Richard Hockley: an "infamous base report," November 29, 1740
A letter from Richard Hockley to John Watson in Philadelphia recounts an "Infamous base report" concerning the famous evangelical preacher George Whitefield.1
The letter documents the historical form that sodomitical rumors might take in the American colonies. Though no variant of the term "sodomy" is actually used, the rumor does place Whitefield in intimate relation to another male's "Posteriors." The letter also suggests that the rumor was invented by Whitefield's "enemies" to do him out of his parson's job. The rumor's allegedly originating with a "Servant Maid" introduces the possibility that class and gender-based hostilities lie behind that female servant's report.
In response to a letter from John Watson, Richard Hockley writes back: "You can't think what secret satisfaction I have when I peruse that part of your letter relating to Mr. W[hitefield]." Hockley is pleased that Watson has resolved "to search the Scriptures" and become better acquainted with God's true doctrine, "notwithstanding the Malicious shameful opinions of the World" with respect to the Reverend Whitefield. Referring to those rumors Hockley says:
as Jean in some measure unfold[ed] to you the rise of that most Infamous base report you have heard concerning him [Whitefield] I shall do it as brief as possible thinking it my Duty to clear his Innocence. . . .
Hockley says he would do as much for "every Person that is so falsely judged and truly blameless. . . ." He adds that "When Mr. S________ and Mr. W_______ [Whitefield] went down to Maryland," they and
two or three more went up Stairs and shut the Door in the house they put up at and S_______ being gall'd [blistered] in the Posteriors got one in the room to apply a Plaster or some tallow to the place affected, and this was discovered by a curious Servant Maid in the house that was peeping through the key hole and [was] one of a prostituted Character and Imprudent to the Last degree, who some days after their Departure from thence told this to some of Mr. W________d's Enemies and so cook'd up the story you have heard . . . .
This rumor, says Hockley, had been passed along by someone in his town who had visited Maryland and heard the rumor there. Hockley assures Watson that the story "meets with no Credit here," being understood as "an open scandalous way of using [?] a Parson of his profession." Hockley says, "I thought I would just mention the thing to you as it really is,'' so that Watson "might not be apt to Imbibe any prejudiced Notions" against Whitefield -- and so that Watson "might venture to say with the Prophet of Old on some misrepresentation of the Servants of God 'Their tongues are set on fire with Hell and the Poison of Asps is on their Lips' . . . ." Hockley thinks "it my duty to say this much because Love constrains me to defend" Whitefield. But Hockley would not have Watson imagine that his defense proceeds out of blindness, "from any prejudice or bigoted notions in favor" of Whitefield, "for I hope I know my own heart . . . . " Alluding to the rumor against Whitefield Hockley reminds Watson "how Christ himself and Apostles were villified." Hockley writes that he is "alternately overwhelmed with grief and Joy" concerning Whitefield,
with grief to see so sincere and young a Son of Levi so much abused, with Joy when I reflect for what cause he suffers and that his Master [Jesus] was worst used before him. . . .
Whitefield's Personal Life
The rumor concerning George Whitefield takes on additional interest in light of biographical details supplied in Philip Greven's The Protestant Temperament (1977), a study of childrearing patterns, religious experience, and identity in early America.
Looking back on his youth Whitefield says "I can date some very early act's "of uncleanness" (probably masturbation). He also mentions being "adicted" to "filthy talking," and says he more than once stole money from his mother "to satisfy my sensual appetite" for food.2
As a preacher Whitefield believed that parents should resolve to break their children's wills "thoroughly when young," so that "the work of conversion would be much easier, and they would not be so troubled with perverse children when they are old."3
On his first visit to the American colonies Whitefield publicly denounces the "sinfulness of those amusements" called by others "innocent diversions" (card playing and dancing, for example), which divert one from a full-time preoccupation with God. Whitefield speaks against levity and for an all-pervasive seriousness.4
Whitefield Proposes Marriage
While crossing the Atlantic from England to Georgia, early in 1740, Whitefield proposes marriage to a woman back in the country away from which he is moving. His proposal is worded in such a way as to insure her refusal. He writes to this woman about his fear that love of a wife will compete with his love of God. He declares that he is "free from that foolish passion which the world calls Love." He proposes, he says, "only because I believe it is the will of God that I should alter my state. . . . I would not marry but for Him . . . ."
His marriage proposal duly rejected, Whitefield writes to a male friend that he seeks a woman "dead to everything but JESUS" -- but also qualified to run the orphanage whose founding he is contemplating.5
Love Among Men
Whitefield's letters to male friends, acquaintances, and fellow ministers, says Greven, "abound with expressions of love and affection, brotherly care, and close ties through kinship in Christ." In July 1739, Whitefield writes to a "familiar friend who has been dear to me as my own soul." In November, 1739, he writes to "Brother J.": "Indeed I love you." Says Greven, "All of Whitefield's companions were male, his fellow ministers were male," as were most of his acquaintances.6 This may begin to account for the "infamous" rumor which followed Whitefield from Maryland to Pennsylvania early in the summer of 1740.
Brides of Christ
Whitefield is among those evangelical who think of themselves as "brides of Christ," who consider one's ideal relation to Jesus to be a "marriage." In the early l740s, in a sermon preached in Philadelphia, Whitefield exhorts his listeners to a "marriage" with Jesus, who "offers to espouse all Sinners to himself, and to make them Flesh of his Flesh, and Bone of his Bone. He is willing to be united to you by one Spirit." Whitefield calls: "Come then, my Brethren, come to the Marriage. -- Do not play the Harlot any longer. -- Let this be the Day of your Espousals with Jesus Christ, he only is your lawful Husband." Whitefield, says Greven, "felt himself truly married only to Jesus."7
In November, 1741, the year following the "infamous" rumor, Whitefield married. "His decision," says Greven, "evidently was sudden and unexpected, for his experiences with the prospects of marriage in previous years gave no grounds for expectlng him ever to marry.8
The woman he marries, Whitefield tells a friend, is neither rich . . . nor beautiful," and will not "attempt to hinder me" in God's work.9 The preacher had found, says Greven, "a perfect woman to head his orphanage." Passion, apparently, had nothing to do with Whitefield's marriage. "His own true marriage to Christ continued without the constant seductions of the passions and the flesh that bothered so many other evangelicals."10
Whitefield, says Greven, became "the most charasmatic evangelical preacher of the eighteenth century," as well-known at the time in the American colonies as he was at home in England.
1 Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America. Random House, 1st edition (January 1978), page 380 note 119: Richard Hockley, Letterbook 1737-1742, Manuscript, Haverford College.
2 Greven, pages 55-56.
3 Greven, page 35.
4 Greven, page 145.
5 Greven, pages 138-139
6 Greven, page 139.
7 Greven, page 137.
8 Greven, pages 137, 139.
9 Greven, page 139.
10 Greven, page 140.