“The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people,” James Fenimore Cooper wrote in The American Democrat, an 1838 political pamphlet long dismissed as a screed. But it’s relevant today for pretty obvious reasons. The word “demagogue” falls easily from the lips of politicians, pundits, and historians, often to provide Donald Trump’s harangues with a usable American and mainly masculine past—and perhaps to palliate the alarm with which we hear them. He’s no outlier, it’s suggested, and besides we’ve survived the other demagogues with whom he’s compared: Andrew Jackson (a comparison Trump relishes), Andrew Johnson, George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, and even William Jennings Bryan, who might be considered far more of a populist than a demagogue.* (The Populists sprang up in the Midwest and South during the 1880s and 1890s to protest economic inequality, corporations, and “the money power.” Bryan ran for president on both the Democratic and the Populist tickets in 1896, though such distinctions—populist, demagogue, populist demagogue—often get lost in the current political climate.)
Unsurprisingly, then, J.D. Dickey’s American Demagogue: The Great Awakening and the Rise and Fall of Populism invokes both demagoguery and populism in its title and spends a good part of its introduction on Trump: his rallies and rants, his attacks on minorities and critics, his infantile slogans and invective, his condemnation of “elites,” his conspiracy theories. “To his opponents,” Dickey writes, “Trump is such an ideal example of a demagogue that it stands as a wonder he does not read or study history, since so much of what makes him typical of demagoguery has appeared again and again in the annals of American life.”
Demagogues were “present in American public life even before there was an America,” Dickey observes, referring to his main subject, the evangelical ministers, particularly the Englishman George Whitefield, who crisscrossed America and helped spawn the religious revivals known as the Great Awakening that spread throughout Britain and America in the mid-eighteenth century. Trump then vanishes from Dickey’s pages, not to surface again until his fleeting appearance in the postscript, for Dickey’s subject isn’t really Trump or demagoguery per se. Rather, he tells us in graceful prose how eighteenth-century American evangelists held their audiences spellbound with invective, histrionics, bellicosity, and divisiveness—the same techniques employed by one demagogue after another.
The frightening specter of demagoguery notwithstanding, Dickey can be quite sympathetic to these evangelists. For while Whitefield could easily be identified as a demagogue, Dickey prefers to hedge a bit, admiring, it seems, Whitefield’s persistence and even at times his methods. For one thing, he was an adroit marketer: “What an angry tweet is to the 21st century, an angry pamphlet was to the 18th,” Dickey observes, “a method of mass communication that enabled the demagogue to target his audience in the quickest and most effective fashion.” It was an age of newspapers, published sermons, broadsides, and books as well as increased literacy, and Whitefield knew how to take advantage of them. He published his journals and issued his sermons in serial form, and by 1741 he had rocketed to international fame.
Whitefield was born in 1714 in Gloucester, England; his innkeeper father died when he was two, and his mother arranged for him to attend Pembroke College, Oxford, tuition-free, working as a servant to the college’s far wealthier fellows. At Oxford, he met John and Charles Wesley, members of a small religious group, and he was deeply influenced by Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. “True religion is an union of the soul with God,” Scougal proclaimed—a phrase Whitefield said tore right into his soul. To obtain such a union, Whitefield fasted until he almost died, but he was rewarded with the transformational experience—the conversion—he had so desperately sought.
Calling it the “New Birth,” he was soon encouraging his parishioners (he was ordained in the Church of England in 1736) to let God’s grace convert them too. They needed no intercessors: God could change you, directly, if you allowed his grace to enter. But Whitefield, a Calvinist to the core, also believed that all of us are sinners and salvation is preordained; no matter the number of one’s good works, God had already chosen the Elect, who would sit with him at his table. Still, he sincerely preached a “religion of the heart,” as Dickey describes it, “in its full convulsive, cataclysmic power, offering the promise of salvation to sinners, showing the fire of Christianity.”
Whitefield preached wherever and whenever the spirit moved him; no church, not even the Church of England, could confine him. Dubbed the “Grand Itinerant,” he delivered his sermons “without doors,” as he said, in marketplaces and meadows; his listeners often perched in treetops to hear the magnetic young man with the round face and lazy left eye. (Detractors would later baptize him “Dr. Squintum.”) Creating a commotion throughout Britain, he spoke off the cuff, delivering homilies with drama and emotion. “His eloquence had a wonderful power over the hearts and purses of his hearers, of which I myself was an instance,” Benjamin Franklin recalled. Newspapers claimed that about a million Britons heard him speak during the summer of 1739 alone. “His popularity is chiefly owing to the peculiarity of his manner,” Samuel Johnson wryly commented. “He would be followed by crowds were he to wear a night-cap in the pulpit.” And when he decided to return to America in 1739 (he had been there briefly in 1738) for a fifteen-month tour, his reputation amply preceded him.
It preceded him because he and a friend, William Seward, a stockjobber turned Whitefield’s publicist, shamelessly promoted him, supplying inflated accounts of his crowd sizes and reporting how he mesmerized thousands with his blistering rhetoric and tearful appeals. In 1739 Whitefield stood on the courthouse steps in Philadelphia, where he acted out the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. First impersonating the voice of Abraham, commanded by God to kill his son, Whitefield then became Isaac, brimming with fear, and then Abraham again, raising a knife (imaginary) before he again transformed himself, this time into God’s angel, who spared the boy and praised the God-loving father. The crowd went wild.
He preached to a throng of 15,000 on the Boston Common, and at one local meetinghouse so many people had jammed inside that when a floorboard splintered, the crowd panicked. People jumped from the galleries and windows. By the time Whitefield arrived, five were dead. The Grand Itinerant looked about, blamed the devil for the catastrophe, and decided to preach anyway, outdoors in the cold rain. “God was pleased to give me presence of mind,” he explained.
Whitefield’s career was also boosted by none other than the indefatigable Franklin, who, though an avowed deist, shrewdly arranged to become the primary publisher of Whitefield’s journals as well as to print his sermons in his Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin had been publishing news and opinion pieces about Whitefield and placed him on the cover eight times, and while he was no convert, he appreciated Whitefield’s persistence, his unpretentiousness, and his apparent piety. Franklin preferred ethical behavior, virtue, and charity to organized religion. “A virtuous heretic shall be saved,” he would write, “before a wicked Christian.” But when Whitefield claimed that the legendary Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson “knew no more of true Christianity than Mahomet” and mocked the deceased theologian’s praise of reason, wisdom, good moral conduct, and good works, Franklin hesitated. Franklin had admired Tillotson’s reasonableness. But according to Dickey, he published Whitefield’s anti-Tillotson diatribes because it was good business and put one of the anti-Tillotson articles on the front page of the Gazette. Soon after, he bound the tracts together in a single, sensational volume. It sold well.
The irascible Grand Itinerant was taking on the Church of England, which only stirred more controversy and sold more newspapers. He was also attacking Presbyterians and Quakers, branding the latter as “bigoted, self-righteous.” Criticism of him grew, and many of his former friends denounced him as an ignorant, overzealous prophet and rabid “enthusiast”—i.e., a fanatic. “He is a very wretched divine,” said an Anglican layman who heard Whitefield preach in Maryland. “If he is sincere, he certainly is a violent enthusiast. If not, he is a most vain and arrogant hypocrite.” Denunciation exhilarated Whitefield. “The more I am opposed, the more joy I feel,” he cried, and railed even more, particularly against the clerics who dared disparage him. “The reason why Congregations have been so dead,” he said, “is because dead Men preach to them.”
Whitefield had read Jonathan Edwards’s Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), which documented the revival in 1734–1735 among the congregants of Northampton, Massachusetts. Though no showman, Edwards had nevertheless galvanized his parishioners when he invoked the horrors of hellfire to warn them about the wages of their sinful behavior. But recently Edwards had been concerned that these parishioners had fallen back into their sinful ways and that the revival he’d inspired had had no lasting effect. Hoping that Whitefield could revitalize them, he welcomed the English preacher to Northampton. Whitefield impressed Edwards, but when he attacked so-called unconverted ministers as insufficiently spiritual, Edwards mildly pushed back. “Mr. Whitefield liked me not so well,” Edwards later noted, “for my opposing these things.” Lest his congregants worship the messenger rather than the message, he began to sermonize against blindly following self-promoting preachers and to teach, as he said, “the difference between what is spiritual and what is merely imaginary.”
Edwards’s criticism of Whitefield was balmy compared to the hostility from other quarters. The Reverend Alexander Garden of Charles Town, South Carolina, described Whitefield’s sermons as “a medley of truth and falsehood, sense and nonsense, served up with pride and virulence, and other like saucy ingredients.” Whitefield was denounced as a “pedlar of divinity”; it was said that he brought chaos to America. “The country was never in a more critical state, and how things will finally turn out, God only knows,” said the liberal Reverend Charles Chauncy of Boston’s First Church. Initially moved by the religious revival, Chauncy now thought Whitefield twisted the words of God to whip parishioners into hysterical frenzies and cause dissension in the churches. Chauncy visited meetinghouse after meetinghouse throughout New England and the Middle Colonies to document the revival’s
strange effects upon the body, such as swooning away and falling to the ground…bitter shriekings and screamings; convulsion-like tremblings and agitations, strugglings and tumblings, which, in some instances, have been attended with indecencies I shan’t mention.
Though respectful, Dickey appears less impressed by skeptics such as Chauncy than by Whitefield’s presumed sincerity—and by other radical American evangelists whose exploits, or antics, he recounts at length in “Sons,” the second section of his book. Andrew Croswell would enter churches other than his own, rip off his shirt in a frenzy, and lead the parishioners, singing and crying, outside into the street. Dickey sees Croswell as a proto-American revolutionary who preached that “Americans live in a freer air, more generally taste the sweets of liberty, and being nearer an equality of birth and wealth…they are generally more knowing than the common people of Europe.” Moreover, in addition to denouncing British authority, Croswell throughout his career condemned slavery and the slave trade, corporal punishment, and the cruelties of the penal system.
Croswell had been captivated by James Davenport, who could preach for twenty-four hours straight, gesticulating and ranting. Davenport was also notorious for denouncing any minister who denied him entrance to his church, declaring that parishioners should sooner drink rat poison than listen to these unconverted miscreants. Spurred by his inflammatory visit to New Haven, some students at Yale castigated their tutors as irreligious stooges, and some walked out. The rector had to close down the school for two months.
When Connecticut passed an anti-itinerant law, Davenport ignored it. Charged with disturbing the peace and inciting havoc, he was deported from the colony. Undaunted, in the summer of 1742 he tore into Boston, where he led mobs of people through the streets. “It is impossible to relate the convulsions into which the whole country is thrown by a set of enthusiasts that strole about haranguing the admiring vulgar in extempore nonsense,” a Salem minister declared, “nor is it confined to these only, for men, women, children, servants and Negroes are now become (as they phrase it) exhorters.” Davenport was again arrested, declared insane at his trial, and expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But he returned to Connecticut the following year to organize a church of New London separatists. God then spoke to him with instructions to purge his followers of their finery—wigs and jewels—in a huge bonfire. A few days later, he organized a burning of books inspired by the devil, like those of Increase Mather and Charles Chauncy. The next day, another fire: Davenport insisted that his parishioners torch their clothes—laces and collars and velvet cloaks—but when he joined them, taking off his pants and tossing them onto the pyre, even his allies turned away.
Yet Dickey claims that evangelists like Whitefield, Davenport, and Croswell inspired
the masses in all their ragged and untamed emotion, in all their heady spirits and unlearned ways…. With their visions and prophecies, their outbursts and exhortations, they were changing the face of the revival, seizing it from the men of the cloth without mercy or permission.
Because those who had experienced the New Birth could speak of their direct communion with God, they could potentially create “dissenting” religious denominations of their own.
These leaders included women. One was Sarah Osborn of Newport, Rhode Island, who managed to encourage a revival there in spite of, or perhaps because of, the many hardships she had faced: bankruptcy, the death of her only son at age eleven, the infirmity of her husband, and the care of a household that included a stepson, his wife, and five step-grandchildren. In 1765, when a number of free blacks asked Osborn if they could use her home to pray, she arranged a series of prayer meetings that soon became so popular with slaves, freedmen, and women—around seventy people in all—that they became almost daily occurrences. Teenagers, women, white and black children, as well as heads of families came to hear Osborn speak of God’s grace.
By the following summer, about five hundred people a week were meeting in her home. And when she and her congregants helped secure for Samuel Hopkins the pulpit of Newport’s First Church, Hopkins too opened his door to free and enslaved blacks. With the more liberal Reverend Ezra Stiles of the Second Congregational Church, he helped raise funds to send two young black men, John Quamino and Bristol Yamma, to the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton). “Perhaps only an extreme Calvinist could have been brave enough in 1776 to aim an antislavery sermon to a group of revolutionaries that included many slave owners,” Dickey writes.
That Osborn and Hopkins were the “willing agents” of the black crusade against slavery suggests one of the unintended consequences of the Great Awakening, according to Dickey. Whitefield, however, owned slaves. Evidently rationalizing, Dickey quickly points out that Franklin had owned at least two slaves earlier in his life. But over time Franklin’s view of slavery changed. In 1787 he became president of the Philadelphia Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and just before his death petitioned Congress to abolish slavery altogether. Whitefield was a different matter. Though he had advocated for the benevolent treatment of the enslaved (teaching them the gospel), he also insisted that converting them did not imply granting them freedom.
Whitefield had first arrived in South Carolina just after the so-called Stono Rebellion of 1739, when about one hundred slaves near Charles Town killed twenty whites. A hastily dispatched militia captured and executed them, then stuck their heads on pikes along the road as a warning to other would-be rebels. Whitefield was accused of indirectly fomenting slave uprisings, but as Dickey sharply notes, “the Grand Itinerant had no interest whatsoever in leading slave rebellions and, if anything, was even more frightened of black people than other revivalists.” In fact, Whitefield went so far as to argue that slavery should be legalized in Georgia (it was banned at the time) to bolster the colony’s economy, and even before legalization, he acquired slaves to work in the orphanage he’d established there.
But as Dickey also observes, Whitefield “had only a dim understanding of the force of the energy he wielded.” That theme is crucial to the book’s third section, “Spirits,” which advances yet another unintended consequence of the revivals: that they were an essential ingredient in the colonists’ separation from Great Britain. Hostile to American evangelicals and their defiance of the Church of England, the clerics of Great Britain had inadvertently managed to bring together the contending sects of American Protestants, who adopted the aggressive rhetoric of the evangelicals to protest English tyranny. What’s more, Dickey contends that the “common people” fought vigorously against the British because they conceived the struggle “in a cosmic, often apocalyptic light.”
In this, Dickey is influenced by Alan Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind (1966), in which Heimert claimed, controversially at the time, that evangelical religion provided pre-revolutionary Americans with a radical political ideology. Dickey also largely embraces Thomas S. Kidd’s nuanced God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (2010), which argues that the decisive legacy of revivalism is the spirit of religious freedom—but how much that spirit led directly to the American Revolution is a complicated question. For if various evangelicals were linked by a common enemy, it’s also true that not all evangelicals were patriots, and vice versa.
Still, for Dickey, the revivals were a dress rehearsal for revolution; they fostered a democratic revolt against privilege throughout the colonies, despite regional or doctrinal differences, though none of this is remotely true for the way Native American religions or Catholicism was perceived. “We have not only a right to think for ourselves in matters of religion, but to act for ourselves also,” Dickey quotes Reverend Jonathan Mayhew. “Nor has any man whatever, whether of a civil or sacred character, any authority to control us.” Not an evangelist himself, Mayhew had apparently been influenced mightily by them, in his mounting of publicity campaigns and the very passion with which he spurned corruption, tyranny, and abuse of power.
Further, both radical and moderate revivalists employed the incendiary rhetoric pioneered by Whitefield in their crusade for political rights and ultimately an America independent of British rule. And referring to the unblemished, twenty-five-year friendship between Whitefield and Franklin, Dickey broadly notes that while these men may not have agreed about religion, they both distrusted traditions, institutions, and hierarchies. It’s a sweeping claim, to be sure, but certainly mass printing and marketing were crucial to fomenting the religious awakening: books, sermons, broadsides, and letters circulated the rhetoric of revival throughout the colonies and Great Britain.
There was an insurgency afoot, one that combined commercialism, literacy, religion, and politics. Consider Samuel Adams, apparently “a student of the new revivalists,” whose revolutionary fervor Dickey links to the rhetoric of the evangelicals and whose flair for mass communication he also learned from them. Surely such comparisons—particularly of rhetoric, imagery, range of associations and gender biases, and the way Scripture is made demotic—deserve more analysis. This is all the more interesting since Adams was trained at Harvard, as was Croswell, Davenport at Yale, and Whitefield at Oxford. They were not the unlettered crowd—far from it.
A masterful synthesizer of secondary scholarship, Dickey ends his book with a postscript that turns our attention back to the matter of populism, his real subject (not demagoguery or Donald Trump). As he wrote in the first pages of his book, his intention has been to “explain the Great Awakening through the lens of populism.” Stoked often by resentment at a status quo regarded as hidebound, elitist, or institutionalist, populism encompasses ideologies of the right as well as the left, though Dickey highlights the salutary implications. For whatever its excesses, the particular brand of revivalist populism he chronicles may resonate today: it welcomed women as well as men, the free and the enslaved; it helped to motivate the antislavery ministry of Samuel Hopkins, which eventually radiated outward; and blacks and Native Americans served as deacons or agents (though they were seldom considered free or equal).
Most crucially, it challenged authority—ultimately British authority. Citing Bryan as the nineteenth-century heir of George Whitefield, and then briefly touching on Patrick Henry, Andrew Jackson, and Charles Grandison Finney, the antislavery evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, Dickey suggests in rapid-fire exhortation—perhaps evangelizing himself—that the Great Awakening was a popular and inclusive uprising spearheaded by Whitefield and his apparent demagoguery but by no means confined by them. And that uprising presumably made Americans of us all.
See, for instance, Daniel Howe, “The Nineteenth-Century Trump,” NYR Daily, June 27, 2017; Jelani Cobb, “The Model for Donald Trump’s Media Relations Is Joseph McCarthy,” The New Yorker, September 22, 2016; Tim Reuter, “Before Trump, There Was William Jennings Bryan,” Forbes, June 20, 2016; Daniel Klinghard, “Forget Hitler: Trump Is the New William Jennings Bryan,” US News and World Report, March 4, 2016; and Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman, “95,000 Words, Many of Them Ominous, from Donald Trump’s Tongue,” The New York Times, December 5, 2015. ↩