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.