George Whitefield (1714-1770) was known as the “Apostle of the British Empire”. Although very popular in England, his main claim to fame was his revival work and preaching tours he brought to colonial America. He was considered the greatest preacher of the 18th century and is believed to have preached to over 10 million people.
George grew up in Gloucester England where his parents ran a lodging house or inn. As a young boy Whitefield was an avid reader and would frequently give dramatic readings of plays to the guests of his parents lodging after dinner. When George’s father died, his mother struggled to stay afloat financially and George convinced her that he should drop out of school to help with the family business. She allowed this but George continued to study on his own. In this period he became interested in the Bible which he read quite voraciously.
Soon a paying guest at their inn met George and told him that going to Oxford would be possible as he had worked his way through school without large financial resources. George was convinced he should do this and went back and completed school so he could qualify to attend college.
It was while he was attending Oxford that he fell in with John and Charles Wesley the founders of the Methodists. During this period Whitefield experiences a Christian conversion and following college sets forth to the new world to be a missionary in the colony of Georgia with John Wesley.
As he was preparing to go he spends three months preaching in London churches and finds that whenever he preaches he attracts a crowd and they enthusiastically respond to his preaching. His method of preaching was hardly conventional. He wouldn’t read from notes which was the common way of preaching in the day, but rather acted out his sermons often playing the part of biblical characters with great animation. His voice would rise and fall with expression of great emotion and like a professional actor he would completely memorize all of his remarks.
Although he went to Georgia and did start a missionary orphanage there, Whitefield found the living situation too difficult in this primitive colony and returned to London to resume his preaching career.
Although well-received by the people, Whitefield was held suspect by the clergy and soon found churches no longer open to him. From that point forward he began the open air preaching which became his stock and trade.
1739 saw the first of his preaching tours of America. Whitefield went to Philadelphia and preached in the open air as no church in that time could hold a crowd of 8000 people. Crowds of that size were noted for being so boisterous, but when he began to preach people literally listened in silence. His effect upon them was mesmerizing and electric. Ben Franklin said even the way he said “Mesopotamia” made him tear up.
He was slender, handsome in appearance, but also cross-eyed. In the day, this was not considered a handicap but actually a sign of genius. Part of what caused the ire of more established ministers is that Whitefield did things like advertise his meetings. He was directly going above the heads of the churches to get an audience with their people. Such procedures and use of media are common today but were completely unheard of in the day.
Doctrinally speaking he was a Calvinist and believed conversion began with a sovereign act of God. He urged conversion, but unlike evangelists like John Wesley and ones who would follow, Whitefield did not deliver an altar call. “Repent and come to Jesus” and “ I know the Lord is bringing some to salvation here today” were about as close as you would hear him come to a call to conversion.
He ended this tour in Boston Massachusetts. By this time a national revival had ignited known as the Great Awakening. A sign of its impact is that 23,000 people showed up for his open air rally. This was to date the largest gathering ever held in America of any kind.
He came back for 6 more tours of America throughout his lifetime.
During his first preaching tour he founded an orphanage in Bethesda Georgia. He used finances raised finances through offerings to fund the orphanage his entire life. Though a lot of money came in, it was poorly run and he had a hard time keeping it going. Although Whitefield in his day never questioned slavery, he did include and reach out to slaves in his preaching and is considered an important figure in founding the black church in America. Sadly in an effort to make his orphanage more cost-effective, Whitefield actually purchased slaves to work on the orphanage plantation. Though questioned on this by evangelicals at the time, Whitefield eventually became a defender of slavery.
Whitefield is credited with essentially changing the way people experienced God in this culture. Before, one’s relationship with God was mediated by the church and your pastor. They were your superiors and like everything else in British society, you had to know your place. Whitefield saw this was a dying idea in America and latched on to this aspiration. You don’t need an intermediary was his message, you just come directly to God. This and the Puritan experiment, truly led to the democratization of the Church in America.
Aside from the king of England, no other person was so widely known and celebrated than George Whitefield. He was truly America’s first celebrity. During the course of his career he preached to equivalent of every man, woman, and child in America.
Whitefield was married, but like John Wesley, the ministers of the day feared their wives were a distraction to their devotion to Jesus and therefore he sought to avoid much contact with her and had about as cold of relationship with her as you could imagine. By some miracle, Mr. and Mrs. Whitefield conceived and had a son but he died in childhood. Whitefield managed to preach in the morning, come home for an hour and then preach at his son’s funeral, then left his wife to continue his preaching tour. Obviously a man with many gifts but certainly no example worth emulating when it comes to marriage.
Not widely remembered was that Ben Franklin was not only a personal friend of Whitefield but was also his publisher. He put into print many of his sermons for distribution to the public. Franklin was a lapsed puritan and never did convert but was pleased to see the social effects of Whitefield’s preaching which seemed to bring about better morality.
Virtually unknown is that George Whitefield fell into ill-health and died on his last crusade in America. He was buried in the basement of the Baptist church in Newburyport Massachusetts. When the Revolutionary war broke out 6 years after his death, a group of American soldiers, with the permission of the pastor, broke open Whitefield’s tomb, and took the buttons and remains of his clothing they found there with them into battle. There was a strong sense in the day, that George Whitefield saw America as a nation long before America did. When the war for independence began, they had George Washington, but they wanted what they could have of George Whitefield to go with them as well that God might grant favor to mission.
Today about 1000 people a year, mostly conservative evangelicals, visit his grave in Newburyport Mass.