George Whitefield is estimated to have preached some 18,000 sermons in his lifetime. His histrionic ability, his beautiful voice, and a compulsive personal conviction enabled him to hold an audience with remarkable power. Multitudes clamored to hear him. Benjamin Franklin wrote of Whitefield: “The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was a matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed 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.” More than any other preacher of his day, he made the Great Awakening a vital, far-reaching force, religiously, socially, and politically, in America. The article below offers some brief details of his life:
George Whitefield was a Calvinistic Methodist; born in Gloucester, England, Dec. 27, 1714; died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Sept. 30, 1770. At the age of twelve he was placed in the school of St. Mary de Crypt at Gloucester, and in 1732, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. The religious impressions which he had felt on different occasions had been deepened while he was at school the second time, and at Oxford he fell in with the Wesleys, joined the “Holy Club,” and observed its rules rigorously, being the first of the Oxford “Methodists” to profess conversion (1735). In 1736 he was ordained deacon, taking his B.A. in the same year. He now spent much time among the prisoners in Oxford, preached in London and elsewhere and speedily rose to great prominence as a pulpit orator.
Whitefield had been requested by the Wesleys to come to them in Georgia, and he finally resolved to go, though he did not sail until the beginning of 1738. He spent several months in Georgia, preaching with great acceptance, but in the same year returned to England to be ordained priest. Here he found many London churches closed to him because he was considered fanatical, but he preached to such as would receive him, and also visited and worked among the Moravians and other religious societies in London. Early in 1739 he held a conference with the Wesleys and other Oxford Methodists and in February went to Bristol. Being excluded from the churches, he preached in the open air, and induced Wesley to take a similar step, thus establishing an innovation which gave opportunity to the Methodist movement. At Kingswood, near Bristol, he laid the foundations of the Kingswood School, which became so important to Methodism.
Whitefield now began his career as an itinerant evangelist. He visited Wales, and gave an impulse to the revival movement already begun by Howell Harris; and he next traveled through Scotland, and then went through England, attracting extraordinary attention everywhere. But his critical characterization of the clergy as “blind guides” roused many to oppose him, and this hostile feeling preceded him to America, where some of the Anglican churches refused him their pulpits, though other churches were open to him. He preached in Philadelphia and New York, and on his way to Georgia; during a visit to New England the revival which had begun in Northampton in 1736 was renewed. Whitefield visited America on seven occasions.
He early became Calvinistic in his views, and his association with Calvinistic divines in America deepened them. He complained to Wesley because he (John) attacked the doctrine of election, and there was a sharp controversy between them. Whitefield was nominally the head of the Calvinistic Methodists, but he left to others the work of organization. His time was divided between Great Britain and America, and he preached among all denominations. He continued in active service until the end, preaching for two hours at Exeter, Mass., the day before his death, while it was his regular custom to preach every day in the week, often two and four times daily. 1
“Whitefield 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.” 2
1. Article above is an abridged and edited copy taken from The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Philip Schaff Vol. XII: H.K. CARROLL
2. Final paragraph is an excerpt from Who’s Who In Christian History – Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
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