Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation.

Author:Engel, Katherine Carte
Position:Book review
 
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Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation. By Jerome Dean Mahaffey. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2007. xiii + 295 pp. $39.95.

Rhetoric scholar Jerome Dean Mahaffey's new book, Preaching Politics, takes on the problem of the relationship between the North American revivals in the mid-eighteenth century and the coming of the Revolutionary War a generation later. He places the Anglican "Grand Itinerant," George Whitefield, at the center of his narrative and uses a close analysis of Whitefield's sermons and pamphlets to uncover the "trajectory and influence of (Whitefield's) constitutive rhetorical forces to the point where the American Founding Fathers declared independence, from Great Britain (p. 2). Whitefield, Mahaffey argues, helped to unit the culturally-disconnected American colonies through rhetorical strategies that created categories of "us" and "them" and, with his preaching of the evangelical theology of the new birth, encouraged colonists to question the nature of the authorities in place in their political and religious worlds. These core 'implied doctrines (p. 9) found their roots in religious experience, but Mahaffey then argues that because religion provided the foundation of American culture, their influence proved pervasive.

George Whitefield may appear an unlikely figure to place at the center of this argument. A committed Anglican, he never broke formally with the church, spent much of his peripatetic life in Britain, and in his later years worked under the patronage of the aristocratic Countess of Huntingdon and defended his loyalty to Britain despite his substantial sympathy for the colonies Preaching Politics uses a largely biographical approach to manage this subject a problematic strategy as Whitefield's transatlantic travels frequently force the book's narrative back to Britain and away from its central proposition: that Whitefield's ideas were germinating a new kind of political community in North America. The author draws on Whitefield's journals and letters to reconstruct his early career, his rise to fame as a preacher and revivalist, and his subsequent years as a prominent, if not uncontroversial, Anglican minister. In his later chapters, Mahaffey skillfully demonstrates Whitefield s political consciousness, both in the deep anti-Catholicism that permeated his sermons, and also in the way he steered his own ministry away from evangelicalism's most...

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