Thanksgiving in the Crisis

November 24th, 2010

It seems strangely ironic and yet appropriate that the official proclamation of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday should occur in the middle of the bloodiest crisis in our nation’s history.   The year was 1863 and after almost three years of brutal fighting there was no evidence that an end to the war was in sight.  In that year several significant events had occurred that would eventually shape the nation’s future.  In January Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring that all slaves in the  rebellious states were now free and in July the Army of Northern Virginia’s attempt to invade the North and thereby gain an alliance with Great Britain was crushed during a three day battle in and around a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.

The nation was in the midst of a terrible crisis with its very future hanging in the balance when Abraham Lincoln made a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving.   Clearly Lincoln did not associate thanksgiving with the absence of crisis, problems, uncertainty, anxiety, fear or worries about the future.   Instead, thanksgiving was the willingness to stare reality in the face and still declare that life was good, that there were blessings to count, that there were reasons to be thankful.  Thanksgiving was not denying a terrible crisis existed, it was declaring that out of that crisis a better future could be shaped and that, somehow, the willingness and ability to be thankful in the midst of the crisis would offer people the hope and the perspective needed to create a different and better future when the crisis had passed. 

Here  is Lincoln’s Proclamation…and the hope that we too can find reasons to be thankful and thereby shape a better future when our crises have passed.

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day

October 3, 1863


The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.  In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.  Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.  Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.   And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

A. Lincoln



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Interpreting America’s Religious History

November 18th, 2010

I just finished teaching a ten week series on the History of Christianity in America.  We ended by asking a set of questions and reminding ourselves of some key themes that served as signposts for interpreting the role and nature of Christianity in this country.

The following four themes were offered as a way to create a framework for understanding the past 300 years of American religious history:

We are and always have been a nation of paradoxes where justice mixes with injustice, benevolence with greed, honor with treason, and sacrifice with consumption.

We have been both religious and secular from the beginning.  There is no year, decade or century to which one can point and say “now that is when the nation really believed in God” or ”that was when we rejected God as nation and became secular.”   Rather, the dynamic interplay between the religious and the secular shaped and continues to shape who we are.  The process of secularization in this country has not been the triumph of the secular over the religious or vice versa, but rather, the continual repositioning of these two cultural forces in a way that allows religion to thrive and grow in an environment that is essentially secular.  Go figure. 

America is a nation of insiders and outsiders, meaning that there are those who get to shape the nation’s direction with their moral vision of who we are and where we are going and those who struggle to find a voice and the means to contribute their vision for the country.  Our history has  been one of competing moral visions and the amazing story of how outsiders become insiders in America.

Protestants dominated this country for the first 150 years of its existence, and though they still retain a powerful influence over the culture, they no longer dominate it the way they did in the nineteenth century.  Religious diversity has come to characterize this country in a way that no one living in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries could have foreseen or imagined but they helped accelerate this process by their social and political choices.  Of course we still insist that our presidents are Protestants (see my last post), but Protestants are no longer America’s cultural masters.

And we ended with these questions:

What will America look like in 2035?

Whose moral vision will shape the next 25 years?

But for me the most penetrating question is a two part-er.  Does America still have a single, compelling and galvanizing story that truly connects us all and binds us together?  And, if so, what is that story and who is telling it?

Catholic Conspiracy?

November 11th, 2010

This week marked the 5oth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon to become the thirty-fifth president of the United States.  JFK is remembered for many things:  his famous inaugural speech, the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs incident, his visit to Berlin, creation of the Peace Corps, launching of the American space program, integration of the University of Mississipi and perhaps most of all his assassination that ended the era of what some commentators referred to as the “American Camelot”. 

What some are unaware of is the social and political opposition JFK faced in the 1960 presidential campaign due to his religious beliefs.  JFK was a Catholic.   In fact, JFK was and is the first and only Catholic to be elected President of the United States. 

Suspicion and fear of Catholicism is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.  This fear has its origins in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Protestants from Britain and Europe were settling this country.  They brought with them a deep seated distrust, fear, and hatred of a Catholicism that they associated with those long centuries when the Catholic Church allied itself with the kings of Europe to dominate that continent.  The 100 Years War that ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 were actually a series of wars fought over religion.  In particular, they were wars fought to decide which religion would dominate Europe, Protestant or Catholic.

For eighteenth and nineteeth century American Protestants, to be Catholic meant to be ruled by the Pope which in their minds was associated with tyranny and slavery; therefore, even though the Constitution ensured that there would be no religious test for holding political office, until JFK, there had never been a Catholic president.  The assumption was that a Catholic president would be under the control and influence of the Pope thereby threatening America’s Protestant culture.

In a bit of irony Black Americans could appeal to biblical stories and parables as they argued for their right to freeedom and justice but Catholics were forced to make arguments regarding their social and political status without referencing the Bible for fear that that a dominant Protestant culture would reject those arguments out of hand as illegitimate.

The last half of the twentieth century witnessed the easing of tensions regarding the role of Catholics in the American political process but some of the old prejudice still remains.  It will be interesting to see how the culture responds the next time a Catholic runs for country’s highest political office.

For more information on this and other issues associated with American Catholicism read Jay Dolan’s In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension, Oxford University Press, 2003.

We Have Met the Enemy; They Are Us

November 4th, 2010

Over the past thirty years I have listened to evangelicals bemoan the fact that American higher education is prejudiced and downright antagonistic toward students and professors who openly voice their Christian beliefs.  This prejudice and antagonism has been well documented and I have experienced it first hand so I have no reason to doubt that it exists; however, the mere existence of prejudice and antagonism toward personal and public expressions of  Christian faith in the halls of higher education is not an explanation for why it exists.  How and why did personal and public expressions of Christian faith in academic settings come to be viewed as inappropriate and unprofessional?  

In searching for an answer to this question it has become customary for evangelicals to adopt the following answer.   During the twentieth century American higher education became secularized.  This process of secularizing higher education was promoted and advanced by professors and administrators who had adopted liberal, evolutionary doctrines that were then applied to the sciences as well as to the disciplines of sociology, psychology, literature, history, law and religion.  These educators were themselves irreligious.  These were scholars rejected the notion of God and were  intent on eradicating religious beliefs, and Christianity in particular, from colleges and universities across the country.

In other words, sometime during the twentieth century secular humanists in the guise of scholars and educators formed an alliance with one goal, to eliminate any vestiges of a Christian worldview from American higher education.  This is the reason for the current prejudice and antagonism.  As compelling an argument as this may be and as much as this argument may have some merit considering current struggles over academic freedom and the lack of  toleration toward the expression of certain religious views in higher education, this is not the whole story or even an accurate account of the story.

Darwinistic ideas and secularization were indeed forces at work in American higher education during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but these forces were not harnessed and accelerated by secular humanists educators.  Until the middle of the twentieth century, many American universities was firmly in the hands of Protestants who assumed that Christianity was the dominate cultural faith of the country and because they believed Christianity was the  country’s dominate cultural faith, they believed that it would always be so.  It was these Protestant leaders who began questioning whether sectarian beliefs should govern the university and whether religious views should inform scholarship.  It was these Protestant leaders who took it upon themselves to distance higher education intentionally from specific sectarian views and from Christianity in general.

In other words, if you’re looking for the bad guys who initiated the secularization of the American university, they were self professing Christians.  Admittedly, their attempt to create a nonsectarian educational process evolved into a system now dominated by a secular agenda often intolerant of Christian perspectives, but it did not start there.

This is not a happy history for those evangelicals who like the secular conspiracy accounts better, but if Christians are to address the current situation in higher education and find workable solutions let’s at least start with a more accurate picture of how and why we got where we are today. 

If you are interested in reading a thorough historical account of this part of America’s story, read George  M. Marsden’s, The Soul of the American University:  From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.

Martin Luther and the Great Pumpkin

October 28th, 2010

Yes, it is that time of year that many evangelical Christians dread, Halloween!  And to make matters worse, this year Halloween falls on Sunday.  What to do?  Multiple options have been offered in past years:  ignore Halloween and focus instead on the fall harvest, scarecrows and hay rides; create Christian versions of a haunted house where you show people what hell will be like if they don’t repent and quick; dress your kids up as Bible characters instead of Superman, Spiderman, Tinkerbell, Firemen, Policemen, Handy Mandy, Scooby Doo and Elmo (I always thought that this was lame.  What kid wants to dress like Abraham instead of Spiderman?); have “trunk or treat” gatherings in the parking lots of local churches; and the tried and true method of lock your doors, turn off your lights and ignore the doorbell.

I have a suggestion.  Since Halloween falls on Sunday this year, build your morning worship service around the fact that it is Reformation Day.  You know, the day that the German reformer Martin Luther tacked the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany to protest the sale of papal indulgences.  That significant event occured on October 31, 1517 and some theologians and historians would argue that it was the first shot fired in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. 

Not only is this an opportunity for your pastor to preach on justification by faith out of Romans chapter one, but the whole congregation can get fired up by singing all four verses of Ein Fest Burg ist Unser Gott, (A Mighty Fortress is Our God).  This is without a doubt one of the coolest hymns ever.  How many hymns do you know that use the word bulwark?

Then, that night for Halloween, you can dress the family up like German peasants or choose among the vast assortment of medieval monks:  Augustinians (Luther’s choice), Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Cluniacs, Benedictines, Carthusians or Premonstratensians.  Suggestion, before leaving the house gather the fam to watch that old classic, It’s the Great Pumkin Charlie Brown.  My favorite part is where Sally wants to slug that blockhead Linus because she missed tricks or treats in order to stay up all night in the pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear.  Life is like that sometimes.

If you’re  still not convinced that Reformation Day and Halloween are connected, take into account how much Martin Luther favors the Great Pumpkin in his older years.


Finding a Voice: Women in the 19th Century

October 21st, 2010

America has always been a nation of insiders and outsiders.  By definition, insiders get to shape the culture and provide the moral vision for shaping the nation’s future while outsiders struggle to find a place in the culture where their voice can be heard.  Outsiders know too well the cultural doors that are closed to them.  Most often they are the doors that offer traditional access to power and influence:  politics, business, and education; however, the genius of outsiders is how adept they become at locating and utilizing non-traditional and counter-intuitive access points.

Though this is admittedly too broad a statement, the cultural insiders of the 19th century were Protestant males.  This is not an indictment of Protestants or men, it’s just a historical fact that must be taken into account.  Protestant males controlled the traditional accesses to power and influence but they were also responsible for unintentionally putting into motion forces that would significantly change the cultural landscape. 

They were responsible for advocating and promoting radical doctrines like popular sovereignty, individual religious freedom and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ( See my blog Preachers and Politicians).  In effect, during the 19th century the court of public opinion in America became a significant source of power and influence for individuals possessing charismatic personalities, inspiring vision and leadership ability. 

You see, the problem is, if you advocate and promote such doctrines, don’t be surprised if people take you seriously and begin rallying public opinion to their views.  Don’t be surprised if some of these same people begin redefining their social roles as a result of these radically liberating and socially leveling doctrines.  Don’t be shocked if they use their individual freedoms to gain public support for their cause and become civic leaders.  

The role of women in the 19th century was to be the moral gatekeepers of the American home.  In the privacy of their homes they were to raise their children to be God fearing, morally upright models of civic and religious virtue.  This concern for the moral and civic welfare of their children eventually expanded to larger concerns for the moral and civic issues affecting American culture that in turn affected family life:  abolition, temperance, poverty, the mentally ill and worker’s rights.

During the 19th century women expanded their role as moral gatekeepers in the home to the role of social reformers in the public square.  Though the traditional doors of politics, business and higher education were closed to most women, the role of social reformer was wide open.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke were the daughters of a Southern slave owner.  As young adults they moved north to join the fight against slavery.  Both sisters became well known and effective public speakers and influential writers for the abolitionist cause.

Francis E. Willard was a devout Methodist influenced by Charles Finney’spreaching.  As leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she became the spokesperson for the largest women’s movement of that era and was responsible for leading the WCTU to join forces with the social causes of labor unions and women’s right to vote.

Dorthea Dix was a school teacher who dedicated her life to improving conditions for the mentally ill.  She hounded the Massachusetts State legislature to pass laws that would improve and expand the Worcester Hospital for the Insane.  Her concern for the plight of the mentally ill ultimately became a national crusade.

As advocates for social reform women found their public voice in the culture.  The court of public opinion provided women with the kind of non-traditional power and influence that would allow them to effectively challenge their traditional roles as moral gatekeepers and eventually demand their rights as full citizens of the nation.  Once empowered by the cause of social reform it was a short step to Seneca Falls, New York where in 1848 women and men joined together to formally demand that women be given the right to vote.

Those women, let them be reformers and they’ll want to vote.

Graham Crackers, Silverware and Rocking Chairs

October 14th, 2010

In the nineteenth Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch did some interesting work on the social and economic characteristics found within Christianity.  They focused particularly on the differences between established churches and sects.  One of their more interesting conclusions about sects was that social and economic pressures will, over time, force radically independent sects to choose one of three options:  become an official church or denomination, reinvent themselves in some manner or cease to exist.  It would seem that America provided the laboratory to observe all three of these options. 

The Shakers, a spin off of the Quakers, were founded around 1776 by Sister Ann Lee.  They were a communitarian group:  biblical in focus, revivalist in spirit with millennial concerns.  They were also segregated.  Men and women lived apart as they dedicated themselves to achieving moral and spiritual perfection.  They were also spiritualist who communicated with the dead but were best known for their lively dances conducted as part of worship.  After a brief period of growth, the Shakers stagnated and declined.  Segregation of the sexes was a fine doctrine with this one major drawback.  Many of the Shakers were fine craftsmen who helped to sustain their community by designing and building furniture.   When faced with the social and economic pressures of the culture, the Shakers ceased to be a practicing religious group but you can still buy their furniture.

Around 1851, John Humphrey Noyes established a utopian community in upstate New York.  John was a product of the revivalist fires that burned pretty regularly through that part of the state and he held a firm belief in Christian perfectionism.  He taught that perfect love would be best realized through free love and complex marriages where  men and women shared their wives and husbands.  (I am not sure how close this community was to the site of the Woodstock Concert but they would have felt right at home.)  Moral pressures and outrage from the surrounding culture eventually spelled the doom of this community, but by this time they had become known for their craftsmanship working with silverware.  So, in 1879 they reorganized themselves as the Oneida Joint Stock Company.  That’s right, you can’t be a part of that community’s free love focus but you can buy Oneida Silverware.

Finally, the Millerites were a millennial  group in the early nineteenth century.  They followed the teachings  of William Miller, a Jeffersonian Deist who became a Calvinist Baptist preacher convinced that he had figured out the exact time for Jesus’ second coming.  When Jesus failed to appear on the day of his first prediction, March 21, 1843, Miller  recalculated and decided he had made a mistake.  The actual day was October 22, 1844.  Let’s just say it didn’t happen then either leading to what became known as the “Great Disappointment”. 

The  movement did not die because Ellen White reinvented the movement by teaching that the second coming did occur, it just happened in a spiritual sense.  She refocused the group on following biblical teachings regarding true worship on Saturday, not Sunday, and following many of the biblical dietary laws.  For this emphasis she enlisted the support of two key individuals:  John Kellogg (Tony the Tiger) and Sylvester Graham (that cracker you choked on in kindergarten because you didn’t have enough milk to wash it down).

Now, I am not saying that Weber’s and Troeltsch’s principles are still true today, but they were back then.

An American Paradox

October 7th, 2010

Paradox is defined as “a person, situation or action exhibiting inexplicable or contradictory aspects”.  G. K. Chesterton referred to paradox as a man standing on his head waving his legs in the air.  However you define it, a paradox is something that is immediate and evident but its presence is disconcerting and troubling.  History is full of paradoxes and in many cases these paradoxes become a source of cultural or personal crises.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Americans were eagerly embracing their new found political and religious freedoms.  The American Revolution had created a new nation with a new, bright, and hopeful future.  Americans were also experimenting with their new found religious liberty as they took the Bible and began reshaping the Gospels to suit their own personal spiritual needs and preferences.  Revivalist preachers took the democratic and republican sentiments present within the nation’s political rhetoric and used it to shape a powerful religious rhetoric that combined popular sovereignty with spiritual conversion.

The Declaration of Independence provided new democratic language for political, social and religious change…for some Americans, but not for all, and that is  the American paradox.  By 1810 America was home to over one million slaves.  By 1860  that total was closer to three million.  The form of insitutional  slavery created in America was different than earlier forms introduced in the Caribbean and South America.  Earlier forms recognized slaves as people who had certain rights under the law.  American slavery defined slaves as property, not people; therefore, they were offered no protection under the law.  The Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves. 

Slavery existed side by side with the radically equalizing vocabulary of individual and natural rights, and the democratic language of revivalism.  As slaves began to embrace the Christian faith in large numbers the gospel story offered them a renewed sense of  value and worth as people; they were given a new identity as God’s people and a powerful force of egalitarianism began to emerge among the slave population.   How long can a whole section of the population be denied basic human rights before someone speaks up and says, “you know, what we have here is a serious paradox!”

Perhaps the Black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass best expressed this paradox in a speech he gave on July 4, 1852 to the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim…You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three million of your countrymen…You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country…The existence  of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.”

Eight years later the new nation shaped out of democratic and republican sentiments about freedom, liberty and justice was fighting a civil war to address a paradox that could not be ignored.  What is the current American paradox that demands our attention?

Preachers and Politicians

September 30th, 2010

It’s that time of year again when the airwaves are bombarded with political advertising.   America’s unique form of democracy is never more clearly on display than when political campaigns spend hundreds of millions of dollars saturating the media market with their message.  Each message is a carefully refined mixture of democratic sentiments, symbols and language all designed for one purpose, to convince the court of popular opinion that a vote for me is a vote for libery, freedom, justice, equality and the American Way.  Oh, and by the way, “God bless America!” 

If you’ve lived in America long enough you are used to this almost annual ritual of political grandstanding.  What many of us may not know is that this particular event has its roots in an unique American religious ritual, revivalism.  It was not politicians that established the ground rules for achieving and maintaining popular support, it was nineteenth century revivalist  preachers.  Long before America’s political institutions and politicians were secure enough to promote and sustain America’s democratic ideals, these revivalist preachers were traveling the length and breadth of this country communicating their own version of the American Dream. 

The early nineteenth century was a time of popular and democratic versions of the Gospel preached by men like Herman Husband, Samuel Ely, Nathan Barlow, William Scales, William Jones and Lorenzo Dow.  These versions of the Gospel included biblical and theological language like sin, salvation, righteousness and holiness but these indigenous Gospels were also steeped in the language of the Revolution.  These men were preachers but they were also Jeffersonians and Anti-Federalists, and they saw no contradiction between preaching against sin and promoting republican ideas.   Their egalitarian form of Christianity had as much to do with popular sovereignty and the unalienable rights of man as they they did with personal salvation being the result of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ .

Lorenzo Dow argued that both Christianity and democracy were forces for breaking down class distinctions.  Not only were all men created in God’s image and able to choose faith for themselves but all human rights were grounded upon “the great and universal law of nature.”

“But if all men are BORN EQUAL, and endowed with unalienable RIGHTS by their CREATOR, in the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-then there can be no just reason, as a cause, why he may or should not think, and judge, and act for himself in matters of religion, opinion and private judgement.”  Lorenzo Dow

Revivalism became America’s first effective medium for promoting and sustaining democratic ideas in and among the general population and it was the revivalist preacher who was the country’s first real politicians and campaigners.  When Alex de Tocqueville came to America in the early nineteenth century from France he observed these preacher/politicians first hand.  His conclusion?  “Where I expect to find a priest (preacher), I find a politician.”

So, if you are looking for the ancestors of the twenty-first century political campaigners, don’t waste your time with Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams.  Look instead for revivalist preachers like Lorenzo Dow.

For more information on this topic read Nathan O. Hatch’s, The Democratization of American Christianity.

The Fifth Beatle No One Knows

September 23rd, 2010

Some of us were alive when the fourth British Invasion occurred.  The second invasion happened in Boston in 1775, the third invasion assaulted Washington DC in 1812 and the fourth one took place on Friday February 7, 1964 at Kennedy International Airport in New York City when four young men with mushroom haircuts descended the steps of a Pan American flight to the sound of over 9,000 young girls screaming and fainting. 


I am pretty sure we know who those four young men were.  There was John, Paul, Ringo and George but most of us are unaware of the fifth Beatle, another George who preceded Beatlemania by nearly 225 years.   This George launched the first British Invasion that would sweep through the country and directly affect thousands of lives.  Some historians have suggested that the influence of this George helped provide a spiritual and social framework that 30 years later would serve to unite the colonies in their fight for independence. 

I am referring to George Whitefield, the fifth Beatle.  At the age of 25 Whitefield was already a sensation.  In a day when preachers read long, boring sermons from high pulpits to people sitting on hard uncomfortable pews, Whitefield performed his sermons like an actor, speaking extemporaneously, using numerous illustrations and sweeping gestures that kept people’s attention riveted on him.    He was unconventional, a radical and a rebel. 

When churches closed their doors to him because of his lively and spontaneous preaching, he preached in parks, fields, and other common areas located in and around the worst parts London to people that the church had written off .  Some people tried to distract him by blowing bugles, beating drums, shouting obscenities and throwing pieces of dead cat at him but Whitefield was not deterred.   He was not just a different preacher, he preached a different gospel that few had ever heard, a gospel of God’s love, forgiveness, grace and mercy.

Word about Whitefield spread to America and in September of 1740 Whitefield invaded America on a preaching tour that started in Boston and traveled down through the colonies all the way to Georgia.  It would be fair and accurate to say that George Whitefield was America’s first Pop Star.  He  packed churches from Boston to Savannah and when churches were closed to him he preached outside.  Crowds in and around major cities like  Boston and Philadelphia numbered in the thousands.  It was not uncommon for Whitefield to preach to a crowd of 15-20,000 people, without the benefit of a sound system, and be heard clearly by those at the very back of the crowd.  Whitefield’s “Rock America Tour” lasted eighteen weeks.  In a day of horse and buggy he traveled over 1000 miles and preached over 200 times.

It is said that Whitefield’s influence had a democratizing affect on the colonies.  His message was for everyone, not just the religious or socially elite.  The common spiritual experience shared by those who responded to his message transcended the social, religious and political status quo and challenged the authoritarian power structures in his  day.  People found that they were free to respond to God as individuals and if they were free to chose and shape their religious lives, what prevented them from choosing and shaping their political lives?  Thirty years  later they would make that choice as well.

For more on the fifth Beatle, read Harry Stout’s, The Divine Dramatist.