Ben and George: The Friendship that Invented America

It’s a delightful alchemy that takes geography and the events of historical context, and then blends in the like-mindedness and the variations of two distinct personalities.  Common enough, this is the science of friendship that is traced and recorded by Randy Petersen  in The Printer and the Preacher because, every once in a while, the melding of a friendship has historical impact, a synergy that is greater than the sum of its participants.  Such was the case with George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin, youngest sons of two average, middle class families born nine years apart on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  What were the odds that they would ever have met?  Even so, the crossing of their paths in 1739, with both men’s careers on an upward trajectory, contributed to each man’s individual success story and, Petersen argues effectively, to the shaping of a uniquely American personality and set of values.

So Much Alike . . .

Ben and George were both born to be heard, George with his booming, baritone voice, and Ben with his pen.  If each were alive today, I feel certain that Ben would be writing a successful and widely read blog, and George would be a steady presence on YouTube.  The men shared an iconoclastic disregard for organized religion and spurned the existing class-consciousness of 18th century England and America.  Both became celebrities in their own circles in spite of very humble and ordinary beginnings.  Oddly, both George and Ben were given to “trying on” identities, either to accomplish a purpose (Silence Dogood and her letters to the editor) or to settle their minds on the matter of who they really were.  They had a tendency to control their own circle of community by joining or creating groups to ward off loneliness, and both made very pragmatic and, by today’s standards, very unromantic marriages.

   . . . and Yet So Different

In spite of George’s usually subtle but occasionally overt evangelistic efforts, Ben Franklin held firm to a theology that made no room for biblical conversion or for God the Son.  “The fanatic and the skeptic” found their common ground on opposite sides of the publicity blow-gun:  “Franklin was a newspaper man and Whitefield was news.”  Franklin, ever the student, was an inventor and an analyst in science, in public policy, and in his community.  He was a word-smith.  George Whitefield, on the other hand, was all about the delivery of a simple salvation message and was frequently criticized for the careless scholarship behind his sermons.

Historical Context

As fascinating as the individual lives of the printer and the preacher are, Randy Petersen’s work of re-assembling the backdrop of the stage on which these two 18th-century celebrities performed is, in my opinion, the most compelling feature of this book.  He demonstrates with rich and colorful detail how music, theatre, education, and the cultural mores of Ben and George’s era were impacted by the gravitational pull of religious and theological trends that were elbowing their way to prominence.  He lists and thumbnails books that influenced the prevailing culture and shares juicy details about the faith and foibles of Ben and George’s prominent contemporaries such as the Wesley boys and Jonathan Edwards.

A Twenty-Year Collaboration

By printing George Whitefield’s sermons and publicizing his speaking schedule in his newspaper, Ben Franklin promoted George in his role as the driving force behind America’s Great Awakening.  Since Whitefield was a colorful and flamboyant character with a powerful message, Ben Franklin made a substantial living from printing religious materials and was, therefore, in a financial position to be influential in colonial society and to retire from printing with sufficient funds to pursue his interests in science and public service.

Petersen offers three time-line style appendices that provide a concise record of his subjects’ travels, their accomplishments, and their infrequent face-to-face encounters.  He has served up a treat to delight the history buff, the theology geek, and the lover of biographies.  Then, for our soul’s sake, we see, lived out in two well-documented lives, the wisdom of hard work and good decisions and the hollow emptiness of a life devoted to self-interest apart from a lively faith.  One is lured into Solomonic musings about irony with the endings of George’s and Ben’s lives, for the godly preacher dies young and sickly while the skeptical skirt chaser lives on into old age and wider influence.  Benjamin Franklin may have summed this up with one of his pithy statements:  “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes,” but Whitefield knew a better proverb:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding,” Proverbs 9:10.

This book was provided by Thomas Nelson through BookLookBloggers in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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