WHITEFIELD, GEORGE (1714–1770)
Revivalist and well-known evangelist of the eighteenth century
Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England, where he received his early education. Later he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, where in exchange for tuition he served several more highly placed students. At Oxford he was befriended by John and Charles Wesley and became part of the Holy Club, a group of young men devoted to the regular practice of Christian duties. While at Oxford he experienced an evangelical conversion and became convinced of the absolute necessity of spiritual regeneration for salvation. After receiving ordination as a deacon in the Church of England in 1736, he began preaching on the necessity of the “New Birth.”
When opposition to his preaching resulted in churches closing their doors to him, he began preaching wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself, such as in meeting houses of religious societies, public halls, barns, and (far more scandalous at the time) open fields. As an itinerant preacher he was tireless. In his nearly thirty-four years of ministry he spoke more than fifteen thousand times to literally millions of people. In addition to Wales, Ireland, and his own England, he made fourteen visits to Scotland and seven trips across the Atlantic to the American colonies (1738, 1739–1741, 1744–1748, 1751–1752, 1754–1755, 1763–1765, 1769–1770), where he died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1770. _Whitefield’s friendship with the Wesleys became strained as differences in theology became apparent. Whitefield, a decided Calvinist, freely preached on the bound will, God’s electing grace, and the definite Atonement, themes that were at odds with John Wesley’s Arminianism. In 1741 they officially broke from each other but maintained a mutual respect for the rest of their lives. Whitefield was neither a theologian nor the organizer that John Wesley was, but for sheer oratory he was unsurpassed, and as a preacher he did not allow doctrinal issues to determine where he would minister. He freely crossed ecclesiastical boundaries, and though Anglican, he cooperated readily with all denominations and was equally at home in America and in England.
Routinely claimed as the founder of American revivalism, Whitefield was the leading figure in the eighteenth-century American revival known as the Great Awakening. In his first visit to the American colonies in 1738 he helped to found an orphanage in Georgia. During his second visit, beginning in 1739, his preaching set the colonies ablaze with revival. The height of his success came in 1740 during a six-week tour of New England. In just forty-five days he preached over one hundred and seventy-five sermons to tens of thousands of people, leaving the region in a spiritual uproar, marking one of the most remarkable periods of American Christianity. His aggressive method of preaching wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself was new to America and especially to Puritan New England. While ministers would occasionally exchange pulpits by mutual consent, the whirlwind itinerant ministry of Whitefield set an example that was later imitated by evangelical ministers of all denominations. Unlike the preaching of his day, which was heavily doctrinal and full of multiple points and subpoints and delivered in a “plain style,” he preached with simplicity and directness and with much life and passion. His free use of natural gestures, illustrations, and a more extemporaneous style permanently altered American evangelical preaching. He was also a preacher of extraordinary power and possessed a supreme ability to hold audiences, attracting people from every rank and station in life. Benjamin Franklin estimated that he could be heard clearly by up to thirty thousand people at one time.
He was one of the first to enlist the aid of laymen, thereby helping to break down the rigid clergy-laity distinction in ministry. While not despising educated and ordained clergy, he was led to emphasize piety and gifts over official sanction. What was needed were men truly converted, called, gifted, and living a godly life. In addition, he believed that personal study was an indispensable part of the Christian life; thus he was directly involved in helping to found three American educational institutions: the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), and Dartmouth; and at the time of his death he was intending to begin one in Georgia.
By his successive trips to the American colonies and extensive preaching tours throughout Britain, Whitefield helped to knit into a unified movement an evangelical network of revivalism that transcended denominational barriers. He inspired such figures as Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert Tennent in America and fanned into flame the revival fires that swept through Scotland and Wales in the early 1740s. His network of correspondence was staggering; he often received his letters by the trunkload. While he enjoyed unprecedented success, he also experienced great censureship and abuse. In the first years of his ministry he committed several indiscretions that were forcefully brought to his attention. When confronted with his own mistakes he characteristically owned up to them and gave public apology for them. His willingness to confess and redress such errors early in his ministry enabled him to avoid committing others for the greater part of his life. By the time of his death he had won the admiration and commanded the attention, if not the assent, of the entire English-speaking world, leaving a legacy that has helped shape American Christianity.
C. Mitchell, “Whitefield, George,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 716–717.