English evangelist. George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England, the
son of a saloon operator. He was converted to Christ in 1733 and shortly afterwards
entered Oxford University, where he fellowshipped with the Wesley brothers,
John and Charles. His ministry began with his preaching in jails to the prisoners
and doing missionary work in the colony of Georgia.
In 1743 he parted company with the Wesleys on doctrine and adopted
a moderate Calvinism as correct Bible doctrine. The thousands of converts
during his ministry were a result of his extensive preaching in Scotland,
Wales, and seven visits to America. His voice could be heard at a range of
one mile without amplification, while it is said that his oratorical powers
were such that he could make an audience weep with his pronunciation.
On a balcony not far from his deathbed, he preached his last message to more
than 2,000 people and died within an hour after extending the invitation.
ARTIST'S NOTE: All the color scheme is relegated to depict drama. This was
the keynote of his ministry and approach to the Gospel. The composition and
contrasting colors emphasize a powerful and disturbing message.
BORN: December 16, 1714 Gloucester, England
DIED: September 30, 1770 Newburyport, Massachusetts
LIFE SPAN: 55 years, 9 months, 14 days
WHITEFIELD WAS THE MOST TRAVELED preacher of the gospel up to
his time and many feel he was the greatest evangelist of all time.
Making 13 trips across the Atlantic Ocean was a feat in itself,
for it was during a time when sea travel was primitive. This meant
he spent over two years of his life traveling on water-782 days.
However, his diligence and sacrifice helped turn
two nations back to God. Jonathan Edwards was stirring
things up in New England, and John Wesley was doing
the same in England. Whitefield completed the trio of men humanly
responsible for the great awakening on both sides of the Atlantic. He
spent about 24 years of ministry in the British Isles and about
nine more years in America, speaking to some ten million souls.
It is said his voice could be heard a mile away, and his open-air preaching
reached as many as 100,000 in one gathering! His crowds
were the greatest ever assembled to hear the preaching of the gospel
before the days of amplification-and, if we might add,
before the days of advertising. He
was born in the Bell Inn where his father,
Thomas, was a wine merchant and innkeeper. The father died when
George was two. George was the youngest of seven children. His widowed
mother, Elizabeth (born in 1680), struggled to keep the family
together. When the lad was about ten his mother remarried, but
it was not a happy union. Childhood measles
left him squint-eyed the rest of his life. When he was twelve
he was sent to the St. Mary de Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester.
There he had a record of truancy but also a reputation as an actor and
orator. At about 15 years of age George persuaded his mother to let
him leave school because he would never make much use of his education-so
he thought! He spent time working in the inn.
Hidden in the back of his mind was a desire
to preach. At night George sat up and read the Bible. Mother
was visited by an Oxford student who worked his way through college
and this report encouraged both mother and George to plan for college.
He returned to grammar school to finish his preparation
to enter Oxford, losing about one year of school.
When he was 17 he entered Pembroke College at Oxford in November,
1732. He was gradually drawn from former sinful associates, and after a year,
he met John and Charles Wesley and joined the Holy Club. Charles Wesley
loaned him a book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man. This book-plus a severe
sickness which resulted because of long and painful periods of spiritual
struggle-finally resulted in his conversion. This was in 1735. He said
many years later: I know the place...Whenever I go to Oxford, I
cannot help running to the spot where Jesus Christ first revealed
himself to me, and gave me the new birth.
Many days and weeks of fasting, and all the other tortures
to which he had exposed himself so undermined his health that
he was never again a well man. Because of poor health, he left school
in May, 1735, and returned home for nine months of recuperation.
However, he was far from idle, and his activity attracted the attention
of Dr. Benson, who was the bishop of Gloucester. He announced
he would gladly ordain Whitefield as a deacon. Whitefield returned to Oxford
in March of 1736 and on June 20, 1736, Bishop Benson ordained
him. He placed his hands upon his head-whereupon George
later declared, "My heart was melted down, and I offered my whole spirit,
soul and body to the service of God's sanctuary."
Whitefield preached his first sermon the following Sunday. It
was at the ancient Church of Saint Mary de Crypt, the church where he
had been "baptized" and grown up as a boy. People, including his
mother, flocked to hear him. He described it later: ...Some few
mocked, but most for the present, seemed struck, and I have since
heard that a complaint was made to the bishop, that I drove fifteen
people mad, the first sermon. More than 18,000 sermons were to follow in his
lifetime, an average of 500 a year, or ten a week.
Many of them were given over and over again. Less
than 90 of them have survived in any form.
The Wednesday following his first sermon, he returned
to Oxford where the B.A. degree was conferred upon him.
Then he was called to London to act as a supply minister at the
Tower of London. He stayed only a couple of months,
and then returned to Oxford for a very short time, helping a friend
in a rural parish for a few weeks. He also spent much time amongst
the prisoners at Oxford during this time.
The Wesley brothers had gone to Georgia in America, and Whitefield
got letters from them urging him to come there. He
felt called to go, but the Lord delayed the trip for a year, during
which time he began to preach with power to great crowds throughout
England. He preached in some of the principal churches of
London and soon no church was large enough to hold those who came
to hear him.
He finally left for America from England on January 10, and on February
2, 1738, sailed from Gibraltar, although he had left England in December.
The boat was delayed a couple of places, but Whitefield used the extra time
preaching. He arrived in America on May 7, 1738. Shortly after arrival
he had a severe bout with fever. Upon recovering he visited Tomo-Chici,
an Indian chief who was on his death bed. With no interpreter
available, Whitefield could only offer a prayer in
He loved Georgia and was not discouraged there as were
the Wesleys. He was burdened about orphans, and started to collect funds for
the same. He opened schools in Highgate and Hampstead, and also a school
for girls in Savannah. Of course he also preached. On
September 9, 1738, he left Charleston, South Carolina, for
the trip back to London. It was a perilous voyage. For two
weeks a bad storm beat the boat. About one-third of the way home, they
met a ship from Jamaica which had ample supplies to restock the
dwindling food and water cargo on their boat. After
nine weeks of tossing to and fro they found themselves
in the harbor of Limerick, Ireland, and in London in December.
On Sunday, January 14, 1739, George Whitefield
was ordained as a priest in the Church of England by his friend, Bishop Benson,
in an Oxford ceremony.
Upon his return to London, he thought that the doors would be opened
and that he would be warmly received. Instead
it was the opposite. Now many churches were closed to him.
His successes, preaching, and connection with
Methodist societies-in particular his association with the Wesleys-were
all opposed by the establishment. However, he preached to as many
churches as would receive him, working and visiting with such
as the Moravians and other non-conformist religious societies in London.
However, these buildings were becoming too small to hold the crowds. Alternative
plans had to be formulated.
Howell Harris of Wales was preaching in the fields. Whitefield wondered
if he ought to try it too. He concluded he was an outcast
anyway, so why not try to reach people this "new" way?
He held a conference with the Wesleys and other Oxford Methodists before
going to Bristol in February. Soon John Wesley would be
forced to follow Whitefield's example. Just outside the
city of Bristol was a coal mine district known as Kingswood Hill.
Whitefield first preached here in the open on February 17, 1739. The
first time about 200 came to hear him, but in a very
short time he was preaching to 10,000 at once. Often
they stood in the rain listening with the melodies of their singing
being heard two miles away.
One of his favorite preaching places was just outside London,
on a great open tract known as Moorfields. He had no designated
time for his services, but whenever he began to preach, thousands came to
hear-whether it was 6 a.m. or 8 p.m. Not all were fans, as
evidenced by his oft-repeated testimony, "I was honored with having
stones, dirt, rotten eggs and pieces of dead cats thrown at me."
In the morning some 20,000 listened to him, and in the evening
some 35,000 gathered! Whitefield was only 25 years old. Crowds up to 80,000
at one time gathered there to hear him preach for an hour and a half.
There seems to be nothing unusual in content about his printed
sermons, but his oratory put great life into them. He could
paint word pictures with such breathless vividness that crowds listening would
stare through tear-filled eyes as he spoke. Once, while
describing an old man trembling toward the edge of a precipice,
Lord Chesterfield jumped to his feet and shouted as George
walked the man unknowingly toward the edge"He is gone." Another
time in Boston he described a storm at sea. There were many sailors
in the crowd, and at the very height of the "tempest" which Whitefield
had painted an old salt jumped to his feet and shouted,
"To the lifeboats, men, to the lifeboats!" Often as many as 500 would
fall in the group and lay prostrate under the power of a single sermon.
Many people made demonstrations, and in several instances men
who held out against the Spirit's wooing dropped dead during his meetings.
Audible cries of the audience often interrupted the messages. People
usually were saved right during the progress of the service. The altar call
as such was not utilized.
On August 1, 1739, the Bishop of London denounced him-nevertheless
on August 14 he was on his way to his second trip to America, taking
with him about $4,000 which he had raised for his orphanage.
This time he landed near Philadelphia on October
30, preaching here before going south. The old
courthouse had a balcony, and Whitefield loved to preach
from it whenever he came here. People stood in the streets all
around to listen to him. When preaching on Society Hill near Philadelphia
he spoke to 6,000 in the morning and 8,000 in the evening. On
the following Sunday the respective crowds were 10,000 to 25,000.
At a farewell address, more than 35,000 gathered to hear him.
Benjamin Franklin became a good friend of the evangelist, and
he was always impressed with the preaching although not converted. Once
Franklin emptied his pockets at home, knowing that an offering
would be taken. But it was to no avail. So powerful was the appeal at
Whitefield's meeting that Franklin ended up borrowing money from
a stranger sitting nearby to put in the plate! From Philadelphia
Whitefield went to New York. Again the people thronged to
hear him by the thousands. He preached to 8,000
in the field, on Sunday morning to 15,000, and Sunday afternoon to 20,000.
He returned again and again to these cities.
After a short stay here, he was eager to reach
Georgia. He went by land with at least 1,000 people accompanying him from
Philadelphia to Chester. Here he preached to thousands with even the
judges postponing their business until his sermon was over. He
preached at various places, journeying through Maryland
and ending up at Charleston, South Carolina. He finally
ended up in Savannah on January 10, 1740, going by canoe from Charleston.
His first order of business was to get an orphanage started. He rented
a large house for a temporary habitation for the homeless waifs, and on March
25, 1740, he laid the first brick of the main
building, which he named Bethesda, meaning "house of mercy."
With things under control in the South, he sailed up to New England
in September, 1740, for his first of three trips to that area.
He arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, to commence what historians
call the focal point of "the first great awakening." Jonathan Edwards
had been sowing the seed throughout the area-and Whitefield's presence was
the straw that was to break the devil's back. He preached in Boston to the
greatest crowds ever assembled there to hear the gospel. Some 8,000 assembled
in the morning and some 15,000 returned to the famous Commons in the
evening. At Old North Church thousands were turned away,
so he took his message outside to them. Later, Governor
Belcher drove him to the Commons where 20,000 were waiting to hear him.
He was invited more than once to speak to the faculty and students
of Harvard. At Salem, hundreds could not get into the building
where he spoke.
He then preached four times for Edwards
in Northampton, Massachusetts (October 17-20), and, though
he stayed in New England less than a month that time, the revival
that was started lasted for a year and a half. He left January 24, 1741,
and returned to England March 14, 1741. There he found that John
Wesley was diverging from Calvinist doctrine, so he withdrew from the
Wesley Connexion which he had embraced. Thereupon, his friends
built him a wooden church named the Moorfields Tabernacle. A reconciliation
was later made between the two evangelists, but they both went
their separate ways from then on. Thenceforth, Whitefield
was considered the unofficial leader of
Unique details are available following his break
with Wesley. They begin with his first of fourteen trips to Scotland
July 30, 1741. This trip was sponsored by the
Seceders, but he refused to limit his ministrations to this one sect
who had invited him-so he broke with them.
Continuing his tour, he was received everywhere with enthusiasm. In
Glasgow many were brought under deep conviction. The largest audience
he ever addressed was at Cambuslang, near Glasgow, where he spoke to
an estimated 100,000 people! He preached for an hour and a half
to the tearful crowd. Converts from that one meeting numbered
nearly 10,000. Once he preached to 30,000; another day he
had five services of 20,000. Then he went on to Edinburgh where
he preached to 20,000. In traveling from Glasgow to Edinburgh
he preached to 10,000 souls every day. He loved it so much he cried out, "May
I die preaching," which, in essence, he did.
Then he went on to Wales, where he was to make frequent trips
in the future, and was received with great respect and honor.
Here he met his wife to be, Elizabeth James, an
older widow. They were married there on November 14, 1741, and on October
4, 1743, one son was born, named John, who died at age four
months, the following February.
In 1742 a second trip was made to Scotland. During the
first two visits here Scotland was spiritually awakened and set "on
fire" as she had not been since the days of John Knox. Subsequent visits
did not evidence the great revivals of the early trips, but these
were always refreshing times for the people. Then a tour through
England and Wales was made from 1742 to 1744. It was in 1743 that he
began as moderator for the Calvinistic Methodists in Wales, which position
he held a number of years.
In 1744 George Whitefield almost became a martyr. He was attacked by a man
uttering abusive language, who called him a dog, villain, and so forth,
and then proceeded to beat him unmercifully with a gold-headed cane until
he was almost unconscious. About this time, he was also accused of misappropriating
funds which he had collected. Nothing could be further from the
truth. At least once he had to sell what earthly possessions
he had in order to pay a certain debt that he had incurred for
his orphanage, and to give his aged mother the things she needed.
Friends had loaned him the furniture that he needed when he lived in
England. When he died he was a pauper with only a few personal
possessions being the extent of his material gain.
Another trip was made to America from 1744 to 1748. On his way
home because of ill health, he visited the Bermudas.
It was a pleasant trip. On the trip he preached regularly
and saw many souls won to the Lord. It was in 1748 that he said, "Let
the name of Whitefield die so that the cause of Christ may live." A
fourth trip to America was made October 27, 1751, to May, 1752.
Upon his return to England he was appointed one of the chaplains
to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon-known as Lady Huntingdon, a
friend since 1748. His mother died at 71 in December of 1751.
In 1753 he compiled "Hymns for Social Worship." This was
also the year he traveled 800 miles on horseback, preaching to
100,000 souls. It was during this time that he was struck
on the head by stones and knocked off a table upon which he had been
preaching. Afterwards he said, "We are immortal till our work
is done," a phrase he would often repeat.
In 1754 Whitefield embarked again for America, with 22 orphans. En
route he visited Lisbon, Portugal, and spent four weeks there.
In Boston thousands awakened for his preaching at
7 a.m. One auditorium seating 4,000 saw great numbers turned away
while Whitefield, himself, had to be helped in through
a window. He stayed from May, 1754, to May, 1755.
In 1756 he was in Ireland. He made only two, possibly three, trips
here. On this occasion, at age 42, he almost met death.
One Sunday afternoon while preaching on a beautiful green near
Dublin, stones and dirt were hurled at him. Afterwards a mob gathered,
intending to take his life. Those attending to him fled, and he
was left to walk nearly a half a mile alone, while rioters threw
great showers of stones upon him from every direction until
he was covered with blood. He staggered to the door of a
minister living close by. Later he said, "I received many blows
and wounds; one was particularly large near my temples." He later
said that in Ireland he had been elevated to the rank
of an Apostle in having had the honor of being stoned.
Also in 1756 he opened the Congregational Chapel
bearing his name on Tottenham Court Road, London. He ministered here
and at the before-mentioned Moorsfield Tabernacle often. A sixth trip was
made to America from 1763 to 1765. In 1768 he made his last trip to
Scotland, 27 years after his first. He was forced to conclude, "I
am here only in danger of being hugged to death." He visited
Holland, where he sought help for his body, where his health did
improve. It is also recorded that he once visited Spain. His wife
died on August 9, 1768, and Whitefield preached the funeral sermon, using
Romans 8:28 as a text. He dedicated the famous Tottenham Court Road
Chapel on July 23, 1769.
On September 4, 1769, he started on his last voyage to America,
arriving November 30. He went on business to make arrangements
for his orphanage to be converted into Bethesda College.
He spent the winter months of 1769-70 in Georgia, then with the coming
of spring he started north. He arrived in Philadelphia in May, traveling on
to New England. Never was he so warmly received as now. The crowds
flocked in great numbers to see him. July was spent preaching in New York
and Albany and places en route. In August he reached Boston.
For three days in September he was too ill
to preach, but as soon as he could be out of bed he was
back preaching. His last written letter was dated September
23, 1770. He told how he could not preach, although thousands
were waiting to hear.
On September 29, he went from Portsmouth,
New Hampshire, to Newburyport, Massachusetts. He
preached en route in the open at Exeter, New Hampshire. Looking
up he prayed, Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If
I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee
once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.
He was given strength for this, his last sermon. The subject was Faith and
Works. Although scarcely able to stand when he first came before
the group, he preached for two hours to a crowd that no building
then could have held. Arriving at the parsonage of the First Presbyterian
Church in Newburyport-which church he had helped to foundhe had supper with
his friend, Rev. Jonathan Parsons. He intended to go at once to bed.
However, having heard of his arrival, a great number of friends
gathered at the parsonage and begged him for just a short message. He
paused a moment on the stairs, candle in hand, and spoke
to the people as they stood listening-until the candle went out. At
2 a.m., painting to breathe, he told his traveling companion Richard Smith,
"My asthma is returning; I must have two or three
days' rest." His last words were, "I am dying," and
at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning he died-September 30, 1770.
The funeral was held on October 2 at the Old South First Presbyterian
Church. Thousands of people were unable to even get near the door of
the church. Whitefield had requested earlier to be buried beneath
the pulpit if he died in that vicinity, which was done.
Memorial services were held for him in many places. John
Wesley said: Oh, what has the church suffered in the setting
of that bright star which shone so gloriously in our hemisphere.
We have none left to succeed him; none of his
gifts; none anything like him in usefulness.