Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
RAR 1:4 (Fall 1992) p. 125
The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Harry S. Stout, William B. Eerdmans Company: Grand Rapids (1991), 301 pages, paperback, $9.95
Dr. Harry Stout, the author of this work, is the John B. Madden Master of Berkley College and Professor of American religious history at Yale University.
One element in the book constitutes its chief value. It gives due prominence to a man who has long been sadly discounted by historians. It shows George Whitefield not only to have possessed unequalled powers as an orator, but to have been one of the foremost figures of the English-speaking world during his entire adult lifetime. This is true of the book throughout, but it is particularly evident in the chapters “An Uncommon Friendship”—Whitefield’s association with Benjamin Franklin, and “American Icon,” which declares his wholesale acceptance in the 13 Colonies. All who admire Whitefield and believe the gospel that he preached will rejoice in this emphasis.
Nonetheless, the chief message of this book is false. It appears in the title The Divine Dramatist, and continues on virtually every page. It makes it appear that Whitefield was a superb actor and that his evangelism was accomplished solely by his dramatic power. Professor Stout tells us:
Given Whitefield’s unprecedented success in marketing religion in the eighteenth century we have to wonder what techniques he employed. My search for an answer took me to a most unexpected and ironic source: the eighteenth century stage. ... Whitefield became an actor preacher, as opposed to a scholar preacher.
RAR 1:4 (Fall 1992) p. 126
Having decided on this theory that Whitefield was above all an actor, Stout weaves it into his entire account of the evangelist’s life. He begins with a chapter that he titles “The Young Rake,” in which he falsely charges that as a boy George was characterized by his dissolute behavior. He also asserts that the Whitefield family had fallen from its goodly status and that the lad determined to achieve such success on the stage that he would raise it to its former position again. This jumping to a conclusion is symptomatic of the author’s style, and examples of his mistake could be pointed out in abundance.
Most glaring are his omissions of important elements in Whitefield’s life. In a painfully garbled account he speaks of his conversion as a humanly contrived experience copied from the Puritans, but the transformation it effected in his life is almost entirely overlooked. He portrays Whitefield as having no interest in theology, but disregards the doctrinal content of the first ten sermons that he published, for example, and of t...
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