Thomas Kidd is Professor of History at Baylor University. This interview is based on his new book, George Whitefield : America's Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014).
TK: George Whitefield, the most important preacher of the First Great Awakening, has been the subject of several excellent academic and Christian biographies, but as his 300th birthday approached (it is this December 16), I thought that it was time for a fresh approach to Whitefield, one that might blend strengths of the previous approaches. As an evangelical Christian, I admire many aspects of Whitefield’s ministry, but I am also seeking to place him fully in the religious and cultural milieu in which he lived.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Whitefield : America's Spiritual Founding Father?
TK: George Whitefield was the key evangelical leader of the eighteenth century. Although it is undeniable that he was formed by factors such as the theater culture of the eighteenth century, and the century’s emerging commercial economy (approaches taken by previous academic biographies of Whitefield), Whitefield’s fundamental motivation lay in his evangelical convictions about sin and salvation, and this is the framework in which he would have seen himself.
JF: Why do we need to read George Whitefield : America's Spiritual Founding Father?
TK: It is not difficult to make the case for Whitefield’s importance, not just in religious history, but in eighteenth-century Anglo-American history generally. He was the most famous person in America before the Revolution, he was in his time the most influential leader of the Great Awakening, and he transformed the art of preaching, as well as the print and media culture of the era. (He also maintained a peculiar and intriguing friendship for thirty years with the self-described “Deist” Benjamin Franklin.) This is someone that all Americans – but especially American Christians – should know.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TK: I was a political science major as an undergraduate at Clemson University, but I was drawn more and more to reading and writing in history, my minor. Several key professors encouraged me to consider graduate school. Once I discovered the work of prominent religious historians such as Perry Miller and George Marsden (my eventual doctoral advisor), I was hooked and wanted to devote my career to history teaching.
JF: What is your next project?
TK: My Baylor colleague Barry Hankins and I are finishing a history of Baptists in America, which should be out by mid-2015. Next I am writing a broad history of early America, and I am also planning on doing a religious biography of Benjamin Franklin.
JF: Can't wait to read them! Thanks Thomas.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner