George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire, by Peter Y. Choi. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018 (xvi + 252 pp). $24.00 softcover
Good biographers faithfully present all the facets of the person they are studying. As no one is perfect, these facts include both negative and positive elements. Unfortunately, some Christian biographers tend to provide a hagiographic portrait of their spiritual hero, giving an incomplete picture of their hero’s life. In his book, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire, Peter Y. Choi offers his readers some insights that are often overlooked by Whitefield scholars. Books on Whitefield usually concentrate on his early and middle life, highlighting his itinerant evangelistic preaching, significant contribution to the rise of eighteenth-century evangelicalism, and important role in the Great Awakening. Thomas Kidd’s definitive biography, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (2014), is an example of a fine work that focuses on Whitefield’s early and middle life. Choi, on the other hand, focuses his research on the latter years of Whitefield’s life, especially when the colonial revival started dying down. Thus, Choi’s book, originally written as a doctoral dissertation, may helpfully serve as a sequel to Kidd’s biography.
Without intending to slight Whitefield’s spirituality and by placing him within the political, economic, and social context of his time, Choi introduces us to a George Whitefield less well-known to many of us. For instance, we learn that this “Grand Itinerant” was also an evangelist for the British Empire. That is, as a citizen of heaven, he evangelized for the coming of God’s kingdom; as a citizen of the empire, he evangelized with the agenda to expand this empire. Choi puts it this way, “Though best known as the Grand Itinerant who traveled far and wide proclaiming a religion of new birth, Whitefield was more than a famous revival preacher. He was an agent of British culture who used his potent mix of political savvy and theological creativity to champion the cause of imperial expansion” (3). Understanding “Whitefield exclusively, or even primarily, as an evangelical religious leader is not enough,” contends Choi (14), hence, the title of his book George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire. He reminds us that Whitefield lived and ministered in the context of an imperial culture and that the empire shaped his life and ministry.
The connection between Whitefield’s religious and imperial agendas (or his Protestant evangelicalism and British imperialism) is the centerpiece of Choi’s discourse and is also his new addition to Whitefield scholarship. These two “isms”, according to the author, “were the twin targets of Whitefield’s intensely focused evangelical ambition, such that his efforts to preach for religious revival were at the same time a project of British cultural exportation” (16). The first part of the book underscores that Whitefield was not only a Protestant itinerant preacher but also a British explorer in America (chapter 1). He both acted as a Protestant missionary and a British emissary (chapter 2). Even Whitefield’s decision to invest his time and energy in the newly founded colony of Georgia was driven by these twin targets. He saw this colony “as fertile soil into which he could transplant British religion and culture” (45). Thus, even when he established Bethesda Orphanage in 1740, which he called “my darling,” he had this twofold agenda in mind (230).
Choi’s thorough analysis of Whitefield’s life after the Great Awakening’s peak reveals another side of Whitefield as a plantation and slave owner (chapter 4). Choi observes that “Whitefield’s disappointment at the harvest of the awakenings sowed the seed for his deepening involvement in slavery. It is a story of how his reaction to religious and theological crisis paved the way for political, social, and economic development of grave moral consequence” (134). Whitefield had always been an advocate of slavery in Georgia even before its legalization in 1751. In fact, Choi goes on to say, “If any one person does indeed deserve blame for the introduction of slavery in Georgia, it may actually be George Whitefield” (145). But why did this evangelical preacher practice slavery? Why did he purchase Ephratah Plantation in Georgia along with enslaved laborers? Theologically, he justified his practice by the example of Abraham (Genesis 21): “As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house” (133). Economically, he thought a hot place like Georgia could not “be cultivated without negroes” (162). Furthermore, only with enslaved labor could he sustain his work in Georgia, particularly his Bethesda Orphanage. Of course, Whitefield was not the only evangelical leader who practiced slavery. Jonathan Edwards also owned slaves. It is striking and critical to note that, lamentably, the two key figures in the Great Awakening both owned slaves.
Against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), the book’s fifth chapter looks at Whitefield as a supporter of Great Britain against France and a defender of Protestantism against France’s Catholicism. As Choi outlines Whitefield’s part in British affairs, he further intensifies the book’s thesis: Whitefield’s work as a builder of Protestant empire and his actions as an upholder of the British Empire were inseparable. For him, says Choi, Christian faithfulness was measured “by devotion to the British Protestant cause against the French Catholic threat” (191). The final chapter examines Whitefield’s last years of life in America where he died in 1770. During this period, aware of his nearing death and desiring to leave a lasting legacy, he used his remaining strength to attempt to convert his Bethesda Orphanage into a college. Although unsuccessful in his attempt, his motive behind this project revealed his twin targets, a point that Choi is making throughout his book. In Whitefield’s own words, if his college could be established, its purpose was to equip “persons of superior rank” to “serve their king, their country, and their God, either in church or state” (195).
Choi should be commended for his well-researched and beautifully written book. I think he has convincingly demonstrated Whitefield’s key roles as an evangelist for God and empire. His book provides the missing piece of the Whitefield puzzle. When added to the other pieces (i.e., other works on Whitefield), the result is a more complete picture of the most famous preacher of the eighteenth century
 Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).
Note: The original review appeared in the Calvin Theological Journal 54/2 (2019): 465–68.