George Whitefield

George Whitefield

George Whitefield

Church of England preacher and evangelist and co-founder of the Methodist movement
Born December 16, 1714
Gloucester, England
Died September 30, 1770
Newburyport, Massachusetts

George Whitefield  (December 16, 1714 - September 30, 1770), was a preacher in the Church of England and one of the leaders of the Methodist movement.


Early life

He was born on December 16, 1714 at the Bell Inn, Gloucester, England, and died in Newburyport, Massachusetts on September 30, 1770. In contemporary accounts, he, not John Wesley, is spoken of as the supreme figure and even as the founder of Methodism. He was famous for his preaching in America which was a significant part of the an 18th century movement of Christian revivals, sometimes called "The Great Awakening."

George Whitefield was the son of a widow who kept an inn at Gloucester. At an early age, he found that he had a passion and talent for acting and 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 would include waking them in the morning, polishing their shoes, carrying their books and even doing their coursework (see Dallimore). He was a part of the 'Holy Club' at Oxford University with the brothers, John Wesley and Charles Wesley. After reading Henry Scougal's "The Life of God in the Soul of Man" he became very concerned for the state of his soul. Following a conversion experience he became very passionate for preaching his new found faith. His genuine piety led the Bishop of Gloucester to ordain him before the canonical age.

Travels and evangelism

Whitefield preached his first sermon in the Crypt Church in his home town of Gloucester. In 1738, he went to America, becoming parish priest of Savannah, Georgia. Returning home in the following year, he resumed his evangelistic activities, with open-air homilies when other denominations' churches refused to admit him.

He parted company with Wesley over the doctrine of predestination; Whitefield was a follower of Calvin in this respect. Three churches were established in England in his name: one in Bristol and two others, the "Moorfields Tabernacle" and the "Tottenham Court Road Chapel", in London. Later the society meeting at the second Kingswood School at Kingswood, a town on the eastern edge of Bristol, was also called 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 paid for at her sole expense and where a form of Calvinistic Methodism similar to Whitefield's could be spread. Many of these chapels were built in the English counties and Wales, and one was erected in London – the Spa Fields Chapel.

Whitefield had cross eyed (Strabismus) vision. Whitefield had cross eyed (Strabismus) vision.

In 1738 Whitefield preached a series of revivals in Georgia. Here he established the Bethesda Orphanage, which still exists to this day. In Georgia there was originally a prohibition on slavery. However in 1749 there was a movement to introduce it there, which Whitefield supported. He owned slaves who worked at the orphanage, and these were bequeathed to the Countess of Huntingdon when he died. When he returned to America in November, 1739 he preached nearly every day for months to large crowds of sometimes several thousand people as he travelled throughout the colonies, especially New England.

Like his contemporary and acquaintance, Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield preached with a staunchly Calvinist theology (Reisinger) that was in line with the "moderate Calvinism" of the Thirty-nine Articles (Works, 3:383). While explicitly affirming God’s sole agency in salvation, Whitefield would freely offer the Gospel, saying near the end of most of his published sermons something like: "Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ" (Borman, 73). Such a decisive rejection of Hyper-Calvinism even brought the charge of Arminianism against him.

He was known for his powerful voice and his ability to appeal to the emotions of a crowd, and unlike most preachers of his time, spoke extemporaneously, rather than reading his sermon from notes.


Revival meetings

He first took to preaching in the open air with remarkable results on Hanham Mount, Kingswood, south east Bristol, which at that time was a center of vice in all its worst forms, and he was the first to provide spiritual privileges for the colliers who lived like heathens near that city. 20,000 of these poor workers crowded to hear him, and the white gutters caused by the tears which ran down their black cheeks showed how visibly they were affected, strong men being moved to hysterical convulsions by his wondrous power. John Wesley joining him there was not a little perplexed at these 'bodily symptoms'; he saw them as evident 'signs of grace', notwithstanding that Whitefield considered them to be 'doubtful indications'. Indeed, modern psychologists would call it symptoms of mass hysteria if there were 'persons that screamed out, and put their bodies into violent agitations and distortions' during a sermon. William Hogarth satirized such effects of Methodist preaching in his print, Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism (1762). Even larger crowds - Whitefield himself estimated 30,000 - met him, with the same dramatic (and contentious) effects in Cambuslang in 1742.

Whitefield preaching. Whitefield preaching.

Whitefield's more democratic speaking style was greatly appealing to the American audience. Benjamin Franklin once attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia and was greatly impressed with his ability to deliver a message to such a large audience. Franklin had dismissed reports of Whitefield preaching to crowds of the order of tens of thousands in England as exaggeration. 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 semi-circle centred on Whitefield. Allowing two square feet per person he realized that Whitefield really could be heard by tens of thousands of people in the open air. He then became Whitefield's publisher and friend, though he never shared Whitefield's beliefs. Whitefield was also known to be able to use the newspaper media for beneficial publicity. His revolutionary preaching style shaped the way in which sermons were delivered.

Whitefield's legacy is still felt in America, where he is remembered as one of the first to preach to the enslaved. Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem in his memory after he died. The First Presbyterian Church of Newburyport, Massachusetts was built for the evangelist's use, and before dying, Whitefield requested to be buried under the pulpit of this church, where his tomb remains to this day. In an age when crossing the Atlantic Ocean was a long and hazardous adventure, he visited America seven times, making 13 trans-Atlantic crossings in total. It is estimated that throughout his life, he preached more than 18,000 formal sermons.[1] In addition to his work in America and England, he made 15 journeys to Scotland, (most famously to the "Preaching Braes" of Cambuslang in 1742), 2 to Ireland, and one each to Bermuda, Gibraltar, and The Netherlands. He is considered to be one of the fathers of Evangelicalism. He was the best-known preacher in England and America in the 18th century, and because he travelled through all of the American colonies and drew great crowds and media coverage, he was one of the most widely recognized public figures in America before George Washington.



  • Armstrong, John H. Five Great Evangelists. Christian Focus Publications, Ross-shire, G.B., 1997.
  • Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival. Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1970-1980.
  • Bormann, Ernest G. Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
  • Lambert, Frank. "Pedlar in divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-69103-296-3
  • Mahaffey, Jerome. Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation. Baylor University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-932792-88-1
  • Mansfield, Stephen. Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001. ISBN 1-58182-165-4*Tyerman, Luke, The Life of the Reverend George Whitefield. Azle, TX: Need of the Times Publishers, 1995. ISBN 0-9647552-0-3
  • Reisinger, Ernest. "What Should We Think Of Evangelism and Calvinism?", The Founder's Journal, Issue 19/20, Winter/Spring 1995.
  • Stout, Harry S. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1991.
  • Whitefield, George, "Journals". London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960.ISBN 0-85151-147-3
  • Whitefield, George, "Works" on CD-ROM, Weston Rhyn: Quinta Press, 2000. ISBN 1-897856-09-1


External links

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