The recently released book, The Printer and the Preacher, promises to explain how the friendship between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield helped to “invent America.” The author, Randy Petersen, has an extensive list of publications including a number of co-authored volumes. He has written on sports, psychology, history, various Christian topics, and more. Petersen appears to have an eclectic appetite for writing projects and the ability to finish them.
The book is readable and there are some interesting anecdotes, but I found it to be a disappointment overall. There are pointers along the way that indicate that both Franklin and Whitefield influenced the founding of the United States, but Petersen never really explains why their friendship was pivotal. I walked away with a better understanding of the long-term correspondence that existed between these two men, but without seeing how it really matters in the grand scope of history.
Analysis and Critique
Petersen’s writing style is light. The book uses endnotes, so it is not encumbered by the distractions (welcomed by many) that footnotes often provide. He tells the story well. There are points, however, where Petersen is excessively informal, in ways that may be deemed disrespectful by those who engage in academic pursuits. He consistently refers to people by their first names (George and Ben), which is atypical for serious historical work.
There is a connection between the two men. Franklin and Whitefield corresponded for decades and met several times, particularly while Whitefield was preaching through America. Franklin printed news about Whitefield and many of his sermons. Whitefield attempted to convert Franklin from his self-created Deism to a Calvinistic Christianity. He was unsuccessful. There is a story worth hearing here.
However, after reading The Printer and the Preacher, it isn’t clear that there is enough of a story to make a book length treatment. At times Petersen lapses into conjecture, trying to describe conversations they were likely to have or occasions they might have met while both were in London. This has the dangerous potential to present as surmise as fact, if the reader is not careful. The concept of a surprising friendship that is essential to the formation of America is intriguing, but in my mind at least, there needs to be a better case made.
This is a popular level historical book, but at times the history gets jumbled because Petersen tries to organize the parallels by topic instead of by chronology. He also jumps back and forth between accounts of the lives of two men born eight years apart on different continents. There are certainly some parallels between the two, but at times the presentation seems strained.
The greatest benefit of the book is Petersen’s demonstration that two men with vastly different foundational beliefs could get along, work together, and have meaningful dialog for a number of years. Whatever other weaknesses the book may present, this is a good thing to understand and I appreciate Petersen’s efforts to tell the story well.
The Printer and the Preacher is a quick read. It would be worth taking to the beach or on an airplane. It is has weaknesses, but it is an entertaining book that some history buffs may enjoy.
Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.