Great figures and great moments in history are often the subject of considerable (some might say endless) discussion and evaluation, especially by the communities which remember and celebrate their histories. For many Americans, this means looking back upon the Founding Fathers with reverence and respect. For many Christians, such an attitude entails studying the giants of the faith who have gone before us. Randy Petersen’s The Printer and the Preacher: Ben Franklin, George Whitfield, and the Surprising Friendship that Invented America (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015) examines both of these realms of America and American Christianity’s past.
Cast as a biographical religious and political history of early America, The Printer and the Preachers focuses on the oft-neglected friendship between two of the great men of pre-Revolutionary colonial America: Benjamin Franklin and George Whitfield. Though many people know of each man, few are aware of the personal relationship that existed between the (arguably) greatest preacher and greatest renaissance man of colonial America. In what Petersen aptly describes as the first “celebrity relationship” of our young country, Franklin and Whitefield formed a long-lasting friendship which spanned over thirty years and deeply influenced what would become the United States of America.
After introducing Franklin and Whitfield’s friendship and influence, Petersen takes a roughly chronological approach to their lives, tracing their early experiences, their formative years, and the steady development of their work together and friendship. Throughout this narrative, Petersen emphasizes the themes of personal faith and personal responsibility that drove Whitfield and Franklin, respectively, and the manner in which these themes spurred the other man onward and deepened the bonds that held their camaraderie. Especially important for the narrative of The Printer and the Preacher is the lasting mutual influence of each man on the country for which they worked so hard. While this book’s subtitle suggesting that Franklin and Whitfield “invented America” should be understood as hyperbole, Petersen summarily highlights the influence of Franklin, Whitfield, and both men together on the colonies.
While The Printer and the Preacher makes for an interesting read, the overarching impression of this book is somewhat muddled. Petersen’s points and argument are compelling enough, but the framework within which they appear consists mostly of anecdotes and connections between the two men. More storytelling than scholarship, this work frequently lapses into rhetorical questions and musings about the continuing influence of these men in the modern world. There also appears to be a fair amount of revisionary history at work, especially in Whitfield’s apparent emphasis on ecumenically driven personal faith—which was eventually influenced by Franklin’s ideas on self-improvement and good works—over against the ills of old-fashioned denominationalism. With such a view and Whitfield’s alleged influence on the history of American Christianity, it comes as a surprise that American churches have such a long history of division.
For readers of a more historical orientation, Petersen’s account offers a good contextualization of Franklin and Whitfield’s friendship. The end matter will also serve such readers well, especially the timelines of Whitfield and Franklin’s lives, a bibliography of sources, and index of subjects. For general readers interested in the relationship between two great men of early American history, this book will offer much of value and interest. While some of Petersen’s claims must be taken with a historical grain of salt, overall The Printer and the Preacher makes for a fun, informative read.
I received this book from Thomas Nelson in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.