Whitefield preaching

Who Was George Whitefield?

“I am verily persuaded the Generality of Preachers talk of an unknown, unfelt Christ. And the Reason why Congregations have been so dead, is because dead Men preach to them” (Whitefield).

George Whitefileld, along with Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, James Davenport, and a few others, were part of the First Great Awakening in the American colonies in the mid-18th century. This movement aimed to bring back inspired preaching that would help people develop a personal relationship with God. These preachers emphasized that religion is not just an intellectual exercise, but an experience of the heart.

They held "revivals" up and down the coast. Revivals were meetings led by enthusiastic preaching, that called for listeners to acknowledge their sin and their need for a new birth. George Whitefield, a British, Anglican pastor, was one of the most vocal, and most famous, revival preachers of his time.

Whitefield discovers his message

Whitefield, the youngest of seven children, was born in Gloucester, England. As a young man, he was fascinated both with the theater and with the idea of becoming a minister.

Attending Pembroke College, Oxford, he met Charles and John Wesley, and joined what became known as “the Oxford Methodists.” Because he struggled with a sense of personal sin, with this spiritual community, George engaged in intense spiritual practices - including reading Scripture, prayer, fasting, self-examination, visiting prisoners and the poor, and more - that drove him to despair, and almost to death.

While home recuperating from his strenuous efforts, he read the Puritan classic, Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man(1677), which helped him realize that he’d been falsely seeking sanctification (living according to God’s purposes) through his own efforts, and not through God’s grace. He learned that a person must be joined with Christ - have a sense of Christ living and working within one’s heart and soul - in order to create the proper foundation for a Christian life as expressed by one’s actions.

Whitefield from National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London.
Image of Whitefield. National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London. “George Whitefield, oil on canvas”, by John Russell circa 1792.

In struggling with these concepts, George ultimately had a dramatic conversion based on the realization that justification - being pardoned of sins and made right with God - comes before sanctification - being set apart by God. He realized that as sinners, we are first made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ. And then by the power of the Holy Spirit we conform to the image of Christ which produces outward results, or good works. We cannot earn or “buy” our justification, but the works produced by sanctification are evidence of our faith in Christ.

Continuing his education, Whitefield was ordained in 1736 as a deacon in the Church of England and as a priest in 1739. He preached his first sermon, “The Nature and Necessity of Society in General, and of Religious Societies in Particular,” the following Sunday. In it he encouraged believers to develop a deeper faith and engage in Christian mission.

His first published message, “The Nature and Necessity of Our New Birth in Christ Jesus” (1737), however, became his signature sermon and the primary focus of his thirty-three-year ministry. Some scholars estimate that Whitefield preached 18,000 sermons and instructed people in less formal settings another 30,000 to 40,000 times during his lifetime. Employing his training in the dramatic arts, George was an engaging preacher who imaginatively and enthusiastically told Biblical stories to challenge his listeners. Over and over again, they responded to his message to convert or recommit their lives to Jesus Christ.

Crossing the Atlantic

George Whitefield crossed the Atlantic 13 times. The only reason he didn’t go back to England and make it an even 14 was because he succumbed to severe asthma and fatigue while in Massachusetts in 1770, and died in the manse of the Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport. At his request, he is buried in a crypt beneath the pulpit of this 275 year old church, built to be Whitefield’s home base when visiting the colonies.

C.H. Layman, The Wager Disaster: Mayem, Mutiny and Murder in the South Seas
Image from: C.H. Layman, The Wager Disaster: Mayem, Mutiny and Murder in the South Seas. Public Domain

During those many visits to the colonies, he preached nearly every day in town after town from New Hampshire to Georgia. His message of new birth inspired new practices for mass evangelism, later influencing the revival ministries of Charles Finney (1792-1875), Billy Sunday (1862–1935), and Billy Graham (1918–2018).

In 1735, while in Georgia, John Wesley contacted George and urgently asked him to join him there in his new ministry. When he arrived, George began his lifelong quest to establish and fund an orphanage in Georgia.

Itinerant Preacher

Whitefield sought every opportunity to proclaim the gospel and believed that his parish had no geographical or ecclesiastical boundaries. The time he spent crossing the Atlantic Ocean in thirteen trips totaled about three years.

During these voyages he read prayers publicly, preached, ministered to the sick, and performed marriages. This retirement from his regular frenetic pace created extended periods for praying, studying Scripture, revising his sermons and journals for publication, and corresponding with the many individuals who wrote him. These voyages to America, and his fourteen trips to Scotland, three to Ireland, and his extensive travels throughout England and Wales earned him the name “The Grand Itinerant.”

Whitefield preaching in the open air.
Whitefield preaching in the open air. Wood engraving c. 1870. . Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Whitefield’s preaching and writing not only brought him celebrity status but also produced increased opposition. Initially, he was highly critical of ministers who denied the necessity of the new birth. He later apologized and sought to reconcile with those he had offended, especially the faculties of Harvard and Yale.

Although he never left the Anglican Church, Whitefield’s message — which was radical for the time — that every person needed a new birth in Christ alienated him from fellow Anglicans, of whom he was critical in return. Because most Anglican pulpits were therefore closed to him, he turned to open-field preaching. This new freedom contributed to the emerging practice of extemporaneous preaching which enabled him to speak directly to the growing crowds he attracted. He thrived on opposition, recognizing that it attracted many listeners. He became a master of using newspapers to create an advance expectation of his speaking tours, and increase his popularity. It was estimated that he preached to crowds of 20,000 or even 30,000 at a time.

Discord with John Wesley and Crossing Boundaries

Although they were longtime friends, Whitefield and John Wesley did have their differences, which ultimately led to a split in Methodism; Whitefield’s theology created the Calvinistic Methodism and Wesley created the Wesleyan Methodism. The Countess of Huntingdon, one of Whitefield’s benefactors, played a significant role in the support of Calvinistic Methodism. Her appointment of Whitefield as her personal chaplain in 1748 enabled him to preach the message of regeneration to the upper class. Whitefield was as comfortable preaching to the wealthy as to the common uneducated laborers.

Unlike John Wesley, who encouraged his followers to join religious societies that became the Methodist Church, Whitefield consistently instructed his listeners that after they had experienced the new birth, they could worship in any Christian denomination: Congregational, Baptist, Quaker, Presbyterian. Nevertheless, Whitefield played a significant role in the formation of the Calvinistic Methodist Church which today is the Presbyterian Church of Wales. He willingly crossed traditional theological lines to advance the cause of Jesus Christ and his church.

Book cover for The Printer and the Preacher: Ben Franklin, George Whitefield, and the Surprising Friendship that Invented America.
The Printer and the Preacher: Ben Franklin, George Whitefield, and the Surprising Friendship that Invented America by Randy Peterson. 2015, Thomas Nelson / HarperCollins Publishing.

Whitefield and Franklin

Whitefield’s impact upon America exceeded the boundaries of his revivalist preaching. He met Benjamin Franklin in 1739, and they became lifelong friends despite Whitefield’s continual challenge of Franklin’s deist faith and efforts to convert him to Christ. Franklin became wealthy through the publication of Whitefield’s sermons and journals, while Whitefield gained an important ally through Franklin’s continual support. They helped establish the University of Pennsylvania, where a statute commemorates Whitefield’s contribution. Whitefield also financially supported what would become Princeton University, raised money to restore Harvard’s library after it was destroyed by fire, and backed the formation of Dartmouth College. These and other actions significantly reduced the opposition of American clergy to his ministry, while he experienced continual conflict in England.

Whitefield’s blind spot

In addition to preaching the gospel and supporting education, Whitefield was committed to an orphanage he started in Bethesda, Georgia in 1740. It was the first institution established for the care of children in America.

Although he was originally opposed to slavery, in order to assure the economic survival of his orphanage, he coerced the Georgia legislature to legalize slavery in 1750. He was not alone; there was no consensus in the 18th century on either side of the Atlantic that slavery was evil. Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies (1723–1761), and other respected Christian leaders owned slaves. So did many of America’s founders, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Unlike many other men of his time though, Whitefield believed that slaves needed to hear the gospel as much as free individuals, and learn how to read and write; he always provided for their welfare.

Despite this mixed record, historian Harry Stout contends that on Whitefield’s death “the greatest mourning was expressed among the slave community” (Stout 1991, 284). Whitefield’s humane treatment and willingness always to allow slaves to attend his sermons won their deep affection. Nonetheless, Whitefield’s inconsistency regarding slavery has proven to be a poor example for many evangelicals since his death.

During his final years, Whitefield preached less frequently due to his accumulated physical exhaustion caused by his long-standing relentless desire to preach and advance the cause of the gospel. As tensions increased between England and the American colonies, Whitefield often supported the colonies over his own native land. He sided with his American friends in their successful efforts to repeal the Stamp Act of 1765 that Parliament had enacted to reduce the massive debt of the French and Indian War (1756–1763). The Church of England’s refusal to support his plans for Bethesda College in Georgia certainly did not endear him to the British crown. In America, before his death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1770, Whitefield had become the most respected person in the colonies both as a spiritual father and a unifying political hero.

The Great Awakening Meets A Just Awakening: Whitefield's 250th Commemorative Anniversary / August 3 — October 4, 2020, Online

The Great Awakening Meets A Just Awakening: Whitefield's 250th Commemorative Anniversary / August 3 — October 4, 2020, Online