Randy Petersen. The Printer and the Preacher: Ben Franklin, George Whitefield, and the Surprising Friendship That Invented America. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Benjamin Franklin was a deist who doubted Jesus’ divinity and blood atonement. George Whitefield was a famous English street preacher who dramatically urged people to be born again, and his sermons gathered crowds in droves, especially in America. Franklin supported Whitefield because the conversions under Whitefield’s ministry resulted in good works. And Whitefield supported Franklin when Franklin was standing against the Stamp Act. Randy Petersen’s The Printer and the Preacher is about the friendship between these two men. According to Petersen, this was a “friendship that invented America.” What does Petersen mean by this? For one, Franklin and Whitefield contributed to an anti-elitist, individualist mindset that would characterize American culture, a mindset that devalued traditional systems of class. Second, Franklin and Whitefield epitomize two elements of American culture: the religious and the secular.
The book provides background information about Franklin and Whitefield so that the reader can get to know them individually, and it also goes into their relationship with each other. The reader is exposed to their eccentricities and what made them tick: Franklin had been hurt by his friends in the past and was pursuing a life of sober virtue, and Whitefield became serious in his pursuit of God, which, often, was lonely and solitary. The book is largely positive about these figures, but it does refer to their checkered past: Franklin’s tendency not to get mad but to get even, and Whitefield’s tendency before his time of maturity to straddle the ethical line in being religious. Something that surprised me about Franklin was that he would write fake letters to the editor of his own newspaper under pseudonymns to generate discussion and controversy, a practice that Petersen seems to defend. The book also mentions the eccentricities of other figures, such as John and Charles Wesley.
My favorite parts of the book were about Whitefield’s acts of service to others. According to Petersen, Whitefield learned the value of thankless service by helping out at his single mother’s inn, and by serving wealthier students to pay his tuition at Oxford (which, according to Petersen, may have satisfied some of Whitefield’s social needs, even though he was often alone). Petersen also talks about how Whitefield would tend to the sick sailors on ships, giving them food and cleaning up after them. An interesting point that the book made a couple of times was that John Locke contributed to Whitefield’s emphasis on an emotional religious experience. And, while Petersen seems to sympathize more with Whitefield’s Christian worldview than with Franklin’s deism, Petersen at one point in the book, in talking about Whitefield’s attempts to persuade Franklin to become a Christian, says that Franklin was looking for a friend, not someone to convert him.
In terms of criticisms, I think that the book should have addressed four points. The first three points could have been briefly discussed in an endnote, and the fourth point should have been somewhere in the text itself. First of all, while Petersen did judiciously discuss the question of whether Franklin was a philanderer, he should have also addressed the topic of Franklin’s possible attendance of meetings held by the controversial Hellfire Club. Second, Petersen says that Whitefield’s emphasis on being born again was controversial with a number of churches. That was probably true, for there are even mainline Protestants today who are uncomfortable with the language of being born again. Yet, as far as I know, all (or at least the vast majority of) Christian denominations believe in spiritual regeneration, on some level. What exactly was Whitefield saying that differed from the teachings of churches that were critical of him? Did certain churches simply decide not to emphasize spiritual regeneration, in the time of Whitefield? Perhaps Whitefield put more emphasis than they did on having an emotional spiritual experience, which Petersen mentions. Third, there is the topic of deism. Petersen says that Franklin’s deism believed in a clockmaker God, one who was generally running the world but was distant from the small details. Petersen quotes a letter that Franklin sent to Whitefield to this effect, and yet Petersen also refers to Franklin’s statements that God had blessed him. Did Franklin’s deism believe that God’s eye was on the sparrow, or not? Finally, Petersen should have said something in the text about Whitefield’s support for and defense of slavery, since slavery was a key issue in America’s history.
A while back, I heard a sermon in which a preacher said that Whitefield actually led Franklin to the Lord. Petersen does not depict that, for he affirms that Franklin, even after the death of Whitefield and shortly prior to his own death, questioned the divinity of Jesus. Petersen quotes Hebrews 11:6 and says that this may apply to Franklin’s religious journey: “But without faith it is impossible to please [God]; for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him” (NKJV). I don’t know if Petersen is criticizing Franklin for lacking a Christian faith, or is characterizing Franklin as one who believed in and diligently sought God. My guess would be the latter.
Notwithstanding my criticisms, I give the book five stars because it is a quality book on history. It is well-researched and well-argued, and it made me feel as if I knew Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.