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George Whitefield

George Whitefield

George Whitefield (1714-1770) was an English evangelist whose preaching in America climaxed the religious revival known as the Great Awakening.

George Whitefield was born in the Bell Tavern, Gloucester. This tavern, of which his father was proprietor, located in a rough neighborhood, was his childhood home. His later confessions of early wickedness were probably exaggerated, but they can be understood as belonging to this setting. His first religious raptures also belong to these early years. When he was 12 years old, he left grammar school and became a tapster in the tavern. However, hope of a university education sent him back to his former teacher, who continued his preparation for college, and in his thirteenth year George matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford, as a servitor.

At Oxford, Whitefield met John and Charles Wesley, joined the Holy Club, and practiced religious asceticism for a time. Through the Wesleys he learned of the Methodist mission recently established in the colony of Georgia in America. At 21 he professed personal religious conversion, and thereafter to the last day of his life his all-consuming desire was to tell of the "new birth" he had experienced. At 22 he was ordained at Gloucester Cathedral and received his bachelor of arts degree from Oxford.

Young Preacher

Whitefield began to preach with amazing success. His youth, his histrionic ability, his beautiful voice, and a compulsive personal conviction enabled him to hold an audience with remarkable power. As he preached in Bristol, Bath, and London, his popularity increased. Multitudes clamored to hear him, for it was the common people who were most deeply affected by his preaching. Those whom he could not reach with convictions of their sins were nevertheless moved by the power of his eloquence.

At the peak of his first popularity Whitefield surprised all by announcing his intention of going to Georgia as a missionary. In February 1738 he embarked on the first of his seven voyages across the Atlantic. His first stay in Georgia was brief. He returned to England to take priest's orders in the Church of England and to collect money to build an Orphan House for the Georgia mission. The money came, for he had influential friends among the upper classes, and philanthropy of this sort was current in London.

During his two-year sojourn in England, Whitefield's success as a preacher increased beyond all expectation. He was almost a phenomenon. Very soon, however, criticism began to be voiced, at first by churchmen, because of the Calvinistic tone of his sermons. When churches of the settled ministry began to be closed against him, he took to churchyards and fields; with this innovation his popularity with the masses greatly increased. So did the criticism. The press gave him more space. On the eve of his second departure for America he was a front-page controversial figure, the idol of thousands and the target of sometimes unseemly abuse. Word of all this reached America before his arrival, giving him the best preparation he could have asked.

American Success

After another brief time in Georgia, planning the Orphan House, Whitefield had the greatest triumph of his life during his month-long tour through New England. Welcomed by ministers and officials of colonies and towns, he found shops closed and business suspended during his stays, thousands of people at his heels, and many following him to the next town. No wonder his head was turned by such adulation. He was only 26 years old at this time, a fact often forgotten in making up his account. Success had come too early.

Whitefield's Boston visit lasted 10 days. Met on the road by a committee of ministers and conducted into the town, he found all meetinghouses except King's Chapel open to him. He preached in all of them and also on the Common, where thousands could assemble. The contemporary record was set down in superlatives. Benjamin Colman's words are typical: "admired and followed beyond any man that ever was in America."

The suddenness of Whitefield's acclaim for a time disarmed skeptics and silenced criticism, but before the 10 days were over, more realistic second thoughts began to be expressed by the more discerning. His criticism of the settled ministry as "unconverted" sparked the first criticism, though it did not bother the multitudes who were as clay in his hands. After his departure, the declarations of several leading ministers, and later still the testimonies of Harvard College and Yale against him, provided considerable check to the earlier unqualified admiration.

Later Revivals

Whitefield's five later visits were less spectacular, but none lacked extravagance and sensationalism. He was a magnet, and to his last sermon, preached the day before his death, he could cast a spell over his hearers, even though by now they knew his power was of the moment only.

After two centuries George Whitefield remains something of a controversial figure, although the controversy no longer deals with praise or blame or the accuracy of his own accounting of 18,000 sermons preached. Rather, modern critics meditate upon his impact on the mid-18th century. He broke the familiar meetinghouse pattern and released the membership to new ways of thought and action; he encouraged men to righteousness through their own individual decision; he put new hope in men's hearts and made the good life more attainable in response to their own desire for it; he made God kinder. He was not a thinker; he was not the originator of a new doctrine. He was a man with a conviction, and in some way not easily analyzed, as he stood before an audience of thousands, he seemed the living evidence of the gospel he preached. More than any other preacher of his day, he made the Great Awakening a vital, far-reaching force, religiously, socially, and politically, in America.

Further Reading

Sources of information of Whitefield are his own A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield's Journal (1740); Luke Tyerman, Life of the Rev. George Whitefield, B.A. of Pembroke College (2 vols., 1876-1877); and Stuart C. Henry, George Whitefield: Wayfaring Witness (1957). □

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Whitefield, George (1714-1770)

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

Revivalistic preacher

Sources

Transatlantic Revivalist. George Whitefield was an Anglican minister who scorned theology for whatever message would spark the conversion of people of all religious persuasions in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America. He used the increased ease of travel and the communications network of the eighteenth century to spread his message through a series of transatlantic revivals that became the Great Awakening in America. He preached the same sermons wherever he traveled, polishing them after each performance according to the reactions of his audiences. One of the first to capitalize on the emerging transatlantic press, he published his journals, sermons, and letters; directed his secretary to send press releases to newspapers, publicizing his tours and then giving his version of what had transpired on them; and inspired evangelical magazines that sprang up to extol his amazing successes. In public he subsumed his privately sweet and gentle personality beneath such dramatic preaching that it engendered an unearthly egoism in a man who was committed to bring salvation to all. He left a scorched earth in his wake, created by the fires of revivalism and the hot anger of those who saw only the excesses. The Great Awakening in America can ultimately be traced to this one man.

A Natural Preacher. Whitefield was born in 1714 in Gloucester, England, the son of innkeepers. He was a mediocre student but excelled in drama. At Oxford he met John and Charles Wesley (who founded Methodism), experienced conversion, and joined their pious circle. Following his ordination in 1736, he preached his first sermon and was amazed at the result, reporting that I drove 15 mad. He had found his calling, and news of Whitefields ability spread by word of mouth. Wherever he preached, crowds materialized out of nowhere. He began to preach in the fields, an innovation that delighted his listeners and forced him to employ a more powerful voice and style than even he thought possible. He also learned that by attacking the clergy, who had closed their pulpits to him, he could draw even larger crowds. A marvelous performer, he acted out his parts, used thunderstorms to punctuate his sentences, and created imaginary dialogues with biblical characters in sonorous tones that carried to the farthest edges of the crowd. He shouted, stomped, sang, and always wept. His cross-eyed stare (the result of a childhood case of measles) was viewed as a sign of supernatural presence which allowed him to keep one eye on heaven and the other on hell. His message was simple: Repent and you will be saved. He neither understood theology nor considered it to be important in his mission of driving people to seek salvation. In the words of a young Maryland man, he has the best delivery with the worst divinity that I ever mett with.

The Grand Itinerant. Whitefield began his traveling preaching career in America in order to raise money for an orphanage which he and the Wesley brothers had established in Georgia. When he arrived in Philadelphia in 1739, his reputation had preceded him, and the inhabitants rushed to meet this boy preacher who had attained such fame before he was twenty-five years old. Through Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and New England he went, attracting large crowds and attacking clergy. Whitefield moved across the colonial landscape in a brilliant flash that lasted one month. He wintered in Georgia, but composed press releases to insure that he was not forgotten. In April 1740 he returned to Philadelphia and even captured the wily Benjamin Franklin with his oratory. Then he returned to Georgia for a well-publicized confrontation with Anglicans there, which kept his name in the news. In September he embarked on another tour of New England and then was off to Scotland, sparking revivals there.

Extremist Imitators. By 1744 Whitefields meteoric rise to fame was ending. Many other preachers now gave sermons out of doors, mobs materialized and drowned out even his powerful voice, and former supporters either condemned his extremism or took it further. Gilbert Tennent adopted his attacks against ministers and brought them to new heights; James Davenport turned his dramatic techniques into a parody; lay preachers proliferated, mouthing whatever their audiences wished to hear; and churches splintered into vitriolic factions. Even the newspapers turned against him, matching his press releases with unfavorable comments by his opponents. Many blamed Whitefield for causing all of this disorder.

Apologies. It was an older, wiser, and more sober Whitefield who returned to America in 1745. He apologized to everyone for his youthful egotism that had inadvertently unleashed all of this disorder and abuse of godly ministers. His heart had been in the right place, he maintained; it was just that his dramatic flair had gotten out of hand. He continued his evangelical tours, but in a less confrontational manner. His revivals became routine and even acceptable to society; more time was spent in quiet and pious conversations with individuals; and slaves became an object of his attention. He preached his last sermon in Boston on 29 September 1770, died at its conclusion, and was buried there.

Sources

Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 17371770 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994);

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991).

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Whitefield, George

George Whitefield, 1714–70, English evangelistic preacher, leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church. At Oxford, which he entered in 1732, he joined the Methodist group led by John Wesley and Charles Wesley. Ordained (1736) a deacon in the Church of England, Whitefield soon demonstrated his power as a preacher. The first of his seven trips to America was made in 1738, when he spent a short time in Georgia in the mission post vacated by John Wesley. He returned to England to seek funds for an orphanage in Georgia and to take orders as an Anglican priest, but his connection with the Wesleys and the evangelical character of his preaching led to his exclusion from most of the pulpits of the Church of England. He then began a series of open-air meetings in Bristol and elsewhere, to which huge audiences were attracted. He persuaded John Wesley to carry on the work while he again visited (1739–41) America; there he was an influential figure in the Great Awakening, preaching to congregations in the large settlements from Georgia to New England.

About 1741 Whitefield adopted Calvinistic views, especially in regard to predestination. Breaking away from the Wesleys, he became the leader of the Calvinistic Methodists, whose greatest numbers were in Wales. However, Whitefield's personal friendship with John Wesley continued. In London his work was centered in the Moorfields Tabernacle, near Wesley's church. Returning to England after another evangelistic tour (1744–48) in America, he was appointed a chaplain in the Connexion, the Methodist association sponsored by the countess of Huntingdon. Whitefield's evangelistic tours in Great Britain and America continued to draw throngs; in 1756 the noted Tottenham Court Chapel, London, was opened for him. His last sermon was delivered in the open air at Exeter, Mass., the day before he died in Newburyport, where he is buried.

See his works (6 vol., 1771–72); biographies by L. Tyerman (2 vol., 1876), S. C. Henry (1957), and H. S. Stout (1991); studies by A. A. Dallimore (1970) and J. C. Pollock (1972).

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Whitefield, George

Whitefield, George (1714–70). Calvinistic preacher and leader in the Evangelical Revival. Born in Gloucester, Whitefield was educated at Oxford, where he associated with the Wesley brothers. His skill as a communicator was at its best in his outdoor evangelistic preaching to vast crowds. His ardent Calvinism brought him into conflict with J. Wesley, but the two men retained their friendship, Wesley preaching the sermon at Whitefield's funeral. He visited America for extended preaching tours on seven different occasions, eventually dying there.

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"Whitefield, George." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Whitefield, George." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/whitefield-george

"Whitefield, George." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/whitefield-george

Whitefield, George

Whitefield, George (1714–70) English evangelical preacher, an important figure in early Methodism. In 1738, he made his first visit to America. Whitefield's stirring, open-air sermons contributed to the Great Awakening. He broke from John Wesley to form the Calvinistic Methodist Church.

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