Who was George Whitefield?
Date of birth: December 16, 1714
Date of deeath: September 30, 1770
George Whitefield has been called the father of mass evangelism and the most widely recognized figure in America before George Washington. Whitefield preached 18,000 sermons in his career and his writings, published posthumously, were contained in seven volumes.
Whitefield was born to a poor and widowed inn-keeper in 1714 in Glouster, England. He was educated at Pembroke College at the University of Oxford where he participated in, and even led, John and Charles Wesley’s “Holy Club.” The members of this club were known as methodists. At the age of 22, Whitefield was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. His first visit to America followed two years later when he traveled to Savannah, Georgia to help start Bethesda Orphanage.
Upon returning to England and being ordained as a priest, Whitefield discovered that their congregations were unwelcoming of his preaching style. Consequently, Whitefield was driven outside to preach in the open air, which better suited his powerful speaking voice. He held people’s attention with expressive mannerisms and dramatic body language. He also always focused on the audience as he never used notes.
The Great Awakening
Whitefield sailed back to America and in February, 1739, he preached to coal miners near Bristol, Connecticut. He later said he could see “white gutters made by their tears” as they rolled down their blackened faces. By the time Whitefield was preaching in America, the Great Awakening had already broke out. The revival of evangelical Christianity in American colonies, initiated by Jonathan Edwards, overcame the lack of zeal that characterized most American congregations. What Edwards inaugurated, Whitefield reinforced.
Crowds followed Whitefield as he spoke. During one stretch of time, Whitefield spoke to crowds that averaged 8,000 people daily for almost a month. One time he even spoke to 30,000 people at a single event in Boston, Massachusetts. While he couldn’t find a church in England to let him speak, in America he couldn’t find a church that could contain his audience. At his busiest during this three-year tour, Whitefield preached three sermons a day. Some speculate that Whitefield needed the frequent sailing times to and from England (he visited America seven times) to rest from his hectic pace otherwise he would have died.
In 1741 Whitefield traveled back to England to preach. At this time, he cordially separated from John Wesley over the matter of predestination. Then from the middle 1740’s to early 1950’s, Whitefield preached throughout Great Britain, Ireland, and America.
Whitefield died while on a preaching tour in America in a parsonage belonging to the Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburypot, Massachusetts in September, 1770. He was buried in a crypt under the pulpit of the church where his body remains to this day. Whitefield’s old friend, John Wesley, with whom he had reconciled, praised him at his memorial service.