By Randy Petersen

Adventures as a History Writer

My agent came to me with a great idea. “Did you know that Ben Franklin and George Whitefield were friends? Somebody should write a book about that.”

If you don’t know the name George Whitefield, you’re not alone. He was the British preacher who captivated the American colonies in the mid-1700s. Historians talk about the Great Awakening, a religious revival that paved the way for the American Revolution. Whitefield (pronounced Whitfield) was its driving force. For a few decades he was probably the most famous person in the colonies, even more notable than Franklin, but the following centuries have not been very attentive to him. One book title calls him “America’s forgotten founding father.”

But I knew Whitefield vaguely from some past writing projects, so my agent’s idea perked my interest. Living in the Philadelphia area most of my life, I knew all about Franklin, but I never knew these two men were friends. I agreed that there might be a story to tell.

Might is the important word there. First I had to dig into history to see whether they did in fact know each other, and how well. Then there was the question of significance. How did their friendship affect anything else they did? Why should we care?

Finding the Connection

I didn’t have to look far to find evidence of the connection. In his autobiography, Franklin devotes several pages to his remembrances of this preacher. This includes a few droll stories about Whitefield’s powerful speaking voice and his ability to raise money. And in that same book, Ben says he once invited George to stay in the Franklin home.

Before he was a statesman or a scientist, Ben Franklin made his living as a printer. This was how he first connected with George Whitefield. There was a huge market for the preacher’s journals, sermons, and autobiography. Franklin kept these in print, and he made a good bit of money on them. Franklin also ran a major newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, where he often reported on the preacher’s appearances.

History has also preserved much of the correspondence of both men, so I was able to find about a dozen letters that passed between them. There are business conversations and personal notes, congratulations, and thanks — as well as Whitefield’s relentless attempts to convert Franklin.

So there was some kind of friendship there, with plenty of angles for me to explore. But was I the one to do it?

Crisis of Confidence

With my agent’s help, I put together a book proposal that highlighted my meager historical credentials. To my surprise and delight, the proposal was accepted.

And then I had a crisis of confidence. The more I read books by historians about either one of these men, the more I worried. I was not really a historian. How could I hope to compete with these experts?

My family gave me good advice: Be who you are. What unique thing could I bring to the table? How could my book be different from the others? That inspired me to do a sort of personal inventory.

I was an experienced writer with an enjoyable style. Some of the historical books I was reading were stuffy, hard to read. My book could be fun.

I was a Philadelphian, with an organic understanding of Franklin, but also a Christian, with an appreciation of Whitefield’s message. Perhaps I could treat both men evenhandedly. Some of the books I read about Whitefield seemed to have a political agenda. I didn’t.

I was also a theater guy. A few years earlier, I got a master’s degree in theater at Villanova University. (At that time, I called it my midlife crisis. Hey, some men buy sports cars. I got a degree, and it proved very valuable.) The strength of the Villanova program is dramaturgy — essentially the study of the cultural history around the theater. There I learned how to research history — and not just facts or events, but historical forces that shaped societies. This became the key to my approach.

Armed with my dramaturgical training, I set about exploring the world around Franklin and Whitefield. I also dug into the background of both men as if I were playing them on stage. What made them tick? This transformed the project for me. Instead of trying to be a historian, I was actually doing work I knew how to do and applying it to these two fascinating men in a way that hadn’t been done before. I got my mojo back.

Lens on History

If you were studying American culture in the twentieth century, you might look at its movies. In its romances and fantasies, comic romps and thrillers, Hollywood has both reflected the values of society and affected them. For the previous 24 centuries, all around the world, theater had that role. So, as I tried to understand the culture that the American colonies inherited from Britain in the 1700s, I looked at the robust theater scene in London at the beginning of that century. Three plays in particular captured my fancy: The Conscious Lovers, a gentle comedy that signaled a return to sexual morals; The Beggar’s Opera, a biting satire that equated the government with common crooks; and The London Merchant, which praised the values of the middle class. As young men, both Franklin and Whitefield stepped into a world that was ready for a revolution in values. Common folks couldn’t trust the high-born to lead the way anymore. In the witticisms of his bestseller, Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin was essentially inventing a middle-class morality of thrift and industry. In his preaching, Whitfield urged all classes of people to claim God’s kingdom for themselves. It was a century of liberation in many forms, and theater had rung the bell.

By the way, young Ben Franklin lived in London for several years in the 1720s, and he attended the theater occasionally. Growing up in England, George Whitefield studied acting in school. Throughout his career, he was known for his dramatic style. (Britain’s best actor was quoted as saying he would pay a great sum to be able to say the word “Oh” like George Whitefield.) Franklin found a different kind of performance in print. He often wrote under assumed identities — Mrs. Silence Dogood, Poor Richard, etc.

In my attempt to use what I knew — dramaturgy — I had stumbled on a buried treasure of insight into these two men. Not only did theater shape and shout the shifting values of their world, but it also gave them strategies to succeed in that world.

Putting Pieces Together

Once I admitted I was not writing as a trained historian, just a researcher and observer, I enjoyed a greater freedom to suggest, wonder, and conjecture.

For instance, I was fascinated by Franklin’s role in the Hemphill affair. A few years before Whitefield came to America, Samuel Hemphill was an associate pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia that Franklin supported and sometimes attended. Hemphill preached in a dramatic style, and he defied some of the conventions of the Presbyterian establishment. For all that, Franklin loved him, and the church leaders had problems with him. There was a church trial and, despite Franklin’s strong objections, Hemphill was sent packing.

Here’s my theory: Franklin saw Whitefield as another Hemphill — another theatrical preacher who challenged the church establishment. This may have given George a head start in winning Ben’s friendship, despite their obvious differences.

It was also fun to trace the paths of these two men through 30 years of meetings and correspondence and to make guesses about the ups and downs of their relationship. Though Whitefield was based in England, he made eight trips to America — and most of those trips included Philadelphia. Following up on the invitation Ben mentioned in his autobiography, we can surmise that Whitefield stayed with the Franklins on some of those visits.

During these decades, Franklin and Whitefield were arguably the most famous people in America. Whitfield preached in every colony, and people flocked to hear him. Thanks to Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin was a renowned author, and thanks to Whitefield-mania, he built a media empire. What would the forces of fame mean to a friendship like this? Perhaps they could understand the pressures on each other as few others could.

I imagined what they might have talked about on cold evenings around Franklin’s stove. The loss of children, which both been experienced. The war against the French, which both of them were very involved in. The innovative marketing methods they both were developing. And we can be sure that the preacher kept pushing the printer to consider his eternal destiny.

Putting It to Bed

I finished the book at five in the morning, after a long night of final adjustments. I suppose most authors think about extra things they could have done — one more trip to the library, one more book to read — and I’m no exception. But in general, I’m pleased with what I did. I wasn’t trying to write a scholarly historical tome. I was simply using all that I could offer to tell a story that needed telling.

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Randy Petersen is the author of The Printer and the Preacher (Nelson, 2015), and has written scores of other books, as well as plays and Bible-study curriculum. He’s active in theater in the Philadelphia area and in his Methodist church.