Happy Birthday - George Whitefield

George Whitefield (December 16, 1714 - September 30, 1770), was a minister in the Church of England and one of the leaders of the Methodist movement.

Early life

In contemporary accounts, he, not John Wesley, is spoken of as the supreme figure and even as the founder of Methodism. He was famous for his preaching in America which was a significant part of the Great Awakening movement of Christian revivals. He has been called by some historians "the first modern celebrity."

At an early age, he found that he had a passion and talent for acting and the theatre, a passion that he would carry on through the very theatrical re-enactments of Bible stories that he told during his sermons. He was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, and Pembroke College, Oxford. Because Whitefield came from a poor background, he did not have the means to pay for his tuition. He therefore entered Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of students at Oxford. In return for free tuition, he was assigned as a servant to a number of higher ranked students. His duties would include waking them in the morning, polishing their shoes, carrying their books and even doing their coursework (see Dallimore). He was a part of the 'Holy Club' at Oxford University with the brothers, John Wesley and Charles Wesley. His genuine piety led the Bishop of Gloucester to ordain him before the canonical age.

Travels and evangelism

Whitefield preached his first sermon in the Crypt Church in his home town of Gloucester. In 1738, he went to America, becoming parish priest of Savannah, Georgia. Returning home in the following year, he resumed his evangelistic activities, with open-air homilies when other denominations' churches refused to admit him.

He parted company with Wesley over the doctrine of predestination; Whitefield was a follower of Calvin in this respect. Three churches were established in England in his name: one in Bristol and two others, the "Moorfields Tabernacle" and the "Tottenham Court Road Chapel", in London.

Whitefield's legacy is still felt in America, where he is remembered as one of the first to preach to those enslaved. The Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts was built for the evangelist's use, and before dying Whitefield requested to be buried under the pulpit of this church, where his tomb remains to this day. In an age when crossing the Atlantic Ocean was a long and hazardous adventure, he visited America seven times, making 13 trans-Atlantic crossings in total. It is estimated that throughout his life, he preached more than 18,000 formal sermons and if less formal occasions are included, that number might rise to more than 30,000. In addition to his work in America and England, he made 15 journeys to Scotland, 2 to Ireland, and one each to Bermuda, Gibraltar, and The Netherlands.

In 1738 Whitefield preached a series of revivals in Georgia. Here he established the Bethesda Orphanage, which still exists to this day. In Georgia there was originally a prohibition on slavery. However in 1749 there was a movement to introduce it there, which Whitefield supported. When he returned to America in 1740 he preached nearly every day for months to large crowds of sometimes several thousand people as he travelled throughout the colonies, especially New England.

Like his contemporary and acquaintance, Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield preached with a Calvinist theology. He was known for his powerful voice and his ability to appeal to the emotions of a crowd, and unlike most preachers of his time spoke extemporaneously, rather than reading his sermon from notes.

Revival meetings

He first took to preaching in the open air with remarkable results at Bristol, which at that time was a center of vice in all its worst forms, and he was the first to provide spiritual privileges for the colliers who lived like heathens near that city. 20,000 of these poor workers crowded to hear him, and the white gutters caused by the tears which ran down their black cheeks showed how visibly they were affected, strong men being moved to hysterical convulsions by his wondrous power. John Wesley joining him there was not a little perplexed at these 'bodily symptoms'; he saw them as evident 'signs of grace', notwithstanding that Whitefield considered them to be 'doubtful indications'. Indeed, modern psychologists would call it symptoms of mass hysteria if there were 'persons that screamed out, and put their bodies into violent agitations and distortions' during a sermon. William Hogarth satirized such effects of Methodist preaching in his print, Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism (1762). Even larger crowds - Whitefield himself estimated 30,000 - met him, with the same dramatic (and contentious) effects in Cambuslang in 1742.

Whitefield's more democratic speaking style was greatly appealing to the American audience. Benjamin Franklin once attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia and was greatly impressed with his ability to deliver a message to such a large audience. He was also known to be able to use the newspaper media for beneficial publicity. His revolutionary preaching style shaped the way in which sermons were delivered. He was one of the fathers of Evangelicalism. He was certainly the best-known preacher in America in the 18th century, and because he travelled through all of the American colonies, and drew great crowds and media coverage, he was one of the most widely recognized public figures in America before George Washington.
This was taken from Wikipedia, here.

For more on Whitefield see these resources:
The Divine Dramatist
George Whitefield
The Great Awakening
Select Sermons of George Whitefield
George Whitefield's Journals

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