Saturday, January 9, 2010

Franklin On Whitefield

As noted the other day I have been reading Ben Franklin's autobiography, which continues to be quite fascinating. Yesterday he went into great detail about the influence and character of itinerant Anglican preacher George Whitefield (pronounced hwit-feeld), who played a major role in what is referred to as "the Great Awakening" in the years preceding out Revolutionary War.

I believe the Princeton University Library, in its archives, still maintains some of the tracts Mr. Franklin printed for Mr. Whitefield, along with other artifacts of Puritan and Colonial times. It was by means of being Whitefield's printer that Franklin's respect for the man grew, for even though they disagreed on certain matters they had mutual respect. I cite the following passage from his autobiography.

"Some of Mr. Whitefield's enemies affected to suppose that he would apply these collections to his own private emolument; but I who was intimately acquainted with him (being employed in printing his Sermons and Journals, etc.), never had the least suspicion of his integrity, but am to this day decidedly of opinion that he was in all his conduct a perfectly honest man, and methinks my testimony in his favour ought to have the more weight, as we had no religious connection. He us'd, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death."

Whitefield was an evangelist, famed for his oratory skills. On one occasion Whitefield was preaching and it came time to take an offering. Franklin says he has regular coins, silver coins and gold coins in his pocket. He resolved in advance not to give anything when the offering plates were passed, yet Whitefield was quite persuasive about the good their giving would do, and the first coins were lifted from Franklin's pocket followed by the silver and finally the gold. Another man near him deliberately left his money at home, and began asking to borrow money from his neighbor. Such was Whitefield's power of persuasion.

To lift money from peoples' pockets was not, however, his aim. And Franklin begins this section with his positive influence in the communities where he travelled. "It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."

Whitefield had such lungs of leather that it was purported he could address a crowd of 30,000 and still be heard. Franklin doubt this, until he heard Whitefield speak. Old Ben kept moving further and further from the epicenter of the crowd, continually estimating his distance and the density of the crowd. In the end he was not only persuaded to change his opinion on the matter, but it also caused him to reconsider and accept the veracity of certain historical passages he had previously doubted where generals spoke to their assembled troops before battle.

Whitefield crossed the Atlantic thirteen times in his career as an itinerant preacher, also travelling to many other nations, including Scotland many times, Ireland, Bermuda, Gibraltar and The Netherlands.

If you have a couple minutes, be sure to read this fascinating account of George Whitefield as seen through the eyes of Benjamin Franklin.

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