salivating and would like to take them all; if I was younger I would go there in an instant. Perhaps if I gain an inheritance I will work my out there eventually.

  9. RubeRad says:

    WSCAL has been the only bright spot for some time now.

    From JJS’ most recent, we find that Rob Rayburn singles out Greenville as well as WSCAL, so there’s at least one more sem…

  10. sean says:

    Certainly as it regards opposition to FV and a more confessional insistence you’d have to consider Greenville a friend. Compared to the covenant theology propounded from WSCAL, I’d consider Greenville less nuanced and developed, maybe a little too fundamentalist and biblicist for my taste. Still, a more favorable institution than CTS is turning/turned out to be.

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