Book Review by Mack Tomlinson
A DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY
(2 vols, 1172p, cloth bound)
E. A. Johnston
Foreword by J. I. Packer
Preface by Richard Owen Roberts
Dr. Daniel L. Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N. C., has said regarding this new definitive biography on the life of George Whitefield: “The time is right for a new biography of George Whitefield, the powerful evangelist of the First Great Awakening. That book has arrived.”
But some scholars and students of the life of Whitefield, the 18th century evangelist, might be tempted to disagree with Akin’s assessment of the need of another biogra phy. After all, there have been a number of high quality biographies already available and in print. One could mention the massive 2 volume biographies by both Luke Tyerman and Arnold Dallimore, as well as the single volumes by John Gilles, and the recent Banner of Truth reprint of the Life & Times of George Whitefield by Robert Philip, first published in 1837. Then there is the wonderful journal of Whitefield, also published by Banner of Truth.
Still, when one gives even a quick perusal of Johnston’s new two volume biography, he quickly feels gratitude that Dr. Johnston has made a valuable contribution to the existing works already written on Whitefield. As Joel Beeke of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary has said, “In this massive biography . . . we find immense stimulation to rekindle the psalmist’s prayer, ‘It is time, Lord, for thee to work.” And David Dockery, president of Union University, describes these two volumes as illuminating and informative . . . an inspiring portrait of the great 18th century evangelist.”
Even If a person has read every biography in print on Whitefield, they will be glad that they took the effort in reading this one for several reasons. First, it is filled with historic and contemporary quotes and antidotes in a very balanced way; second, this biography is written in a way that is full of life and reality, for both the mind and the heart. It is full of life, warm, accurate, and scholarly. Finally, Johnston clearly reveals Whitefield’s faults and does not fall into the trap of giving the reader an unrealistic and purely romantic biography.
It is interesting to note that Dr. Johnston begins volume one with a chapter on Whitefield’s death, probably to show how Whitefield lived his life on the last day he was alive on the earth. As the author states in chapter one, “This aspect and momentous event [his final day and his death] has been paid too little attention by previous biographers, for it marks the end of a preaching ministry that shook several continents and stirred a sleeping church.”
The author provides 27 chapters in volume one, and moves on after the first chapter to deal with numerous areas of the life and ministry of Whitefield, including his birth, his days at Oxford, his ordination and early ministry, his sea journeys and initial itinerant ministry to the state of Georgia in the U. S., the opened and closed doors Whitefield encountered, Whitefield again in America from 1739-1741, the Great Awakening in the N ew England colonies, his triumphs and trials, his relationship with Jonathan Edwa rds, doctrinal divisions, his theology, and his return back to Britain, particularly in Scotland.
Volume two then proceeds through 33 chapters to take up a look at Whitefield’s marriage, the revival at Cambuslang in Scotland, his labors in the midst of various trials, the mob riots and persecutions, his third through seventh visits to America, his very real and ongoing health issues, the death of his wife, his last period of ministry in Great Britain, and then his funeral. The six appendices that conclude the work include Jonathan Edwards’ letter to Whitefield, publications of works by, for, and against Whitefield, noteworthy information on the evangelist, J. I. Packer on Whitefield, a centennial commemoration, and thoughts on the whereabouts of material on Whitefield, plus an extensive primary and secondary bibliography.
One could argue that Johnston depends too much on the numerous quotes he gives from 18th century sources, as well as previous biographers. In my opinion, this is far from the case. Yes, there are numerous quotations cited throughout both volumes, but it only adds to the content and quality of the record Dr. Johnston provides.
This biography is full of life, reality, scholarship, and documentation. It is indeed well worth the time it takes to read, whether for one well acquainted with Whitefield or for the person who has never read a biography on him.
Perhaps the most popular biography on Whitefield currently is the 2 volumes by Arnold Dallimore. But with the publication of Dr. Johnston’s new work, the perspective of Dr. Ted Rendall seems accurate: “Others have written biographies of the herald of the 18th century revival, but Johnston has done his homework and presents new information and insights about Whitefield not included even in Dallimore’s work.” Evangelist Al Whittinghill expresses my sentiments very well about this new biography when he says, “In a wonderful blending of scholarship, passion and careful research, Dr. Johnston sets forth nugget after nugget of insight and information in this remarkable exposition of the man and the preacher, George Whitefield.”
We heartily commend the close and prayerful reading of this monumental work and are thankful for its coming forth to Christ’s church at such a time as this when nations more than ever need true preachers of the everlasting gospel.
– Mack Tomlinson
About the author
E. A. Johnston, Ph.D, D.B.S., is a fellow of the Stephen Olford Institute for Bi blical Preaching and the author of several books , including A Heart Awake: The Authorized Biography of J. S idlow Baxter (Baker, 2005).
Available through bookshops, or from:
Reformation Heritage Books, www.heritagebooks.org,
or direct from Tentmaker Publications