The Printer And The Preacher: Ben Franklin, George Whitefield, And The Surprising Friendship That Invented America, by Randy Petersen
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]
This book happens to spring from a worthy idea that I would like to see more often, and that is a comparative biography of sorts about a friendship. In this case, we have a book about the friendship between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield and how their shared interests helped create the identity of the United States of America. This is an intriguing story, and it deserves to be told and also imitated. Despite their differences, the fiery Calvinist preacher and the skeptical theist printer shared some fundamental aspects that made their friendship mutually profitable and also of importance for the United States as a whole. Their shared origin as ambitious commoners who read voraciously and had a deep concern for the legitimacy of the common people, as well as for social morality and responsibility in general, and who never really truly fit in among the elites of England or colonial America, along with their common interests in publicity and celebrity, gave them a striking friendship that began in business and eventually got personal.
The biography itself is in mostly chronological fashion, looking at the parallels between the lives of Franklin and Whitefield. The book looks at family history, religious beliefs, education, romantic love and friendships, travels, business, debates and controversies, and political and social interests, seeing where they aligned and where they differed. In the course of this immensely interesting account the author makes the case that both Franklin and Whitefield in their own way helped forge a unified American identity. Whitefield did it through his heartfelt religious appeals that helped break down the regional and sectarian boundaries that divided many colonial Americans, and many colonies, forging a transdenominational identity among believers that endures to this day in support of a religious and political culture that cut out the middleman, flattened hierarchies, and helped push the colonies towards independence. Franklin served as a linker, building the social infrastructure that built a public society in areas like education, intellectual culture, and a shared sense of personal responsibility and common and united identity.
In reading a book like this, it is hard for a reader not to identify with the striving of the two people from impoverished backgrounds to wealth if uncertain social status. Whether one relates better to the flirtatious and skeptical Franklin, with his moderate enjoyment of vice, or one is more inclined to identify with the passionate and serious-minded religious reformer with his concern for the well-being of orphans and fatherless, as he was fatherless as a child, depends on the particular point of view of the reader. To be sure, there is much that strikes a reader as typically American in both men, even though one was an Englishman who felt most at home in the United States and the other was an American-born man who felt very comfortable in England. The author makes his case about the importance of their friendship through an examination of their letters to each other and to others, their diaries and other writings, and even their accounts of business. The fact that the friendship withstood for decades despite some cool periods, and the fact that both men spoke up in defense of the reputation of the other at key moments was also gratifying to read. Other parts of the book, dealing with the romantic and personal frustrations of both men, were a bit painful to read, as it was clear that both men suffered some damage as a result of their upbringing and life’s troubles that led them to be great social performers who nonetheless kept others at a distance and felt intensely lonely as a result, despite their immense popularity.