The Printer and the Preacher - A Review

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.

Conclusion

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.

George Whitefield - A Bitesize Biography

Reading biographies is something that I find both enjoyable and beneficial, particularly when I am learning about the life of a brother or sister in Christ who has lived well. Thus it is little surprise that I deeply enjoyed the most recent entry into the Bitesize Biographies series, published by EP books. I previously reviewed Earl Blackburn’s volume in the series, which had John Chrysostom as its subject. That review can be found in the November 2014 issue of Themelios, the journal of The Gospel Coalition.

 Michael Haykin, a professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a brief volume on the life and work of George Whitefield. Haykin presents a vision of Whitefield that reclaims him from the revivalistic excesses of other itinerate preachers, demonstrates his thoroughgoing Calvinism, and clears him from accusations of antinomianism. Whitefield was a faithful, Anglican who saw God’s sovereignty over salvation as an encouragement to evangelize and exhort others toward personal holiness.

 Unlike his contemporaries and friends, Charles and John Wesley, Whitefield understood that Christian perfection is a product of divine work that will be completed at a future date. He wrestled with his own sinfulness, yet still saw fit to call others to repentance. In Whitefield’s words:

It is good to see ourselves poor, and exceeding vile; but if that sight and feeling prevent our looking up to, and exerting ourselves for our dear Saviour, it becomes criminal, and robs the soul of much comfort. I can speak this by dear-bought experience. How often have I been kept from speaking and acting for God, by a sight of my own unworthiness; but now I see that the more unworthy I am, the more fit to work for Jesus, because he will get much glory in working by such mean instruments; and the more he has forgiven me, the more I ought to love and serve him. Fired with a sense of his unspeakable loving-kindness, I dare to go out and tell poor sinners that a lamb was slain for them; and that he will have mercy on sinners as such, of whom I am chief.

Such is the motivation of a man who made seven trips across the Atlantic to America to preach up and down the East Coast, proclaiming Christ to many who had not heard the gospel before. Such is the attitude of the man who preached tens of thousands of times to crowds as large as 30,000. Such is the character of a man that would preach in the open air when it was common for scoffers to throw rocks and seek to do harm to the preacher to disrupt the presentation.

Whitefield is a worthy subject of such a biography. This format of very brief, but well-researched biographies is a helpful tool for Christian discipleship. Reading a popular-level account of the life of a significant believer reminds the reader that great things are possible for those who are faithful to use their talents according to their calling. It is also a testimony of God’s faithfulness, as he raised up someone to preach and through him revived true religious fervor despite the moral decay in Britain and America in the 18th century.

If you’ve ever been interested in reading Christian biographies, the Bitesize Biography series is a great place to start. They are affordable and accessible. They are written by authors who are academically qualified and who have a desire to provide an aid for discipleship. I cannot commend this book or this series highly enough for personal or church libraries.

Bitesize Biographies: George Whitefield
$9.32
By Michael A. G. Haykin

Note: A copy of this book was provided to me without charge by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. All opinions are my own.