George Whitefield and Denominational Relativism in America

When someone first visits The Upper Room, that person may not realize they’re in a Presbyterian congregation. It’s not because we hide that affiliation. We do talk about our connection with the denomination and our Presbyterian partner churches, and we share our gratitude for their support. But our worship services deliberately don’t feel like they come from any particular brand of Christianity. The focus is on Jesus, revealed in Word and Sacrament. No one comes to Upper Room because they want a Presbyterian church. We come because we’re seeking Jesus. While this lack of exclusive identification with a particular denomination is characteristic of our younger demographic, we’ve been shaped by historical forces that have been at work for centuries. American denominational relativism has its roots in events that took place three hundred years ago, such as the surprisingly trans-denominational Great Awakenings.

This week I read The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism by Harry S. Stout. (This book – and the one I wrote about last week, and the one I’ll write about next week – is part of the American Religious Biography class that I’m taking over at Pittsburgh Seminary.) Whitefield was ordained as an Anglican priest, but his itinerant preaching ministry brought him into fellowship with all branches of Protestantism throughout England and the colonies in the middle of the eighteenth century.

One of the first true celebrities in America, Whitefield dazzled audiences – or congregations – with his dramatic flair. His sermons were so infused with skills he had honed in his youthful studies of the theater that he took the art of communication in the pulpit into the realm of acting and entertainment. But because the content of his message was the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ, those who heard him responded with emotionally infused conversion and repentance. These experiential responses to the proclamation of the Gospel made the institutions of the Church take a much less important role in how Americans understood their faith. As Stout explains,

In the evangelical parachurch, individual experience became the ultimate arbiter of authentic religious faith. Experience . . . came to be the legitimating mark of religion over and against family, communal covenants, traditional memberships, baptisms, or sacraments (p. 205).

Stout’s biography of Whitefield can be seen as an extended illustration of how this shift played out in the culture of the revivals. Whitefield prized his own religious experience, treasuring the exhilarating highs he experienced while preaching as evidence of God working in him. Whitefield valued this experience over family, being an absentee husband to a wife who could not come along for his endless travels. Concerning the sacraments, we’re left to assume that Whitefield deliberately chose not to over-think them. Stout disappointingly explains very little of Whitefield’s thoughts on the sacraments, but the fact that Whitefield was quite comfortable with Christians in traditions who understood the sacraments differently suggests that he saw them as secondary to the feelings engendered by passionate preaching of the Gospel.

It wasn’t that theology didn’t matter for Whitefield. He was a Calvinist who did not shy away from criticizing his friend John Wesley that Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection. But Whitefield refused to connect his revival preaching to any one denomination. As Harry Stout poignantly observes, Whitefield also resisted the temptation to found his own denomination when he easily could have. One could be a Calvinist Anglican, or a Presbyterian, or a Congregationalist, and never feel that Whitefield was calling one to change denomination affiliation. In fact, at Whitefield’s funeral, an ecumenical mixture of pastors from those three denominations served as pallbearers for Whitefield’s body (Stout pp. 280-281). 

This matters for us today because many of these same values have been passed on through successive generations in American Christianity, for good and for ill. On the one hand, American evangelicalism still emphasizes the centrality of the Gospel rather than one exclusive institutional structure of the Church. On the other hand, these truths mean that many American Christians have a very shallow sense of ecclesiology. When we value personal experience over corporate experience, it’s easy to become consumers of religion. We “shop” for churches that meet “our needs,” or we seek entertainment in the musical or preaching styles of a congregation. This isn’t entirely bad. Whitefield did genuinely touch lives for Christ through his entertaining preaching. As the Apostle Paul wrote, what matters is that, “Christ is preached, and in this I rejoice” (Phil 1:8). But giving personal experience of faith priority over corporate experience of faith means we may under-value the importance of the Church.

While this is the legacy American Protestants and evangelicals have inherited, we should be discerning in which parts of it we pass on. To be true to Whitefield’s legacy,  we should remember that he was a loyal Anglican up to the point of his death. He chose to remain loyal even though jealous Anglican bishops actually incited mob violence against him and other revival preachers in England. Whitefield was among the early Methodists, a group which began as a revival-oriented anti-institution strain within the Anglican Church. In such a role, he challenged the institution, but did so in loyal opposition.

This suggests to me that Whitefield recognized his place in the Body of Christ. He knew the Body of Christ was larger than the skeleton of one denomination, so he could preach Christ to anyone who was willing to listen, and act charitably to (almost) anyone who believed in the same Lord. But he also knew that the Body needed structure, and that it would be inappropriate to say to that he, as a unique member of Christ did not belong to the rest of the Body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:15-20). In the face of all the individualism and entertainment that Whitefield ushered into the American Church, let’s not forget his deep sense of the necessity of connection to other believers.

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