If a hustler uses a sob story to wheedle a few bucks from an average citizen, the onus usually falls on the fool who allowed himself to be taken. But if one hustler cons another, perhaps the onus should fall on the hustler with the less ambitious tale.
Which brings us to Bampfylde Moore Carew and Rev. George Whitefield, who met in an orchard in Darby in 1739. Both profited from the encounter, but Whitefield probably more so. “[White-field] promoted religion with the same public notice and puffery that others devoted to more mundane products and services,” wrote biographer Harry S. Stout.
When critics condemned his pulpit antics, Whitefield was not too modest to cast himself in the role of Christ, asking, in a paraphrase of John 1:46, “Can any good come out of [Whitefield]?”
Whitefield’s style worked quite well. His emotional evangelism helped spread the First Great Awakening in Great Britain and its North American Colonies. Whitefield’s habit of shouting and sobbing in front of an audience proved so popular that it became a template for many evangelists who came after. (Think: Jimmy Swaggart, weeping in prime time.) Locally, Whitefield’s preaching also helped establish the University of Pennsylvania, which was founded in a building constructed for his revivals. Whitefield’s statue stands today on the Penn campus.
As for Carew, he got only a few pound notes out the deal. The self-described King of the Beggars is perhaps best remembered through his biography, The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, published anonymously in 1745. Described on the title page as “the noted Devonshire stroller and dogstealer,” Carew was the son of Rev. Theodore Carew, rector of Bickley.
Sent at age 12 to Blundell’s School at Tiverton, Carew was a good student—especially in Latin and Greek. According to Carew’s Adventures: “His close application to and delight in his studies gave his friends great hopes that he might one day make a good figure in that honourable profession which his father became so well.”
However, the school also had a pack of hounds. That led the minister’s son to a love of hunting. If not his downfall, it at least determined his career. When the students discovered a deer in the neighborhood, Carew and a few others took the hounds and led a chase. “The chase was very hot and lasted several hours, and they ran the deer many miles,” it was reported in Adventures, “which did a great deal of damage to the fields of corn that were then almost ripe.”
The farmers complained to Blundell’s headmaster, who came down hard on the ringleaders. Carew fled the school and fell in with a band of what Adventures termed “gipseys,” who taught him their ways. From there, he traveled throughout England, playing cons on the wealthy. In this, his good education and family background were assets.
His first recorded scam was on a “Madame Musgrave” in Somerset. She told Carew that she would reward him if he located a cache of money believed to be buried on her property. Apparently using astrology, Carew declared that the treasure was buried under a laurel tree in the garden, but warned the woman to wait until “her planet of good fortune” came to reign at a certain day and hour.
For this advice, Carew was rewarded with 20 guineas, and promptly left town. “The strict regard we pay to truth obliges us to confess that the lady dug below the roots of the laurel tree without finding the hidden treasure,” reported Adventures.
And so it went. Carew developed expertise for disguises, masquerading as a shipwrecked sailor and a clergyman. Once, he defrauded the same man twice in a day. Making a special target of Quakers, Carew “wished that all other sects would imitate them in their readiness to relieve their brethren.”
Even house fires presented opportunity. Carew’s MO was to fly to the scene, learn all the particulars and then adopt himself into the stricken family. “Burning some part of his coat,” said Adventures, “he made the best of his way to places at some distance and, there, passed for one who had been burnt out.”
Eventually, Carew’s notoriety made him a target. Arrested for vagrancy, he was sentenced to be transported to Maryland, where he’d be forced to work for whomever paid his passage.
By 1739, Carew had escaped twice. Disguised as a Quaker, he found himself in Upland, where he spent the night with some fellow believers. The next morning, he set out for Darby. There, he was told, he would find Whitefield, preaching in an orchard.
Born the youngest of seven in Gloucester, England, George White-field also came from a religious family. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been ministers, but Whitefield’s father ran an inn. The inn was a hangout for actors, and the boy became their pupil. But his gifts for mimicry and public speaking were his own. “By the time he got to school, he was immediately given lead roles,” wrote Stout. “So impressive were his performances that his tutor, Daniel Bond, composed dramas especially for him.”
In one, Bond cast him as a girl—a role he’d “often done” before, and did again to perfection. For male actors of the time, playing a woman was considered a supreme test of ability, and young Whitefield had skills.
Though he’d later renounce the theater, Whitefield was once fully immersed in the study of acting. This meant that, while other future clerics were reading the Bible and studying doctrine, Whitefield was—like all actors—studying the passions. In theater, observed Stout, dramatic plots could often be strained and implausible. But that mattered less than how they made the audience feel. “During the time of my being at school, I was very fond of reading plays, and had kept from school for days together to prepare myself for acting in them,” Whitefield later recalled.
Romances and ribald comedies, he confessed, were his “heart’s delight.”
Unfortunately, Whitefield’s father died early, and the family fortunes fell. To recoup its position, his mother determined that her youngest would be a minister like his ancestors. She had Whitefield attend Oxford for free as a servitor.
A servitor was a student, but one with the additional duty of working as a servant to wealthy students. Servitors did laundry, cleaned rooms, and even served at parties. They were ripe for abuse by other students, and the experience seems to have bred in Whitefield a distaste for those who presumed themselves his betters.
At Oxford, Whitefield was a member of the university’s “Holy Club” with other religious enthusiasts like John Wesley, the future founder of Methodism. He underwent a conversion and, thereafter, was outwardly passionate in his faith Whitefield preached his first sermon in Gloucester a week after his ordination. “Instead of doctrine, he explored the feelings of ‘New Birth,’” wrote Stout, “and, through his exploration, invited hearers to experience it for themselves.”
For this, mere words were not enough. Unlike most ministers, who delivered sermons with a scholarly reserve, White-field threw his whole body into it. “The words,” wrote Stout, “were the scaffolding over which the body climbed, stomped, cavorted and kneeled, all in an attempt—as much intuitive as contrived—to startle and completely overtake his listeners.”
Whitefield’s trademark: tears. Always prone to crying in private, he found that public tears proffered a sort of power to win over an audience. It was as if those who saw him were witnessing a New Birth in process. “I hardly ever knew him to go through a sermon without weeping, more or less, and I truly believe his were the tears of sincerity,” wrote Cornelius Winter, his companion and chronicler.
The Anglican establishment was not impressed. A review in a church newspaper described a Whitefield performance this way: “Hark! He talks of a Sensible New Birth. Then, belike, he is in Labour, and the good women around him are come to his assistance. He dilates himself, cries out (and) is at last delivered.”
Whitefield’s sermons drew crowds, but he soon discovered a way to build them still further. “In advance of virtually all his clerical peers, he sensed the potential of the press and exploited it fully,” wrote Stout. “‘Whitefield stories’ began to circulate in print, quickly assuming the status of legend.”
Many, he supplied himself. Whitefield was not above manufacturing controversy for its PR value. When some Anglican clergy denied him the use of their pulpits, Whitefield simply circulated word that he would be there on a certain day. That meant a ready-made, sympathetic crowd to witness his being locked out. This led Whitefield to begin preaching outdoors, which suited his style better anyway.
Whitefield enjoyed his own success, gloating in his journal, after a visit to Bristol, that “multitudes came on foot, and many in coaches a mile without the city, to meet me; and almost all saluted and blessed me as I went along the street.”
In 1739, Whitefield set out on a preaching tour of the Colonies. In Georgia, he’d become an advocate for the re-legalization of slavery—then banned—on the grounds that no plantation could turn a profit without it. In Philadelphia, he befriended Benjamin Franklin, who introduced him to the American media and made Whitefield a guest in his house. But, ever the deist, he demurred at his theology.
Then there was Carew. As the King of the Beggars described it, he found the orchard easily enough. But with such a crowd, he couldn’t get near. A few inquiries revealed where Whitefield was staying. The next morning, Carew was ready.
“He soon drew up a moving petition in the name of John Moore, the son of a clergyman, who had been taken on board The Tiger and carried into the Havana from whence he had got his redemption by means of the governor of Annapolis,” related Adventures, and “that he was in the most deplorable circumstances, having nothing to help himself with, and hoped [Whitefield] would commiserate his condition.”
Carew passed the paper to Whitefield’s young servant, who passed it on and then pointed out Carew to his master.
As the story is told in Adventures, “[Whitefield] kindly said that he was heartily sorry for his misfortunes, but that we were all liable to them, that they
happened by the will of God, and, therefore, it was our duty to submit to them with patience and resignation.”
Then he gave Carew “three or four pounds.” In return, Carew offered his “most lively gratitude.”
Both profited from the exchange. But it was Whitefield—in being presented with yet another opportunity to perform his faith for the multitude—who probably did a little better.