Selling My Religion: Shopping and the Preacher (1)
ANNETTE TELLS TALES Long Before TV Evangelists, George Whitefield Was a Transatlantic Sensation, Selling What People Were Eager to Buy. How? 🛒🛍️
How Long Is This Post? About 8,400 words, or 38 minutes (Yes, you get value at NBH!) This is a free post. Do you have bills? So do I. NBH has to support itself. That’s why I can’t write it all for free, alas. Help keep this unique newsletter on the air, and support this actual, trained, qualified historian in her mission, for history:
Now I have your attention. Oh, I don’t, not yet? ok . . .
A TV PREACHER FROM BEFORE TV!
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
SHOPPING AND TV PREACHER!
Now, ahem, let’s go back to our normal, calm, sensible tone (yeah, right) at Non-Boring History. Grab your coffee, and as they say on YouTube, let’s get started.
One of my old history professors described this famous preacher as “a cross between Oral Roberts and George Michael”. Later, for my own students, I stole the joke, updated it, and called him “a cross between Benny Hinn* and Justin Bieber”.
*Popular TV preacher in the early 2000s.
Who was this religious superstar? George Whitefield (pronounced whit-field). Woke Boy Wonder of the Church of England. The man who caused the religious firestorm we call the first Great Awakening. The original evangelical megachurch preacher.
Laing, I am/am not a Christian, and I am not interested in this. I am here for the shopping.
Hold on! This isn’t religious studies. We’re about history at NBH.*
* That said, I was thrilled to be contacted by an Episcopal seminary some years ago, and asked if I had any more academic work hiding somewhere. They were using my work on the 18th century to teach future clerics a thing or two about the brutal realities of dealing with powerful parishioners today. I'm not a church historian. My scholarly work is on popular religious culture, and I'm… Agh. Sorry. Don't want to bore or scare you! Forget what I just wrote.
This is also a story about the beginnings of how the whole world started lusting after and shopping for crap we don’t actually need in order to live. It's from the time when we started heading for the malls in droves.
This is also about how people who try to part us from our money began dominating our lives and messing with our heads.
Now you're talking, Laing.
And it’s about how one man used all of that in the service of his deeply -held religious beliefs.
Um…. okay. Didn’t see that coming. Where are we going with this?
Brits and Americans started spending so much time and money shopping for useless stuff long before the first malls. It all started three hundred years ago, in the lifetime of wildly popular preacher George Whitefield. He didn’t have TV, or even radio. Yet Whitefield ended up hugely famous in Britain AND America within a very short time. How??
Ooh, this is one of my favorite stories ever! And it’s the subject of Dr. Frank Lambert’s “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (1994), on which I’m riffing today.
Early on in Pedlar in Divinity, Dr. Lambert, who is both an academic historian and a former pro American football player (Pittsburgh Steelers) (how cool is that??) begs his readers not to confuse George Whitefield with TV evangelists. No wonder Lambert was worried: He first published on Whitefield in an article in the American Historical Review [very boring journal for academic historians] in 1990.
This was just two years after popular televangelist Jim Bakker, who. with his unique then-wife Tammy Faye, had captivated millions around the world with Christian talk shows, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for bilking his followers out of millions of dollars, amid accusations of naughty goings-on with a church secretary.
That same year, 1988, evangelist Jimmy Swaggert, who had condemned his disgraced fellow TV clergyman Bakker as a "cancer in the body of Christ", was caught, um, playing chess (as my old history teachers in England used to put it) with a sex worker in a motel.
The Past Is A Foreign Country
Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert were not the company in which Dr. Lambert wanted to place George Whitefield. Not from religious bias, but because, as historians, we want you to understand that, as an English novelist called L.P. Hartley put it back in the Fifties, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
In other words, historians are trained to avoid jumping to conclusions, to put things in context as best we can, and to always bear in mind that it’s all too easy to think we “get” something—and we’re almost always wrong when we do. I watched my students from Georgia in London assume that an Englishwoman was being passive-aggressive, when in fact she was kind and sincere. They read her through the only lenses they had, the lenses of the South, a land where passive-aggressive behavior has been raised to an artform, bless their hearts. People do things differently in foreign countries. The past is also a foreign country. Even when we think something looks very familiar, it isn’t ever quite the same. And if we assume it is, we don’t understand it, and we get confused.
So you see Lambert’s problem. In the 1990s, he was trying to get his readers to understand George Whitefield in the 18th century, against the late 20th century American background of TV preachers caught with their pants (UK readers: trousers, but also pants) down. It was going to be too easy for people who read Lambert’s book to lump everything together, past and present, to rush to a quick conclusion and move on.
It’s also important to note that there are popular evangelical ministers who have never been implicated in, or even accused of, naughtiness of the sex or money kinds. Think Billy Graham in the 1950s, or Billy Sunday (yes, his actual name) in the early 20th century.
But I understand that many of my readers are looking at me skeptically right now. If you’re one of them, I am asking you to do something that may go against every instinct you might have: To consider the possibility that a vastly popular evangelical preacher who accepted loads of cash from his followers was entirely sincere.
In other words, I'm asking that you think like a historian. That you don't jump to conclusions, and that you keep an open mind. I'm asking that you assume George Whitefield believed firmly that he knew how to reach (and save) a huge number of souls with his religious message, and that he used the money he made to further his version of Christianity.
In our cynical age of the 21st century, I can almost hear readers mutter “Yeah, right.” In fact, people muttered the same thing while Whitefield was alive, implying or saying outright that he was getting rich from foolish people.
I’m not ruling out gray areas. And neither Dr. Lambert nor I are saying Whitefield was (or was not) right about his religious beliefs. But I do think Dr. Lambert’s right that George Whitefield was sincere: Young, arrogant, business-minded, sure, and very much a product of the times in which he lived, absolutely not someone I would want to have dinner with, but nonetheless absolutely sincere in his beliefs. My goal, like Lambert’s, is NOT to convert you to Whitefield’s beliefs, but to persuade you that he wasn’t just some grifter in a wig. In other words, the historian’s battle cry applies: IT’S COMPLICATED. And I’m daft enough to show you HOW complicated, because, as a non-posh person, I don’t underestimate you!
Whatever. What about the shopping, Laing? Don’t lose me here.
Fair. Even if you aren’t interested in the Chief Great Awakener, stick around. Because I’m going to be talking a lot about the history of shopping. Promise.
“Dr. Squintum” Hits Back at His Haters
George Whitefield was only 22 years old when he burst onto the transatlantic scene. In the picture below, you’ll have to look past the fashionable wig covering his fashionable bald head, because the past is a foreign country. Wigs were all the rage. Whitefield was considered quite the hunk, except for his crossed eye, which got him the nasty nickname “Dr. Squintum”.
Be kind, 18th century people! my wokey readers yell through a megaphone.
Hah. Fat chance of that, and not just because they’re all dead now. Eighteenth century Brits on both sides of the Atlantic may not have invented cruelty, crass humor, or satire, but they sure mastered them all.
Do better! my wokey friends yell.
Yeah… Um . . . Actually, they may find George Whitefield relatable. He was young and sanctimonious.
The past is a foreign country. Whitefield was considered very attractive, and no doubt, a large part of his attractiveness was his youthful personal charisma.
I mean, to say . . . . This painting is crap, by any standard, including by the artistic standards of the 18th century, when people who painted professionally were expected to actually be good at art. But George Whitefield didn’t agree with us, or didn’t care, that this painting of him sucked. He had prints made of it, as well as two other portraits painted soon after, and then advertised the prints for sale.
For sale? Yes, for sale. Before we talk about that, let’s consider this: Whitefield didn’t care that his portrait wasn’t flattering because he just wanted something to show he was serious. He was worried because cartoonists were portraying him as a greedy grifter. Even the most famous London cartoonist of all, William Hogarth, was parodying Whitefield, showing him as a crazy fanatic who conned the idiotic riff-raff into handing over their cash.
Whitefield wanted to show the public that he wasn’t the troublemaking loon they saw in cartoons. He was, this picture said, a sensible, respectable clergyman. That's why the portrait looks like it does. Whitefield sold prints for people to hang up in their homes, to counteract the cartoons, and so his followers could point to the walls and say to skeptical friends, “See? He doesn’t look like a sex-crazed fanatic at all.” And he sold much more besides. That’s the focus of Pedlar in Divinity: Whitefield’s genius lay in harnessing all the cutting-edge selling tools of his day to sell his view of Christianity.
The public were hungry for what George Whitefield had to say, and especially colonial Americans. These were people who lived in Britain’s diverse colonies, where not only English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish lived, but also French, Dutch, Swedes, Germans, and Indians and Africans of many nations, all rubbing shoulders, creating a bubbling stew of cultures, ideas, and religious beliefs.
So colonial Americans in the 18th century had exposure to lots of different religions. Even if they were committed to a religious identity, many of them, from enslaved people to Ben Franklin, enjoyed church shopping. It was entertaining to go hear the alternatives. They flocked in their thousands to hear Whitefield speak , loved his message and his delivery, emptied their pockets for his collections, and bought up his publications.
And Whitefield’s goal wasn’t to push membership in his own Church of England, or any other denomination. He aimed to lead as many Christians as possible to the path to salvation, toward heaven, regardless of what church they belonged to.
If any of this sounds familiar, even if you’re not even slightly interested in Christianity, it should. These things are hard to miss today: “Non-denominational” evangelical churches, and their language of people accepting Christ as their savior as the pathway to heaven. This pretty much starts with George Whitefield. But that doesn’t mean there’s a direct line from him, from the 18th century, to today. There isn’t. Hey, note how many of these churches disagree with each other, even when they look the same to the casual visitor.
So who is this George Whitefield guy? Let’s start with Whitefield’s youth, and [ATTENTION SHOPPERS!] the world into which he was born. It’s a world that was starting to look more and more like our own.
George Learns Selling . . . and Shopping
George Whitefield came from a long line of English clergyman, but his dad, Thomas Whitefield, had other ambitions. Thomas was a wine merchant [owned a (US) liquor store or (UK) off-license] in the international port city of Bristol. Thomas was also landlord of the Bell Inn in Gloucester, forty miles away. And that’s how come George Whitefield was born in a pub.
All of George’s siblings, even his sister, went into business. One brother, James, was a sea captain who became, like his father, a wine merchant , but unlike his father, specialized in importing wines from the Portuguese Madeira Islands, stuck out in the Atlantic, to Britain’s American colonies. Sister Elizabeth owned a grocery shop in Bristol. Brother Thomas, Jr. was a merchant, too, although he ended up bankrupt. Brother Richard inherited the Bell Inn from their dad, and ran it successfully until his death in the 1760s.
And George? He planned to go into business, just like everyone else. He began learning early in the Bell Inn. His dad died when he was two, but his mum, Elizabeth, continued to run the pub, relying on her six sons and a daughter to pitch in, even after she remarried (her new husband had his own business to run, as an ironmonger.)
George later wrote in his autobiography, “I, from time to time, began to assist [my mum] occasionally in the public house [pub], till at length I put on my blue apron and my [candle] snuffers, washed mops, cleaned rooms, and in one word, became a professed and common drawer [ordinary working bloke] for a year and a half. “
I just love this description! The future celeb clergyman in his blue pinny, candle snuffer tied around his waist (I’m guessing), mopping the floors of hotel rooms, and sweeping other surfaces with his little feather duster.
Sometimes, George was left in charge of the whole pub, which was great managerial experience. When his brother Richard took over the Bell Inn from their mum, George was named assistant manager.
The Bell Inn was much more than a simple city boozer [US: dive bar]. It was more like a convention hotel, a combination upmarket bar/hotel/restaurant and event space, hosting meetings, parties, and dances.
Plus the pub had shops on the ground floor. One was home to Richard and George’s wine shop. The others were pop-up shops that could be rented by traveling merchants: Salesmen who arrived in town would run local newspaper ads and put up posters in the streets, advertising their presence, and directing shoppers to the Bell Inn, where they displayed and sold their merch. One example: A Dr. Taylor advertised in Gloucester’s local paper in 1736 that he counted King George himself among his customers, but that the mere public was invited to pop in to see him in his pop-up at the Bell Inn, and get themselves some glasses (as worn by the King).
Young George Whitefield, then, got to see and experience life behind shop counters. And he also experienced life in front of counters, too, as a keen shopper himself.
Retail shops, as we know them, were new in the first half of the 18th century. People who weren’t also craftsmen, but who were simply sellers of stuff others made, were moving from outdoor street markets into nice cozy premises. This change started (where else?) in London. But retail shops quickly spread to large towns and cities like Whitefield’s Gloucester.
As a kid, George recalls his early shopping experiences in his autobiography. He writes of how he pinched money from his mother’s pocket (think purse) while she was still in bed, and bought his favorite luxuries: Sweets in the form of fruit*, and baked goods, and reading materials: books, magazines, and newspapers.
*How is fruit a luxury, you ask? My mind goes back to the thrill of being treated to a bunch of grapes from a London street seller. How good they tasted! Hey, I’m not even that old. This was the 1970s.
Young George especially loved romances, playscripts, “and suchlike trifling books”. He learned a lot, including about Britain’s American colonies, from reading the local newspaper, the Gloucester Journal, which started publishing across the street from the Bell Inn when George was eight years old.
At the Bell Inn, George learned how newspapers weren’t just for entertainment. They offered a way to increase his family’s business profits. His brother Richard staged profitable special events at the Bell, events like cockfights, dances, and concerts, with the latest music. To get customers in the door, Richard advertised in the Gloucester Journal, like this:
“At the Bell Great Room, a concert of Vocal and Instrumental Musick, plus several of Mr. Handel’s concertos will be performed on the harpsichord. After the concert, there will be a Ball for the ladies.”
Translation: Live Music and Dancing at the Bell Inn! All the latest George Frederick Handel hits, with a full band and singers, plus our popular keyboardist, the one and only Rita. Ladies especially welcome!
Wait, Laing. Dancing? Pop music? Cockfights? This was what the future great star of the Great Awakening grew up around?
Oh, sure. Successful ministers have to be relatable. Who wants to listen to a goody-two-shoes preacher who spent his childhood reading and praying, and lacks a bit of the old sex-drugs-rock n’ roll-then-found-Jesus in his personal history?
When George, by then a big deal evangelist, returned to Gloucester in 1739, and preached to thousands of fans, too many for any church, he spoke on a field owned by the Bell Inn.
So to sum up: George learned every part of the family business at the Bell Inn, from dusting guest rooms to running the place. He read his brother’s ads in the local newspaper, and saw the impact of those ads when people turned up for special events. He noted the success of shops on the Bell Inn’s ground floor. as well as the flourishing wine store that he and his brother managed.
And then George spent a few months in Bristol learning about transatlantic trade from his brother James, who was doing very well for himself as an international merchant. James imported sugar from the West Indies and rice from South Carolina to England, and exported wine from Portuguese Madeira to Britain’s American colonies.
About the time that young George Whitefield became the first transatlantic evangelist, two hundred years before Billy Graham, people in Britain and its colonies were seized with the urge to go shopping. Big time.
Transatlantic Shopping Frenzy
Believe it or not, frenzied shopping in the 18th century marks a HUGE change in how people behaved. Before now, most shopping in Britain was done from home by royalty and aristocracy, and lesser members of a tiny elite. They needed to impress everyone else with their authority, including dazzling the riff-raff with their palaces, knick-knacks and grand clothes. In 17th century British American colonies, wealthy people mostly ploughed their riches back into buying more land and slaves. But in 18th century Britain and British America, more and more people of all income levels and statuses were buying luxuries to enjoy and impress.
Historians call this change the Consumer Revolution. Try casually trotting out that phrase at your next social occasion! And then really wow your company* by observing that, in Dr. Lambert’s words, “per capita consumption exploded in Britain and America” in the 18th century. In plain English? People suddenly headed for the malls to buy tons of crap that went well beyond their actual needs.
*Or get them to decide to leave, which might be useful, just saying
Historians long explained this rise in consumption as a result of more supply, arguing that if you open a shop, shoppers will come. Frank Lambert thinks it was more complicated. He points out that a larger population meant not only more workers, but more shoppers. New agricultural methods meant less need for farm workers, and people were moving into towns, where shops were. Farms, meanwhile, produced more and cheaper food, freeing up more people’s incomes to spend on . . . stuff.
Eighteenth century Brits were thus open to novelty, to new products to buy. Take hot drinks, for example: Coffee, tea, and hot chocolate (no chocolate bars for another century plus). These caffeinated brews were all new and exciting. I can just imagine the signs outside an eighteenth century coffeehouse:
Have You Tried Our New Drink Yet? It’s Called Tea!
Better Than Beer! Coffee’s Here!
Or maybe: Hot Chocolate! It’s Back! Come Get You Some!
The more people wanted a product, the more establishments opened and competed for their business, and the more prices came down. Tea and coffee and chocolate started out as luxury drinks, but gradually began moving down the social scale.
And then there was all the other stuff you could buy. Factories as we know them weren’t a thing yet. But manufacturing, knocking out attractive fancy goods as quickly as possible for a big customer base, was now happening. A man who visited the booming English industrial town of Birmingham in 1740 found a manufacturer’s home full of busy workers, churning out buttons and buckles in every room.
Serious money was being made in Birmingham, and elsewhere in Britain. Big Money was also being made in Britain's colonies, especially those that relied on cranking out raw materials like tobacco and rice, now using slave labor, and on the slave trade, shipping African people across the Atlantic to do forced labor in the Americas.
It all happened so fast. Britain was taken by surprise. We can see that in the sorry state of its roads. The roads in 1720, including the main road between Birmingham and London used to transport goods, were muddy trails. But private companies were springing up to improve them. They were still dirt roads, but they were maintained dirt roads, and that made a a huge difference. These companies, turnpike trusts, made money by charging all traffic to use their roads, from carts (think trucks), to carriages (think cars). Even pedestrians.
By providing cleaned up roads, and despite the tolls, these enterprising companies lowered shipping costs. And when rivers were cleared out, and made easier for barges to travel, shipping costs fell again: Water travel was even faster than toll roads.
Shops were springing up (as we already saw) ready to supply shoppers’ demand. And—super important—more shops also created more demand for shopping. I mean, think about it! How often have you popped into WalMart, Target or, I dunno, Harrods or Saks Fifth Avenue (for my posh readers), intending to buy one small thing, like a toothbrush, only to come out with a crapload of crap? The big difference? The 18th century London version of WalMart (or Harrods, for that matter) looked like this:
People wanted to shop, in part, because shop displays in London (and beyond) were becoming more and more attractive. Author Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) wrote in 1726, “it is a modern custom, and wholly unknown to our ancestors . . . to have tradesmen lay out two thirds of their fortune in fitting up their shops.” Shopkeepers used big bay windows to show off their neatly-arranged stuff. Daniel Defoe wasn’t impressed. He saw this trend as a con: “fools only are most taken with shows and outsides.” In other words, Defoe thought shopaholics were nitwits.
Merchants weren’t just waiting for people to come to their shops, either. Long, long before Amazon, or even mail-order catalog companies like Sears Roebuck, they were sending salesmen around Britain to get orders. This, one 18th century writer said, “would have astounded our forefathers.” Sales reps didn’t just sell directly to wealthy shoppers: They offered wholesale discounts to eager shopkeepers, who were recruiting new customers into the wonderful world of shopping.
Merchants were rejecting the old idea that shopping was only for super-rich people who lived at least part-time in London. Instead, they were pushing their products to more ordinary people around the nation, and, in doing so, were making these new shoppers feel special.
Better roads also meant shorter travel times, as much as 40% between London and Edinburgh. This meant that better-off shoppers from remote areas of Britain could now more easily travel to the capital by coach. Why bother? Because the best shopping was in London. An international visitor wrote about the “variety of merchandise and manufactures” in “a thousand shops crowded with goods.”
Latest News and Fashions from London, on the Web
As more and more Brits were drawn into Shopping Life, every merchant was eager to reach them, and especially London merchants: London, after all, was the shopping capital. To do that, merchants and shopkeepers worked hand in hand with publishers, advertising to bigger and bigger audiences.
First, though, before ads, merchants turned to newspapers for news on prices and possible demand for their products, not only in Britain, but also in Britain’s American colonies. British America included the wealthy sugar-growing colonies of the West Indies, like Barbados.
Because London merchants sold direct to the public as well as wholesale, they wanted to advertise their businesses and products to people who lived far away.
And newspaper ads, excitingly, could reach people who lived very, very far from London, meaning that London merchants’ potential customer base was huge. While the design of ships hadn’t improved much by 1740, there were now simply more ships, ships that sailed more often, and they carried London newspapers to the colonies. Even if some sank, and they did, more and more made it to America. American newspapers got these London papers, and ripped off . . . er . . . reprinted the latest news from London. Ships also brought personal letters, with more news and gossip about stuff.*
*Fun fact: it was common to send two or even three handwritten copies of important letters, in case a ship sank. They often all made it, and it’s fun to find them together in archives.
Newspapers and letters were the 18th century internet. Together, they brought word of the latest fashions from London, and the wares that could be ordered, as far away as Scotland, which, since 1707, was now part of Britain, and even as far as Britain’s American colonies.
More and more people in America were flush with cash from a booming colonial economy that was rooted in slavery. There were so many ways that colonists with money or land could make money: from the work of enslaved people, from supplying food to feed enslaved people in the British colonies in the West Indies, whose land was devoted to raising the smash hit crop of sugar, and from the buying and selling of enslaved people themselves.
American colonists with money were also now eager to snap up not just newspapers, but all luxury goods coming across the Atlantic from London. Shops opened in the American colonies to display the latest London imports. Yes, colonial craftsmen also made and sold goods, including superb luxury goods (think Paul Revere, Boston silversmith, future Revolutionary icon). But honestly? Imported stuff from London just had more class. Hey, don’t blame me. I’m just the messenger.
No, not everyone approved of all this crazed shopping. One Scottish minister who emigrated to South Carolina wrote “intercourse [no, not that. He means interaction] and communication with Britain being easy and frequent, all novelties in fashion, dress and ornament are quickly introduced: and even the spirit of luxury and extravagance, too common in England, is beginning to creep into Carolina.”
Note the Reverend’s choice of the word “novelties”. British people on both sides of the Atlantic were discovering that they preferred pretty shiny new things, different things, to the same old, same old of their lives. Isn’t that what shopping for fun is all about? New! Exciting! Cool! The envy of your friends! Hey, whenever my Granny bought a new knick-knack, her sister wouldn’t rest easy until she had one, too! By the time she died, their homes looked identical inside!
That thirst for novelty extended to what people read: News. They couldn’t get enough of it. After all, the word “news” originally meant “new things”. Ads appeared alongside news. Ads showed you the latest new stuff you could buy. And more and more people could afford to buy at least some of it, and those who could not, wanted to.
But wait, there’s more! As people looked for new pretty shiny things to inform and entertain them, books and short pamphlets and magazines were also booming. Boy, this sounds familiar . . . Can’t think why. Cough…Internets… Coughs.
From Can’t Read to Can’t Read Enough
But, you might ask, surely most people back then couldn’t read, could they?
I’m so glad you raised this. Let’s start in a way you might not expect, because God forbid you get a straight answer from an academic historian! And I do mean that! Short answers are for amateurs.
Let’s talk about what there was available to read, for those people who could read. So . . . A couple of generations before George Whitefield’s time, in the mid-1600s, there was only one newspaper in London. There were no newspapers at all in England’s American colonies. Even in London, books were only available in very expensive leatherbound editions. Most were law books for lawyers, and books on theology (religious theory) for ministers. A few wealthy people who weren’t lawyers or clergy also bought books, but there weren’t many choices available to them. Books for kids or the casual reader hardly existed. Libraries didn’t exist at all.
In the late 1600s, newspapers (daily, weekly, three times a week, whatever) were becoming more common. But they were still expensive to produce and to buy, in part because there was only so much demand for print.
Here’s an example: One newsletter, mailed three times a week from London, cost an annual £5 and 12 shillings, including postage. That’s around (wild guess) $1,700 in US dollars today. A carter (truck driver) made about eight shillings a week. It would cost him his entire income for more than three months to subscribe to that newsletter. Even if he could read, no way was that cart driver going to buy a subscription.
Also: This shows that Non-Boring History is a bargain! Let’s keep it that way:
This particular newsletter’s publisher also owned a coffeehouse. So he offered his customers the use of free reading copies of his newsletter. If you could afford a pint of beer or a meal, you could read his newsletter for free. If you couldn’t read? Someone might read the newsletter aloud to you. Someone might help you learn to read. You could even teach yourself.
Fast forward. By the 1750s, a hundred years later, there were more than fifty newspapers published in London and read throughout the land. They were like Non-Boring History in another way. Unlike what we think of as a newspaper, they relied on the publisher and a few volunteer contributors for what is now revoltingly called (and, Gawd, I hate this with a burning passion) content.*
*Bite me. I am not a “content provider”. I am a trained academic historian, who also trained as a journalist, a novelist, a traveler, a baker, and a missionary for academic history and museums. I read, think, and write, not necessarily in that order.
Now that there was more to read, more and more people wanted to read, even poor people. Schools were for the rich, but most people could learn to read, with a little time and inclination, maybe a helpful reader friend, and with reading material, like a loaner newspaper in a pub.
Not everyone approved of the impact of broader readership on the quality of reading material. Samuel Johnson (creator of the first usable English dictionary) , marveled in 1758 at the explosion of publications, and how many people were now reading. Historian Dr. Lambert explains:
“Reflecting his own class bias, [Johnson] chastised journalists who pandered to ‘the common people of England’ whose minds lack the “skill for full comprehension.”
Hmm. Or maybe Johnson’s beef was that the “common people” didn’t have the exclusive education that was deliberately only available to a few (like himself), so he could pretend he was better than they were, and journalists were opening up education to riff-raff by using less highfalutin’ language?
Not that I would know anything about that. Just saying. Cough. Non-Boring History. Cough.
Johnson was a snob, but he wasn’t stupid. He got it. Newspaper publishers made sales, he noted, by writing not just for “students or statesmen alone, but to women, shopkeepers, and artisans, who have little time to bestow upon mental attainments, but desire . . . to know how the world goes . . .”
As Dr. Lambert explains, there was demand among ordinary people for reading material, for news, in language they could understand, not hidden in a bunch of long words. Heck, Dr. Johnson, maybe even women could understand a newspaper. Might happen.
In fairness, Dr. Johnson didn't say women were dense. Just too busy to read much. Makes sense.
America Joins the Revolution (the consumer revolution)
By 1740, there were eleven newspapers in the British colonies, a huge increase from 0.
As in Britain, more American colonists were taking up reading. There had always been readers in 17th century New England [UK: Massachusetts and neighbouring colonies], thanks to the Puritans’ emphasis on reading the Bible. But in the Chesapeake, the name for the tobacco-growing colonies of Virginia and Maryland, inhabited mostly by poor English indentured servants and former indentured servants who now grew tobacco, fewer than half of men could read in 1640.
By 1740, literacy among free people in the Chesapeake was up dramatically. That’s because there were now things to read: Publications were crossing the pond from England. American printers had set up shop in all the big seaport cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia (think Ben Franklin, printer!) and Charleston.
As newspaper advertising boomed in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, it was evolving to reach as many lovely new readers and their wallets as possible, including those who weren’t highly educated, as many rich and middle class people weren’t. Newspaper ads further opened up the tempting and fabulous world of new fashions and products. And advertising was becoming a bit more exciting than “Mr. Jones sells gloves in New York”. Now “Mr. Jones” (the name is made up but the example is otherwise real) ran ads in which he listed all the awesome new gloves he just got in, in his latest shipment from London: “purple gloves, rough gloves, chamois gloves, Maid’s Black Silk gloves, Maid’s Lamb Gloves . . . . “ No, I haven’t a clue what most of these gloves looked like, either, but we get the idea. We’re halfway to GLOVES! WE’VE GOT ALL THE LATEST STYLES AT JONES GLOVE-A-RAMA! HURRY IN FOR THE BEST SELECTION!
And here’s something that surprised me. Ads could be sneaky and manipulative long before “Mad Men”, or even before the new ad techniques of the 1920s. Ever heard of “puff pieces”? Those are articles in magazines and newspapers that are usually barely-rewritten press releases. They appear to be journalism, but they’re ads.
The word “puff” came from the 18th century. At first, “puffs” were ads that used lots of great flowery language to lure people to buy products. As an example, Dr. Lambert quotes an 18th century ad for duvets. Here’s the 18th century wording:
“There are now to be sold for ready money only some duvets for bed coverings, of down, beyond comparison, superior to what is called otter-down, and indeed such, that its many excellences cannot here be set forth.”
Okay, let me translate that:
“DUVETS FOR YOUR BED! We got ‘em! Hurry down, cash only, supplies limited! We only use pure down. Don’t even mention our quality product in the same breath as that otter-down stuff. You ever see an otter with feathers? Me neither! Our down filled-duvets are superior in too many ways for me to explain in this little ad! Come on in and see us today!
As we will see, advertising only got more persuasive. And this was George Whitefield’s time.
In case you haven’t guessed, George Whitefield was among the entrepreneurial people of the consumer revolution who took full advantage of this new reading, publishing, and advertising boom on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, he was the best.
Whitefield’s product? His interpretation of Christianity. But what were George Whitefield’s views? I want to show you how Whitefield influenced religion, especially in America. Evangelical or not, this likely affects you.
Losing My Religion
Tradesman’s son George Whitefield started at Oxford University at age 18. He didn’t join a fraternity (they didn’t have those). He joined the Holy Club. Yes, that was its actual name. The Holy Club’s members were well-read students, all members of the Church of England, all male (only men allowed into Oxford then). You might have heard of the Club’s student leader: John Wesley. He would later start the Methodist Church.
The Holy Club was a bit culty. John Wesley insisted that everyone in the Club follow what he called his “method” (yes, as in Methodism!) That meant poring over the Bible (and other books on religion, but especially the Bible) for long hours, and re-reading (and asking for help) over and over until the reader fully understood a text’s meaning. George eagerly followed this regimen, ignoring other books, and reading the Bible closely. This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise: Directed by Wesley, George not only thought about his reading, but prayed over “every line and word”, he later recalled. He tried all kinds of ways to seek salvation (to find a path to heaven), including a crash diet that made him so ill, he ended up having to take six months leave of absence from Oxford to recover.
John Wesley suggested that George Whitefield take a look at the writings of Puritans in the previous century, the 1600s. Reading Puritan Henry Scougal [THE ONLY PURITAN WRITER I WILL BOTHER YOU WITH], Whitefield was shocked to realize that the Puritans had sharp words for people just like him. Scougal described someone who had false religion, if all they relied on for salvation was going to church, not harming anyone, praying regularly, and occasionally giving to the poor. This also described what good Anglicans (members of the Church of England) like Whitefield did. Now, Scougal’s book was telling George Whitefield that he wasn’t a good Christian.
Instead of thinking this was maybe a bit odd, Whitefield accepted Scougal’s 17th century Puritan definition of true religion: Uniting his soul with God’s, in the form of Christ. Star Trek fans, think of this as a kind of Vulcan mindmeld with the divine. As he grasped this, Whitefield felt his soul light up. He knew that he was now a new man. He had had a conversion experience. He had been born again (and even if you’re not an evangelical Christian, that phrase is likely familiar). And his conversion happened because of reading, not because he had listened to exciting preaching. That’s interesting, because when I think Whitefield, I think of him using exciting preaching to convert people. We’ll get to that.
Not shockingly, when George Whitefield started to preach himself, he sounded like a 17th century Puritan. And he was so animated, he was in danger of being accused of enthusiasm.
Enthusiasm? That wasn’t praise in 18th century England. Most people at Oxford, students and faculty members, were regular Anglicans who looked at the Holy Club like their great-grandfathers had looked at the original Puritans, as a bunch of enthusiastic weirdoes. Hey, a lot of the minority of Brits who identify as Christian today still aren’t comfortable with enthusiastic preaching. When the Royals looked a bit embarrassed at Harry and Meghan’s wedding during African-American Episcopal bishop Michael Curry’s excited sermon, they weren’t being racist, Americans. They were being traditional Anglicans. Lovely man, but very enthusiastic.
So how could Whitefield defend himself when he was accused of enthusiasm? Everything he said was grounded in a close reading of scripture.
And although Whitefield’s ideas would evolve, the writings of 17th century Puritans remained his favorite influences. He wrote to his followers in his autobiography (which he published when he was only 26, which tells you something about his confidence) “These doctrines you now preach are no new doctrines. You are now got into the good old ways.”
Yes, indeed, gimme that old time religion! Claiming that you have the past on your side is a very powerful thing in religion: It’s how you claim you’re the real deal, even when what you’re saying and doing is actually new.
So George Whitefield believed and taught that being born again was how you got saved from Hell. You could not, he insisted, earn your way into heaven by prayer or good works.
Honestly, you would think that Martin Luther and the Reformation had settled all that years before, but no. We’re talking the Church of England here, which was (and remained) very reluctant to get rid of all the Catholicism in its religion, long after Henry VIII divorced Rome and made himself Pope, and who otherwise stayed, well, Catholic, because that was what he was used to.
New word for today: Arminians. Not to be confused with Armenians (as my old history teacher Mr. Gardner used to say). Arminianism was the Anglican belief that prayer, giving to charity, and being nice to people paved the way to Heaven. Now you can casually throw that word next time some snotty person talks down to you. What do you think of Arminians? you can say. If they support something about Armenians, you can laugh. Bwahaha!
George Whitefield obviously disagreed with Arminianism, and so did his mentor John Wesley. But Wesley and Whitefield didn’t agree on everything: Unlike Wesley, who thought salvation could be for everyone, Whitefield stuck with a bedrock belief among 17th century Puritans, which was that God has already decided for all time who will be saved and who won’t. Salvation is a free gift, but not everyone gets it. Nothing you can do to change His mind.
Whitefield did address one awful problem that had tortured 17th century Puritans. They spent their lives afraid that if they knew they were saved, they were committing the sin of hubris (human pride) and if you had hubris, well . . . You probably were going to the Bad Place, weren’t you? This kind of thinking was a fast track to mental illness. That’s why, to be a full member of the Puritans, you could show evidence to your fellow worshippers that you might be saved. If they were convinced, then they called you one of the Saints, aka the Elect, the in-club. But you could never be entirely sure.
George Whitefield offered a very reassuring alternative. Once you had that sudden moment of conversion, he said, you knew you were saved. You wouldn’t need to have your new status confirmed by church authorities.
Before and after your new birth, you would want to act as you were supposed to, as a good Christian (as defined by 17th century Puritans, who were not typical: Anglicans thought them incredibly boring and up themselves). You definitely would not go to plays and dances. or spend your time buying and reading trashy novels, and stuffing your face full of sweets, like a certain George Whitefield had in his youth. Ahem.
George Whitefield wasn’t interested in starting a new denomination to house his new (and old) ideas. Sure, he said, his own church, the Church of England, was getting things wrong. The Church was far too concerned with book learning, with reaching salvation through the intellect, the brain, rather than the soul.
Don’t jump to conclusions, though, that Whitefield was just some anti-intellectual preacher! He was also a man of the age of reason, of the time when people, began to stop blindly accepting what churches taught, and turned increasingly to thinking, using evidence they could see*, about whether things were true.
*This is the bit we’re currently losing. That’s why everything seems a bit bonkers.
Whitefield admitted that brains were important in finding truth, that God had given people reason “to direct our enquiries in all things.” BUT, he said, brains are flawed, and you had to pray, to let God into your head to really understand what you were reading or seeing. He suggested that people should measure anything they might happen to think or feel is true against evidence, which to him was Scripture and religious books, before they accepted it. Notice, again, that he puts faith into texts, reading. Very 18th century of him.
George Whitefield now accused senior clergy of having been corrupted by worldly things themselves, like going to plays, social gatherings, and dances, when they should have been focused on spreading the gospel.
Let’s recall that Whitefield was in his early twenties when he started spouting off about this, explaining to his elders how they had everything wrong.
I once sat in an archive at Oxford University in the 1990s, poring over a big collection of Anglican clergy’s letters written from America to London, as I would for ten years altogether. I turned the page, and went “Whoa!” This letter wasn’t the usual complaints about salaries, housing, and parishioners’ disrespect. This was a long, in-your-face complaint about the conduct of all the other clergy in America, except, of course, for the letter writer himself, who wrote like a man who knows everything. In all those years of ruining my eyes with such letters, I had never read anything remotely like this. It sounded a bit demented. Who is this, I remember thinking, as I looked at the signature on the last page?
Of course. It was George Whitefield. He was convinced that the Church of England needed a new Reformation. starting with the clergy. Although he did draw the line at burning vicars at the stake, he definitely had his little cancel musket aimed at them. Pew, pew. (yes, that was deliberate)
Remember, he was in his early 20s. Imagine him with piercings, tats, and purple hair, and you get the idea.
In fact, the 18th century Church of England was not up itself, as Whitefield implied. It was very self-critical, and very concerned about the reputation and quality of its clergy. This is why its missionaries had a hard time convincing their superiors in London that when their American parishioners wrote complaining that they were drunk womanizers, they were lying. Their parishioners were making such accusations to get rid of any minister who demanded a pay raise, or who nagged them to show up to church regularly, on time, and sober, or to give their slaves access to religious education, or otherwise tried to tell them what to do. Among the Anglican missionaries who got cancelled? He was stationed in Savannah, Georgia, and you may have heard of him. His name was John Wesley.
Dr. Lambert argues that Whitefield didn’t care, though, about being fair to the Church of England. “Whitefield,” he wrote, was more interested in promoting evangelicalism than in presenting a balanced evaluation of the state of the church.” (Yeah, I’ve noticed something similar about the NY Times 1619 Project, President Trump’s 1776 project, and their portrayals of academic history, just saying . . . )"*
*Are you offended by Annette’s criticism of the NY Times’ 1619 project, or President Trump’s 1776 Project, in which people rewrite history the way they want it, without apparently first having, um, read any real history? Please send your written objections to the Reader Relations Gnome at Non-Boring House, along with an annotated list of the works of academic history you have read. He will examine your list with great interest before placing your letter in the special round file.
George Whitefield was sure that he, unlike other ministers, had religion right! He wanted to reach as many people as he could with his non-denominational message. He was happy to speak to whoever: Anglicans, sure, but also Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Quakers, the lot.
That’s because Whitefield himself was not a 17th century Puritan. He remained within the broad and tolerant Church of England, even while he carped at it. He was very much a modern 18th century kind of guy. And he got his new view of religion—rejecting Church of England Arminianism—primarily from reading. We’ll see why that matters.
When George Whitefield and the rest of the Holy Club graduated from Oxford, they were ordained as Church of England priests. John Wesley went off to his doomed mission in Savannah, Georgia. George Whitefield stayed where he was: A wealthy supporter of the Holy Club offered to pay Whitefield an annual bonus on top of his church salary if he would take a church job in Oxford. The Bishop agreed to keep George in town. Sorted!
But no. Oxford wasn’t a big enough stage for George Whitefield’s ambition. Within four years, he had left Oxford, and was an international superstar. He was a household name throughout Britain, and in every one of Britain’s thirteen colonies in America. He was as well known as every other novelty product being advertised in newspapers.
George Whitefield was the perfect preacher with the perfect product for people experiencing the 18th century revolution in shopping.
Now, how did he go about selling his wares?
Stay tuned for part 2 of Selling My Religion: Shopping and the Preacher, based on historian Dr. Frank Lambert’s ‘Pedlar in Divinity’: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, coming soon to NBH!
Comments welcome, but please, no attacks on people’s faith, or lack thereof.
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Thank you Annette for this lengthy story. I had eagerly been waiting for it to enter my inbox upon reading in Saturday's article about its imminent arrival today.
I have one observation concerning the hypothetical conversation at beginning of post where a reader stated lack of interest in the subject. I respectfully request that no-one complain to Annette about her content choices. As creator and author of NBH, she has exclusive discretion regarding what to write about in her newsletter. If a reader doesn't want to read a particular nBH posts, simply delete it from inbox. Then, wait patiently and excitedly for Annette's next article.
With my statement above having been clearly articulated: in an ideal world, every NBH reader would read everything Annette writes and sends to readers' inboxes. I absolutely do! However, I comprehend that my choice does not necessarily represent the choices of free subscribers or my fellow Nonnies (paid subscribers).
Everything written in this comment is intended as 100% seriousness. I sincerely appreciate your wonderful mission, Annette, of sharing stories about history on a variety of subjects!
Thank you, Annette and the backroom Gnomes. I look forward to part 2.