George Whitefield (1714—1770) was a key figure in the Great Awakening. Because he included both free blacks and slaves in his revivals, his preaching is also often credited as the beginning of African-American Christianity. As a friend of the Wesleys, he was also important in the early Methodist movement, and his influence can still be seen in Evangelicalism today. Whitefield is known as a charismatic orator and prolific itinerant preacher. He was perhaps the most influential Anglo-American evangelical leader of the eighteenth century.
George Whitefield was born on December 27, 1714 as the seventh child to Thomas and Elizabeth Whitefield, inn owners in Gloucester, Great Britain. His father died when George was just two years old, and his mother worked hard to keep the inn running and provide for her children. Due to these meager beginnings, the only way for George to attend university was as a servitor, doing menial jobs for more affluent students. While at Oxford, he met John and Charles Wesley and joined their "Holy Club." Whitefield even led the Holy Club for a time after the Wesley brothers left for Georgia in the American colonies.
Whitefield graduated from Oxford in 1732 and was ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church. He believed that true Christianity should engage the heart and not just the intellect, so his sermons were passionate and designed to elicit emotional responses from his audience. The Anglican Church refused to appoint him a parish, so Whitefield began as an itinerant preacher. In his travels he often chastised local clergy for their lack of spiritual fervor. He later admitted that he had been too bitter in his zeal during these early days, but it was his rejection of ecclesiastical authority that made him popular in the American colonies who were seeking local democratic control and freedom from monarchial tyranny at the time.
In 1738, he made the first of seven eventual trips to the American colonies. There, he used his love of acting to preach sermons that were structured like theatrical plays, using dramatic facial expressions and hand gestures. This was a new style for colonists who had never experienced the theater. His message was often related to the need for "new birth" (i.e., salvation). He averaged ten sermons per week and traveled so extensively that nearly every person in the American colonies had heard him preach at least once.
While in Savannah, Georgia, Whitefield saw the need for an orphanage and vowed to raise money for the project back in England. In 1740, construction began on the Bethesda Orphanage. George Whitefield also partnered with the Moravian Brethren to build an orphanage in Pennsylvania for black children and later partnered with Benjamin Franklin to establish the Charity School for boys.
While back in England raising these funds, George married a young widow, Elizabeth James, in 1741. She suffered pregnancy loss four times before giving birth in 1743 to a son who died only four months later. She then accompanied Whitefield on his trip to the American colonies from 1744 to 1748 but never accompanied him thereafter. Their marriage appears to have been an unhappy one. She preceded him in death on August 9, 1768 after succumbing to a fever.
While Whitefield was away from America, William Seward was his fundraiser, business coordinator, and publicist. Whitefield published Journals, seventy-eight of his sermons, and an autobiography that cast him in the best possible light as a model of holy living. These printed resources helped ensure that he was more popular in the colonies upon his return than when he had left.
Whitefield was the first internationally famous itinerant preacher. Besides the American colonies, he also preached in Scotland, Ireland, Bermuda, Gibraltar, and the Netherlands as well as in every county in England and Wales. Overall, he preached at least 18,000 sermons to probably ten million people using his charisma and loud voice despite his small stature. Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment where he measured that Whitefield could be heard over 500 feet away, which would allow a semicircle of up to 30,000 people to hear him.
Whitefield also influenced early American politics, but not necessarily in a positive way. While the Wesleys were staunch abolitionists, campaigning against slavery, Whitefield instead advocated for the humane treatment of slaves. He wrote an open letter in 1740 condemning the cruelty and abuse of slaves in America, but did not believe in the necessity of ending the practice of slavery altogether. In fact, Whitefield owned a 4,000-acre plantation and fifty slaves that he used to help fund his orphanage. He believed it was God's providence and hoped that by exposing African Americans to Christianity they would receive eternal salvation, thus making their earthly enslavement an ultimate good or at least not a major concern. His scriptural justification of slavery would linger in America and in the church for years to come.
This moral failing reminds us that every person, even one whom God uses in mighty ways, is still in need of the saving work of Jesus. No human can live a perfect or sinless life (Romans 3:12). We will all have blind spots and incorrect beliefs while we live on this earth (1 Corinthians 13:12), which is why we are so dependent on the Holy Spirit and His work to reveal to our hearts and minds the character and ways of God (Matthew 16:17; John 14:15–17, 26; Philippians 2:12–13; Ephesians 3:16–19; Jeremiah 31:34; Ezekiel 36:26). Whitefield's failure in this area should remind us to stay humble and seek God (Psalm 139:23–24). But it can also encourage us, that if God could use this man to ignite a revival that influenced the trajectory of an entire nation, then surely God could use anyone to accomplish great things for His kingdom (Exodus 4:11–12).
Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist emphasizing the sovereignty of God and John Wesley was an Arminian emphasizing a person's free will, but the two were recognized as coworkers and friends. These theological differences did cause a rift in their relationship early on, but the two reconciled and became so close, in fact, that Whitefield asked Wesley to preach the eulogy at his funeral if he should precede him in death.
Whitefield died in Newburyport, Massachusetts of a severe asthma attack after falling ill in September 1770. He preached his final sermon just the day before as he fought through his illness to evangelize, inviting his listeners to, "Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ." John Wesley fulfilled his promise to his friend and preached at the funeral service held in George Whitefield's honor in London on November 18, 1770.
May we follow Whitfield and Wesley's example and "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:31–32) which is also how Wesley chose to close his sermon at the funeral of his friend.
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