Portrait by John Russell, 1771
27 December [O.S. 16 December] 1714|
Gloucester, Great Britain
30 September 1770 (aged 55)|
Newburyport, Province of Massachusetts Bay, British America
|Alma mater||Pembroke College, Oxford|
George Whitefield (; 27 December [O.S. 16 December] 1714 – 30 September 1770), also spelled Whitfield, was an English Anglican cleric and evangelist who was one of the founders of Methodism and the evangelical movement.
Born in Gloucester, he matriculated at Pembroke College at the University of Oxford in 1732. There he joined the "Holy Club" and was introduced to the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, with whom he would work closely in his later ministry. Whitefield was ordained after receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree. He immediately began preaching, but he did not settle as the minister of any parish. Rather he became an itinerant preacher and evangelist. In 1740, Whitefield traveled to North America, where he preached a series of revivals that came to be known as the "Great Awakening". His methods were controversial and he engaged in numerous debates and disputes with other clergymen.
Whitefield received widespread recognition during his ministry; he preached at least 18,000 times to perhaps 10 million listeners in Great Britain and the American colonies. Whitefield could enthrall large audiences through a potent combination of drama, religious rhetoric, and imperial pride.
Whitefield was born on 27 December [O.S. 16 December] 1714 at the Bell Inn, Southgate Street, Gloucester in England. Whitefield was the fifth son (seventh child) of Thomas Whitefield and Elizabeth Edwards who kept an inn at Gloucester. At an early age, he found that he had a passion and talent for acting in the theatre, a passion that he would carry on with the very theatrical re-enactments of Bible stories he told during his sermons. He was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, and Pembroke College, Oxford.
Because business at the inn had become poor, Whitefield did not have the means to pay for his tuition. He therefore came up to Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of undergraduates; granted free tuition, he acted as a servant to Fellows and Fellow-commoners, duties including teaching them in the morning, helping them bathe, cleaning their rooms, carrying their books and assisting them with work. He was a part of the "Holy Club" at the University with the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. An illness, as well as Henry Scougal's The Life of God in the Soul of Man, influenced him to turn to the Church. Following a religious conversion, he became passionate for preaching his new-found faith. The Bishop of Gloucester ordained him a deacon.
Whitefield preached his first sermon at St Mary de Crypt Church in his home town of Gloucester, a week after his ordination. He had earlier become the leader of the Holy Club at Oxford when the Wesley brothers departed for Georgia.
In 1738 he went to Savannah, Georgia, in the American colonies, as parish priest. While there he decided that one of the great needs of the area was an orphan house. He decided this would be his life's work. He returned to England to raise funds, as well as to receive priest's orders. While preparing for his return, he preached to large congregations. At the suggestion of friends he preached to the miners of Kingswood, outside Bristol, in the open air. Because he was returning to Georgia he invited John Wesley to take over his Bristol congregations, and to preach in the open air for the first time at Kingswood and then at Blackheath, London.
Whitefield accepted the Church of England's doctrine of predestination and disagreed with the Wesley brothers' views on the doctrine of the atonement, Arminianism. As a result, Whitefield did what his friends hoped he would not do--hand over the entire ministry to John Wesley. Whitefield formed and was the president of the first Methodist conference but he soon relinquished the position to concentrate on evangelical work.
Three churches were established in England in his name--one in Penn Street, Bristol, and two in London, in Moorfields and in Tottenham Court Road--all three of which became known by the name of "Whitefield's Tabernacle". The society meeting at the second Kingswood School at Kingswood, a town on the eastern edge of Bristol, was eventually also named Whitefield's Tabernacle.
Whitefield acted as chaplain to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, and some of his followers joined the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, whose chapels were built by Selina, where a form of Calvinistic Methodism similar to Whitefield's was taught. Many of Selina's chapels were built in the English and Welsh counties. One was erected in London--Spa Fields Chapel.
Whitefield's endeavor to build an orphanage in Georgia was central to his preaching. The orphanage and preaching comprised the "two-fold task" that occupied the rest of his life. On 25 March 1740, construction began. Whitefield wanted the orphanage to be a place of strong Gospel influence, with a wholesome atmosphere and strong discipline.
Having raised the money by his preaching, Whitefield "insisted on sole control of the orphanage". He refused to give the Trustees a financial accounting. The Trustees also objected to Whitefield's using "a wrong Method" to control the children, who "are often kept praying and crying all the Night".
On returning to North America in 1740, he preached a series of revivals that came to be known as the Great Awakening of 1740. In 1740 he engaged Moravian Brethren from Georgia to build an orphanage for Negro children on land he had bought in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Following a theological disagreement, he dismissed them but was unable to complete the building, which the Moravians subsequently bought and completed. This now is the Whitefield House in the center of the Moravian settlement of Nazareth. The Whitefield House is owned by the Moravian Historical Society, and operates as the Society's museum and administrative offices.
He preached nearly every day for months to large crowds of sometimes several thousand people as he traveled throughout the colonies, especially New England. His journey on horseback from New York City to Charleston was the longest then undertaken in North America by a white man.
Like his contemporary and acquaintance, Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield preached staunchly Calvinist theology that was in line with the "moderate Calvinism" of the Thirty-nine Articles. While explicitly affirming God's sole agency in salvation, Whitefield freely offered the Gospel, saying at the end of his sermons: "Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ."
The Church of England did not assign him a pulpit, so he began preaching in parks and fields in England on his own, reaching out to people who normally did not attend church. Like Jonathan Edwards, he developed a style of preaching that elicited emotional responses from his audiences. But Whitefield had charisma, and his loud voice, his small stature, and even his cross-eyed appearance (which some people took as a mark of divine favour) all served to help make him one of the first celebrities in the American colonies. Whitefield included slaves in his revivals and their response was great. Historians see this as "the genesis of African-American Christianity."
To Whitefield "the gospel message was so critically important that he felt compelled to use all earthly means to get the word out." Thanks to widespread dissemination of print media, perhaps half of all colonists eventually heard about, read about, or read something written by Whitefield. He employed print systematically, sending advance men to put up broadsides and distribute handbills announcing his sermons. He also arranged to have his sermons published.
Whitefield sought to influence the colonies after he returned to England from his 1740 tour in America. He contracted to have his autobiographical Journals published throughout America. These Journals have been characterized as "the ideal vehicle for crafting a public image that could work in his absence." They depicted Whitefield in the "best possible light". When he returned to America for his third tour in 1745, he was better known than when he had left.
Much of Whitefield's publicity was the work of William Seward, a wealthy layman who accompanied Whitefield. Seward acted as Whitefield's "fund-raiser, business co-ordinator, and publicist". He furnished newspapers and booksellers with material, including copies of Whitefield's writings.
John Wesley denounced slavery as "the sum of all villainies," and detailed its abuses. However, defenses of slavery were common among 18th-century Protestants, especially missionaries who used the institution to emphasize God's providence. Whitefield was at first conflicted about slaves. He believed that they were "human", but he also believed that they were "subordinate Creatures".
Slavery had been outlawed in the young Georgia colony in 1735. In 1747, Whitefield attributed the financial woes of his Bethesda Orphanage to Georgia's prohibition of slavery. He argued that "the constitution of that colony [Georgia] is very bad, and it is impossible for the inhabitants to subsist without the use of slaves."
Between 1748 and 1750, Whitefield campaigned for slavery's legalisation. He said that the colony would not be prosperous unless farmers had slave labor. Whitefield wanted slavery legalized not only for the prosperity of the colony, but also for the financial viability of the Bethesda Orphanage. "Had Negroes been allowed", he said, "I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans without expending above half the sum that has been laid out." Whitefield's push for the legalization of slavery "cannot be explained solely on the basics of economics." It was also that "the specter of massive slave revolts pursued him."
Whitefield now argued a scriptural justification for slavery. He increased his number of slaves, using his preaching to raise money to purchase them. Whitefield became "perhaps the most energetic, and conspicuous, evangelical defender and practitioner of slavery." By propagating such "a theological defense for slavery" Whitefield "participated in a tragic chapter of the nation's experience."
In 1740, during his second visit to America, Whitefield published "an open letter to the planters of South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland" chastising them for their cruelty to their slaves. He wrote, "I think God has a Quarrel with you for your Abuse of and Cruelty to the poor Negroes." Furthermore, Whitefield wrote: "Your dogs are caressed and fondled at your tables; but your slaves who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, have not an equal privilege." However, Whitefield "stopped short of rendering a moral judgment on slavery itself as an institution."
The Bethesda Orphanage "set an example of humane treatment of slaves".Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), who was a slave, wrote a poem On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield in 1770. The first line calls Whitefield a "happy saint".
Benjamin Franklin attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was greatly impressed with Whitefield's ability to deliver a message to such a large group. Franklin had previously dismissed as exaggeration reports of Whitefield preaching to crowds of the order of tens of thousands in England. When listening to Whitefield preaching from the Philadelphia court house, Franklin walked away towards his shop in Market Street until he could no longer hear Whitefield distinctly--Whitefield could be heard over 500 feet. He then estimated his distance from Whitefield and calculated the area of a semicircle centred on Whitefield. Allowing two square feet per person he computed that Whitefield could be heard by over 30,000 people in the open air.
Franklin admired Whitefield as a fellow intellectual but thought Whitefield's plan to run an orphanage in Georgia would lose money. He published several of Whitefield's tracts and was impressed by Whitefield's ability to preach and speak with clarity and enthusiasm to crowds. Franklin was an ecumenist and approved of Whitefield's appeal to members of many denominations, but, unlike Whitefield, was not an evangelical. After one of Whitefield's sermons, Franklin noted the:
wonderful ... change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.
A lifelong close friendship developed between the revivalist preacher and the worldly Franklin. Looking beyond their public images, one finds a common charity, humility, and ethical sense embedded in the character of each man. True loyalty based on genuine affection, coupled with a high value placed on friendship, helped their association grow stronger over time. Letters exchanged between Franklin and Whitefield can be found at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. These letters document the creation of an orphanage for boys named the Charity School.
And in 1749, Franklin chose the Whitefield meeting house, with its Charity School, to be purchased as the site of the newly-formed Academy of Philadelphia which opened in 1751, followed in 1755 with the College of Philadelphia, both the predecessors of the University of Pennsylvania. A statue of George Whitefield is located in the Dormitory Quadrangle, standing in front of the Morris and Bodine sections of the present Ware College House on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
|Timeline of Whitefield's travel to America|
|Second voyage to America. Established Bethesda Orphan House. Preached in New England.|
|Third voyage to America. In poor health.|
|Fourth voyage to America.|
|1754||Fifth voyage to America.|
|Sixth voyage to America. Traveled east coast.|
|1770||Seventh voyage to America. Wintered in Georgia, then traveled to New England where he died.|
In an age when crossing the Atlantic Ocean was a long and hazardous adventure, he visited America seven times, making 13 ocean crossings in total. It is estimated that throughout his life, he preached more than 18,000 formal sermons, of which 78 have been published. In addition to his work in North America and England, he made 15 journeys to Scotland--most famously to the "Preaching Braes" of Cambuslang in 1742--two journeys to Ireland, and one each to Bermuda, Gibraltar, and the Netherlands. In England and Wales, Whitefield's itinerary included every county.
He went to the Georgia Colony in 1738 following John Wesley's departure, to serve as a colonial chaplain at Savannah. While in Georgia, Whitefield served as minister for an orphanage and traveled extensively throughout both North America and Britain in an effort to raise money for the organization. He would often preach and attend public events during his travels, which served to further spread his message.
"I believe it is God's will that I should marry", George Whitefield wrote to a friend in 1740. But he was concerned: "I pray God that I may not have a wife till I can live as though I had none." That ambivalence--believing God willed a wife, yet wanting to live as if without one--brought Whitefield a disappointing love life and a largely unhappy marriage.
His wife Elizabeth, a widow previously Elizabeth James, née Gwynne, married Whitefield on 14 November 1741, and died of a fever on 9 August 1768. She was buried in a vault at the Tottenham Court Road Chapel. At the end of the 19th century, the Chapel was in danger of collapse and it was rebuilt. All the burials (except Augustus Toplady) were removed to Chingford Mount Cemetery. Elizabeth Whitefield's grave is unmarked. After their 1744-48 stay in America, she never accompanied him on his travels. Whitefield reflected that "none in America could bear her". His wife believed that she had been "but a load and burden" to him. Cornelius Winter, who for a time lived with the Whitefields, observed that Whitefield "was not happy in his wife". Thus, "her death set his mind much at liberty".
In 1770, the 55-year-old Whitefield continued preaching in spite of poor health. He said, "I would rather wear out than rust out." His last sermon was preached in a field "atop a large barrel". The next morning Whitefield died in the parsonage of Old South Presbyterian Church,Newburyport, Massachusetts, on 30 September 1770, and was buried, according to his wishes, in a crypt under the pulpit of this church. A bust of Whitefield is in the collection of the Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery.
It was John Wesley who preached his funeral sermon in London, at Whitefield's request.
Whitefield left almost £1500 to friends and family. That would be some £185,700 in 2014 pounds. Furthermore, he had deposited £1000 for his wife if he predeceased her and had contributed £3300 to the Bethesda Orphanage. "Questions concerning the source of his personal wealth dogged his memory. His will stated that all this money had lately been left him 'in a most unexpected way and unthought of means.'"
In terms of theology, Whitefield, unlike John Wesley, was a supporter of Calvinism. The two differed on eternal election, final perseverance, and sanctification, but were reconciled as friends and co-workers, each going his own way. It is a prevailing misconception that Whitefield was not primarily an organizer like Wesley. However, as Wesleyan historian Luke Tyerman states, "It is notable that the first Calvinistic Methodist Association was held eighteen months before Wesley held his first Methodist Conference." He was a man of profound experience, which he communicated to audiences with clarity and passion. His patronization by the Countess of Huntingdon reflected this emphasis on practice.
Whitefield welcomed opposition because as he said, "the more I am opposed, the more joy I feel". He proved himself adept at creating controversy. In his 1740 visit to Charles Town, it "took Whitefield only four days to plunge Charles Town into religious and social controversy."
Whitefield thought he might be martyred for his views. After he attacked the established church, he predicted that he would "be set at nought by the Rabbies of our Church, and perhaps at last be killed by them".
Whitefield chastised other clergy for teaching only "the shell and shadow of religion" because they did not hold the necessity of a new birth without which a person would be "thrust down into Hell".
In his 1740-1741 visit to America (as he had done in England), he attacked other clergy (mostly Anglican) calling them "God's persecutors". He said that Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London with supervision over Anglican clergy in America, knew no "more of Christianity, than Mahaomet, or an Infidel".
Whitefield issued a blanket indictment of New England's Congregational ministers for their "lack of zeal".
In 1740, Whitefield published attacks on "the works of two of Anglicanism's revered seventeenth-century authors". Whitefield wrote that John Tillotson, archbishop of Canterbury (1691-1694), had "no more been a true Christian than had Muhammad". He also attacked Richard Allestree's The Whole Duty of Man, one of Anglicanism's most popular spiritual tracts. At least once Whitefield had his followers burn the tract "with great Detestation".
In England and Scotland (1741-1744), Whitefield bitterly accused John Wesley of undermining his work. He preached against Wesley, arguing that Wesley's attacks on predestination had alienated "very many of my spiritual children". Wesley replied that Whitefield's attacks were "treacherous" and that Whitefield had made himself "odious and contemptible". However, the two reconciled in later life.
English, Scottish, and American clergy attacked Whitefield, often in response to his attacks on them and Anglicanism, as documented in this section. Early in his career, Whitefield criticized the Church of England. In response, clergy called Whitefield one of "the young quacks in divinity" who are "breaking the peace and unity" of the church.
From 1738 to 1741, Whitefield issued seven Journals. A sermon in St Paul's Cathedral depicted them as "a medley of vanity, and nonsense, and blasphemy jumbled together". Joseph Trapp called the Journals "blasphemous" and accused Whitefield of being "besotted either with pride or madness".
In England, by 1738 when he was ordained priest, Whitefield wrote that "the spirit of the clergy began to be much embittered" and that "churches were gradually denied me". In response to Whitefield's Journals, the bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, published a 1739 pastoral letter criticizing Whitefield. The title was A Caution against Enthusiasm. Being the second part of the late Bishop of London's fourth Pastoral Letter". Whitefield responded by labeling Anglican clerics as "lazy, non-spiritual, and pleasure seeking". He rejected ecclesiastical authority claiming that 'the whole world is now my parish'.
In 1741, Whitefield made his first visit to Scotland at the invitation of "Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, leaders of the breakaway Associate Presbytery. When they demanded and Whitefield refused that he preach only in their churches, they attacked him as a " sorcerer" and a "vain-glorious, self-seeking, puffed-up creature". In addition, Whitefield's collecting money for his Bethesda orphanage, combined with the hysteria evoked by his open-air sermons, resulted in bitter attacks in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Whitefield's itinerant preaching throughout the colonies was opposed by Bishop Benson who had ordained him for a settled ministry in Georgia. Whitefield replied that if bishops did not authorize his itinerant preaching, God would give him the authority.
In 1740, Jonathan Edwards invited Whitefield to preach in his church in Northampton. Edwards was "deeply disturbed by his unqualified appeals to emotion, his openly judging those he considered unconverted, and his demand for instant conversions". Whitefield refused to discuss Edwards' misgivings with him. Later, Edwards delivered a series of sermons containing but "thinly veiled critiques" of Whitefield's preaching, "warning against over-dependence upon a preacher's eloquence and fervency".
During Whitefield's 1744-1748 visit to America, ten critical pamphlets were published, two by officials of Harvard and Yale. This criticism was in part evoked by Whitefield's criticism of "their education and Christian commitment" in his Journal of 1741. Whitefield saw this opposition as "a conspiracy" against him.
When Whitefield preached in a dissenting church and "the congregation's response was dismal," he ascribed the response to "the people's being hardened" as were "Pharaoh and the Egyptians" in the Bible.
Many New Englanders claimed that Whitefield destroyed "New England's orderly parish system, communities, and even families". The "Declaration of the Association of the County of New Haven, 1745" stated that after Whitefield's preaching "religion is now in a far worse state than it was". After Whitefield preached in Charlestown, a local newspaper article attacked him as "blasphemous, uncharitable, and unreasonable."
After Whitefield condemned Moravians and their practices, his former London printer (a Moravian), called Whitefield "a Mahomet, a Caesar, an imposter, a Don Quixote, a devil, the beast, the man of sin, the Antichrist".
In the open air in Dublin, Ireland (1757), Whitefield attacked Roman Catholicism, inciting an attack by "hundreds and hundreds of papists" who cursed and wounded him severely and smashed his portable pulpit.
On various occasions, a woman assaulted Whitefield with "scissors and a pistol, and her teeth". "Stones and dead cats" were thrown at him. A man almost killed him with a brass-headed cane. "Another climbed a tree to urinate on him."
Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon made Whitefield her personal chaplain. In her chapel, it was noted that his preaching was "more Considered among persons of a Superior Rank" who attended the Countess's services. Whitefield was humble before the Countess saying that he cried when he was "thinking of your Ladyship's condescending to patronize such a dead dog as I am". He now said that he "highly esteemed bishops of the Church of England because of their sacred character". He confessed that in "many things" he had "judged and acted wrong" and had "been too bitter in my zeal". In 1763, in a defense of Methodism, Whitefield "repeated contrition for much contained in his Journals".
Among the nobility who heard Whitefield in the Countess of Huntingdon's home was Lady Townshend. Regarding the changes in Whitefield, someone asked Lady Townshend, "Pray, madam, is it true that Whitefield has recanted?" She replied, "No, sir, he has only canted." One meaning of cant is "to affect religious or pietistic phraseology, esp. as a matter of fashion or profession; to talk unreally or hypocritically with an affectation of goodness or piety.".
In the First Great Awakening, rather than listening demurely to preachers, people groaned and roared in enthusiastic emotion. Whitefield was a "passionate preacher" who often "shed tears". Underlying this was his conviction that genuine religion "engaged the heart, not just the head".
In his preaching, Whitefield used a number of rhetorical ploys that were characteristic of theater, an artistic medium largely unknown in colonial America. Harry S. Stout refers to him as a "divine dramatist" and ascribes his success to the theatrical sermons which laid foundations to a new form of pulpit oratory. Whitefield's "Abraham Offering His Son Isaac" is an example of a sermon whose whole structure resembles a theatrical play. As observed by Choi?ski, "Whitefield reconstructs the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac as a drama that was to be 'acted out' from the pulpit: he endows the text with carefully calibrated dialogues and monologues, and divides the developing plot into scene-like sections, which gradually lead to the 'dramatic' climax".
New divinity schools opened to challenge the hegemony of Yale and Harvard; personal experience became more important than formal education for preachers. Such concepts and habits formed a necessary foundation for the American Revolution. Whitefield's preaching bolstered "the evolving republican ideology that sought local democratic control of civil affairs and freedom from monarchial and parliamentary intrusion."
Whitefield's sermons were widely reputed to inspire his audience's enthusiasm. Many of them as well as his letters and journals were published during his lifetime. He was an excellent orator as well, strong in voice and adept at extemporaneity. His voice was so expressive that people are said to have wept just hearing him allude to "Mesopotamia". His journals, originally intended only for private circulation, were first published by Thomas Cooper.James Hutton then published a version with Whitefield's approval. His exuberant and "too apostolical" language were criticised; his journals were no longer published after 1741.
Whitefield prepared a new installment in 1744-45, but it was not published until 1938. 19th-century biographies generally refer to his earlier work, A Short Account of God's Dealings with the Reverend George Whitefield (1740), which covered his life up to his ordination. In 1747 he published A Further Account of God's Dealings with the Reverend George Whitefield, covering the period from his ordination to his first voyage to Georgia. In 1756, a vigorously edited version of his journals and autobiographical accounts was published. Whitefield was "profoundly image-conscious". His writings were "intended to convey Whitefield and his life as a model for biblical ethics ... , as humble and pious".
After Whitefield's death, John Gillies, a Glasgow friend, published a memoir and six volumes of works, comprising three volumes of letters, a volume of tracts, and two volumes of sermons. Another collection of sermons was published just before he left London for the last time in 1769. These were disowned by Whitefield and Gillies, who tried to buy all copies and pulp them. They had been taken down in shorthand, but Whitefield said that they made him say nonsense on occasion. These sermons were included in a 19th-century volume, Sermons on Important Subjects, along with the "approved" sermons from the Works. An edition of the journals, in one volume, was edited by William Wale in 1905. This was reprinted with additional material in 1960 by the Banner of Truth Trust. It lacks the Bermuda journal entries found in Gillies' biography and the quotes from manuscript journals found in 19th-century biographies. A comparison of this edition with the original 18th-century publications shows numerous omissions--some minor and a few major.
Whitfield County, Georgia, United States, is named after Whitefield. When the act by the Georgia General Assembly was written to create the county, the "e" was omitted from the spelling of the name to reflect the pronunciation of the name.
In a 2014 book Thomas S. Kidd summarizes Whitefield's legacy.
Mark Galli wrote of Whitefield's legacy:
George Whitefield was probably the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century. Newspapers called him the 'marvel of the age'. Whitefield was a preacher capable of commanding thousands on two continents through the sheer power of his oratory. In his lifetime, he preached at least 18,000 times to perhaps 10 million hearers.