George Whitefield (1714-1770) was an influential English Anglican cleric and evangelist who was one of the founders of Methodism and the evangelical movement. Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England and attended Pembroke College at Oxford University. After being ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1736, he immediately began preaching in churches, prisons, and outdoors to crowds of thousands. His powerful voice and dramatic preaching style soon made him famous throughout Britain and later in the American colonies.
Whitefield became closely associated with John Wesley and Charles Wesley and the early Methodist movement. However, he differed with them over predestination and soon left to become an independent itinerant minister. He preached throughout Britain, especially in the growing industrial cities, and made seven evangelistic trips across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies where he helped spark the First Great Awakening. He was one of the most popular preachers of his era, reaching out to ordinary working people and slaves who often felt excluded from the religious establishment.
Some key facts about George Whitefield:
– He was instrumental in the Methodist movement and bringing revival through his dramatic open-air preaching to thousands. This took place during a spiritual dry period in the early 18th century.
– He traveled extensively, preaching over 18,000 sermons over 30 years. His preaching tours kindled the First Great Awakening revival in Britain and the American colonies in the mid-18th century.
– He preached to common laborers, slaves, and miners being excluded from churches. He advocated for the poor and helped start many schools, orphanages, and charitable organizations.
– He helped spread Methodism in America and influenced many future leaders and founders like Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry.
– Despite being an Anglican priest, his evangelistic zeal and disagreement over theology led him to break with Anglicanism and form his own Calvinist ministry.
– He preached outdoors to crowds of thousands before amplification, sometimes up to 20,000-30,000. His voice carried for a half mile due to its strength and clarity.
– He toured the American colonies 7 times and preached over 18,000 sermons in his lifetime, averaging 10-20 times per week.
– He often preached 3-4 hours straight several times per day. Benjamin Franklin calculated he could be heard by over 30,000 people in a single sermon.
– He died from asthma and respiratory issues at age 55 shortly after preaching his final open-air sermon to a large crowd in Massachusetts. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral.
Whitefield’s Preaching Style and Impact:
George Whitefield became famous for his dramatic evangelical preaching before crowds of thousands in Britain and America during the 18th century. Here are some key facts about his preaching style and impact:
– He had a booming, resonant voice that carried for a half mile without amplification. This allowed him to be heard clearly by thousands in open-air settings.
– He would preach extemporaneously without notes in a theatrical style, using dramatic pauses, voices, and gestures. This captivated common people unaccustomed to impassioned preaching.
– His sermons focused on sin, salvation, the new birth, and the necessity of repentance and faith in Christ. This message resonated with commoners struggling with social changes.
– He gravitated towards theatrical methods to depict biblical stories and gospel messages. His dramatic flair attracted criticism from some clerics as enthusiasm.
– He often wept openly and unashamedly during sermons, which evoked strong emotional responses from crowds. Such emotional displays were unusual in that reserved era.
– His sermons were crafted to keep audiences engaged for hours at a time, providing variety through storytelling, acting, vocal modulations, and applications.
– He harnessed emerging publicity methods like newspapers, pamphlets, and posters to advertise his revival meetings, expanding his influence.
– He helped make revivalism popular by showing it could have profound impacts on society’s unchurched and marginalized groups.
– His crusades marked a shift towards evangelical conversion and away from only hereditary faith, opening Christianity to the masses.
– His revival preaching helped set the stage for the First Great Awakening, sparking a religious revival across Britain and the American colonies.
Whitefield’s Relations with John and Charles Wesley:
George Whitefield became closely involved with John and Charles Wesley during the early Methodist movement. However, he had a complex relationship and eventual split with the Wesley brothers over doctrinal disagreements:
– In college, he met and became friends with the Wesley brothers who shared his religious zeal and social concerns.
– They supported each other in forming the early Holy Club at Oxford to study religion, visit prisoners, and help the poor. This seeded the Methodist movement.
– After being ordained, Whitefield joined the Wesleys in evangelistic field preaching to coal miners and other excluded groups, defying clerical norms.
– He often preached for the Wesleys as Methodism began, but was more Calvinistic in theology than their Arminian beliefs.
– His separation over free will versus predestination intensified after Charles’ published hymns against double-predestination in 1739.
– Whitefield split from them formally after declaring his differences in a pamphlet war over predestination that divides Methodists to this day.
– Despite their separation, Whitefield maintained cordial relations with the Wesleys and supported their shared views on social reform.
– When John Wesley heard Whitefield preach in 1739, he wrote “I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields.”
– Wesley later adapted Whitefield’s field preaching methods for the continuing Methodist movement after recognizing their effectiveness.
Whitefield’s Preaching Tours in Britain:
George Whitefield became famous throughout Britain due to his extensive preaching tours across the country:
– He conducted preaching circuits across Britain from 1739-1741 which helped spark a revival at a time of moral and spiritual decline.
– He preached outdoors to coal miners, chimney sweeps, farmers, and other working class people rarely included in traditional Anglican worship.
– His Sunday preaching draws crowds averaging 10,000-20,000 in cities like London, Bristol, Nottingham, Birmingham, and Liverpool over multiple visits.
– He preached 18 times in Bristol and attracted 150,000 total people; one crowd at Hyde Park was estimated at 80,000 people.
– He often preached twice per day at 6am and 6pm and then again at society meetings. Services lasted 1-3 hours with massive crowds.
– He traveled on horseback to spread his revivalism, preaching over 500 times to over 400,000 people throughout Wales over 7 weeks.
– He frequently encountered opposition from Anglican Bishops who disapproved of his outdoor field preaching methods and working class audiences.
– He helped bring religion to the unchurched and marginalized like miners, farmers, slaves, prisoners, soldiers, sailors, and rural towns.
– His tour kindled a religious revival across Britain and set the stage for the emerging Methodist movement led by Wesley after his departure.
Whitefield’s Evangelism in the American Colonies:
In addition to his famous tours in Britain, George Whitefield crossed the Atlantic Ocean 7 times to preach widely in the American colonies:
– His first tour in 1738 popularized the evangelical revival in the colonies after preaching in Philadelphia, New York and New England.
– He visited colonies from Georgia to New Hampshire over 7 trips from 1739-1770, uniting religious colonies factions.
– He preached an estimated 18,000 sermons and logged over 15,000 miles in America, stirring the First Great Awakening revival.
– He spoke 30-40 times a week during his tours, with crowds averaging in the thousands – up to 8,000-20,000 at a time.
– He preached in fields, public squares, streets, and meetinghouses to reach people excluded from churches.
– He helped spread evangelical Christianity in America and counterbalance the Enlightenment’s growing influence.
– He connected with marginalized slaves and advocated for improving their conditions. He also preached to Native Americans.
– He raised significant funds during his tours to support his orphanage in Georgia.
– Benjamin Franklin was impressed with his ability to preach daily for weeks to thousands without tiring. He calculated Whitefield’s voice reached 30,000 people at one sermon.
– Patrick Henry credited hearing Whitefield preach with inspiring him to become a great orator.
Whitefield’s Support for Slavery and Segregation:
While an advocate for the poor and marginalized in many ways, Whitefield contradictorily also supported slavery and segregation in Georgia:
– He owned enslaved Africans who worked at his Bethesda Orphanage in Georgia. This supported the wider institution of slavery.
– He advocated for the legalization of slavery in Georgia colony, aiding its passage in 1751 which had previously banned it.
– He believed tolerating slavery was necessary for Georgia’s economic prosperity, though he treated his slaves comparatively well.
– He preached to hundreds of slaves on plantations and offered religious instruction to children. But he didn’t condemn the practice overall.
– He supported a colonial ban on marriages between slaves and white Christians as a way to suppress potential slave uprisings.
– His advocacy for slavery and segregation policies in Georgia colonies contradicted his message of gospel inclusion.
– While still a product of his times, these stances undermine his stance as a social reformer and supporter of the downtrodden.
Whitefield’s Death and Legacy:
George Whitefield died in 1770 at age 55, shortly after preaching his final open-air sermon in Massachusetts:
– He died from severe asthma and respiratory problems exacerbated by his years of vigorous outdoor preaching.
– His final sermon was 2 hours long to over 10,000 people in Newburyport, MA, where a statue commemorates it.
– He was buried under Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, which could not accommodate the thousands who attended his funeral.
– His widespread preaching over 30 years to millions in Britain, America, and Wales marked him as one of the 18th century’s most influential evangelists.
– He helped spark the First Great Awakening revival on two continents, renewing Christianity and pioneering evangelicalism.
– He promoted field preaching and innovative publicity methods for revivals adopted by future evangelists like Billy Graham.
– He inspired the Methodist and evangelical movements, influencing key figures like John Wesley and the founders of America.
– Despite supporting slavery, he still reached outcasts like slaves, prisoners, orphans, and miners with the message of Christian salvation.
– He showed church relevance by preaching to the masses in plain language using vivid narratives understandable to common people.
George Whitefield’s tireless evangelism and riveting open-air preaching made him one of the best-known religious figures of the 18th century. Though a controversial and contradictory figure, he helped spark far-reaching Christian revivals in Britain and America that shaped the evangelical movement.