Review: The Accidental Revolutionary (George Whitefield)

This book is best described as a political biography. Mahaffey’s argument is that Whitefield’s concepts of the new birth formed the framework that would allow the colonists to secede from Great Britain. It’s an interesting argument and he is correct on many particulars, but I am not convinced of its full explanatory power.

Mahaffey gives a decent account of Whitefield’s early life, even implicitly criticizing the venerable Harry Stout’s reading of Whitefield as simply an actor parroting religious vocabulary.

The reviewer is not entirely satisfied with Mahaffey’s reading of Calvinist soteriology. Mahaffey makes it seem like Calvinists didn’t know what to do with pleading for sinners to repent, given their understanding of God’s sovereignty. Perhaps there is a certain antinomy here, but older Puritans and Scottish evangelists faced no such problem. True, Whitefield’s theology was a breath of fresh air on the scene, but Whitefield didn’t say anything new. In fact, he would heatedly reject that idea!

Mahaffey has a number of interesting chapters on Whitefield’s relationship with the Church of England. Of most fascination (pp. 86ff.) is his suggestion that the bishops hired assassins to off Whitefield. Mahaffey’s argument is fairly impressive, though he admits he has no definitive proof (one should remember, however, that Anglican bishops eighty years earlier openly supported the killing of Scottish Covenanters, so it is not an entirely far-fetched argument).

Mahaffey argues that Whitefield’s transcending of denominational lines democratized American political rhetoric, creating a “new birth” of America which is a secularized counterpart to the Great Awakening. (And to properly use Calvinist soteriology, this “conversion”–which normally follows regeneration–would not happen until 1776). Again, it’s an interesting argument, though I am hesitant to place the same weight on it that Mahaffey places.

Pros of the book:
1. Fairly well-written and captures on a neglected aspect of Whitefield’s thought. Rightly notes that religion and politics are never fully separate. There is a certain irony in the narrative: Whitefield and Edwards’ attack on the Old Lights was also an attack on the political structures, since the current Covenant Theology did not really separate church and political authorities. At the end of the book, though, we have Mahaffey arguing for Whitefield’s view as a contination of the religion-politics argument. Nothing changes, I suppose.

2. It’s a critical reading of Whitefield, but unlike another major biography of Whitefield, it isn’t a hatchet-job.

3. While I do not think that Mahaffey has always correctly read the theological positions of Whitefield and older Puritans, he has correctly read recent historical scholarship on the American Revolution.


1. He uses the term “Puritan” too loosely. The “Puritanism” of the mid 1700s New England was a much-removed degeneration of the earlier 1640s brand in England. Mahaffey doesn’t seem to make that distinction.

2. Apropos of (1), it seems Mahaffey implicitly follows too much of Perry Miller’s reading of New England covenant theology.


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