The other great preacher of the First Great Awakening — along with Jonathan Edwards — was an Englishman, the Revd George Whitefield.

Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England, in 1714, the son of a widow who took over her late husband’s inn.  From his childhood the young Whitefield was exceptionally intelligent.  A patron of the inn who went to Oxford University suggested to his mother that the lad could attend there and defray his expenses by becoming a servitor.  A servitor essentially waited on the other students.  (This tradition carried over to some colleges and universities in the United States.  My own alma mater had students providing table service at mealtimes before abolishing the practice in 1964.) 

Whitefield went up to Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1732.  He was already well versed in the Bible, and in time he joined what was known as the Holy Club.  There he befriended John and Charles Wesley who were studying for ordination in the Anglican Church and would go on to found and develop Methodism.  Charles Wesley lent Whitefield a book by Henry Scougal called The Life of God in the Soul of Man.  It changed his life and in 1735 he became what we would term today ‘born again’, although the term was not in use at the time.  Years later, he would say, ‘Whenever I go to Oxford, I cannot help running to the spot where Jesus Christ first revealed himself to me and gave me the new birth.’      

But, reading Scougal’s book had taken its toll on Whitefield’s physical health and he went down from Oxford because of it.  He spent nine months recuperating at home.  During that time he made the acquaintance of the Anglican Bishop of Gloucester. Whitefield returned to Oxford and earned his degree in 1736. He had also become the leader of the Holy Club, as the Wesley brothers had set sail for the American colony of Georgia. Upon Whitefield’s return home, Bishop Benson ordained him as a deacon and, later on, as a priest.  Of his ordination, Whitefield said, ‘My heart was melted down and I offered my whole spirit, soul, and body to the service of God’s sanctuary.’ 

News of Whitefield’s gift for preaching spread rapidly.  He preached his first public sermon in Gloucester a week after he was ordained. He then preached near Bristol, adopting the open-air revivalist style of his contemporary, Howell Harris. Whitefield also went to London where, at Moorfields and on Kennington Common (east central and south London, respectively), he commanded audiences of 20,000 people.    

In 1738, he journeyed to America and served as a parish priest in Savannah, Georgia, for a year.  Upon returning to England, he took up open-air preaching once more.  He established three churches in England: one in Kingswood (Bristol), where he began his open-air preaching, and two in London: Moorfields Tabernacle and Tottenham Court Road Chapel.  He also served as chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon, who paid for chapels to be built which followed what could be termed an Anglican-Methodist-Calvinistic theology.  More on that in the next post.  Many of these were built in England and Wales.  During this time, Whitefield also raised funds to found the Bethesda Orphanage in the American colonies;  it is the oldest extant charity in North America.

In 1740, he returned to America to preach in the open-air.  These revivals, by Whitefield, Edwards and others, characterised the First Great Awakening.  Whitefield went to major American cities.  He preached to new Americans.  He preached to their slaves.  Benjamin Franklin heard him at a revival in Philadelphia and was astounded at how far Whitefield’s unamplified voice could carry.  (Remember, there were no microphones then!)  Whitefield made 13 trans-Atlantic crossings in an age when storms and shipwrecks were common.  Once he returned to England, he preached throughout the British Isles, including Ireland.  He also travelled to the Netherlands, Gibraltar and Bermuda.  

During Whitefield’s absence, Georgia made slaveowning illegal.  In 1749, Whitefield, fearful that the colony’s economy could not withstand the onslaught of free men at industry, campaigned for it to be legalised again.  He succeeded in his efforts in 1751.  He, too, became a slaveowner, although it is said his slaves much enjoyed working in his service.  They worked in the Bethesda Orphanage and a plantation called Providence, proceeds of which helped fund the orphanage.  Upon his demise, his slaves were bequeathed to Selina Hastings, the aforementioned Countess of Huntingdon. 

Whitefield’s continuous travel made him the first American celebrity.  He was as well known throughout the colonies and caused a sensation not only in person but in the press, which wrote his appearances up positively.  He had some detractors, however, who criticised his evangelistic language used in his written work.  Others derided the emotion he was able to muster in a church congregation.  The illustration above is William Hogarth’s engraving, ‘Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism: A Medley’, which indicates all that many still ridicule today in evangelistic services.  Notice how the woman has fainted in front of the pulpit. 

Indeed, Whitefield was the best known trans-Atlantic preacher of his time.  He is one of the founding fathers of the evangelical movement.  Because of his commitments, he married late in life and, it is said, never felt comfortable with the union.  In 1770, he shook off breathing problems, which suggested he should slow down, by saying, ‘I would rather wear out than rust out.’  That same year he died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, at the age of 55.                  

Tomorrow: A Whitefield sermon

For further reading, see:

George Whitefield

Biography of George Whitefield

George Whitefield: Sensational Evangelist of Britain and America