Preacher’s Best Friend

PreacherPrinterPerhaps it’s because I was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania, or perhaps it’s because everything I’ve ever read about him suggests he was delightfully unorthodox, but whatever the reason, Benjamin Franklin has always held my admiration.  Probably we all like to hear echoes of ourselves in the great.  It is difficult to believe that during his early rise to fame, Franklin was eclipsed by an unlikely superstar who was, of all things, an evangelist.  George Whitefield, an early English Methodist, wowed the colonies with his born again message, perhaps being responsible for its appeal even today.  Randy Petersen’s The Printer and the Preacher explores the unlikely friendship that sprang up between Franklin and the younger Whitefield.  While cataloguing early founders religious lives is always problematic, Franklin was a self-described Deist, and certainly not an Evangelical.  Whitefield was very into the personal relationship with Jesus idea that Franklin found, at best, simplistic.
 
Petersen’s book is a kind of wishful history.  He wants to see Franklin and Whitefield together, often suggesting that they might have met here or there, or that they might have discussed this or that.  The fact is, we have little to go on beyond the reality that the two knew and respected one another.  Whitefield stayed in Franklin’s house in Philadelphia.  Franklin printed and sold Whitefield’s best-seller sermons.  Certainly there was a good business opportunity here.  Even today the evangelical Bible market is a strong one.  Savvy businessmen and women know that a good living may be had from the Good Book.  You can’t read a book like The Printer and the Preacher without thinking that Whitefield and Franklin were a kind of odd couple.  Franklin is remembered as a man of wit and science.  Whitefield is barely remembered at all.  One of the first preachers to hire a publicity manager, Whitefield was the Joel Osteen of his day, raking in the accolades for being emotional in front of salt-of-the-earth colonials.  His oratory skills were legendary.  Even though he is honored as one of the founders of the University of Pennsylvania, he was no scholar and has largely been relegated to an historical footnote.
 
Petersen’s book is a quick read.  His writing is winsome in an evangelical way.  He assumes the truth, or so it appears, of the evangelical position.  Nevertheless, there is material to stop and ponder here.  Many of the questions can never be answered: why, particularly, did Franklin and Whitefield hit it off, for example.  On a more approachable level is the why of Whitefield’s faded flower verses Franklin’s perennial bloom.  The message of Whitefield simply doesn’t stand up to the experience of history.  Human beings—many of them born again—experience constant turmoil in their lives.  Franklin, on the other hand, was the consumate pragmatist.  His aphorisms are regularly mistaken for verses of the Bible.  Although others would have gotten there, we largely have him to think for our harnessing of electricity, and even the birth of a new nation.  Whitefield’s spiritual descendants now rally to prevent stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.  Franklin’s children, illegitimate or not, reap the benefits of the lightning rod.

Had my Phill

One of the pleasures of the editorial occupation is traveling to campuses to meet potential authors. Having no excuse not to go to Philadelphia, I jumped on a train this morning to spend the day on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. I’d been to both campuses before, but they are a study in contrasts. Penn is Ivy League, of course, and the students appear confident and self-assured. Temple is a large, public university situated in a neighborhood that doesn’t exactly inspire the same confidence. The students appear happy enough, but of a rather different ethnic blend. I pondered these differences while waiting for a taxi. I hadn’t realized that PHL Taxi stands for “Prefer Hanging Loose”—after three calls and no vehicle, I had to call another company. To try to save Routledge a few pennies, I had opted for the Days Inn in north Philadelphia. A friend told me over lunch that this part of the city is probably not the safest.

In the taxi we drove through neighborhoods that politicians like to pretend do not exist. The sheer degradation of the buildings, sidewalks, and people was sad. The most common type of building, next to houses (many semi-demolished), is churches. Many of the churches bear their names in Spanish; most have heavy metal chain doors emblazoned with crosses. It seems that maybe Van Helsing would go to church in a place like this. The kind of place where a dead body does not astonish, and the people on the street corners look remarkably cheerful, given the circumstances. The Days Inn is in a more open and commercial area, and I don’t think anyone has actually been murdered in this particular room. On Temple’s campus I saw many signs for Occupy Philly.

Those who think everything is just fine with the ultra-wealthy in their heaven while we expect human beings to live like this are worse than naïve. Those who are privileged look on Occupy Philly with a sense of academic curiosity. Those who live next to poverty, hard up against it, see Occupy Philly as a mandate. We can’t keep pretending that everything is okay. If God has a plan for America, why have so many people been left out? People with more churches per block than any affluent neighborhood desires or supports? The movement may be ill-focused and leaderless, but the need is very real. Tomorrow I go back to Temple, back to where the struggle is often life and death and the need is very human. But for this evening, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” I’m sure you know how the rest of it goes.