Read the history of American celebrities backwards, and it will look something like this: Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Bono, Oprah, Prince, Cher, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Hendrix, The Beatles, Mickey Mantle, and so on. And if you keep stepping back in history like this, you will eventually bump into America’s first celebrity — George Whitefield, who soon celebrates his 300th birthday.
The then-famous British preacher traveled to the colonies and single-handedly invented what we now call “the American celebrity culture.” Along the way, writes one biographer, Whitefield also invented “the celebrity preacher,” and what we now call “Christian media.”
Ever since Whitefield, the church has wrestled with what to do with her own celebrities. Should we embrace them as gifts from God, or reject them as products of the world? The question has been on the minds of Christians in the United States since before there were United States.
To explore how the church has tried to answer these questions, I recently spoke with the authors of my two favorite Christian biographies of 2014:
- Thomas Kidd, author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale)
- Karen Swallow Prior, author of Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson)
These skilled biographers offer us several lessons we can learn from the lives of a celebrity preacher (George Whitefield, 1714–1770) and a celebrity writer (Hannah More, 1745–1833), helping guide us in thinking through how to properly respond to our Christian celebrities today.
Here are 15 notable takeaways.
1. Expect celebrities.
With almost 200 references to crowds in the Gospels, Whitefield was not the first Christian celebrity. Jesus was the first celebrity preacher in a line extending to Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon and Billy Graham. “If Whitefield lived in a media-driven culture, my heavens, we live an amazingly media-driven world. At some level, I don’t know how we can do without Christian celebrities. So long as our culture values communication, we can expect to have them” (Kidd).
2. Don’t interpret stardom with artificiality.
“We associate celebrity with insincerity a lot of the time” (Kidd). But we shouldn’t assume this, and the gospel-preaching Whitefield is a case in point. If there are celebrity Christians who are later shown to be power-hungry or money-loving fools, that should not cast doubt on the genuineness of all Christian celebrities.
3. Expect to find faults in our stars.
Except for Jesus, all of our stars have faults. For all the things he did right, Whitefield was pro-slavery. On the other hand, Hannah More fought for abolition. But of course she had her own flaws. The point is to see there are flaws in every one of our celebrities and none of them are above accountability. So we refrain from boasting in anyone aside from Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 3:21).
4. Support local churches that can protect celebrity Christians with moral accountability.
It doesn’t always work perfectly, but there’s no reason why a Christian celebrity should exist without accountability to a plurality of elders and congregation in a local church. The New Testament pattern for the local church is sufficiently capable of caring for celebrity Christians. The key is commitment and intentionality. “Celebrity preachers and artists would do well to build in real accountability structures for themselves within their church — and are they actually connected to a church to begin with? Some Christian celebrities today, if you scratch under the surface, are actually not involved with church. That is a serious warning sign” (Kidd).
5. Appreciate how fame is stewarded for gospel advance.
A lot of fame is pure idolatry and man-worship. But fame can be put to good use. Whitefield is a prime example of a gospel preacher who had no qualms about leveraging his notoriety to broadcast the gospel. People threw farming tools aside in their field and ran to hear him preach when rumors of his presence reached them. God gifts a few such preachers with this kind of drawing power to convene a crowd around the gospel.
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SOURCE: Desiring God