Beacon Street Diary blog

Don't miss the upcoming Bulletin

The latest issue of our journal, the Bulletin of the Congregational Library & Archives, is due out in a few weeks. Become a member now to make sure you get your copy. All it takes is an annual contribution of $50, and just $25 for current students.  The upcoming issue of the Bulletin is dedicated to evangelists.

Executive Director Dr. Peggy Bendroth starts it off with, writing, "We know so little of these people and their colorful lives, perhaps because the misdeeds of televangelists have all but ruined the reputation of other gospel preachers. But, as you'll find in this issue, they are worth knowing, people who resisted the easy fashions of their day, famous but not afraid to be unpopular, the ultimate non-conformists in the long history of the Congregational Christian tradition."

The 17th-century revivalist George Whitefield is one of the first to preach outside of church, drawing thousands to his open-air sermons. Art historian Linda Johnson analyzes three portraits of the preacher, showing the progression of Whitefield’s life through art. Discussing a portrait by Joseph Badger, she writes,

"Painted only a few years following his conversion experience, Whitefield's image demonstrates his meditative efforts during an early period of his ministry, where the experience of God was embodied in the bodily "touch" of his left hand "painted" over the physical space of his heart. Once "quickened" by the "flames" of scripture the experience of "seeing" with the eyes of the heart was revealed. This was dependent on the faith of Christ's presence in this moment to apply grace. Badger composed a dark and closed composition suggestive of an intimate moment where Whitefield (like David in the pages he holds before him) "sings" about his personal relationship with God."

Dr. Jessica Parr discusses not a portrait, but a supernatural image of the preacher and explores Whitefield's fascinating life after death:

"An article appeared in 1781, following the burning of New London, Connecticut. It claimed that the ghost of eighteenth-century evangelical preacher George Whitefield had frightened a company of British regulars, led by turncoat Benedict Arnold, "into a burnt offering of all their finery," on threat of damnation."

The Bulletin follows thread of evangelism into the 19th century. Before women were ordained in any mainline denomination, Abigail Roberts preached and helped to found at least fourteen congregations during the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. Marjorie Royle has the story of how the post-Revolutionary political and social climate allowed a woman to become an influential religious figure.

"By the 1840s and 50s, as the Christian Connection and similar groups grew and became more like the established denominations, they became much less open to women's leadership. Abigail Roberts and other women evangelists thus were in the right place at the right time.

Whitefield wouldn't be the last evangelist on Boston Common. As Dr. Bendroth writes, he began a tradition that continues today.

"Other outdoor preachers followed. A few decades later, in 1790, the famous Methodist evangelist Jesse Lee stood on a table and preached to a huge crowd under the "old elm," a tree said to have been standing when the first Puritan settlers arrived in Boston in 1630. The Methodists would not be the last to experience the power and immediacy of religion in the open air. In fact, as Boston grew larger and more diverse, the Common was also becoming prime real estate for anyone with an axe to grind or a soapbox to stand on."

Make sure you get your copy of the Bulletin by donating today. Not sure if you are a current member? Email us or call 617-523-0470 ext. 230.


engraving of George Whitefield by Frederick Halpin (ca. 1870) based on a painting by John Greenwood (ca. 1768)