George Whitefield (December 27 [O.S. December 16] 1714 – September 30, 1770), also known as George Whitfield, was an English Anglican preacher who helped spread the Great Awakening in Britain, and especially in the American colonies.
Born in Gloucester, England, he attended Pembroke College, Oxford, where he met the Wesley brothers. He was one of the founders of Methodism and of the evangelical movement generally. In 1740, Whitefield travelled to America where he preached a series of revivals that came to be known as the "Great Awakening". He became perhaps the best-known preacher in Britain and America during the 18th century, and because he traveled through all of the American colonies and drew great crowds and media coverage, he was one of the most widely recognized public figures in colonial America.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Evangelism
- 3 Revival meetings
- 4 Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield
- 5 Travels
- 6 Death
- 7 Relation to other Methodist leaders
- 8 Democracy
- 9 Advocacy of slavery
- 10 Works
- 11 Veneration
- 12 References and sources
- 13 External links
Whitefield was born at the Bell Inn, Southgate Street, Gloucester in England. Whitefield was the 5th son (7th child) of Thomas Whitefield and Elizabeth Edwards who kept an inn at Gloucester. At an early age, he found that he had a passion and talent for acting in the theatre, a passion that he would carry on through the very theatrical re-enactments of Bible stories that he told during his sermons. He was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, and Pembroke College, Oxford.
Because Whitefield came from a poor background, he did not have the means to pay for his tuition. He therefore entered Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of students at Oxford. In return for free tuition, he was assigned as a servant to a number of higher ranked students. His duties included waking them in the morning, helping them bathe, taking out their garbage, carrying their books and even assisting with required written assignments. He was a part of the 'Holy Club' at Oxford University with the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. An illness, as well as Henry Scougal's The Life of God in the Soul of Man influenced him to cry out to the Lord for salvation. Following a religious conversion, he became very passionate for preaching his new-found faith. The Bishop of Gloucester ordained him a deacon.
Whitefield preached his first sermon at St Mary de Crypt Church in his home town of Gloucester a week after his ordination. He had earlier become the leader of the Holy Club at Oxford when the Wesley brothers departed for Georgia. He adopted the practice of Howell Harris of preaching in the open-air at Hanham Mount, near Kingswood, Bristol.
In 1738 he went to Savannah, Georgia, in the American colonies, as parish priest. While there he decided that one of the great needs of the area was an orphan house. He decided this would be his life's work. He returned to England to raise funds, as well as to receive priest's orders. While preparing for his return he preached to large congregations. At the suggestion of friends he preached to the miners of Kingswood, outside Bristol, in the open air. Because he was returning to Georgia he invited John Wesley to take over his Bristol congregations, and to preach in the open-air for the first time at Kingswood and then Blackheath, London.
Whitefield accepted the Church of England's doctrine of predestination but disagreed with the Wesley brothers' views on the doctrine of the Atonement, Arminianism. As a result Whitefield did what his friends hoped he would not do—hand over the entire ministry to John Wesley. Whitefield formed and was the president of the first Methodist conference. But he soon relinquished the position to concentrate on evangelical work.
Three churches were established in England in his name: Bristol, and two churches in London: "Moorfields Tabernacle"; and "Tottenham Court Road Chapel". The society meeting at the second Kingswood School at Kingswood, a town on the eastern edge of Bristol, was eventually also named Whitefield's Tabernacle. Whitefield acted as chaplain to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, and some of his followers joined the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, whose chapels were built by Selina, where a form of Calvinistic Methodism similar to Whitefield's was taught. Many of Selina's chapels were built in the English and Welsh counties, and one was erected in London—Spa Fields Chapel.
In 1739, Whitefield returned to England to raise funds to establish the Bethesda Orphanage, which is the oldest extant charity in North America. On returning to North America in 1740, he preached a series of revivals that came to be known as the Great Awakening of 1740. In 1740 he engaged Moravian Brethren from Georgia to build an orphanage for Negro children on land he had bought in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Following a theological disagreement, he dismissed them but was unable to complete the building, which the Moravians subsequently bought and completed. This now is the Whitefield House in the center of the Moravian settlement of Nazareth.He preached nearly every day for months to large crowds of sometimes several thousand people as he traveled throughout the colonies, especially New England. His journey on horseback from New York City to Charleston was the longest then undertaken in North America by a white man.
Like his contemporary and acquaintance, Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield preached staunchly Calvinist theology that was in line with the "moderate Calvinism" of the Thirty-nine Articles. While explicitly affirming God's sole agency in salvation, Whitefield freely offered the Gospel, saying at the end of his sermons: "Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ."
The Anglican Church did not assign him a pulpit, so he began preaching in parks and fields in England on his own, reaching out to people who normally did not attend church. Like Jonathan Edwards, he developed a style of preaching that elicited emotional responses from his audiences. But Whitefield had charisma, and his voice (which according to many accounts, could be heard over five miles), his small stature, and even his cross-eyed appearance (which some people took as a mark of divine favor) all served to help make him one of the first celebrities in the American colonies.
Thanks to widespread dissemination of print media, perhaps half of all colonists eventually heard about, read about, or read something written by Whitefield. He employed print systematically, sending advance men to put up broadsides and distribute handbills announcing his sermons. He also arranged to have his sermons published. A crowd Whitefield estimated at 30,000 met him in Cambuslang in 1742.
Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield
Benjamin Franklin attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was greatly impressed with Whitefield's ability to deliver a message to such a large group. Franklin had previously dismissed, as an exaggeration, reports of Whitefield preaching to crowds of the order of tens of thousands in England. When listening to Whitefield preaching from the Philadelphia court house, Franklin walked away towards his shop in Market Street until he could no longer hear Whitefield distinctly. He then estimated his distance from Whitefield and calculated the area of a semicircle centred on Whitefield. Allowing two square feet per person he computed that Whitefield could be heard by over thirty thousand people in the open air.
Franklin admired Whitefield as a fellow intellectual but thought Whitefield's plan to run an orphanage in Georgia would lose money. He published several of Whitefield's tracts and was impressed by Whitefield's ability to preach and speak with clarity and enthusiasm to crowds. Franklin was an ecumenist and approved of Whitefield's appeal to members of many denominations, but it is unknown if Franklin was converted. While Franklin did not publicly express conversion, his belief in a personal God is evident in his famous speech at the Constitutional Convention where he recited the verse that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without God's notice; how then could the Constitution convention hope to succeed without God's careful oversight? After one of Whitefield's sermons, Franklin noted the:
A lifelong close friendship developed between the revivalist preacher and the worldly Franklin. Looking beyond their public images, one finds a common charity, humility, and ethical sense embedded in the character of each man. True loyalty based on genuine affection, coupled with a high value placed on friendship, helped their association grow stronger over time.
Whitefield is remembered as one of the first to preach to the enslaved. Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem in his memory after he died. In an age when crossing the Atlantic Ocean was a long and hazardous adventure, he visited America seven times, making thirteen Atlantic crossings in total. It is estimated that throughout his life, he preached more than 18,000 formal sermons, of which seventy-eight have been published In addition to his work in America and England, he made fifteen journeys to Scotland—most famously to the "Preaching Braes" of Cambuslang in 1742—two to Ireland, and one each to Bermuda, Gibraltar, and the Netherlands. He also came to America in 1738 following John Wesley's departure to serve as chaplain to the Georgia colony at Savannah.
Whitefield died in the parsonage of Old South Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, and was buried, according to his wishes, in a crypt under the pulpit of this church. A bust of Whitefield is in the collection of Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery.
It was John Wesley who preached his funeral sermon in London, at Whitefield's request. (Wesley's Journal entry for Nov. 10, 1770)
Relation to other Methodist leaders
In terms of theology, Whitefield, unlike John Wesley, was a supporter of Calvinism. The two differed on eternal election, final perseverance, and sanctification, but were reconciled as friends and co-workers, each going his own way. It is a prevailing misconception that Whitefield was not primarily an organizer like Wesley. However, as Wesleyan historian Rev. Luke Tyerman states, "It is notable that the first Calvinistic Methodist Association was held eighteen months before Wesley held his first Methodist Conference." He was a man of profound experience, which he communicated to audiences with clarity and passion. His patronization by the Countess of Huntingdon reflected this emphasis on practice.
The First Great Awakening democratized religion by redressing the balance of power between the minister and the congregation. Rather than listening demurely to preachers, people groaned and roared in enthusiastic emotion; new divinity schools opened to challenge the hegemony of Yale and Harvard; personal experience became more important than formal education for preachers. Such concepts and habits formed a necessary foundation for the American Revolution.
Advocacy of slavery
In the early 18th century, slavery was outlawed in Georgia. In 1749, George Whitefield campaigned for its legalisation, claiming that the territory would never be prosperous unless farms were able to use slave labor. He began his fourth visit to America in 1751 advocating slavery, viewing its re-legalisation in Georgia as necessary to make his plantation profitable. Partly through his campaigns and written pleas to the Georgia Trustees, it was re-legalised in 1751. Whitefield purchased slaves, who then worked at his Bethesda Orphanage. To help raise money for the orphanage, he also employed slaves at Providence Plantation. Whitefield was known to treat his slaves well; they were reputed to be devoted to him, and he was critical of the abuse of slaves by other owners. When Whitefield died, he bequeathed his slaves to the Countess of Huntingdon. His attitude towards slavery is expressed in a letter to Mr B. written from Bristol 22 March 1751:
Whitefield's sermons were widely reputed to capture his audience's enthusiasm, and many of them as well as his letters and journals were published during his lifetime. He was an excellent orator as well, strong in voice and adept at extemporaneity. His voice was so expressive that people are said to have wept just hearing him allude to "Mesopotamia". His journals, originally intended only for private circulation, were surreptitiously published by Thomas Cooper. This led James Hutton to publish a version with Whitefield's approval. Exuberant and "too apostolical" language resulted in great criticism and his journals ceased publication after 1741. Although Whitefield prepared a new installment in 1744–45, it wasn't published until 1938, and nineteenth century biographies refer to an earlier manuscript. Whitefield published A Short Account of God's Dealings with the Reverend George Whitefield in 1740, which covered his life up to his ordination. In 1747, he published A Further Account of God's Dealings with the Reverend George Whitefield, covering the period from his ordination to his first voyage to Georgia. In 1756, a heavily edited version of his journals and autobiographical accounts was released.
After his death, John Gillies, a Glasgow friend, published a memoir and six volumes of works, comprising three volumes of letters, a volume of tracts, and two volumes of sermons. Another collection of sermons was published just before he left London for the last time in 1769. These were disowned by Whitefield and Gillies, who tried to buy all copies and pulp them. They had been taken down in shorthand, but Whitefield said that they made him say nonsense on occasion. These sermons were included in a nineteenth-century volume, Sermons on Important Subjects, along with the "approved" sermons from the Works. An edition of the journals, in one volume, was edited by William Wale in 1905. This was reprinted with additional material in 1960 by the Banner of Truth Trust. It lacks the Bermuda journal entries found in Gillies biography and the quotes from manuscript journals found in nineteenth century biographies. A comparison of this edition with the original 18th century publications shows numerous omissions—some minor and a few major.
Whitefield also wrote several hymns. In 1739, Charles Wesley composed a hymn, "Hark, how all the welkin rings”. In 1758, Whitefield revised the opening couplet to Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
Whitefield is honored together with Francis Asbury with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on November 15.
References and sources
- Armstrong, John H. Five Great Evangelists: Preachers of Real Revival. Fearn (maybe Hill of Fearn), Tain: Christian Focus Publications, 1997. ISBN 978-1-85792-157-1
- Bormann, Ernest G. Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0-8093-2369-2
- Dallimore, Arnold A. George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival (Volume I). Edinburgh or Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970. ISBN 978-0-85151-026-2
- Dallimore, Arnold A. George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival (Volume II). Edinburgh or Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980. ISBN 978-0-85151-300-3
- Gatiss, Lee (ed.) The Sermons of George Whitefield (2 Volumes)  ISBN 978-0-85190-084-1
- Johnston, E.A. George Whitefield: A Definitive Biography (2 volumes). Stoke-on-Trent: Tentmaker Publications, 2007. ISBN 978-1-901670-76-9
- Gillies, John and Whitefield, George Memoirs of the Rev. George Whitefield: to which is appended an extensive collection of his sermons and other writings: E. Hunt, 1853 (full text online)
- Kenney, William Howland, III. ″Alexander Garden and George Whitefield: The Significance of Revivalism in South Carolina 1738-1741″. The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 71, No. 1 (January 1970), pp. 1–16.
- Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-300-15846-5
- Lambert, Frank. Pedlar in divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-691-03296-2
- Mahaffey, Jerome. Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-932792-88-1
- Mahaffey, Jerome. The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60258-391-7
- Mansfield, Stephen. Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield. Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing (acquired by Sourcebooks), 2001. ISBN 978-1-58182-165-9
- Noll, Mark A. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (2010)
- Philip, Robert. The Life and Times of George Whitefield. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007 (reprint of 1837 edition). ISBN 978-0-85151-960-9
- Reisinger, Ernest. The Founder's Journal, Issue 19/20, Winter/Spring 1995: "What Should We Think Of Evangelism and Calvinism?". Coral Gables?: Founders Ministries.
- Stout, Harry S. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991. ISBN 978-0-8028-0154-8
- Whitefield, George. Journals. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978. ISBN 978-0-85151-147-4
- Whitefield, George, et al. The Works of George Whitefield on CD-ROM (compilation). Weston Rhyn: Quinta Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1-897856-09-3
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: George Whitefield
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- Bust of Whitefield at Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery.
- Biographies, Articles, and Books on Whitefield.
- Lesson plan on George Whitefield and the First Great Awakening
- 59 Sermons by George Whitefield at the 'Asia-Pacific Institute of Biblical Studies (APIBS)' "103 Classic Seremons – Library"
- 38 Sermons by Whitefield at the 'Reformed Sermon' Archive
- George Whitefield's Journals project – Project to publish a complete edition of Whitefield's Journals
- History of Old South at Newburyport, Massachusetts
- George Whitefield preaches to 3000 in Stonehouse Gloucestershire
- George Whitefield at Find a Grave