Thursday, July 10, 2008

"He had a loud and clear voice...": Preaching, Performance, and Early American Religion

Much of the next class will be devoted to discussing Harry Stout's Divine Dramatist, as well as revivalism in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Both revered and reviled during his lifetime, George Whitefield was America's first celebrity preacher. You might call him a holy maverick.

About George Whitefield, Benjamin Franklin once wrote: "He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ'd the most exact silence. He preach'd one evening from the top of the Court-house steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles. Both streets were fill'd with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur'd it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill'd with auditors, to each of whom I allow'd two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconcil'd me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach'd to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the antient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted."

Franklin went on to recount how he gave some of his money to the traveling minister. You can read the rest of the story here.

Also notable is the poem penned by an African American poet from Boston named Phillis Wheatley. Upon Whitefield's death in 1770 she wrote:

Hail, happy saint! on thine immortal throne,
Possest of glory, life, and bliss unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue;
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy sermons in unequalled accents flowed,
And ev'ry bosom with devotion glowed;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refined,
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy, we the setting sun deplore,
So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.

Behold the prophet in his towering flight!
He leaves the earth for heaven's unmeasured height,
And worlds unknown receive him from our sight.
There Whitefield wings with rapid course his way,
And sails to Zion through vast seas of day.
Thy prayers, great saint, and thine incessant cries,
Have pierced the bosom of they native skies.
Thou, moon, hast seen, and all the stars of light,
How he has wrestled with his God by night.
He prayed that grace in ev'ry heart might dwell;
He longed to see America excel;
He charged its youth that ev'ry grace divine
Should with full lustre in their conduct shine.

That Saviour, which his soul did first receive,
The greatest gift that ev'n a God can give,
He freely offered to the num'rous throng,
That on his lips with list'ning pleasure hung.

"Take him, ye wretched, for your only good,
"Take him, ye starving sinners, for your food;
"Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
"Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme;
"Take him, my dear Americans, he said,
"Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:
"Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you;
"Impartial Saviour is his title due:
"Washed in the fountain of redeeming blood,
"You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God."

Great Countess, we Americans revere
Thy name, and mingle in thy grief sincere;
New England deeply feels, the orphans mourn,
Their more than father will no more return.
But though arrested by the hand of death,
Whitefield no more exerts his lab'ring breath,
Yet let us view him in the eternal skies,
Let ev'ry heart to this bright vision rise;
While the tomb, safe, retains its sacred trust,
Till life divine re-animates the dust.
Questions to consider: what ultimately convinced Ben Franklin to contribute to Whitefield's cause--what about Whitefield was Franklin most impressed with? How does this compare to and contrast with Wheatley's recollection and commemoration of the divine dramatist?
Post your thoughts by 6pm CST, 7/15/08.


Anonymous said...

I believe Franklin’s decision to contribute to Whitefield’s cause had more to do with the potency of his ministry “performances” and less to do with Franklin’s religious beliefs. This is made clear throughout Franklin’s entire statement regarding Whitefield’s seemingly innate ability to project his voice to farther distances than could expected by any one individual. Nowhere throughout the passage does Franklin mention Whitefield’s religion or does he attempt to imply his own assessment of Methodism. Wheatley, on the other hand, seems to view Whitefield as a prophet: “Behold the prophet in his towering flight!”. Both figures greatly admire Whitefield for his ministerial abilities, but Wheatley supplements her adoration with the apparent belief of Whitefield as being a significant person both in her own life and as someone who directly or indirectly contributed to Wheatley’s relationship with God. Wheatley later states: “New England deeply feels, the orphans mourn, their more than father will no more return”. With this statement, Wheatley comments on how Whitefield’s missions throughout America greatly impacted the rise and spread of Methodism and in the process, Whitefield managed to affect the lives of countless orphans. But, also, it should be noted that in George Whitefield’s biography by Harry S. Tout, the author makes it clear that though Whitefield did eventually own slaves himself, he continued to condemn the mistreatment of slaves by slaveholders and maintained that African Americans required the teachings of the New Birth as well. While Franklin was concerned with Whitefield’s power and ability to command respect and admiration from his audiences through the innovative usage of both voice and gesture, two characteristics which Whitefield greatly lacked, while at school in Oxford, Wheatley esteemed Whitefield not only for his valuable religious teachings but also for his obvious paternal instincts.


brandiwilliams said...

I believe Franklin's decision to contribute to Whitefield's cause was more of decision to support an excellent orator rather than a religious decision. He was so impressed with Whitefield's ability to project his voice that it probably did not matter what was being said. Franklin knew that Whitefield was a great man and anything that had to do with greatness, Franklin wanted to be a part of. Unlike Franklin, Wheatley looked upon Whitefield as almost godlike. She could not refrain from calling him a prophet and truly believed in his message as did so many others. She credits Whitefield with helping her relationship with the Lord. She truly believed that without Whitefield's sermons her spiritual relationship with God would not have existed.