George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (book review)

George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire, by Peter Y. Choi. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018 (xvi + 252 pp). $24.00 softcover George Whitefield- Evangelist for God and Empire

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),[1] 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

[1] 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.

Book Review

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Cultural Liturgies, vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009. Desiring the Kingdom- Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. Desiring the Kingdom is the first of his three-volume theology of culture. In this book, Smith shares his “vision of what authentic, integral Christian learning looks like, emphasizing how learning is connected to worship” (11). His goal is to challenge Christian educators to realize that education is a formative process that should enflame our love for God’s kingdom and our longing to see this kingdom come. Likewise, he wants Christian worshippers to realize, too, that worship is a pedagogical exercise that should cultivate our love for God and others.

Smith argues that the chief end of education is not primarily to inform the mind but to form the heart. Thus, contrary to general opinion, for him, education is a formative rather than just an informative undertaking. Without devaluing the importance of saturating our minds, he emphasizes the transformation of our hearts as the result of our learning. In his own words, “the primary goal of Christian education is the formation of a peculiar people—people who desire the kingdom of God and thus undertake their vocations as an expression of that desire.” He then views a Christian school, college, or university as “a formative institution that constitutes part of the teaching mission of the church” (34). He looks at a Christian college, for instance, as an extension of the life and practices of the church. And he prefers the adjective “ecclesial” to describe this institution (e.g., he prefers the term “ecclesial college” over “Christian college”). A Christian college, he says, is usually taken as a place of learning, detached from the church; whereas, an ecclesial college is a place of learning, closely connected to the worship of the church. As such, an ecclesial college becomes a place of worship, too. And interestingly, Smith understands worship as an education that should help us become more lovers of God’s kingdom. To let him speak, the liturgy (which Smith understands as synonymous with worship) is “a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God” (33).

The author admits that his vision is not new at all. What may be considered new about it is the way he presents it. He writes contemporarily “from within the Reformed tradition, with a view of reaching an audience that is both catholic and evangelical,” focusing particularly on “the shape and task of Christian higher education” (15). While I don’t agree with everything written in his book, such as his repeated reference to human beings as animals, Smith’s vision is commendable. The truth is, we live in the world where education, yes, even Christian education, is mainly perceived as the mere impartation of ideas to the mind, rather than as the formation of the heart. For those of us who are teachers, Smith’s book will challenge us to rethink the way we educate our students. We should capture his vision and follow his advice to look at our vocation as educators and the education that we give to our students through the lens of our worship of God. The Christian institution where we work should be an extension of the worship of the church. “Thus,” Smith concludes, “any Christian scholarship worth the name must emerge from the matrix of worship. In short, Christian scholarship must be ecclesial scholarship” (230).

Book Review

A Book Review of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain

The Seven Storey Mountain. By Thomas Merton. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948, 429 pp., hardcover. The Seven Storey Mountain


Born in France in 1915, grew up in the U.S., and died in Thailand in 1968, Thomas Merton, is regarded as one of the most celebrated Catholic writers of the twentieth century. He is particularly well-known for his autobiographical work, The Seven Storey Mountain, an account of his life from 1915 to 1944. Merton completed this book in 1946 at the age of thirty-one, and published it in 1948. In this piece the author chronicles his spiritual journey from the world to the monastery. An important theme that runs through the book is his quest for happiness.

Merton describes himself, in his early years, as “an extremely unpleasant sort of a person—vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene and proud” (132). In the course of time, however, he turned to communism, “a step to moral conversion” (131). Yet he acknowledges: “It was not the right conversion, but it was a conversion. Perhaps it was a lesser evil” (131).  As a communist, he started blaming his society for his unhappiness: “it was not much I myself that was to blame for my unhappiness, but the society in which I lived” (133). But later the young communist was disappointed to find out that communists, having excluded Him [God], and all moral order with Him… were trying to establish some kind of a moral system by abolishing all morality in its very source” (146). As a result of his disappointment, he left communism.

Meanwhile, Merton began to read books by Roman Catholic writers. These books became instrumental for his conversion to Catholicism. He relates the following remarkable experience after attending his first mass: “I could not understand what it was that had happened to make me so happy, why I was so much at peace, so continent with life” (210-11).

Many months later, at the age of twenty-six, he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. It was here that he wrote his autobiography and found happiness, as indicated in his words: “if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it, I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now. If happiness were merely a matter of natural gifts, I would never have entered a Trappist monastery when I came to the age of a man” (4). Merton considers the monastery “a school in which we learn from God how to be happy.” He continues, “Our happiness consists in sharing the happiness of God, the perfection of His unlimited freedom, the perfection of His love’ (372).

From a literary point of view, The Seven Storey Mountain is probably one of the best classic autobiographies in English. It is readable, lively, engaging, and exciting. Most importantly, its poetic style is impressive, a quality which should not surprise his audience since Merton was a poet. As far as the literary worth of the book is concerned then, even non-Catholic readers can profit from it. They, especially the writers, can learn from Merton’s outstanding style of writing. Moreover, the book can be an inspiration for moral living. Merton can challenge his crowd, particularly the young people, to give up their materialistic passions for spiritual pursuits.

However, despite these literary and moral benefits of the book, we should realize that the Catholic theology of Merton behind his piece is problematic. This theology, for example, teaches us to pray to God through Mary (130) and to use Rosary in our prayers (369). Such practices go against the Scriptures (John 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). Most seriously, this theology is not grounded solidly in the gospel of Christ. Consequently, the kind of change that it produces is only outward and not inward, for the gospel alone can bring a true conversion (Rom. 1:16). Any other transformation is superficial; and therefore, incapable of generating genuine happiness.


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Book Review Catholic Spirituality Thomas Merton

Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions. By Craig L. Blomberg. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999, 300 pp., paperback.

One of the fast growing problems today is poverty. Various solutions have been tried to solve this global problem: socialism, capitalism, liberation theology, prosperity theology, and others. Yet all these attempts, according to Craig Blomberg, lack of solid scriptural supports. Several evangelical scholars have also produced works that address this whole issue of poverty,[1] but for Blomberg none of these works really provides a biblical theology of wealth and poverty.[2] Hence, he completed a well researched volume Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions. In a sense this book is an attempt to offer a balanced biblical answer to this universal dilemma.


To keep reading the review, click here.

        [1] See, for example, Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977); David Chilton’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators: A Biblical Response to Ronald J. Sider (1981); and John Schneider’s Godly Materialism: Rethinking Money and Possessions (1994). The last two books critique Sider’s work, and Blomberg says that his initial study “led to conclusions that charted a middle ground between Sider and his critics” (p. 28).

        [2] According to Blomberg even Gene A. Getz’s A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions (1990) falls short of providing a real biblical theology of the subject, for, while it examines the New Testament in detail, it only examines the Old Testament in passing.

Book Review Giving stewardship

A Book Review of Octavius Winslow’s The Work of The Holy Spirit

Octavius Winslow (1808-1878) was one of the renowned and celebrated evangelical preachers of the 19th century. He was ordained as a pastor on July 21, 1833 in New York and later moved to England. His prolific experimental Calvinistic knowledge was a ground for earnestness of his profound preaching. He was a Baptist minister but in his last years of his time he seceded to the Anglican Church. “The Work of The Holy Spirit” is one of his inspirational writings.


The review is by Gerald Guduli, an ordained minister of Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Nkhoma Synod. Born and reared in Malawi, Guduli is currently pursuing a Th.M. degree in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

To keep reading his review, click here.

Book Review Holy Spirit Octavius Winslow

A Book Review of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ

Born in Germany around 1380 and died in the Netherlands in 1471, Thomas à Kempis is one of the most well known medieval Catholic devotional writers. His Imitation of Christ, composed in Latin in the Netherlands between 1420 and 1427 has become a classic favorite to many. Originally, the Imitation was written anonymously. Thomas probably did this in order to direct his readers’ attention to the subject of the book, rather than to himself as the author, as indicated in his advice to his readers about reading holy writings: “Do not let the writer’s authority or learning influence you, be it little or great, but let the love of pure truth attract you to read. Do not ask, ‘Who said this?’ but pay attention to what is said” (Book 1, Chap. 5).


To keep reading my review, click here.

Book Review Thomas à Kempis

A Book Review of D. A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers

The book opens with this very thought provoking question: “What is the most urgent need in the church of the Western world today?” (11). Carson rightly answers, “a deeper knowledge of God” (15). Then he asserts that “One of the foundational steps in knowing God, and one of the basic demonstrations that we do know God, is prayer” (16). Indeed, if we want to know God better, we must grow more in our communion with Him, for the more we talk to God, the more we get to know Him. It is around this subject of prayer that the book revolves. Carson particularly focuses on the Apostle Paul’s theology of prayer, with the aim that his readers will learn from the life and prayers of this man of God.  As indicated in the title of the book, Carson calls his audience to spiritual reformation (especially in prayer), a reformation that is rooted in the Bible.


To keep reading my review, click here.

Book Review Prayer

A Book Review of D. A. Carson’s How Long, O Lord Reflections on Suffering & Evil

“The truth of the matter is that all we have to do is live long enough, and we will suffer,” declares D. A. Carson (16). How true! Indeed, suffering is part of life. Yet, despite this plain truth most Christians are still surprised when they face suffering. Sometimes, some of us are so shocked to suffer that we start doubting God’s goodness. Worst of all, unbelievers question God’s very existence because of the presence of evil. It is of out this concern that Carson penned his book How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering & Evil.


To keep reading my review, click here.

Book Review Evil Suffering

A Book Review of Andrew D. Naselli’s Let Go and Let God? A Survey & Analysis of Keswick Theology

Reading Andrew D. Naselli’s Let Go and Let God? reminds me of my early Christian pilgrimage. In the environment in which I grew up, it was common to hear preachers who, at the end of their sermons, would give an altar call to plead to unbelievers to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, and then challenge believers to surrender their lives to the Lord. In the mind of these preachers, such believers are those who have already received Jesus as their Saviour, but not yet as their Lord. These preachers, perhaps unconsciously, indicate that there are two kinds of Christians: (1) saved but not dedicated (carnal), and (2) saved and dedicated (spiritual). At first glance, this carnal-spiritual classification seems to be not problematic. After all, is it not true that believers are not equally mature? However, this classification allows implicitly the notion that one can be saved but not committed to Christ—that one can receive Jesus as Savior but not as Lord. Until I read this volume, I did not realize that this thinking has its roots in Keswick theology, which is the subject of Naselli’s book.


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Book Review Keswick Theology Sanctification