By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, British evangelist George Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity
By Gary David Stratton, Professor, Johnson University (TN) and James L. Gorman, Assistant Professor, Johnson University
The Great Awakening is the common designation for a Protestant socio-spiritual movement in the American colonies that helped establish the groundwork for much of the nation’s spiritual and national identity. The awakening began among German, Dutch and Scot-Irish immigrants and was greatly influenced by British Methodists and New England Puritans. It culminated in enormous religious gatherings, mass professions of faith, controversial ecstatic experiences, and the overthrow of Old World hierarchies in church and society. While interpretations of the meaning of the Great Awakening divide into numerous schools of thought, “It seems evident that in one way or another, the Great Awakening helped to prepare American society and culture for the Revolution, but of course not in any direct, deliberate, or intentional manner” (Wood, p. 180-181).
An upsurge in revivalist piety began in the middle colonies in the ministries of German-American Dutch-Reformed minister, Theodore Jacobus Frelinghuysen (c. 1691 – c. 1747), and Scots-Irish-American Presbyterian, Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), as well as among Congregationalist churches in the Connecticut River Valley (Crawford, p. 108). When the Connecticut River Valley revival reached Northamption, MA in 1734, its effect was so dramatic, it prompted the town’s minister, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) to write what became a bestselling account, entitled, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton. Considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian, Edwards viewed this outpouring of the Spirit as an acceleration and intensification of the work of the normal Holy Spirit so that as much is “done in a day or two, as at ordinary times […] is done in a year.” (p. 21). Like all Puritans, Edwards held that such “outpourings of the Spirit” were God-granted events to be sought by ministers and their congregations as their only hope for advancing the gospel on earth. As the story of Northampton’s revival spread, ministers and congregations up and down the Atlantic seaboard began praying for similar visitation in their towns.
British evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) entered this rarified spiritual atmosphere determined to seize the moment for God’s glory. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” coupled with his profound dramatic gifts connected him with his audiences in an unprecedented manner. His first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, thrust him into popular imagination such that Harry Stout declares him “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity” (1991, p. x). In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield fashioned a plan to build on this momentum. The evangelist and his publicist, William Seward, work tirelessly to promote Whitefield’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every printed work published in America in 1740.
By the time he reached Boston, all of New England was in a fever pitch of anticipation. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, virtually every New England inhabitant heard Whitefield preach face-to-face. Scores of professed conversions and great public interest in religion swept the colonies, from Harvard, where young Samuel Adams was deeply affected, to Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield became famous friends. In fact, Whitefield’s growing celebrity granted him unparalleled influence in Colonial society. He was able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African-American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day as the first in a long line of public figures whose claim to influence rested on celebrity rather than inherited social status (Stout).
Controversy and Excess
Gilbert Tennent fired what was perhaps the opening salvo of the disestablishment of a the Old World hierarchical view of society in his 1739 sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” arguing that only ministers who have experienced “the new birth of conversion” should be allowed to preach. While Tennent was immediately and nearly unanimously condemned by the established clergy, Whitefield picked up the theme and began to use it regularly in his 1740-1741 preaching tour, pushing the message deep into the Colonial psyche. Whitefield’s call for religious freedom from the hierarchical structure of denominational leadership and parish loyalties resonated with his colonial audiences.
His life and his message provided some measure of resolution to the growing colonial tensions between the leaders of mercantile economy rooted in individual enterprise versus inherited social power of the socio-political system. This was particularly true in New England, where community leadership was contingent upon denominational church leadership—often making the minister the most powerful leader in town, but also resonated in more religiously tolerant communities such as the Delaware River Valley.
The tension only grew as a growing band of itinerant and uncredentialed Whitefield imitators began “invading” staid parishes preaching Whitefield’s emotional and theatrical revival message. The wildest of these, such as Yale graduate James Davenport (1716–1757), began to give the leaders of the Awakening, known as “New Lights,” more trouble than their enemies. No sooner had Whitefield sailed for England than the enemies of the Awakening (and defenders of the old social order), known as “Old Lights,” launched a counter-offensive to restore the status quo. The faculties of Harvard and Yale denounced both the Awakening in general and Whitefield in particular. Charles Chauncy, Boston’s most influential clergyman (and later president of Harvard), published his Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against (1742) as a treatise against the excessive emotional displays of revivals.
Eventually, even Edwards had to speak out against the excesses of the revival. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1742), Edwards declared Satan the winner of the Awakening due to the New England clergy’s inability to lead their flocks out of wildfire and into love of God and sacrificial love of others. This was perhaps Edwards’ most enduring legacy. While, Faithful Narrative would define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion and firmly establish Edwards as the revival expert with broad readership for his future publications, it was his 1746 publication of Religious Affections (and his 1749 popularization of his views on his more balanced view of revivalism in The Life of David Brainerd) that would lay the groundwork for a profoundly influential evangelical protestant movement in America. Noll (2003) asserts that the Great Awakening “marked the beginning of a distinctly evangelical history” marked by a “consistent pattern of convictions and attitudes that have been maintained over the centuries since” (p. 80, 18-19).
It is not obvious if the exact term, “Great Awakening,” was used before Joseph Tracy in 1842, causing some (Butler, 1982; Lambert, 1999) to assert that the Great Awakening itself was merely the invention of historians. Even those who accept the event at face value often grapple with the meaning of those few short years of American history. Kidd (2007) argues that the division of the dynamic evangelical movement into two distinguishable parts may only “obscure the fact that the evangelical movement continued to develop after 1743 and before 1800” (p. xix). Stout (1977, 1991) argues what while the Awakening itself was more than a historical invention, clearly there was an inventive sense to Whitefield and Seward’s promotional approach (and to some degree Edwards’ rush to publicize the short-lived work of God in Northampton).
Beyond their religious significance, Whitefield’s radical innovations in communication and publicity provided the rhetoric through which republican ideas could be conveyed to an unlettered audience. This style endured, even if the Awakening did not, and became a growing influence in the mode of persuasion of the American Revolution and modern mass communication (Woods, Stout). One school of thought (Heimert, 1966; Mahaffey 2007, 2011) holds that the Awakening’s impact upon the Revolution extended far beyond communication and into the foundational ideas of democracy and nation building, and “provided pre-Revolutionary America with a radical, even democratic, social and political ideology, and evangelical religion embodied, and inspired, a thrust toward American nationalism” (Heimert, viii). By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity. “Without George Whitefield […] American independence would have come much later, if at all” (Mahaffey, 2011, xi).
Gary David Stratton (Ph.D. Biola University) is University Professor of Cultural and Spiritual Formation and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johnson University (TN). James L. Gorman (Ph.D. Baylor University) is Assistant Professor of History at Johnson University. Based upon Stratton and Gorman’s “The Great Awakening [1730s to 1740s]” in the forthcoming “Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).
Butler, Jon. 1982. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fictions” Journal of American History: 305-325 Crawford Michael J. 1991. Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Edwards, Jonathan, and C C. Goen. 1972. The Great Awakening: A Faithful Narrative. the Distinguishing Marks. Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Letters Relating to the Revival. New Haven: Yale University Press. Heimert, Alan. 1996. Religion and the American Mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Kidd, Thomas S. 2007. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press. Lambert, Frank. 1999. Inventing the “Great Awakening”. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Mahaffey, Jerome D. 2007. Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation. Waco: Baylor University Press. ________________ 2011. The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press. Marsden, George M. 2003. Jonathan Edwards: a Life. New Haven: Yale University Press. Noll, Mark A. 2003. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. Stout, Harry S. 1977. “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 34: 519-41; reprinted in Butler and Stout, Religion in American History: A Reader 89-108. ___________ .1991. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Wood, Gordon. 1997. “Religion and the American Revolution,” in Stout, Harry S., and D. G. Hart. Eds. New Directions in American Religious History. New York: Oxford University Press.
In these ‘revival colleges’ the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, and literature, art and the sciences found a home in the academic curriculum, resulting in a profound spiritual/intellectual synthesis throughout American society.
While most Christian traditions look to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as the historical birth of the church , seventeenth and eighteenth-century Puritans in England and colonial America emphasized the outpouring of the Spirit as God’s ongoing means for awakening unbelievers to seek the Lord and reviving the spiritual life of believers. The Puritans believed in religious education and the personal catechizing of every family in every parish every year, however their pastoral experience warned them that such efforts would eventually fall upon deaf ears and hard hearts if not for the continual renewing work of the Spirit. They developed an ecclesiology that all but demanded outpourings of the Spirit recur periodically for ongoing reformation of the church and society.
No one did more to help set Old World revivalism on its feet in the new world, than Northampton, MA Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). A “towering intellectual figure” often described as “America’s greatest theologian,” Edwards viewed the outpouring of the Spirit as an acceleration or intensification[viii] of the Holy Spirit’s normal activity so that much is “done in a day or two, as at ordinary times … is done in a year.” Like all Puritans he held that such outpourings were God-granted events to be sought by ministers and their congregations as their only hope for advancing the gospel on the earth: “(F)rom the fall of man to this day wherein we live the Work of Redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.” (See, Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?)
Edwards wasn’t talking in mere theoretical language. In 1734 over 300 men and women—nearly a quarter of Northampton’s population—professed conversion to Christ in a single six-month period. “There was scarcely in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner… and the number of true saints multiplied… (until) the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.” Edwards’ popular account of Northampton’s revival, Faithful Narrative (1737), caused churches across the colonies to pray for similar outpourings. It wasn’t long before the answer came.
The First Great Evangelical Awakening
The First Great Awakening was a broad religious awakening felt throughout much of the British Isles and American colonies from roughly 1734 to 1742. Early movements included field preaching revivals in the United Kingdom under the leadership of Methodist leaders John and Charles Wesley, a revival in the Connecticut River valley that eventually spread to Jonathan Edwards’ church, as well as revivals among Dutch Pietist immigrants in New Jersey under the leadership of Theodore Freylinguysen, and New Jersey Presbyterians under the leadership of Gilbert Tennent. The awakening reached its zenith in the theatrical preaching of British Methodist George Whitefield, whose evangelistic tour of the colonies in 1740-1741 became the first genuinely “national” event in American history.
In ten weeks Whitefield spoke to audiences whose total attendance equaled at least half the population of the colonies he visited, including “virtually every New England inhabitant.” By the time the awakening subsided as much as twenty-percent of the total population of the American colonies had professed faith in Christ. Due to the tremendous evangelistic impact of these revivals, leaders became known as evangelicals and the movement first became known the Evangelical Awakening. As Noll concludes, The Great Awakening, “marked the beginning of a distinctly evangelical history . . . (and) a consistent pattern of convictions and attitudes that have been maintained over the centuries since.” (See, The Great Awakening & the Birth of American Celebrity Culture)
Religious Affections and Religious Education
Despite the apparent victory of revivalism, Edwards was convinced that the weakness of the First Great Awakening rested in ministers’ uncritical acceptance of revival experiences and mere professions of faith as signs of genuine conversion. Like his Old World forebears, he sought a thorough reformation of both the individual and society. He penned A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1743) to challenge ministers to guide those who professed faith away from short-lived counterfeit conversions and towards genuine faith.  Edwards believed that only an encounter with the “divine and supernatural light” provided by Holy Spirit was capable of transforming human affections out of the sinful lowlands of self-interest and into love of God for God’s sake. This meant that the only uncounterfeitable fruits of genuine repentance were neither emotional experiences nor ecstatic visions, but rather a sacrificial love of others and passion to grow in the knowledge of Christ for no other reward than knowing his love. Parents and ministers were charged with catechizing the next generation, as well as reminding them of the glory of heaven and the ever-present threat of hell, so that by rigorous discipline they might experience genuine conversion. Edwards exhorted his congregation, “The religious education of children is one of the principle means of grace that God has appointed in his church.” (See, Jonathan Edwards Goes to the Movies: Religious Affections and Story Structure.)
The Second Great Awakening
This quest to educate and revive an entire generation toward genuine faith and experiential knowledge of God drove Edwards’ spiritual descendants in the development of perhaps the most influential educational movement in American history—the revival college. When the faculties at Harvard and Yale rejected the First Great Awakening, friends of the revival (known as “New Lights”) founded of a flurry of liberal arts colleges with a revival bent. Some, like Dartmouth, Amherst, and Mount Holyoke were founded directly on Edwardsean principles. Others, like Williams, Princeton, Rutgers and the University of Georgia were later captured by followers of Edwards’ educational vision. In the end, nearly all colleges of the era were eventually influenced by the Edwardsean project. As noted higher education historian and Edwards biographer George. M. Marsden notes, “Much of the antebellum collegiate education was shaped by New Englanders with an Edwardsean heritage, (who) controlled most of the nations leading colleges, including the state universities.”
Timothy Dwight and Yale College
The power of the revival college movement was made possible in no small degree due to the influence of Edwards’ grandson, Timothy Dwight (1753-1817). Dwight was appointed president of Yale College in 1795 in a striking pro-awakening takeover of what had once been an anti-awakening institution. Yale experienced four revivals under Dwight and these outpourings of the Spirit were clearly a welcomed and promoted aspect of the president’s educational program. Yet Dwight was so committed to the life of the Spirit flowing through the normal day-to-day life of the college he refused to cancel classes during seasons of spiritual awakening, even when petitioned by the student body to do so. Dwight instead carefully guided them his students to a more holistic approach to the Spirit’s work in the life of college, an approach which eventually spread to many if not most of America’s colleges.  Under Dwight’s presidency Yale grew into the largest and most influential college in the Americas and the educational center of what came to be known as the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790-1840)—a society-wide transformation of much greater duration and depth than the more short-lived First Great Awakening. (See, The College Chapel: Puritan Relic or Campus Hot Spot.)
Revival Colleges and Social Reform
The best of these revival colleges formed the intellectual backbone of a transatlantic revivalism that became a dominant theme in America from 1800 to 1860, and a “central mode of our search for national identity.” In these colleges, literature, art and the sciences moved into the academic curriculum for the first time, the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, a vision for universal public education found a champion, women and African-American students matriculated for the first time,, a resilient ethic of moral citizenship found a remarkable incubator , and a generation of national leaders marked by both the knowledge of learning and the knowledge of God was born. (See, Higher Education and the Knowledge of God.)
Mark A. Noll notes that the leaders of these colleges were key to a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of revival and common-sense moral philosophy that dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and which led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society. Dramatic church growth among all revival-oriented denominations—particularly Baptists and Methodists led to the formation of nearly 500 new revival colleges across the Western frontier. These educators were revivalists first and foremost  Their effectiveness as educators came, not in spite of their commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit in higher education, but rather because of it. (See, The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts)
Revivalism Ruined and Renewed
Sadly, the success of revivalism eventually led its undoing as churches and colleges began to rely upon periodic seasons of awakening to produce spiritual maturity in their members rather than ongoing religious education and discipleship. Highly volunteeristic conceptions of conversion and high-pressure tactics to secure decisions gradually eroded Edwardsean concerns regarding counterfeit conversions and safeguards to encourage the genuine fruit of Spirit-created repentance. The publication of Christian Nurture (1847) by Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell (1802- 1876) began an intellectual and practical backlash against revivalism’s over-emphasis upon public professions of faith, and birthed the modern religious education movement.
While educational leaders such as A. B. Simpson (Nyack College), A. J. Gordon (Gordon), and V. Raymond Edmond (Wheaton), as well as Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Charismatic renewal movements preserved concern for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and even sparked modest revivals in many churches and colleges, modern evangelicalism has yet to produce a synthesis of revival and Christian education capable of effecting a society-wide movements on the level of the First and Second Great Awakenings.
Adapted from, Gary David Stratton. 2015. “Revivalism,” in George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport, eds. Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littleton Academic Press of America.
 Joel 2:28-32; Ezekiel 39:29; Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-21; 4:24-31.
 Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 2; Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 18. Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life: an Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 121.
 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002), 67-122. See also, Perry Miller and Thomas Herbert Johnson, The Puritans (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). J.I. Packer, The Redemption & Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter: a Study in Puritan Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2003).
 Donald G. Bloesch, The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 106-110. See also, Geoffrey F. Nuttall and Peter Lake. The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 15ff.
 George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: a Life New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 152. See also, Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 53-60.
 Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228. See also, Noll, Evangelicalism, 44.
 Gerald R. McDermott, Understanding Jonathan Edwards: an Introduction to America’s Theologian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: a Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
 Samuel C. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: an Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 25.
 Jonathan Edwards, “A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England (1737),” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards,Vol. 4:The Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 21.
 Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption (1755) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 138.
 Ibid, 13-14.
 Noll, Evangelicalism, 71-99.
 Harry S. Stout,The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991).
 Noll, Evangelicalism, 13. See also, Gary David Stratton, “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture,” The Other Journal (Fall, 2010), 23-35.
 Stout,Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.
 For further exploration into the realities versus myths of the Great Awakening see, Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977), 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of grace: colonial New England’s revival tradition in its British context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 13ff.
 Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism, 18-19.
 Jonathan Edwards, A treatise concerning religious affections, in three parts (1746), in The Works of President Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John E. Smith and H. S. Stout(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959).
 Jonathan Edwards, “A divine and supernatural light (Matthew 16:17).” In Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 17, ed. M. Valeri and H. S. Stout (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 405-426.
 Marsden, Edwards, 28-29.
 Jonathan Edwards, In Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 25, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008), 723.
 Leon. B. Richardson, History of Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications, 1932), 239-40.
 Claude M. Fuess, Amherst, the Story of a New England College (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935), 30.
 Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 69-89.
 David W. Kling, “The New Divinity and Williams College, 1793-1836” (Religion and American Culture, 1996): 195-223.
 Frederick Rudolph and John R. Thelin, The American College and University: a History (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1990).
 Ian H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: the Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 132.
 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 499. George M. Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield (Eds.), The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 8-9.
 Brooks Mather Kelley, Yale: a History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).
 Revivals were noted in 1802, 1808, 1812-1813, 1815 by Chauncey Goodrich, “Narrative of revivals of religion at Yale College from its commencement to the present time.” Journal of the American Education Society X, 1838, p. 295-302. See also, Charles E. Cunningham, Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817: a Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 300-334.
 John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: the Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).
 Noll, Evangelicalism, 200.
 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 222. See also, Richard Carwardine, Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1978)
 William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 85-96.
 Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 74-77.
 Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9.
 Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform, 5. Author’s italics.
 Allen C. Guelzo, “An Heir or a Rebel? Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology,” Journal of the Early Republic, 17 (1997): 61-94. See also, Allen C. Guelzo, “Oberlin perfectionism and its Edwardsean Origins, 1835-1970,” In Jonathan Edwards’ writings: text, context, interpretation, ed. S. J. Stein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996) and Allen C. Guelzo and Douglas A., Sweeney, The New England theology: from Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).
 Horace Bushnell, Views of Christian Nurture, and of Subjects Adjacent Thereto (1847) (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975). See also, Conrad Cherry, Nature and religious imagination: from Edwards to Bushnell. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), Robert Bruce Mullin, The Puritan as Yankee: a Life of Horace Bushnell (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002).Harold William Burgess, Models of Religious Education: Theory and Practice in Historical and Contemporary Perspective. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 81-83. Ironically, Bushnell and Charles G. Finney, perhaps the most famous revivalist of the era were great friends and admirers of each other’s work. See, Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996), 253, 274-275,298.
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A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England, in The works of Jonathan Edwards,4, ed. C. C. Goen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972. ______________. A History of the Work of Redemption, in The works of Jonathan Edwards, 9, ed.J. Wilson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989. ______________. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in Three Parts (1746), in The Works of President Edwards, 2, ed. John E. Smith. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959. Fuess, ClaudeM. Amherst, the Story of a New England college. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935. Goodrich, Chauncey. “Narrative of revivals of religion at Yale College from its commencement to the present time.” Journal of the American Education Society X (1838): 389-310. Guelzo, Allen C. “An Heir or a Rebel? Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology,” Journal of the Early Republic, 17 (1997): 61-94. ____________ “Oberlin perfectionism and its Edwardsean Origins, 1835-1970,” In Jonathan Edwards’ Writings: Text, Context, Interpretation, ed. S. J. Stein, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996. Jenson, Robert W. America’s Theologian: a Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Kelley, Brooks M. Yale; a History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974. Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Kling, David W. “The New Divinity and Williams College, 1793-1836,” Religion and American Culture, 6 (1996): 195-223. Lambert, Frank. Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. ______________. Inventing the “Great Awakening.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. Lovelace, Richard F. Dynamics of Spiritual life: an Evangelical Theology of Renewal. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979. Marsden, George M. and Bradley J. Longfield (Eds.), The Secularization of the Academy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. ______________. Jonathan Edwards: a life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. McDermott, Gerald R. Understanding Jonathan Edwards: an Introduction to America’s Theologian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Miller, Perry, and Thomas Herbert Johnson. The Puritans. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Morgan, Edmund S. The Gentle Puritan: a life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795. New York: Norton, 1984. Mullin, Robert Bruce. The Puritan as Yankee: a life of Horace Bushnell. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Murray, Ian H. Revival and Revivalism: the Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994. ____________. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ____________. The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003. Nuttall, Geoffrey F. Richard Baxter. London: Nelson, 1966. Nuttall, Geoffrey F. and Peter Lake. The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Packer, J. I. The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter: a Study in Puritan Theology. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2003. Reuben, Julie A. The Making of the Modern University, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Richardson, Leon B. History of Dartmouth College. Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications, 1932. Ringenberg, William C. The Christian College. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006. Rudolph, Frederick and John R. Thelin. The American College and University: a History. Athens GA: The University of Georgia press, 1990. Storms, Samuel C. Signs of the Spirit: an Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007. Stout, Harry S. “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977): 519-541. ____________. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. New York: Oxford University Press. 1986. ____________. “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990. ____________. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991. Stratton, Gary D. “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture,” The Other Journal. (Fall, 2010). Sweeney, Douglas A. and Allen C. Guelzo. The New England Theology: from Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. Wolffe, John. The Expansion of Evangelicalism: the Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
Adapted from Gary’s article, “Revivalism and Higher Education,” in The Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Scarecrow Press, 2014.
I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me Papa, paparazzi
—Lyrics from “Paparazzi” as performed by Lady Gaga
The streets of Boston course with life as a crowd greater than the city’s total population joins in celebration.
Commerce grinds to a standstill.
Grown men weep.
The governor joins the standing-room-only multitude on Boston Common and declares the festivities, “the greatest day in New England history.”
If that sounds to you like a good description of the victory parade for the 2004 Boston Red Sox who vanquished a 68 year-old ‘Curse of the Bambino” with a World Series championship, you’re not far from the truth. The Red Sox parade attracted an incredible sixty-eight percent of greater Boston’s population.
However, these words actually describe something even more historic: the 1740 farewell sermon of British evangelist George Whitefield–an event that drew 135 percent of colonial Boston. No wonder Harry Stout has calls Whitefield “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity.”
And Whitefield’s celebrity is no accident. It is the result of a carefully orchestrated public relations tour de force. Whitefield and his publicist, William Seward, worked tirelessly to promote the evangelist’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every work published in America in 1740. By the time he reaches Boston, all of New England is in a fever pitch. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, “virtually every New England inhabitant” has heard Whitefield preach face-to-face.
Sinners is the Hands of an Angry God
One hundred miles to the west, fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards waits not with condemnation, but delight. Rather than dangling the “paparazzi” of his day over the pit of hell, Edwards follows media coverage of Whitefield’s every move with growing delight. He even invites the innovative young preacher to fill his famous pulpit in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Edwards helped start this media sensation in the first place. His autobiographical Faithful Narrative  was an international best seller for nearly three years before Whitefield’s preaching tour, making Edwards a towering public figure in his own right. He has helped stoke a deep hunger for spiritual awakening throughout the colonies; a hunger now filled by Whitefield’s flamboyant preaching and growing celebrity.
While many Christians today decry our shallow media-driven celebrity culture, leaders of the Great Awakening recognized that capture society’s imagination with spiritual realities required media-driven celebrity. And capture it they did. By year’s end, perhaps as much as fifteen-percent of the population of the American colonies professes conversion to Christ in one of the most transformative social movements in American history.
Edwards and Whitefield helped birth not only one of the most transformative cultural movements in America history—the First Great Awakening—they also helped launch America’s celebrity culture. Twenty-first-century culture-makers seeking to birth society-wide transformation on the level of the Great Awakening would be wise to pay careful attention to the lessons Edwards and Whitefield learned in using celebrity for the glory of God.
Celebrity is perhaps the most coveted and least understood concept in contemporary culture. While the billion-dollar celebrity industry seems to grind out a new subject for fifteen-minutes of fame nearly every fifteen minutes, the scholarly community (and the church) has scrambled just to stay current. Recent scholarship has produced many claims to the title of “America’s first celebrity,” ranging from John James Audubon (c. 1826) to Walt Whitman (c. 1850), Buffalo Bill Cody (c. 1885), Douglas Fairbanks (c. 1920), and Ernest Hemingway (c. 1925). Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield certainly precede each of these contenders, but were they true celebrities? The answer is, perhaps, yes and no.
Celebrity as Star
If one takes the perspective that celebrity is a purely modern invention, then obviously Edwards and Whitefield can’t be celebrities. Many scholars find a strong enough connection between celebrity and modern media to assert that “there is no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.” This school of thought is strongly rooted in film studies and the rise of the Hollywood star-making business. Before 1910, the motion picture industry sold story. However, studio executives soon realized that what they were actually selling was stars—men and women who moviegoers liked and personally identified with beyond the quality of their performance.
For instance, producer Brian Grazer chose the little known TV star Tom Hanks over hundreds of famous actors vying for the lead in Splash (1983), not because Hanks was the most talented, but because audience testing proved he was the most likable. Soon Hanks joined the pantheon of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Harrison Ford, et cetera—actors America loved not for how they played their role, but simply for who they were.
Hollywood intuited what academic research later demonstrated: people personally identify not merely with the hero of the story, but also with the actor playing the hero in the story. Media-generated personal identification evoked a public hunger for access to the private lives of stars. In small-town America, everyone wanted to know the gossip, slander, triumphs, tragedies of the in crowd. But in the emerging global village, the most popular kids are found on the big screen.
Aided by the media-driven celebrity industry, stars quickly became what Richard Schickel calls “intimate strangers.” People wanted to know these stars and be connected to them personally. Graeme Turner asserts that we can actually “map the precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity”: when their “private lives attract greater public interest than their professional lives.”
It wasn’t long before stars began to realize that they had become a commodity to be marketed and traded, not only by studio heads, but also by their own publicity people. Within a few short years, the public relations and celebrity gossip industries were born. Soon Paparazzi was a household word.
Since Edwards and Whitefield were dead for over a hundred years before the first Hollywood stars were born, it is hard to see how they are celebrities in this limited sense of the word.
Celebrity as Hero
However, other scholars adopt a broader understanding of celebrity, one that seems to better fit Edwards and Whitefield. These scholars root their understanding of celebrity in the Latin words for “fame” (celebritas) and “being famous” (celebrer) and in Western society’s desire to “celebrate” greatness.  Human beings need heroes to emulate.
Both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions developed strong “hero-making” story cultures. We tell the stories of heroes such as Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, David, Elijah, Esther, Mary, Paul, and Peter because they embody the virtues valued in our culture.
Yet for cultural heroes to serve as public role models, they need to be both virtuous and known. A virtuous man or woman whose story goes untold simply can’t be emulated. Therefore, the desire to be great and the desire to be famous are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As Paul boldly declares, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Perhaps it is more helpful to follow Daniel Boorstin’s distinction between a genuine celebrity and what he calls a “pseudo-celebrity.” Pseudo celebrities, as the Hollywood school of thought asserts, are differentiated mainly by the “trivia of personality,” whereas true celebrities are heroes who are distinguished by their achievements, virtues, and character. Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit this second type. Although there is no universal consensus, celebrity studies seem to point to four distinct stages in the creation of a genuine celebrity: (1) A defining incident or accomplishment makes someone a “hero”; (2) some kind of identification with the hero’s character sparks admiration and a desire to connect with the hero; (3) intentionality by the hero (or someone acting on behalf of the hero) meets public desire for a greater connection by providing access to their “story” and their life; and, (4) the public’s identification with the hero exerts influence in other people’s lives that shapes their behavior.
Edwards’s celebrity clearly fits this pattern.
(1) Edwards’s public story begins with a clear defining incident—a powerful revival among the youth in his church results in the conversion of 300 people, a quarter of the town’s population, transforming youth culture in Northampton. Soon there is “scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world [. . . .] The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing man¬ner [. . .] and the number of true saints multiplied [. . . until] the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”
(2) These events spark a profound identification, not only in America, but across the English-speaking world. Edwards’s church became “the talk of New England” and famous British cleric Isaac Watts declared, “We have not heard of anything like it since the Reformation, nor since the first days of the apostles.” What minister (or Christian) would not want this to happen in their church? People wanted to know more.
(3) Edwards responds to this interest with acute intentionality. He publishes A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising work of God in the Conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. It becomes an international best seller reprinted at least ten times in three languages before Edwards’s death and over fifty times since.
(4) Faithful Narrative provides Edwards with the influence and “international audience for which he longed.” More than any other published statement, Faithful Narrative would “define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion” and firmly establish Edwards as the “revival expert” with broad readership for his future publications on the Awakening. For over a century, it serves as a nearly canonical corpus for New England revivalism. More dramatically, it opens the door for interest in Edwards’s more scholarly works so that Edwards eventually comes to be known as “America’s greatest theologian.”
Notice the key role that intentionality plays in Edwards’s celebrity. Without his providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity. Without Edwards’s providing a personal account of the revival—an incident he did not “cause,” but which spread to his church from the surrounding villages—this “towering intellectual figure” could very well have remained unknown and unread.
Whitefield as Heroic Celebrity
Whitefield’s celebrity also appears to fit this four-stage cycle as well.
(1) Whitefield’s first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, creates an international incident that introduces him into popular imagination. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” (versus preaching inside churches) coupled with his profound dramatic gifts and unusual anointing create a sensation. His sermons are some of the most compelling theater of his generation, recasting “biblical history in a theatrical key.”
(2) Whitefield’s preaching generates tremendous public identification. Theater is all but unknown in America, and Whitefield’s dramatic performances (in comparison to the logical treatises offered by most New England pastors) connect in an unprecedented way. People love Whitefield. They flock to hear him preach. They relish his willingness to take on the (ancestral hierarchical) establishment. They can’t get enough of him. Newspapers normally committed to business and political news are filled with accounts of his success.
(3) In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield demonstrates unusual intentionality in managing his celebrity. He fashions a clearly defined and “audacious” plan to build on his momentum and transform his revival movement into “an international event with himself at the center.” He and his publicists unleash a barrage of publicity employing careful use of social networking and mass media. People are able to “personally” connect with him through him publishing his personal journals and maintaining a grueling schedule of personal appearances.
(4) Whitefield’s growing celebrity soon grants him unparalleled influence. He is able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day (unconverted ministers). Whitefield becomes “the first in a long line of public figures whose claims to influence would rest on celebrity [. . .] rather than birth, breeding, or institutional fiat.”
Like with Edwards, it is difficult to miss the critical role intentionality plays in Whitefield’s celebrity. His use of William Seward’s immense talent as a public relations officer is critical to his success. He certainly would have connected with people without it, but he could never have attracted such remarkable crowds without the tireless efforts of Seward and his network of advance men. As Stout asserts:
“Where other influential preachers. . . wrote learned treatises and preached in meetinghouses. . . to audiences totaling in the thousands. . . Whitefield wrote best-selling journals and drew audiences that must be totaled in the millions. . . For comparison one must look to an electronic age and. . . movie stars.”
Both Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit the criteria of heroic celebrities. Without the celebrity account provided by Edwards’s Faithful Narrative, it is entirely possible that America would not have been primed for Whitefield’s publicity and preaching. From a human perspective, it is not unreasonable to claim that Edwards and Whitefield’s efforts helped initiate America’s first celebrity culture, and that celebrity culture in turn helped birth the First Great Awakening. Mark A. Noll, arguably the most influential historian in our contemporary understanding of the First Great Awakening, notes that although revival can be viewed as the result of a movement of the Holy Spirit, it can also be interpreted as an effect of human agency and leadership:
“By taking note of the agents who, whether perceived as servants of God or merely adept shapers of culture, historical explanation adds the sphere of human responsibility to realms of theological principle.”
The leaders of the First Great Awakening were young men of great natural gifts who preached, wrote, promoted, and built institutions with unusual force. Their actions mattered, regardless of their motivations or by what power they were energized. This in no way minimizes the Holy Spirit’s role in the First Great Awakening. Something truly remarkable occurred in this movement that no amount of human effort has ever been able to recreate (although not for lack of trying). However, it does emphasize that the Holy Spirit worked though human leaders who made wise use of the means at their proposal, including their celebrity.
Edwards himself came to embrace the importance of human leadership in the Awakening. One of his central contributions to religious self-understanding was his refusal to accept an either/or dichotomy between divine and human impulses. His first work in the midst of the Great Awakening, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion (1741), was an urgent appeal for human leaders to promote the work of God by wise and strenuous efforts.
His first major publication in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, A treatise regarding religious affections (1746), was in many ways his “second thoughts about the first great awakening.” Edwards claimed that Satan won a great victory in the Awakening because human leaders failed to embrace their God-appointed role in directing such a powerful “pouring out of the Spirit of God.”
Edwards and Whitefield were not leaders who shirked their human responsibility. Their model points toward a possible future for leaders seeking to become “adept shapers of culture” in the twenty-first century. However, before we can directly apply the principles they employed in the eighteenth century to our contemporary setting, we must first account for a factor with which Edwards and Whitefield never had to contend: contemporary pseudo celebrity culture.
The Rise of Pseudo Celebrity
The problem with the celebrity cycle is that it is essentially value neutral. The process that makes someone a heroic celebrity is essentially the same as the process that makes someone a pseudo celebrity. As the Hollywood school of thought contends, something went seriously awry with celebrity in the early twentieth century. It is as if somewhere we decided that if you can’t be a true hero without also achieving fame, why bother with virtue at all? Contemporary media makes it all too easy to skip heroism and jump straight to the stardom of a pseudo celebrity who is “well-known only for being well-known.”
In pseudo celebrity, the inciting incident moves from important to trivial (and/or contrived); intentionality moves from important to critical; and identification moves from character to personality. The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”
Dry Erase Girl
A good example of this phenomena is found in the “dry erase girl” resignation hoax. This meme serves as a great example of how the four-stage cycle can be applied to the creation of pseudo celebrities.
(1) On the morning of August 10, The Chive, a relatively unknown Web site, creates an incident by posting a series of pictures under the banner: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office.” The hilarious photos, received from “a person who works with [. . .] Jenny,” chronicle a young worker’s struggle with her boss’s sexual harassment, her subsequent resignation, and the outing of her boss’s odd Internet viewing habits.
(2) By the afternoon of August 10, the public’s identification with Jenny’s plight makes the story is an instant Internet sensation. The photos “soared to the top of Google and Twitter trends, and a group of Facebook pages popped up to honor” the brave underling. Who wouldn’t root for this perky persecuted worker and her “heroic” actions? People were dying to connect with Jenny and know more of her life and future.
(3) The role of intentionality becomes obvious on August 11, when the Web site TechCrunch reveals that it was all a publicity stunt. “Jenny-the-Dry-Erase-Girl” is really Elyse Porterfield, a struggling young actress hired by The Chive to perpetrate the hoax.
(4) By the evening of August 11, Porterfield and The Chive editor have garnished sufficient influence to be interviewed by CBS News Entertainment to discuss their successful creation of the hoax. Thirty-six hours after the first posting, The Chive and Porterfield are hot properties. Could an acting role be far behind? (And of course, I’m pulling for Porterfield. She is so darn likable.)
In less than two twenty-four-hour news cycles a hoax is: (1) perpetrated, (2) debunked, and (3) milked for enough publicity to become national news and achieve celebrity status. Porterfield is the paramount pseudo celebrity created via what Boorstin calls a “pseudo-event fabricated by the media and evaluated in terms of the scale and effectiveness of their media visibility.”
Pseudo Celebrity and Cultural Currency
Notice, however, how the final stage of influence is still very much intact. In fact, the defining characteristic of the contemporary pseudo celebrity culture is the shallow but powerful nature of the identification it engenders. Pseudo celebrity endorsements are both effective and pervasive, because these superstars are integral parts of our lives and intimately tied to our greatest hopes and fears.
In a culture devoid of meaning and relationship, the pseudo celebrity system offers powerful images to direct our lives. Media outlets create an “illusion of accessibility and relationship.” In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met. When Lady Gaga sings, “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” she is eerily describing the zeitgeist of paparazzi culture. Through pseudo celebrity culture, we perpetrate a new American mythology: not the maxim that strong character, hard work, and perseverance will eventually lead to success and happiness, but rather be in the right place at the right time, with the right YouTube video and you too can be famous. The underlying story behind pseudo celebrity becomes: it could happen to me.
Not everyone can be a hero, but anyone can be famous. Accomplishments might put someone in a position to be noticed by the media, but only the intentional courting of the public eye can produce an ongoing celebrity. This is the underlying secret of our pseudo celebrity culture: it’s all about the Benjamins. Celebrities are needed to drive the economy, sell the products, and fill the airtime so as to generate advertising dollars to sell even more products. Pseudo celebrities are the ultimate wedding of consumer culture and democratic aspirations. In a society cynical about truth, and without a clear sense of common good informing our ethical decisions, the pseudo celebrity system guarantees that even if I don’t know how to live a meaningful life, at least I’ll know how to dress.
On Being a Twenty-first Century Heroic Celebrity (and Not a Pseudo Celebrity)
Does this trivialization of celebrity mean that twenty-first-century culture-makers should eschew all celebrity and start dangling our own paparazzi over the pit of hell? Perhaps. But if the realm of celebrity is stripped of every true hero, all that remains will be pseudo celebrities. And a world without public heroism is a profoundly unbiblical idea. Without contemporary additions to the Hebrews 11 hall of fame, how can we expect a new generation to “Remember your leaders [. . . .] Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”? (Heb. 13:7). If we don’t have heroic celebrities who are broadly famous in our culture, then haven’t we lost our culture already? To put a twist on Edmund Burke’s oft-quoted aphorism: “All that is necessary for pseudo celebrity to triumph is for heroic celebrities to do nothing.”
Still, some might argue: yes, we need heroes, but shouldn’t we leave hero-making to God? You would certainly think so if you read evangelical devotional literature. Even thoughtful historians often help perpetrate the myth that the Holy Spirit alone drew the giant crowds that followed the saintly Whitefield, as if he wanted only to be left alone with his Bible. Consider Stephen Mansfield’s hagiographic account:
“What could explain the crowds, always the crowds? It must be simply the grace of God and his decision to use a slight, squint-eyed boy to change lives.”
My point is not that the supernatural impact of Whitefield’s ministry is difficult to account for except by the grace of God (more on this later), only that Whitefield carefully cultivated and judiciously utilized his celebrity for the glory of God. Why should twenty-first-century leaders be any different? Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism (Numbers 12:3). Nehemiah certainly wasn’t shy in trumpeting his own accomplishments. And David commissioned the telling of the heroic story of Ruth in order to clear up a public relations problem in his (Gentile) heritage. Yet Moses, David, Ruth, Nehemiah, Whitefield, and Edwards possessed at least three further traits that define their heroic celebrity and which might help mitigate against contemporary pseudo celebrity.
The Compelling Authenticity of a Life Well Lived
Edwards and Whitefield were men of remarkable integrity. Edwards was no pseudo celebrity scholar. He was the real thing. He was devoted to the calling of his craft, often spending thirteen hours a day in his study. Nor was he a public figure who wilted in private. He developed a profound contemplative prayer life, forged a beautiful marriage, and stayed deeply involved in the lives of his eleven children.
Although Whitefield never achieved Edwards’s “depth in his thinking about culture,” he began each day reading his Greek New Testament and returned to finish his master’s degree at Oxford after already achieving much of his fame. He worked tirelessly to improve as an orator (and actor). More importantly, he was a man of profound personal and financial integrity. He raised staggering amounts of money while maintaining a Spartan lifestyle that bordered on asceticism. Both leaders escaped moral scandal despite determined enemies and years in the public eye.
This is not to say that these men were perfect; they both freely admitted their mistakes and misjudgments in their own writings. Whitefield wrote, “Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in [judging the] character, both of places and persons. . . I have used a style too apostolical . . . been too bitter in my zeal . . . and published to soon and too explicitly. . . By these things I have hurt the blessed cause I would defend.” But rather than repelling followers, such authenticity drew men and women to his celebrity. In short, they were actually men who could be admired; they were heroic celebrities who might be emulated.
Twenty-first-century culture-makers must strive for the same excellence in craft and character. Pseudo celebrity culture has bred cynicism regarding all celebrities. Americans crave authenticity but expect duplicity. We are looking for our heroes to fall, and the celebrity media industry is only too happy to pounce when they do. Those who would aspire to heroic celebrity must be absolutely certain that they are up to the task. Although pseudo celebrities sometimes become heroes over the course of time, heroic celebrities can become pseudo celebrities overnight. Ted Haggard became a national celebrity, not through his accomplishment of building one of the most influential churches in America, nor by his position as President of the National Council of Evangelicals; he became a household name by reason of his infidelity.
This calls for a ruthless commitment to the compelling authenticity of a life well lived. Scholars, ministers, businesspeople, musicians, politicians, filmmakers, artists, actors, and publishers had best count the cost before they dare enter the world of heroic celebrity. They need a radical commitment to master both their craft at a world-class level and the spiritual disciplines, marriage, family, and relational habits required to shape their character toward the fruit of the Spirit.
Great artists, scholars, businesspeople, and ministers are not formed in a day. Great marriages, families, and friendships are forged with great intentionality. Heroic character cannot be instantly formed by sheer force of will, but the ongoing practice of key spiritual disciplines put us in a position to receive the transforming grace of God and be “incrementally changed toward inward Christlikeness.”
This also calls for a countercultural commitment on the part of thoughtful media leaders and public relations specialists to work against the forces of pseudo celebrity. In addition to Edwards and Whitefield, leaders of the First Great Awakening included not only one of the pioneers of publicity and public relations (William Seward), but also three of the key forerunners in modern mass communication: John Lewis, Thomas Prince, and William McCulloch. They were determined to use the power of the media to promote spiritual awakening through Edwards and Whitefield’s celebrity. Twenty-first-century media leaders must seek for the true heroes in our society and make certain their stories are told. They must also do everything within their power to insure that those they promote as celebrities are in fact heroes.
The Courageous Ambition of Genuine Humility
Edwards and Whitefield were also men of tremendous ambition to glorify God in the world. Early in his life, Edwards determined, “I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory [. . . ]” However, Edwards’s humility didn’t prevent him from developing a ruthless ambition to serve the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world. He continued: “[. . .] and my own good, profit and pleasure to do whatever I think to be my duty [. . .] for the good and advantage of mankind.”
Edwards saw no conflict in these two aspirations, having also resolved to throw off anything smacking of “gratification of pride, or vanity,” and he lived his life to maximally steward the gifts God had entrusted to him by establishing himself as a renowned intellectual force for good.
Whitefield too was a man possessed of a deep passion for the glory of God with a corresponding repudiation of self-glory. Yet, he also held to a keen sense of the importance of his impact upon the world. Certainly, the hierarchical worldview of Edwards and Whitefield’s day helped them seize those opportunities in ways that our current pseudo celebrity, democratic, level-playing-field worldview does not. They were encouraged to aspire to become “great men” from their youth, and their respective Yale and Oxford educations only reinforced the idea that they were God’s elite. They did not need to be asked to step forward as celebrities. They knew it was a responsibility entrusted to them by God and correspondingly seized the day.
Not so today. The cynicism of pseudo celebrity when combined with tireless assaults upon anyone who dares stick their heads above the democratic crowd has had a devastating impact on moral leadership. True heroes step back from the public limelight while pseudo celebrities push themselves forward. Those who do not possess true character and accomplishment manipulate the media for their own celebrity, whereas those who possess some modicum of humility shrink back. True heroes fear not only their own ego, but also the potential humiliation involved in having a target painted on their back. For instance, it is now a right of passage for nearly all intellectual, cultural, and spiritual leaders to have multiple Web sites devoted to their demise.
Overcoming our contemporary aversion to principled heroism will call for the courageous ambition of genuine humility on the part of twenty-first-century cultural leaders. Like Saul’s army before Goliath, unbelief sometimes looks a lot like humility. Genuine humility, on the other hand, sometimes appears arrogant. While lifelong soldiers cowered in fear, David was willing to push past his brother’s stinging accusation, “I know how conceited you are” in order to seize the heroic challenge (1 Sam. 17:28ff). Twenty-first-century culture-makers who wish to wisely use celebrity for the glory of God will also need to regularly weather the pseudo celebrity culture’s challenge of “Who do you think you are?” in order to stand as heroic celebrities.
This will also require careful partnerships with thoughtful public relations professionals and new media experts. As media expert Phil Cook, exclaims, “If you don’t control your perception” and “the story that surrounds you [. . .] you’ll live the rest of your life at the mercy of those who will.”
One need only look at James Monaco refers to persons who come to the public eye but fail to control their public image as “Quasars.” They are at the mercy of the media’s construction of their image, and that construction is nearly always bad.the “Tina Fey effect” in the last presidential election for a warning against the dangers of losing control of your own image. Unlike the leaders of the Great Awakening, today’s leaders have allowed our culture’s perception of spirituality to drift at the mercy of the mass media’s construction. Oprah and Richard Dawkins have done more to shape mass media’s conception of faith (or lack thereof) than countless pastors and other spiritual leaders. Only by drawing upon the savvy leadership of the best public relations experts, journalists, filmmakers, television creators, and new-media mavens is there any real chance of reversing this trend.
The Unmistakable Stamp of Divine Exaltation
In the end, Edwards and Whitefield’s lives bore the unmistakable stamp of divine exaltation. Their personal lives and vocational success simply defied all human explanation. Although self-exaltation may lead to pseudo celebrity, there is a type of exaltation only God can bestow. As the psalmist declares, “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:7).
Celebrity did not bring David in from the shepherd field, release Joseph from prison, nor fill Mary’s womb with divine offspring. They were men and women who followed the biblical injunction: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).
Each hero waited in relative obscurity—growing in character while mastering the disciplines of their craft—waiting for the moment chosen by the God whose eyes “range throughout the earth seeking to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9).
For some, like Daniel and Esther, this call came at a relatively young age. For many others, like Moses and Anna, the call came much later. In either case, these biblical figures were ready when their moment arrived.
Whether short or long, God used their time in secret preparation to forge in them the strength of character to support the weight of their calling. Edwards and Whitefield were men of similar character. When the divine moment came—in the 1734-1734 revival in Edwards’s church and the 1739 revival under Whitefield’s itinerant preaching—these two principal leaders of the First Great Awakening knew what to do. Once exalted by God to a place of celebrity, they were ready to bear the responsibilities it demanded and steward their celebrity for the glory of God. In doing so, they helped spark one of the most socially transformative movements in American history. W
ill the twenty-first-century be any different? We may never know how many potentially dynamic cultural leaders will be lured by the siren song of pseudo celebrity, impatiently squandering their youth seeking fame instead of steadily building the craft and character required for their divine moment. Still, we must do everything within our power to help foster spiritual depth as well as professional excellence. In an age hungering for the depth of genuine authenticity to counteract the shallowness of pseudo celebrity, waiting for God’s timing could make all the difference.
The Greatest Day in World History?
Will we see again the equivalent of the crowds that thronged Boston Common for Whitefield’s farewell sermon? Perhaps not. But if we do, that crowd will more likely gather in movie houses worldwide and/or at a massive Web cast than a single venue. A twenty-first-century equivalent of Whitefield is more likely a cutting-edge filmmaker, actor, or television producer than a traditional evangelist.
A twenty-first-century equivalent of Edwards might take the form of a C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar who built upon his prestigious position through popular writings and radio broadcasts that gave him a celebrity—the cover of Time magazine for The Screwtape Letters—that made his complex moral and theological arguments beloved reading for a generation of children and adults. Either manifestation would certainly be a great day for the world as we know it.
In a media-saturated age marked by both an unhealthy appetite for pseudo celebrity and a deep cynicism toward heroism, it would be hard to find a better tonic than the courage and authenticity of Edwards and Whitefield, heroic celebrities unafraid to utilize their fame for the glory of God.
The thought that we can sit on the sidelines and call down judgment upon today’s celebrity culture may be as dangerous as it is naive. We are called to be missionaries in a media-driven culture. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make that fact go away. To impact our image-driven generation for the kingdom of God will require entering the fray prayerfully, thoughtfully, and with great excellence. And if all else fails, we can always dangle a few paparazzi over the fires of hell. Or, better yet, we can follow Whitefield’s example and hire them.
 The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted an estimated 3 million out of 4.4 million in greater Boston (68 percent), whereas Whitefield’s farewell sermon drew 23,000 from of the city population of 17,000 (135 percent). Whitefield’s more modest estimate was 20,000 (118 percent). Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003), 79.
 Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), x.
 Stout, Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.
 George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 202.
 Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).
 Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Blake, 2004); David Haven, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2000); Richard Schickel, Douglas Fairbanks: The First Celebrity (London, UK: Elm Tree Books, 1976); Leonard J. Leff, Hemingway and His Conspirators: Hollywood, Scribners, and the Making of American Celebrity Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997). Other proposed contenders include: Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1855), see Renée M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gertrude Stein (c. 1900), see Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009); and Charles Lindbergh (c. 1940), see Randy Roberts and David Welky, Charles A. Lindbergh: The Power and Peril of Celebrity, 1927-1941 (Maplecrest, NY: Brandywine Press, 2003).
 Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 21.
 Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
 Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co, 2005), 45.
 There are some who believe that Hollywood’s star-making days are over and are now being replaced by the experience-making of stadium theaters, 3-D glasses, concept movies, and CGI. Given the blockbuster opening weekend ($35 million) of the low-tech but star-studded The Expendables (2010), I suspect this argument will grow even more heated.
 See Schickel, Intimate Strangers; and Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004), 3, 8.
 Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & its History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).
 See also 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9. All references are from the New International Version.
 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, or, What Happened to the American Dream (London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1861), 58; and Daniel J. Boorstin, “From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-event,” in David Marshall, The Celebrity Culture Reader (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 72-90.
 Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), x. See also, Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards: Religious Tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).
 Michael J. Crawford chronicles that between 1712-1732 the Connecticut River Valley alone experienced as many as fifteen revivals before the first of two “outpourings” in Edwards’s Northampton, Massachusetts, church (1734-1736, 1740-1742). See, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 108. To his credit, Edwards’s own account mentioned “nearly every church in Western Massachusetts and twenty in Connecticut.” See Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 162.
 Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228.
 For more insight into the use of media, publicity, et cetera in the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977): 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of Grace, 13ff.
 Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New England and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted. The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).
 Gary David Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758) Theology of Spiritual Awakening and Spiritual Formation Leadership in Higher Education” (PhD diss., Talbot School of Theology, 2009), 59. See also Gary D. Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Gerald McDermott’s Seeing God,” Christian Education Journal 3 (2006) and Samuel S. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).
 Jonathan Edwards, John Edwin Smith, and Perry Miller, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in three parts. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 5-7.
 Richard Dyer and Paul McDonald, Stars (London, UK: BFI, 2007), 17.
 Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.
 Marshall, Celebrity and Power, 10. See also Leo Lowenthal, Communication in Society. Studies on Authoritarianism 3, False Prophets (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997).
 Burke probably never used the precise phrase, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” but rather, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one [. . .]” Daniel E. Ritchie, Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990), xiii.
 Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield (Nashville, TN: Highland Books/Cumberland House, 2001), 64.
As I’ve noted in Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God, the leaders of America’s First Great Awakening recognized that societal transformation was every bit as much a media revolution as it was a spiritual movement.
No one represented this approach better than George Whitefield, the man who Yale historian Harry Stout identifies as ‘America’s first celebrity.”
“Whitefield’s sermons are some of the most compelling theater of his generation, recasting “biblical history in a theatrical key.” …Theater is all but unknown in America, and Whitefield’s dramatic performances (in comparison to the logical treatises offered by most New England pastors) connect in an unprecedented way…
George Whitefield’s profound dramatic gifts and unusual anointing create a national sensation… People love Whitefield. They flock to hear him preach… Newspapers normally committed to business and political news are filled with accounts of his success… Incredibly, thirty-percent of all works published in America in 1740 are written or inspired by Whitefield.
By the time he reaches Boston, all of New England is in a fever pitch. Of a total city population of 17,000, Whitefield’s farewell sermon draws a crowd of well over 20,000.  Six weeks and 175 sermons later, “virtually every New England inhabitant” has heard Whitefield preach face-to-face. 
By year’s end, perhaps as much as fifteen-percent of the population of the American colonies professes conversion to Christ in one of the most transformative social movements in American history.”
Clearly preaching was a performance art to George Whitefield, but should it be today?
Clayton Schmit offers a modern-day exploration of preaching as performance art. I find it highly enlightening. Enjoy!
Preaching is Performance Art
The way it’s delivered is part of the message.
by Clayton Schmit | Leadership Journal
I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to go to church no more.”
Nearly any churchgoer could have said this, and in nearly any period of history. But in this case the listener was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist and lecturer (1803-1882). He went on to explain that “the capital secret of [the preacher’s] profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned … there was not a surmise, a hint in all the discourse that he had ever lived at all.”
We have all heard preachers with that problem. Their sermons employ an artificial set of communication skills divorced from ordinary human life. These preachers assume that the purpose of the exegesis they learned in seminary is to spring-load sermons with technical data that will impress and subdue listeners. Or they spend all their time working on what to say and no time at all on how to say it.
T.S. Elliot said the purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink. In preaching, we’re called to turn ink back into blood. Yet so many preachers speak only abstractly, as if they were devoid of humanness. There’s no flesh, no blood, no tension, no mystery, no life in their sermons. No dialogue, no communication, and no eye contact with those looking at them expectantly every Sunday morning. Only words drawn from commentaries or a thesaurus. These are the preachers that tempt us “to go to church no more.”
 Stout, Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 95.
 Boston newspapers estimated the crowd at 23,000, while Whitefield’s more modest estimate was 20,000. Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003), 79.
It’s hard to believe that Two Handed Warriors has only been up and running for two months. I cannot thank you enough for all the encouragement and support.
I started the blog in hope of fostering an ongoing conversation for professionals committed to both culture making and faith building. You have exceeded my wildest dreams. Conversations have evoked marvelous responses from audiences as diverse as Ivy League professors, Hollywood executive producers, seminary deans, college students, pastors, student development professionals, campus ministers, film and television writers. Thank you!
Bottom line: Paparazzi really seemed to hit a nerve. It turns out that there is a great deal of angst out there regarding how to maximize the potentialities of the electronic age without being drawn into the “dark side” of self-promotion. So this January I’ll be posting on ongoing series on Servant Leadership in an Age of Celebrity in hopes of teasing out the issues involved. (Watch for the first post, “Lost” Lessons of Leadership: Sawyer, Jack and the Power of Gun, next week.)
I would love your feedback and questions in order to shape the conversation and explore if it is worthy of a future book project. (I SO appreciate all the emails directly to me, but if you could find it in your heart to post comments on the site it would help foster a broader conversation.)
Thank you again for letting me into your head over the past 60 days. Lord willing, it is the beginning of a genuine community of two handed warriors in Hollywood, the Ivy League and beyond.
Happy New Year!
PS Special thanks to Identity Specialist, Lem Usita, as well as to Jon Stanley and the staff of THE OTHER JOURNAL for all their help in conceiving and lauching this project. Thank you to Chris Easterly, Kathy Bruner, Shun Lee Fong, David McFadzean, David Ridder, Dennis Ingolfsand, Peter Kapsner, Rich Gathro, Jack Gilbert, Clyde Taber, Brennan Smith, Jim Hull, John David Ware, Robb Kelley, Todd Burns, Bob Cornero, Tom Provost, Carol Shell Harris, and Michael Warren for helping get the conversation started. Thank you also to Scot McKnight, Key Payton, Keri Lowe, David Medders, McCoy Tyner, Ralph Enlow, and Ken Minkema, for their personal encouragement, professional input, and help in getting the word out. I never could have made it without you all!
Sorry it took so long to reply. I was in North Carolina this past week on the set of a movie I wrote for the Hallmark Channel. It’s a very thought-provoking article and it was a pleasure to read. Thanks for asking me to weigh in! My thoughts are below:
To me, one of the most interesting ideas your article raises is the concept of intentionality. Edwards and Whitefield actively promoted their own celebrity. As you note about Edwards, “Without him providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity.” These men were intentional about creating and using their celebrity for the glory of God, and their actions mattered.
This seems counterintuitive to a traditional understanding of the Christian call to deny one’s self. But your examination of Edwards and Whitefield’s public relations efforts suggests an intriguing idea: Perhaps a Christian utilizing media to promote his own celebrity is not a contradiction, especially in the media-driven 21st century. It’s arguably an example of Jesus’ command to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” A Christian who acquires celebrity is not necessarily a bad thing.
A rough analogy might be the historical use of icons in prayer. The Christian doesn’t worship the image itself, but rather they prayerfully use the icon as a means to help them focus on God. For instance, a person may have a picture of Mother Theresa hanging on the wall, but they don’t worship Mother Theresa. Rather, her image inspires them to be more Christ-like. When viewed from that perspective, a “Christian celebrity” can be an important means to draw the attention of both others toward God.
That said, of course, a Christian’s foray into celebrity is fraught with certain perils.
One obvious danger (especially in our media age) is the temptation to achieve fame quickly, without sacrifice or virtue. That’s why your distinction between true heroic celebrity and pseudo-celebrity is so important.
Another challenge for the Christian celebrity is that some consumers simply hunger for “junk food” media and don’t want to be challenged by heroic celebrity. It’s easier (and more pleasant) to absorb the latest tabloid headline about Kim Kardashian’s sex life than it is to consider a story about Saddleback pastor Rick Warren’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa. The Kardashian story doesn’t force a person to examine his fellow human’s suffering and, by inference, his own responsibility to help alleviate that suffering.
A third challenge has to do with a Christian’s true motivation for acquiring celebrity. Your article mentions Christians “who would aspire to public celebrity.” For a Christian, this aspiration cannot be for its own sake. It comes down to the question: Does a Christian truly want to use their celebrity for the glory of God or do they simply crave the affirmation and attention that they imagine celebrity will bring them? To answer this question honestly requires maturity and a well-developed understanding of one’s self and faith, which Edwards and Whitefield seemed to possess. As you point out, both Edwards and Whitefield were more prepared to responsibly handle their celebrity than others may have been, and perhaps that’s why God bestowed it upon them.
But this raises another interesting question: the distinction between intentionally generating celebrity in an effort to glorify God, or simply recognizing and utilizing it if it happens to be bestowed upon you. It’s kind of like the old chicken-egg question. Which came first? The celebrity itself, which gives the Christian a platform to promote his worldview? Or the intentional effort to generate the celebrity in hopes that it will provide that platform?
Your article does a great job of raising these kinds of questions, which is an invaluable step toward creating a dialogue among Christian culture-makers. This dialogue is crucial in helping Christians negotiate the tension between being faithful and being a celebrity.
The goal of Two Handed Warriors is to foster an ongoing conversation seeking to redefine, re-envision, and then reconstruct the relationship between faith and culture.
Toward that end, I am posting a few responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God from leaders in the Hollywood community in hope it might spur others to join the conversation. (Tomorrow, I will post responses from leaders in educational community.)
They begin with the most congratulatory and move on to the most critical, which is of course where all conversations get interesting.
They raise some important questions both those who build faith and those who create culture, and more importantly, for those who do both.
Read Paparazzi and the thoughts below and then jump into the conversation,
I am no historian, theologian, philosopher, or qualified cultural critic, but your article hit a cord with me. The whole idea of celebrity, pseudo or otherwise, is a fundamental dilemma for our culture in general and certainly for Christians in particular. Well done!
Great article. You cannot help but be humbled by the life of Edwards and Whitefield.
We are indeed…”called to be missionaries in a media‐driven culture. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make that fact go away. To impact our image‐driven generation for the kingdom of God will require entering the fray prayerfully, thoughtfully, and with great excellence.”
My great fear is that we may not now have men who have the humility and virtue needed to be used by God in the way He used Edwards and Whitefield.
I hope you consider composing a shorter version of this call for use in more popular Christian publications (for the less scholarly of us readers).
I very much enjoyed your paper about Edwards and Whitefield and the notoriety they experienced.
I was just looking for a bit more differentiation between God-given celebrity and human-driven celebrity. I just know of too many young Christian actors and writers out here who dream of being famous so they can be used of God, when it’s actually the opposite – letting themselves be used of God might lead to recognition.
I think the threads are all there, but I was looking for a paragraph or so on the last page that made those clear. Your example of C.S. Lewis was well-chosen. This was a man who would have very much preferred his solitude and small circle of friends, but responded humbly when the attention came. Edwards and Whitefield had to have been similar in their approach to obeying God, wherever He led.
The goal of Two Handed Warriors is to foster an ongoing conversation seeking to redefine, re-envision, and then reconstruct the relationship between faith and culture. Toward that end, I am posting a few responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God from leaders in the educational community in hopes that it might spur others to join the conversation. (Tomorrow, I will post responses from leaders in the Hollywood community.)
They raise some important questions both those who build faith and those who create culture, and more importantly, for those who do both.
Please read Paparazzi and jump into the conversation,
This is an interesting and colorful piece that nicely fits the Mars Hill venue. Scholars such as Frank Lambert and Susan O’Brien have pointed to 18th-century evangelicals’ ability to use media and communications productively, though their opponents became pretty expert as well–and there’s the rub.
Your overarching moral–that Christian leaders today should not be quick to dismiss the media, provided a proper perspective is maintained–is well taken. But of course the ability to maintain a balance between being as wise as the serpent and innocent as the dove is, I fear, a razor’s edge that few can walk on without being seriously cut eventually.
Great article! I’ve struggled with this in my own career, and sometimes wonder if being overly concerned about self-promotion has limited my influence for the sake of the gospel. (Have you seen the latest Leadership Journal? It’s theme is ambition in pastoral ministry.) Thanks for fueling that inner conversation.
David A. Ridder
Dean and University Vice-President
Wow! I thought your article was excellent (no, I’m not just saying that to be polite.) Rarely do I read articles that have such an immediate and significant shift in my thinking. I am the kind of person who would not even do very much to promote my own book because I have been uncomfortable with the idea of Christian self-promotion. Nor have I advertized the church I pastor very aggressively for the same reason.
In “one fell swoop” so to speak, your article made me see that as long as I am honestly seeking the glory of God and not just prideful self-promotion, I really should be more engaged in promoting and marketing.
Department of Biblical and Theological Studies
Director of Library Services Crown College
An excellent intersection of Truth with popular culture, without being minimalist: although the Message hasn’t changed, delivery and methodology must change in light of evolving cultural activity.
.WOW. Once again on this journey of faith I find myself confronting my own presuppositions. “Celebrity”, to me, conjures up images of red carpets, impeccable looks, and throngs of fans. Words like power, fame, and influence follow such people. “Celebrity” is therefore something to be avoided among those who follow Jesus as it is indicative of hubris and conceit.
However, you have redefined the word for me and I find my presuppositions changing. Understood differently, Jesus is the ultimate celebrity as he has been “exalted to the highest place.” His influence, fame and power are far beyond that of the most gregarious Hollywood figures. However, his fame and power came from the virtues of surrender and humility as well as the great paradox that ‘death begets life.’ We need not be ashamed, therefore, should “our name be known” for the right reasons.
Given this, I find myself captivated by your brief reference to the celebrities of Hebrews 11 as well. My wife and I recently discussed how we should initiate our children. We’ve decided we are not initiating them as Kapsners, Minnesotans, Bethelites, or Americans – as important as those stories might be. Instead, we want them initiated into the “great stream of eternity” that includes the stories of those who have gone before. Without the celebrities of Hebrews 11, we would know far less of the Eternal Narrative to which we belong. But they are there. They stand. They ask us to enter the story with them. And they beckon us to follow.
Thank you for pointing out the importance of the celebrities of our faith.
I think you’ve done a great job of balancing scholarly and popular appeal. Your research on Whitefield and Edwards appears thorough and reliable, and your writing style is totally engaging and accessible. I think your article was quite refreshing as you asked us to reconceptualize these historic figures as fitting the four-step framework for celebrity. You certainly had me reassessing my perceptions of these characters:)
I’m laughing as I write this, but my self-deprecating, anti-celebrity-seeking Norwegian heritage just won’t let me buy the 2nd half of the article. From the limited perspective I have on Edwards, I thought he delivered the “Sinners/Angry God” sermon in a feeble voice, hunched over the podium, reading the text with little eye contact or enthusiasm. And yet his pathetic performance led to an unprecedented (at least in that place) outpouring of the Spirit with people wailing in the aisles. If celebrity resulted, it was not because of Edwards’ performance, although his written text was certainly persuasive. I guess I’ve read history the same way as those who believe that celebrity is not to be sought. I’ve also watched and written about televangelism enough to think that the godly pursuit of celebrity or, frankly, even the pursuit of leadership, is so often thwarted by Satan preying on our sinful natures that I question whether readers will be able to pursue the preparation for celebrity in noble ways. Could your thesis unwittingly give some readers a license for self-centeredness?
In my Media, Faith & Culture class, I have students read Malcolm Muggeridge’s classic radio address about whether Jesus would have used the mass media. My classes typically conclude that Jesus, who became a celebrity, did not seek celebrity. Rather he often sought time alone with the Father to refocus on his Father’s will, not retool his public relations strategy. They often point out how celebrity earned him many enemies and ultimately death. Will those readers preparing for their time in the spotlight be willing to suffer or die if necessary? Your apparent optimism about celebrity-as-good-thing may be too Hollywood or maybe just too American for readers from the third world church.
Interestingly, when you ask me to reconceptualize modern celebrity and even call ordinary people like me to it, my conscience says no. It could be my own sin nature saying, see…there’s your justification for greatness. I can’t figure out how to embrace the idea with humility because I know myself too well. Thanks for this very revealing reading!
If you want to spark some lively debate, I think this is just the ticket. Curmudgeons (like me?!) could have a field day. I hope all of them think as highly of you as I do.
Assistant professor of Media Communication
Media Communication program Co-chair Taylor University