Billed as a “groundbreaking look” at the friendship between the preacher George Whitfield and the printer (and anything else he wanted to be) Benjamin Franklin. The publisher goes on to say that this relationship “defined what it means to be an American.”
Petersen introduces Franklin and Whitfield in a chronological matter. He traces their early and formative years in a parallel matter, showing how their lives were similar even though they were an ocean apart. For Petersen, there are recurring themes in the lives of these two men: personal faith and personal responsibility.
Whitfield, the prominent evangelist, preaching in unorthodox matters, and Franklin, the statesmen, who valued science and philosophy over organized religion seem to be strange bedfellows. Despite these clear differences, the two men held a high respect for each other. Petersen highlights how the two men needed each other in order to be successful. Franklin’s printing of Whitfield’s sermons were profitable. Whitfield was able to build and open an orphanage in Georgie due to the influence of Franklin, both personal and in print.
While Peterson’s writing is compelling and interesting, the overall impression the reader has for the book is blurred by the intensity to highlight how the two men’s lives paralleled each other. This frame of going from Franklin to Whitfield and back again has the potential of losing the reader. The subtitle of the book touts “the surprising friendship that invented America” is never quite met. In the midst of the history about the men individually and when they crossed paths, there seems to only be rhetorical questions and ponderings about what might have been.
There also seems to be a tendency to make George Whitfield out as the hero, and Ben Franklin as the close friend who is on the border of being lost. Whitfield must save Franklin from himself. The repeated use of Whitfield’s preaching to be “born again,” while pointing out that Franklin refuses to do so, clouds the reported intent of the book. To the point, in fact, that it seems this is Petersen’s true purpose for this book: Whitfield’s many attempts to convert Ben Franklin.
For those who are looking for a brief, easy to get to, history of these two men, Petersen’s account will get you there. There is additional material at the back of the book including timelines for both men’s lives, a bibliography, and index of subjects, which the history-reader may find helpful. Keep in mind, however, that some of Petersen’s claims should not be taken too seriously.
I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.