George Whitefield (1714-1770) was an English evangelist whose preaching in America climaxed the religious revival known as the Great Awakening.
George Whitefield was born in the Bell Tavern, Gloucester. This tavern, of which his father was proprietor, located in a rough neighborhood, was his childhood home. His later confessions of early wickedness were probably exaggerated, but they can be understood as belonging to this setting. His first religious raptures also belong to these early years. When he was 12 years old, he left grammar school and became a tapster in the tavern. However, hope of a university education sent him back to his former teacher, who continued his preparation for college, and in his thirteenth year George matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford, as a servitor.
At Oxford, Whitefield met John and Charles Wesley, joined the Holy Club, and practiced religious asceticism for a time. Through the Wesleys he learned of the Methodist mission recently established in the colony of Georgia in America. At 21 he professed personal religious conversion, and thereafter to the last day of his life his all-consuming desire was to tell of the "new birth" he had experienced. At 22 he was ordained at Gloucester Cathedral and received his bachelor of arts degree from Oxford.
Whitefield began to preach with amazing success. His youth, his histrionic ability, his beautiful voice, and a compulsive personal conviction enabled him to hold an audience with remarkable power. As he preached in Bristol, Bath, and London, his popularity increased. Multitudes clamored to hear him, for it was the common people who were most deeply affected by his preaching. Those whom he could not reach with convictions of their sins were nevertheless moved by the power of his eloquence.
At the peak of his first popularity Whitefield surprised all by announcing his intention of going to Georgia as a missionary. In February 1738 he embarked on the first of his seven voyages across the Atlantic. His first stay in Georgia was brief. He returned to England to take priest's orders in the Church of England and to collect money to build an Orphan House for the Georgia mission. The money came, for he had influential friends among the upper classes, and philanthropy of this sort was current in London.
During his two-year sojourn in England, Whitefield's success as a preacher increased beyond all expectation. He was almost a phenomenon. Very soon, however, criticism began to be voiced, at first by churchmen, because of the Calvinistic tone of his sermons. When churches of the settled ministry began to be closed against him, he took to churchyards and fields; with this innovation his popularity with the masses greatly increased. So did the criticism. The press gave him more space. On the eve of his second departure for America he was a front-page controversial figure, the idol of thousands and the target of sometimes unseemly abuse. Word of all this reached America before his arrival, giving him the best preparation he could have asked.
After another brief time in Georgia, planning the Orphan House, Whitefield had the greatest triumph of his life during his month-long tour through New England. Welcomed by ministers and officials of colonies and towns, he found shops closed and business suspended during his stays, thousands of people at his heels, and many following him to the next town. No wonder his head was turned by such adulation. He was only 26 years old at this time, a fact often forgotten in making up his account. Success had come too early.
Whitefield's Boston visit lasted 10 days. Met on the road by a committee of ministers and conducted into the town, he found all meetinghouses except King's Chapel open to him. He preached in all of them and also on the Common, where thousands could assemble. The contemporary record was set down in superlatives. Benjamin Colman's words are typical: "admired and followed beyond any man that ever was in America."
The suddenness of Whitefield's acclaim for a time disarmed skeptics and silenced criticism, but before the 10 days were over, more realistic second thoughts began to be expressed by the more discerning. His criticism of the settled ministry as "unconverted" sparked the first criticism, though it did not bother the multitudes who were as clay in his hands. After his departure, the declarations of several leading ministers, and later still the testimonies of Harvard College and Yale against him, provided considerable check to the earlier unqualified admiration.
Whitefield's five later visits were less spectacular, but none lacked extravagance and sensationalism. He was a magnet, and to his last sermon, preached the day before his death, he could cast a spell over his hearers, even though by now they knew his power was of the moment only.
After two centuries George Whitefield remains something of a controversial figure, although the controversy no longer deals with praise or blame or the accuracy of his own accounting of 18,000 sermons preached. Rather, modern critics meditate upon his impact on the mid-18th century. He broke the familiar meetinghouse pattern and released the membership to new ways of thought and action; he encouraged men to righteousness through their own individual decision; he put new hope in men's hearts and made the good life more attainable in response to their own desire for it; he made God kinder. He was not a thinker; he was not the originator of a new doctrine. He was a man with a conviction, and in some way not easily analyzed, as he stood before an audience of thousands, he seemed the living evidence of the gospel he preached. More than any other preacher of his day, he made the Great Awakening a vital, far-reaching force, religiously, socially, and politically, in America.
Further Reading on George Whitefield
Sources of information of Whitefield are his own A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield's Journal (1740); Luke Tyerman, Life of the Rev. George Whitefield, B.A. of Pembroke College (2 vols., 1876-1877); and Stuart C. Henry, George Whitefield: Wayfaring Witness (1957).