Jessica Parr is a historian of the Early Modern Atlantic World and adjunct professor of history at University of New Hampshire. This interview is based on her new book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism and the Making of a Religious Icon (University Press of Mississippi, March 2015).
JP: This book began as an exploration of the rather abstruse relationship between slavery and baptism in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. As I dug further into the archival research, Whitefield's name keep popping up. It soon occurred to me that despite his considerable missionary work among enslaved and free Africans, there had been relatively little scholarly attention to Whitefield's views on slavery since the 1970s. The research did not ultimately support a book that focused exclusively on Whitefield and slavery. However, his views on slavery (notably, his infamous 1739 castigation of southern planters) were part of a bigger question that historians have been asking; that is, who was George Whitefield? My book builds on the conversation by Frank Lambert, Harry Stout, and others.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inventing George Whitfield?
JP: I argue that Whitefield became a religious icon shaped in the complexities of revivalism, the context over religious toleration, and the conflicting role of Christianity for enslaved people. I also argue that his death in 1770 was the start of a complex legacy that, in many ways, rendered him more powerful as a symbol in death than he was in life.
JF: Why do we need to read Inventing George Whitefield?
JP: I think and hope that it will shed further light on who Whitefield was. A number of treatments of Whitefield have focused primarily on his missionaries activities in the British American colonies. Obviously, this is important, but I think to really understand who he was, it's important to frame him in a broader Atlantic context (as Lambert has done).
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JP: Well, I am more of an Atlanticist, in that my research tends to consider the social and cultural exchanges between the British American colonies, Great Britain, and the Caribbean. I have been fascinated with history since I was a child, but my path to becoming a professional historian probably began when I was a junior in college. I had started at Simmons College (Boston) as an art and graphic design major. I took a couple of history classes purely for enjoyment. Then, one day, one of my professors was giving a talk at a time when I was supposed to be in a design class. I wound up playing hooky to attend her talk. I realized that if it was so easy to ditch a class in my major, then perhaps I was in the wrong major. I did take some time after I finished my BA to consider my options, even getting an MLS in archives management along the way, but ultimately, it was clear that I'd caught "the bug."
JF: What is your next project?
JP: I have a couple of projects in the pipeline. The one that's currently the furthest along is on religion, repentant language, and self-making in the Black Atlantic. In the eighteenth-century Atlantic World, Christianity often contrasted with "heathenism" as a proto-racial language. I noted that several catechized black writers, including Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano, contrasted their converted state against the "pagan-ness" of Africa. I am looking at the writings of Black Christians, including Wheatley, to determine whether religiously based proto-racial language informed social structures in the African Diaspora, and to what extent.
JF: Sounds exciting, thanks Jessica!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner