The Preacher and the Printer

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George Whitefield, the famous evangelist, became friends with Benjamin Franklin, the famous printer and philosophe, while he was visiting Philadelphia on a preaching tour. This essay takes excerpts from the correspondence between two remarkable men of the eighteenth century.

How to Cite This Item

Foster, Rebecca Lunceford. "The Preacher and the Printer." In Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from American Church History, edited by Mark Sidwell, 44-49. Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 1991. http://greatawakeningdocumentary.com/items/show/32

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In our overspecialized age, it is easy to forget that men whose lives we study separately—great religious leaders of the past, for instance, and the founding fathers of our country—were contemporaries. They were often at the same places at the same time, sometimes even together as friends. Such was the case with Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield, the English evangelist who was instrumental in the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century.  

Whitefield’s preaching in England and America brought thousands of souls to the Saviour. A contemporary of such men as John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, he spent his life in the service of His Lord. Franklin, on the other hand, spent his life in the service of his country. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a practical Deist, acknowledging the existence of God as Creator and Provider, but not recognizing the claims of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of sinful men. Indeed, Franklin’s Autobiography reflects his belief in the perfectibility of man and records his efforts to achieve this perfection.  

Christian and Deist, preacher and printer, glorifier of God and glorifier of the human mind—what had these two men to do with each other? Whitefield visited Franklin’s Philadelphia in 1739, and Franklin—always interested in events around him—recorded the occasion in the Autobiography.  

In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was the first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy taking a dislike to him, soon refus’d him their Pulpits and he was oblig’d to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admir’d and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them they were naturally half beasts and half devils. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street. . . .  

Mr. Whitefield, in leaving us, went preaching all the way thro’ the colonies to Georgia. The settlement of that province had lately been begun, but, instead of being made with hardy, industrious husbandmen accustomed to labour, the only people fit for such an enterprise, it was with the families of broken shop-keepers and other insolvent debtors, many of indolent and idle habits, taken out of the jails, who, being set down in the woods, unqualified for clearing land, and unable to endure the hardships of a new settlement, perished in numbers, leaving many helpless children unprovided for. The sight of their miserable situation inspir’d the benevolent heart of Mr. Whitefield with the Idea of building an Orphan House there, in which they might be supported and educated. Returning northward he preach’d up this charity, and made large collections, for his eloquence had a wonderful power over the hearts and purses of his hearers, of which I myself was an instance.  

I did not disapprove of the design, but, as Georgia was then destitute of materials and workmen, and it was propos’d to send them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have been better to have built the house here and brought the children to it. This I advis’d; but he was resolute in his first project, rejected my counsel, and I thereupon refus’d to contribute. I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the silver; and he finsh’d so admirably, that I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all. At this sermon there was also one of our club, who, being of my sentiments respecting the building in Georgia, and suspecting a collection might be intended, had, by precaution, emptied his pockets before he came from home. Towards the conclusion of the discourse, however, he felt a strong desire to give, and apply’d to a neighbour who stood near him, to borrow some money for the purpose. The application was unfortunately [made] to perhaps the only man in the company who had the firmness not to be affected by the preacher. His answer was, “At any other time, Friend Hopkinson, I would lend to thee freely; but not now, for thee seems to be out of thy right senses.”  

Some of Mr. Whitefield’s enemies affected to suppose that he would apply these collections to his own private emolument; but I, who was intimately acquainted with him (being employ’d in printing his Sermons and Journals, etc.), never had the least suspicion of his integrity, but am to this day decidedly of opinion that he was in all his conduct a perfectly honest man; and methinks my testimony in his favour ought to have the more weight, as we had no religious connection. He us’d, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death.  

The following instance will show something of the terms on which we stood. Upon one of his arrivals from England at Boston, he wrote to me that he should come soon to Philadelphia, but knew not where he could lodge when there. . . . My answer was, “You know my house; if you can make shift with its scanty accommodations, you will be most heartily welcome.” He reply’d, that if I made that kind offer for Christ’s sake, I should not miss of a reward. And I returned, “Don’t let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ’s sake, but for your sake.” One of our common acquaintance jocosely remark’d, that, knowing it to be the custom of the saints, when they received any favour, to shift the burden of the obligation from off their own shoulders, and place it in heaven, I had contriv’d to fix it on earth. . . .  

He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance. . . . Without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleas’d with the discourse; a pleasure of much the same kind with that receiv’d from an excellent piece of musick.  

[The “intimate acquaintance” between the two men was at least partly carried on by letters in which Whitefield did not hesitate to speak of Franklin’s spiritual condition. One letter dealing with business, written in late 1740, closed with these words:]

Dear sir, adieu! I do not despair of your seeing the reasonableness of Christianity. Apply to God; be willing to do the Divine will, and you shall know it. Oh! the love of God to your unworthy friend.

     George Whitefield  

[Franklin’s lack of understanding of the real purposes of Whitefield’s ministry is nowhere more apparent than in a letter written July 6, 1749, in which he observed the following:]

I am glad to hear that you have frequent opportunities of preaching among the great. If you gain them to a good and exemplary life, wonderful changes will follow in the manners of the lower ranks. . . . On this principle, Confucius, the famous eastern reformer, proceeded. When he saw his country sunk in vice, and wickedness of all kinds triumphant, he applied himself first to the grandees; and, having, by his doctrine, won them to the cause of virtue, the commons followed in multitudes. The mode has a wonderful influence on mankind; and there are numbers, who, perhaps, fear less the being in hell, than out of the fashion. Our more western reformations began with the ignorant mob; and, when numbers of them were gained, interest and party-views drew in the wise and great. Where both methods can be used, reformations are likely to be more speedy. O that some method could be found to make them lasting! He who discovers that, will, in my opinion, deserve more, ten thousand times, than the inventor of the longitude.  

[His friend, whose concern was not for reformation of lives but regeneration of hearts, wrote to Franklin after the inventor’s experiments with electricity.]

                                                      London, August 17, 1752

Dear Mr. Franklin,  

I find that you grow more and more famous in the learned world. As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new birth. It is a most important, interesting study, and when mastered, will richly repay you for all your pains. One, at whose bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, that, without it “we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.” You will excuse this freedom. I must have aliquid Christi [something of Christ] in all my letters.  

I am yet a willing pilgrim for His great name’s sake, and I trust a blessing attends my poor feeble labours. To the giver of every good gift be all the glory! My respects await yourself and all enquiring friends; and hoping to see you once more in the land of the living, I subscribe myself, dear sir, your very affectionate friend, and obliged servant,

     George Whitefield  

[In 1756, twenty years before the events of the American Revolution which were to crown Franklin’s career, he wrote a letter to Whitefield which reflected his uncertainty about his accomplishments. In part, he wrote:]

Life, like a dramatic piece, should not only be conducted with regularity, but, methinks, it should finish handsomely. Being now in the last act, I begin to cast about for something fit to end it with. Or, if mine be more properly compared to an epigram, as some of its lines are but barely tolerable, I am very desirous of concluding with a bright point. . . . I thank you for you good wishes and prayers; and am, with the greatest esteem and affection, dear sir, your most obedient humble servant,           

 Benjamin Franklin  

[Soon, the strained relationship between Great Britain and her American colonies resulted in Franklin’s being sent to London to negotiate with the government concerning the problems of the colonies. He went first in 1757 and stayed until late 1762, and again from 1764 to 1775. During the second mission, news of the unrest at home caused him to write to Whitefield, in a letter dated early in 1768:]  

I am under continued apprehensions that we may have bad news from America. The sending soldiers to Boston always appeared to me a dangerous step; they could do no good, they might occasion mischief. When I consider the warm resentment of a people who think themselves injured and oppressed, and the common insolence of the soldiery who are taught to consider that people as in rebellion, I cannot but fear the consequences of bringing them together. It seems like setting up a smith’s forge in a magazine of gunpowder. I see with you that our affairs are not well managed by our rulers here below; I wish I could believe with you, that they are well attended to by those above; I rather suspect, from certain circumstances, that though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence or imprudence, as either may happen to be uppermost. It is, however, an uncomfortable thought, and I leave it.  

[The great preacher, reading those words, wrote on the letter,]

Uncomfortable indeed! and, blessed be God, unscriptural; for we are fully assured that “the Lord reigneth,” and are directed to cast all our care on Him, because He careth for us.  

Franklin’s Autobiography and letters show his perception of Whitefield’s influence on others, but they are sadly imperceptive of his own needs and the answer Whitefield taught. Benjamin Franklin heard the Great Awakener’s sermons, not as a testimony of God’s saving grace, but as an example of great oratory in the interest of human reformation. His friend’s witness and prayers for Franklin’s salvation did not move the influential printer, inventor, and philosopher to repentance, even though Franklin sought for proof of meaning and guidance in the universe. If they had, we can only wonder what might have been the effect on the Great Awakening and American history.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Benjamin Franklin. Autobiography. [Available in several editions]  

Arnold Dallimore. George Whitefield. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990. [Abridged by the author from his larger two-volume biography of Whitefield]

Keith J. Hardman. The Spiritual Awakeners. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983. [See pp. 75-92.]  

Edward M. Panosian. “George Whitefield: The Awakener.” In Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from Church History, edited by Mark Sidwell, pp. 145-49. Greenville, South Carolina: Bob Jones University Press, 1989.

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