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In his 1690 treatise, A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke wrote, “The business of true religion is quite another thing. It is instituted in order to the erecting of an external pomp, nor to the obtaining of ecclesiastical dominion, nor the exercising of compulsive force, but to the regulating of men’s lives, according to the rules of virtue and piety.”[1]  Locke, who was an ardent supporter of toleration, was attempting to elucidate the differences in what he saw as the role of government versus the role of the church in the life of Britons.  “Everyone is orthodox to himself,” he proclaimed.[2

In many ways, revivalism fostered this notion of individual orthodoxy, while also testing the boundaries of British toleration. The religious toleration with which Whitefield was concerned stemmed from seventeenth-century English notions that individuals ought to be able to choose their own church and religious practice without interference by the government.[3]

Like others associated with the early Methodist movement, Whitefield saw schism with the Anglican Church as undesirable, seeing themselves as reformers. In 1733, an article appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine in London, as part of a regular series titled “Civil Power in Matters of Religion.”[4]  The author insisted that individuals should be permitted to embrace doctrinal differences from the Church of England.  The writer was primarily concerned with legislative efforts that were favorable to the Church of England, but Whitefieldian revivalism took that point a step further.

When English missionary George Whitefield’s career began in the late 1730s, he advocated regeneration, itinerancy, and other doctrinal and worship practices that were inconsistent with those of the Church of England into which he was ordained.  Relatively early in his career, Whitefield also advocated arguments made by Pennsylvania New Light Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent that the conversion experience mattered more for the dissemination of religious truth than a minister’s credentials.[5] He interpreted toleration to mean more than just the ability to choose one’s own church and minister, but also to accommodate the doctrinal differences of revivalism while maintaining respectability within the Church of England.  Given revivalism’s emphasis on the conversion experience, it also implied that individuals could function as their own orthodoxies.

Unsurprisingly, Whitefield’s preaching was not well received by the hierarchy of the Church of England.  Even New England Congregationalists like Charles Chauncey challenged Whitefield to explain how he could reconcile views and practices that were inconsistent with the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, particularly the 26th article, which required clergy to be properly educated and sanctioned by the Church.[6]

By the time Whitefield died in September 1770, few of his contemporaries associated him with the Church of England.  He had largely ignored denominationalism in his preaching.  His career had angered influential Anglicans like South Carolina Commissary Alexander Garden, who devoted 10 years to a letter writing campaign to discredit Whitefield, including pleading with the Bishop of London to try Whitefield in ecclesiastical court.[7] British toleration did not come to recognize everyone as his own orthodoxy, but Whitefield’s career and the evangelicalism he helped to popularize tested its limits.

 

About the Author

Jessica M. Parr is a historian who specializes in race and religion in the Early Modern British Atlantic.  She received her Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire at Durham in 2012 and currently teaches at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester and Emmanuel College (Boston).  Her first book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon was published in March 2015 by the University Press of Mississippi.

  


 

[1] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1690).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jessica M. Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (Mississippi, 2015): 18.

[4] “Civil Power in Matters of Religion,” Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 6 (January, 1733): 14.

[5] Gilbert Tennent, On the Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry (1739); Parr: 157.

[6] Parr: 98.

[7] Ibid: 55-56.


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