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Topic: Complementarianism

Side by Side: Complementarity in Ministry with Anne Dutton and George Whitefield

June 18, 2024
By Matthew D. Haste

Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Eikon.

George Whitefield (1714–1770) may have preached the good news of the gospel to more people than anyone before him in history, but on October 29, 1747, he had tragic news to report. From a small town in South Carolina, he penned a heartfelt letter to a dear friend, explaining that her husband’s ship had foundered at sea. There were no survivors. The subject of the letter was a Baptist pastor from rural England who was returning home after raising funds for his church through a preaching tour in the American colonies.[1] The pastor’s wife, Anne Dutton (1692–1765), was now widowed for the second time. Dutton was a valuable contributor to Whitefield’s growing transatlantic network of evangelicals, so the itinerant preacher sought to comfort her, even inviting her to live with his family when they returned to England.[2] Such an offer revealed the depth of their relationship and Whitefield’s personal concern for his friend, who had labored side by side with him in the gospel (cf. Phil. 4:2) in her own unique way.

While Whitefield’s contributions to the Evangelical Awakening are well known,[3] Dutton is perhaps less familiar to modern readers, despite being one of the most published females of the eighteenth century.[4] She authored more than fifty works and published hundreds of letters, demonstrating a combination of theological acumen, spiritual wisdom, and fervent piety that came to be appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic.[5] How did a Baptist pastor’s wife in a remote English village contribute to the evangelistic labors of the most celebrated preacher of her day? This article briefly examines the ministry partnership of George Whitefield and Anne Dutton, noting how it proved to be intentional, consequential, and mutually beneficial.

An Intentional Partnership

Although Dutton believed she possessed a divine call to the ministry of writing, she recognized the unique obstacles a female author faced in the eighteenth century.[6] She published under various pseudonyms and penned an apologia on the subject that demonstrated her circumspect approach to writing as a woman.[7] While affirming that Scripture forbade women from “public authoritative teaching in the church,”[8] she argued that her written works were a form of private instruction that did not violate such prohibitions. As such, her publications followed the biblical precedent of Priscilla’s private instruction to Apollos (alongside her husband in Acts 18:26), and provided a legitimate way for her to edify her brothers and sisters in Christ (in accordance with biblical exhortations such as Romans 14:19).[9] As she assured her readers, her only design in publishing her works was “the glory of God and the good of souls.”[10] Thus, she exhorted her detractors, “Imagine then, my dear friend, when my books come to your houses, that I am come to give you a visit; (for indeed by them I do) . . . . Who knows but the Lord may ordain strength out of the babe’s mouth and give you a visit himself, by so weak a worm, to your strong consolation?”[11]

Whitefield involved women in various ways in his revival work, but as Thomas Kidd has noted, he “never seems to have seriously entertained the possibility of allowing women to assume official pastoral positions.”[12] In Dutton’s case, Whitefield intentionally expanded her influence within his transatlantic network as he grew to trust her as a spiritual guide.[13] To this end, he exhorted her to write to particular individuals and sought appropriate ways to bring her wisdom to a broader audience — such as helping her writings get published in evangelical periodicals and having her letters read aloud at the London Tabernacle.[14]

A Consequential Partnership

Dutton first initiated her correspondence with Whitefield because she desired to express her support after reading the accounts of his early travels.[15] The evangelist grew to appreciate Dutton through her book Walking with God, which became a popular devotional resource among his friends in America.[16] In the subsequent years, Whitefield asked her to correspond with various people associated with his ministry.[17] Through these connections, Dutton exchanged letters of spiritual encouragement with a broad range of individuals, including a bookseller in Scotland, members of an orphan house in Georgia, and a group of converted slaves in South Carolina.[18]

When Whitefield traveled through England in the summer of 1741 to raise funds for his orphan house, he preached at Great Gransden, and the Duttons hosted him in their home. Though they were influenced by the hyper-Calvinist tradition in their early years, their relationship with Whitefield indicates that their application of the doctrines of grace was more in line with Evangelical Calvinism.[19] While many Baptists remained skeptical of the Revival, Benjamin traveled to Wales to partner with Howell Harris (1714–1773) and preached in America alongside Whitefield’s associates.[20] For her part, Anne sided with Whitefield in print by publicly opposing the theology of John Wesley (1703–1791) during the so-called “Free Grace Controversy.”[21] A close reading of Anne’s letters to Wesley demonstrates the correspondence between her theology and that of Whitefield.[22]

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

The letters exchanged between Whitefield and Dutton reflect mutual respect and a desire to encourage one another in their respective ministries.[23] Dutton urged the evangelist, whom she considered the “eminent instrument in this glorious work of reformation,”[24] toward perseverance in his itinerant ministry, envisioning herself as holding up his hands in service to the Lord.[25] In at least one letter, she comforted him in the midst of a particular season of suffering, which may have coincided with the death of his son.[26] In each letter, she reiterated her support of his ministry and affirmed their shared theological convictions.[27]

Whitefield’s confidence in Dutton allowed him to share with her the burdens of his soul.[28] He also prayed for her work and encouraged her to continue her ministry of letter writing. He recognized that enlisting Dutton to correspond with others multiplied his own ministry. As Michael Sciretti summarized, “Faced with the reality of his own incapability to correspond and counsel a growing number of men, women, and children clamoring for his spiritual wisdom, Whitefield viewed Dutton as a worthy substitute.”[29] In this way, their friendship formed a remarkable relationship between a man and a woman for the time.

The ministry partnership of George Whitefield and Anne Dutton was intentional, consequential, and mutually beneficial. Each person contributed to the Evangelical Awakening in a unique way, strengthened by the spiritual bond between them. Whitefield traveled the English-speaking world, preaching to thousands. Dutton lived her entire life within a hundred miles of her birthplace but sent her books abroad.[30] They labored in the gospel together, each seeking to multiply their ministries through biblically appropriate means, and they provide a thoughtful example for the church today.

Matthew D. Haste is Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Biblical Counseling, and Director of Professional Doctoral Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

[1] The pastor was Benjamin Dutton (1691–1747). For more, see Matthew D. Haste, “The Fall and Rise of Benjamin Dutton: An Early Evangelical Narrative of Conversion and Holiness,” Journal of Andrew Fuller Studies, no. 8 (Spring 2024): 27–44. Both Benjamin and his wife wrote spiritual autobiographies that supply details on their life together: Anne Dutton, A Brief Account of the Gracious Dealings of God, with a Poor, Sinful, Unworthy Creature, in Three Parts, in Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton: Eighteenth-Century, British-Baptist, Woman Theologian, vol. 3, Autobiography, ed. JoAnn Ford Watson (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006), 1–251; Benjamin Dutton, The Superaboundings of the Exceeding Riches of God’s Free Grace towards the Chief of the Chief of Sinners (London: J. Hart, 1743).

[2] “This is indeed a heavy stroke,” he wrote, “But omnipotence can enable you to bear it. Now is the time to prove the strength of Jesus Christ.” Letter of condolence from George Whitefield to Mrs. Anne Dutton, October 29, 1747, Huntingdonshire Archives, UK. Whitefield’s letter informing Anne of Benjamin’s death is included with the will of Benjamin Dutton. Whitefield generously closed the letter as follows: “I can only say that if our Lord brings me to England next year, you shall be heartily welcome to live with me. My dear yokefellow joins most cordially in this invitation. I hope you will accept it.”

[3] Key biographical resources on Whitefield include Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale, 2014); Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991); and Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival, 2 vols. (London: Banner of Truth, 1970, 1980).

[4] The majority of Dutton’s works are now available in a seven-volume set: JoAnn Ford Watson, ed., Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton: Eighteenth-Century, British-Baptist, Woman Theologian (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003–2015). Key biographical studies on Dutton include the following: Michael A. G. Haykin, 8 Women of Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 53–65; Michael D. Sciretti Jr., “‘Feed My Lambs’: The Spiritual Direction Ministry of Calvinistic British Baptist Anne Dutton During the Early Years of the Evangelical Revival” (PhD thesis, Baylor University, 2009). See also my work on Dutton in Matthew D. Haste, Helped on Our Way to Heaven: Eighteenth-Century English Baptists on Marriage, Monographs in Baptist History (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2023).

[5] The London publisher John Lewis (d. 1755) said of Dutton, “I believe [she] is as eminent a saint, and as useful a member (in her sphere) in the Church-Militant, as any our Lord has.” John Lewis to Thomas Prince Sr., August 20, 1743, Davis MSS, Massachusetts Historical Society, cited in Sciretti, “Feed My Lambs,” 286.

[6] For more see Helen M. Jones, “A Spiritual Aristocracy: Female Patrons of Religion in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” in The Rise of the Laity in Evangelical Protestantism, ed. Deryck W. Lovegrove (New York: Routledge, 2002), 85.

[7] See Anne Dutton, A Letter to Such of the Servants of Christ, who May have any Scruple about the Lawfulness of Printing Any Thing Written by a Woman (1743), in Watson, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton, 3:253–58.

[8] Dutton, Letter about Lawfulness of Printing by a Woman, 3:254.

[9] In a different letter, she reiterated this point, “No teaching or preaching Christ is forbidden to private Christians but that which peculiarly refers to the ministry of the Gospel, or the public ministration thereof in the church. All other ways of preaching Christ and his truths to all, are duties incumbent upon all believers. And printing, sir, is a private way of saints’ instructing, comforting, and edifying one another.” Anne Dutton, “Letter XVI,” in Watson, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton, 1:125.

[10] Dutton, Letter about Lawfulness of Printing by a Woman, 3:254.

[11] Dutton, Letter about Lawfulness of Printing by a Woman, 3:257.

[12] Kidd, America’s Spiritual Founding Father, 143.

[13] After their first face-to-face visit, Whitefield reported to his colleague Jonathan Barber (1712–1783), “Her conversation is as weighty as her letters.” Barber provided pastoral oversight at Bethesda, the orphan house Whitefield started near Savannah, Georgia. George Whitefield, “Letter 306,” in Letters of George Whitefield: For the Period 17341742 (1771; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 280.

[14] In one letter, after listing various individuals by name, Whitefield concluded, “Pray answer them. I would have your correspondence enlarged.” George Whitefield, “Letter 464,” in Letters, 449. The London Weekly Papers and the monthly “Letter-Days” at the London Tabernacle were each instrumental in supplying revival news from abroad to evangelicals in England.

[15] “When I first heard of you,” she wrote, “. . . my Heart was knit to you; and I could not bear to think that such a dear Servant should be raised up, and such a great Work done in the World by him, without signifying my Heart-Union with the one, and my Joy in the other.” Cited in Sciretti, “Feed My Lambs,” 261.

[16] George Whitefield, “Letter 267,” in Letters, 250. Whitefield mentioned how he and others in South Carolina had benefited from this book.

[17] According to Watson, Dutton wrote at least seven letters to Whitefield and ten letters to his various associates at his request. Watson, introduction to Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton, 1:x.

[18] For the latter, see Anne Dutton, A Letter to the Negroes Lately Converted to Christ in America, in Watson, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton, 5:363.

[19] I explore this issue in a forthcoming volume entitled The Theological Tracts of Anne Dutton (Peterborough, Ontario: H&E, forthcoming).

[20] On Benjamin’s ministry in America, Anne recorded, “His labours in the gospel of Christ, were blest for the edification of the saints, and for the conversion of some sinners, not less than eleven or twelve souls.” Dutton, A Brief Account, 3:240. The money he raised was sent back to Gransden on a separate vessel.

[21] For an overview, see Kidd, America’s Spiritual Founding Father, 78–83.

[22] Anne Dutton, A Letter to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley in Vindication of the Doctrines of Absolute, Unconditional Election, Particular Redemption, Special Vocation, and Final Perseverance (London: John Hart, 1742), in Watson, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton, 1:63. Compare with George Whitefield, “A Letter to John Wesley,” in George Whitefield’s Journals (London: Banner of Truth, 1960), 575.

[23] There are at least five letters from Whitefield addressed to Dutton. In the Banner of Truth reprint of his letters, they are numbered as letter 96, 267, 301, 361, 464 respectively.

[24] This description of Whitefield appears in Anne Dutton, A Caution Against Error, When it Springs up Together with Truth. In a Letter to a Friend, in Watson, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton, 6:205.

[25] Cited in Sciretti, “Feed My Lambs,” 266.

[26] Sciretti, “Feed My Lambs,” 265.

[27] See, for example, her arguments against Wesley’s perfectionism in Anne Dutton, A Letter from Mrs. Anne Dutton to the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, in Watson, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton, 1:4.

[28] Whitefield, “Letter 267,” 250.

[29] Sciretti, “Feed My Lambs,” 259.

[30] She explained her hope for her books in a letter to a friend: “When, therefore, we print books for the use of the saints or reproof of sinners, let us do it just as if we were going to give every one of the persons into whose hands the books may fall a private visit, and to have a little talk with each one by himself in his own private house. And let us pray the Lord to go with us into every place where our books may come, and bless his great Name for the wisdom and goodness of his providence in finding out his way to extend our conversation and usefulness to thousands, which otherwise must necessarily have been limited to a few.” Dutton, “Letter XVI,” 1:125.

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