After 300 years, George Whitefield is trending on Twitter! Or maybe not trending, officially, but there’s a tweet-a-thon celebrating the evangelist’s birthday and religious historians and reformed evangelicals alike are pumping Twitter with Whitefield quotes and the hashtag #Whitefield300.
The social media campaign is largely organized by historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University. Kidd recently released a biography of the famous revivalist of the transatlantic Great Awakening: George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, published by Yale University Press. On the group blog The Anxious Bench, Kidd notes that the excitement over Whitefield’s 300th anniversary far exceeds that of his 200th.
“Whitefield is being more thoroughly commemorated this year than he was in 1914,” Kidd writes. “1914′s commemorations were more muted. Of course, all of Europe was preoccupied with the outbreak of World War I.”
The growing attention to Whitefield over the past century parallels the increasing attention to Jonathan Edwards. The correspondence makes sense considering the fact that these two men co-pioneered the revivalist fervor in Britain and America in the early-to-mid eighteenth century. In recent years, historians (such as David Bebbington and Mark Noll) have attributed the emergence of evangelicalism in large part to their influence. Popular reformed evangelical pastors (such as John Piper and Steven Lawson) have commended them as exemplary ministers and spiritual guides.
George Marsden recounts the intriguing beginning of Edwards’s and Whitefield’s relationship in his biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Edwards first wrote Whitefield in February 1740, inviting him to preach in Northampton. Whitefield accepted, and his preaching stirred Northampton just as it had in other parts of New England. Despite his excitement over his congregation’s response, Edwards had reservations about the genuineness of the enthusiasm. When Whitfield left, Edwards preached a series of sermons on the parable of the sower, warning the congregation to test their hearts and not facilely swing from religious zeal to indifference.
An imaginative recreation of Edwards and Whitefield’s first meeting (from The Blazing Center).
Whitefield was more comfortable than Edwards was with zeal and more eager to make use of the latest and greatest communications technologies. One can even imagine Whitefield making liberal use of Twitter and hashtags. Edwards, on the other hand, would more likely worry about the reliance on religious impulses and ecstatic experiences. The two men, despite their differences, advanced the same cause.
— Ryan Hoselton