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"Pedlar in Divinity" : George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770

by Frank Lambert

Buy the book: Frank Lambert.

Release Date: 18 November, 2002

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Frank Lambert.


Lambert Illuminates Whitefield's Enterprise

Frank Lambert's book Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, constitutes an extensive inquiry into how Whitefield "and his associates organized, publicized, and funded the revivals" of the Great Awakening (p. 7). Lambert wants to learn "how Whitefield exploited demand for 'experimental religion,'" which he defined as a faith expressed in a "conversion experience" as opposed to a "subscription to a particular creed" (p. 7). His study augments the nascent ideas of Whitefield's business sense noticed by Harry Stout, greatly expanding them, explaining where Whitefield obtained his marketing saavy, and giving specific examples of how he employed it. In addition to Whitefield's character and dramatic ability, Lambert argues that Whitefield's "innovative use of print to publicize, deliver, and reinforce the gospel" allowed him to generate public interest for his meetings. Lambert explains that Whitefield faced a problem of disseminating his message to an "ever-expanding audience of anonymous strangers, most of he could not reach face-to-face" (p. 3). Whitefield's employment of merchandising techniques distinguished him from his ministerial mentors and contemporaries. Lambert explores Whitefield's relationships with printers and propagandists and his employment of the press through public conflict intended to make news.

Lambert's approach to Whitefield inherently reflects a traditional disdain for sophism, in this case manifest through merchandising and advertising. Lambert analyzes every aspect of Whitefield's enterprise through a lens of suspicion, interpreting his actions in terms of exploitation and self-promotion. His interpretation and perspective are not without warrant. Chapter 4 is sophisticated and insightful, analyzing the interpretive task taken up by Whitefield's audience as they received his message and complicitly adapted it to their own personal circumstances. A fundamental claim Lambert makes is that a "public sphere" emerged for the first time in American history, constituted through the medium of print as Awakening supporters and opponents debated and critiqued the revivals and each other. Lambert maintains that the rise of this public sphere links the Great Awakening to the American revolution "as evangelical experiences with Anglican arbitrariness reinforced fears of imperial tyranny" (p. 10). Lambert's emphasis on print as the central medium for this public sphere contrasts with the theses of Heimert, Stout, Looby and Fliegleman who insist that the oral medium was more critical. Chapters 2 and 3 are especially insightful and well researched. Lambert's claims about the rise of the print industry, public sphere and how Whitefield effectively and ingeniously used these tools are well supported with textual evidence and well written. Lambert displays a depth of research that illuminates the rise of the print industry as it emerged in the context of colonial America and the Great Awakening. In addition, Chapter 6 boldly places Whitefield in context to the emerging American nation in general positing Whitefield as an essential element necessary to the revolution. The work is a must for any serious Great Awakening or Whitefield scholar-not to mention scholars of American History.

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