Whitefield, George

views updated May 11 2018

Whitefield, George

December 16, 1714

Gloucester, England

September 30, 1770

Newburyport, Massachusetts

Evangelical preacher and leader of the Great

"I drove 15 mad."

George Whitefield.

George Whitefield (pronounced Whitfield) was an Anglican minister and leader of the early Methodist movement. Although he was ordained in the Anglican Church (also known as the Church of England, the official religion of the country), he preached Calvinist methodism to people of all Christian denominations in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America. (Calvinism is a religion that placed strong emphasis on the supreme power of God, the sinfulness of humankind, and the doctrine of predestination, which states that all human events are controlled by God.) Embarking on a series of evangelical revivals, he used improved transportation and a developing communications network to spread his message. In public he set aside his sweet and gentle personality to become a riveting, even intimidating speaker. Whitefield's dramatic preaching style electrified his audiences and sparked the American evangelical movement known as the Great Awakening.

One of the first public, religious figures to use the press (newspapers) to his own advantage, Whitefield published his journals, sermons, and letters. He directed his secretary to send press releases to newspapers, publicizing his tours and issuing favorable reports on his miraculous conversion of masses of people. Whitefield also inspired the publication of evangelical magazines, which sprang up throughout the colonies to praise his amazing successes. Eventually he became notorious for his abusiveness, and critics accused him of simply engaging in self-promotion. Nevertheless historians now recognize Whitefield as having made a significant impact on religion in the United States.

Leaves family business

George Whitefield was born on December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England, the youngest of six children of Thomas and Elizabeth (Edwards) Whitefield. His parents were innkeepers in Gloucester, and upon Thomas's death in 1716 Elizabeth took over operation of the inn. In 1724, when Whitefield was ten, his mother married an iron seller named Longden. During his childhood Whitefield had the measles, which left him with crossed eyes and a squint. His mother wanted him to have a good education, so she sent him to St. Mary de Crypt school in Gloucester. He was a mediocre student but he excelled in drama, reportedly performing female roles in school productions. When he was fifteen he decided to leave St. Mary de Crypt, and for the next year and a half he worked at the inn as a "common drawer" (bartender). During this time one of Whitefield's brothers took over the family business. After a falling out with his brother's wife, Whitefield left the inn and went to Bristol, England. His mother then convinced him to apply to Oxford College.

Influenced by methodism

Whitefield was admitted to Oxford in 1732. He received financial assistance from Lady Elizabeth Hastings, who continued to support him and his causes later in life. At Oxford, Whitefield met John Wesley and Charles Wesley, brothers who had founded a society called the Oxford methodists in 1729. This Protestant Christian group earned the nickname "methodists" because of their emphasis on conducting their lives and religious study with "rule and method." They also advocated evangelical preaching (zealously encouraging believers and nonbelievers to make a personal commitment to Christianity). Methodists were highly critical of the Anglican Church, which relied on priests and rituals as a means of communicating with God.

Before entering Oxford, Whitefield had heard about the Wesleys and had been intrigued by their ideas. He was not permitted to join their society until 1735, when he experienced a true religious conversion. Whitefield then returned to Gloucester and formed his own society. Upon his ordination as an Anglican deacon in July 1736, he preached his first sermon at St. Mary de Crypt. Departing from Anglican doctrine, he presented Methodist views of Christianity to his congregation with great emotion and enthusiasm. Amazed at the positive response from the audience, he reported, "I drove 15 mad." Whitefield had found his calling, and news of his remarkable speaking abilities reached churches in other cities. His popularity was further enhanced by the absence of the Wesleys, who had gone to spread the word of Methodism in America. When Whitefield gave his first sermon in London a month later, the audience initially ridiculed his youthful appearance, but soon were captivated by his dramatic flair. However, because of his emphasis on Methodism, Whitefield was not allowed to preach in Anglican churches.

Becomes celebrity preacher

In spite of being barred from the established church, Whitefield became an instant celebrity in England. Wherever he appeared, crowds seemed to materialize out of nowhere. He began delivering his sermons in the fields, an innovation that delighted his listeners. Being outdoors forced him to employ a more powerful voice and highly exaggerated gestures, which he then incorporated into his general preaching style. He also learned that by attacking the Anglican clergy for closing 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 tones that carried to the farthest edges of the crowd. He shouted, stomped, sang, and always wept. People regarded his cross-eyed stare as a sign of a supernatural presence that enabled him to keep one eye on heaven and the other on hell. Whitefield's message was simple: "Repent and you will be saved." He neither understood theology (religious philosophy) nor considered it to be important in his mission of inspiring people to seek salvation (forgiveness of sins).

Whitefield was offered a lucrative position in London, yet in spite of being in debt, he declined the opportunity. He planned instead to join the Wesleys in the Georgia colony, which was founded by James Edward Oglethorpe (see entry) in 1732. He delayed his departure, however, and engaged in missionary work in western England and London for eighteen months. During this time he had phenomenal success. In 1737 Whitefield's first published sermon was reprinted two times, and he was in constant demand as a speaker at charity events. He also raised funds for "the poor of Georgia," with the goal of starting a school and orphanage with the Wesleys. In order to carry out this plan, which would need support from English colonial officials, Whitefield knew he would have to become an Anglican minister. Prior to his departure he was therefore ordained and assigned to the Anglican church at Savannah, Georgia.

Goes to America

Whitefield went to America in 1739. When he arrived in Philadelphia, his reputation had preceded him. Philadelphians rushed to meet this "boy preacher" who had attained such fame before he was twenty-five years old. Whitefield toured Pennsylvania and New York, attracting large crowds and attacking the established clergy. Usually he preached outdoors or in dissenter churches. Whitefield then set out for the southern colonies, traveling through Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and into Georgia. He continued to be greeted enthusiastically by huge crowds. When he reached Savannah he brought over 2,500 pounds (a sum of British money) that he had collected on preaching tours in the British Isles. The Wesleys had since departed for England after having problems with Georgia officials. With the money, Whitefield built an orphanage on 500 acres of land granted to him by Georgia trustees. He called the institution Bethesda. For the rest of his life he financially supported Bethesda, contributing large amounts of his own money.

Whitefield spent the winter in Georgia, but he composed press releases to insure that he was not forgotten in the other colonies. In April 1740 he returned to Philadelphia and even captivated American philosopher and scientist Benjamin Franklin (see entry) with his oratory. Whitefield was also

Benjamin Franklin supports Whitefield

Benjamin Franklin wrote this famous account of one of George Whitefield's sermons:

In 1739 arrived among us from England the Reverend Mr Whitefield who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant [traveling] preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy taking a disliking to him, soon refused him from their pulpits, and he was obliged to preach in the fields. 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, not withstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring 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 through the streets in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street. . . .

I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection and silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded, I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector's dish, gold and all. . . .

Some of Mr Whitefield's enemies affected to suppose that he would apply these collections to his own private emolument [gain], but I who was intimately acquainted with him (being employed in printing his sermons and journals, etc.) never had the least suspicion of his integrity, but am to this day decidedly of the opinion that he was in all his conduct a perfectly honest man.

Reprinted in: Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776, second edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1992, p. 290.

invited to Boston, Massachusetts, where he contributed to an intense debate between two Methodist factions, the liberals and the Calvinists. Whitefield took the Calvinist position, whereas John Wesley sided with the liberals (advocates of less strict interpretation of religious doctrine). As a consequence, followers of Whitefield became rivals of Wesley's supporters. (In 1741 Whitefield became the leader of the Calvinist Methodists.) While Whitefield was in Boston he also met Jonathan Edwards (see entry), the famous Puritan preacher. Impressed by Whitefield's success in lifting Christians out of their "lethargy" (lack of religious fervor), Edwards invited the reformer to preach to his congregation at Northampton, Massachusetts. Whitefield then returned to Georgia for a well-publicized confrontation with an Anglican group, thus keeping his name in the news. In September he embarked on another tour of New England and then sailed to Scotland, where he sparked further revivals.

Power wanes

In 1741 Whitefield married Elizabeth Burnell James, a thirty-seven-year-old widow whom he met in Wales. Two years later the couple had their only child, a son, who died a few months after birth. Whitefield continued his missionary work, but by 1744 his meteoric rise to fame was coming to an end. Many other preachers also began delivering sermons outdoors. When Whitefield spoke, mobs gathered and managed to drown out his powerful voice. In an even more disturbing turn of events, former supporters either condemned his tactics or took them to extremes. For instance, Gilbert Tennent adopted Whitefield's strategy of attacking Anglican ministers, taking it to disturbing heights. Another well-known preacher, James Davenport, did a poor imitation of Whitefield's dramatic delivery. Worse yet, lay preachers (those who are not officially ordained) took up Whitefield's themes, proclaiming whatever views their audiences wanted to hear. As a result, churches splintered into bitter factions. Finally, the newspapers turned against Whitefield, running his opponents' unfavorable comments. Many critics blamed Whitefield for unleashing all of this disorder.

Repents for excesses

In 1745 an older, wiser, and more sober Whitefield returned to America. He apologized for his youthful egotism, which had caused religious chaos and unjustified abuse of other ministers. His heart had been in the right place, he maintained, and his dramatic flair had simply gotten out of hand. Whitefield continued his evangelical tours, but in a less confrontational manner. His revivals became routine and even acceptable to society. He spent more time in quiet and pious conversations with individuals rather than ranting in front of huge crowds. Whitefield also became involved in abolitionist (antislavery) efforts, and his final project was an effort to convert Bethesda orphanage into a college. The plan was never realized and the building burned in 1773. Whitefield preached his last sermon at Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 29, 1770. He died the next day and, in accordance with his wishes, he was buried in Newburyport.

For further research

"George Whitefield." http://www.txdirect.net/_tgarner/webdoc5.htm Available July 13, 1999.

Lambert, Frank. "Peddlar in Divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776, second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1992, p. 290.

Pollock, John Charles. George Whitefield and the Great Awakening. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

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

Whitefield, George (1714-1770)

views updated May 18 2018

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

Revivalistic preacher


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.


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).

Whitefield, George

views updated Jun 11 2018


WHITEFIELD, GEORGE (17141770), English evangelist and itinerant revivalist in America. Born in humble circumstances in Gloucester, England, Whitefield received his bachelor of arts degree from Oxford in 1736, the same year in which Bishop Martin Benson ordained him as deacon in the Church of England. Associated with John and Charles Wesley in an effort to revive a sedate and passionless Anglicanism, Whitefield followed with keen interest the missionary labors of the Wesley brothers in the newly founded colony of Georgia in North America. After nearly three years of preaching in the New World, the Wesleys returned to England discouraged and dismayed by the enormity of the religious challenge abroad. Neither they nor Whitefield's own admirers, however, could discourage the twenty-three-year-old Whitefield from setting out for Georgia on the first of seven voyages to America.

After an absence of less than one year, Whitefield returned to England late in 1738 to receive his ordination as priest, to strengthen his ties with the trustees of the Georgia colony, and to learn that England's hierarchy looked askance at his cavalier attitude toward canon law and the liturgical form of the national church. No less an authority than London's bishop, Edmund Gibson, published in 1739 a pastoral letter condemning "enthusiasm," a dangerous zeal associated with young Methodism in general, and with young Whitefield in particular. For evidence that Whitefield claimed a special and direct guidance from the Holy Spirit, Bishop Gibson turned to the young zealot's first journal, written from December 1737 to May 1738, in which "enthusiasm" seemed so conveniently and convincingly represented. Whitefield responded to this and to many other charges contained in the letter: that he preached extemporaneously in the open fields, that he criticized the national clergy, and that he claimed to "propagate a new Gospel, as unknown to the generality of ministers and people"all this, said the bishop, in what is surely a Christian country already. Even as Whitefield sought to defend himself against the bishop's attack, he found pulpits in England closed to him and the clergy there growing increasingly wary of him. Overtures from the Georgia trustees enticed him once more, as he was now offered a pastoral charge in Savannah, together with a promise of five hundred acres of land for a proposed orphanage. Two weeks after the Gibson letter was published, Whitefield was on his way back to America.

This second visit, lasting from November 1739 to January 1741, was Whitefield's most successful evangelical tour of the American colonies. Wherever he went up and down the Atlantic coast, his reputation as a dramatic, divine messenger preceded him. Enormous crowds gathered in eager anticipation, in churches or outdoors, in town squares or country meadows. Calvinist in his own theological stance, Whitefield found his greatest reception from similarly oriented denominations: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and (later) Baptists. While the first Great Awakening could certainly have occurred without him, it is difficult to imagine that burst of intercolonial and interdenominational pietism arising so swiftly and to such heights apart from the labors of this thundering, persuasive, and tireless traveler.

Even as Bishop Gibson found in Whitefield's own writings his best evidence for the evangelist's excesses, so critics of revivalism in America rifled through his published journals for the ammunition so amply supplied there. Whitefield, for his part, repeatedly and needlessly alienated those who stopped short of uncritical adulation and applause. And although he eventually moderated his censorious tone (and even more important, stopped publishing his journals), damage was done to the evangelical cause on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Whitefield also damaged his relationship with the Wesleys by publishing an attack in 1741 upon the Arminianism evident in John Wesley's sermon "Free Grace."

Still, by the thousands the people came to hear and to believe, in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England as well as throughout the American colonies. For an entire generation Whitefield not only created an evangelical Atlantic community, he embodied it. Any pious project that required broad support found George Whitefield either assisting or directing the effort. He raised funds for Princeton University, helped Dartmouth emerge as a school open to Native Americans, promoted union in England among Calvinist Methodists, pleaded for more support of the Bethesda (Georgia) orphanage, took up collections for victims of natural disasters in Europe or elsewhere, and sustained the hopes of hundreds of thousands that a great and sweeping revival of piety would enliven and awaken all of Christendom.

In 1770 Whitefield made his seventh and final trip to America. After preaching on Saturday, September 29, to an impromptu crowd gathered in the fields of Exeter, New Hampshire, he urged his horse on to Newburyport, Massachusetts. The next morning at six o'clock, he died. He lies buried beneath the pulpit in the town's Presbyterian church.


Two recent scholarly biographies elevate Whitefield studies to a higher plauteau: Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1991); and Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 17371770 (Princeton, N. J., 1994).

Edwin S. Gaustad (1987 and 2005)

George Whitefield

views updated May 11 2018

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). □

Whitefield, George

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Anglican clergyman, leader of the great awakening; b. Gloucester, England, Dec. 16, 1714; d. Newburyport, Massachusetts, Sept. 30, 1770. Whitefield's parents were innkeepers and, after grammar school studies, he worked in the inn. At the age of 18 he obtained a position as a servitor at Pembroke College, Oxford, working as a domestic to pay his lecture fees. Here he became acquainted with John and Charles Wesley and in 1735 experienced a religious conversion. He obtained his B.A. degree and became a deacon in 1736. After doing missionary work in Georgia, he returned to England and was ordained in 1739.

While on a preaching tour of England, Scotland, and Wales, Whitefield became aware that working people were not attending church services. He began field preaching in a coal-mining town in 1739, and open-air

preaching was his rule thereafter. Returning to America that year, he met William and Gilbert Tennent and Theodore Frelinghuysen, who were beginning a religious revival in the colonies. Whitefield's preaching tours (173941) began the Great Awakening in America. After another extended American visit (174448), he made four more colonial preaching tours (175152, 175455, 176365, 176970). Whitefield had the cooperation of many Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Reformed clergymen, but was usually turned away by his Anglican colleagues. He supported many charitable causes, establishing (1740) his Savannah orphanage and a school for African-Americans in Georgia and helping to found (1769) Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, for the education of Native Americans.

In England Whitefield was closely associated with Howell Harris, and in 1743 he was chosen to be moderator for life of the Calvinistic Welsh Methodists. He remained on friendly terms with the Wesleys and attended Methodist Conferences as late as 1767. His Calvinistic theology differed from Wesley's Arminian views on unconditional election, irresistible grace, final perseverance, and nonreprobation. In 1765 he became chaplain to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, whose followers shared his theological views.

Bibliography: t. robert, A Narrative of the Life of George Whitefield (London 1771). l. tyerman, The Life of the Rev. George Whitefield, 2 v. (New York 1877). s. c. henry, George Whitefield: Wayfaring Witness (Nashville 1957).

[r. k. macmaster]

Whitefield, George

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Whitefield, George (1714–70). Evangelist. Born at the Bell Inn, Gloucester, which his father kept, Whitefield entered Pembroke College, Oxford, as a servitor in 1732. Attracted by the Oxford methodists, he openly joined them in 1735. Ordained deacon and then priest (January 1739), he went to America for the first of seven visits in 1738. If his first sermon reputedly drove fifteen hearers mad, his breakthrough as an evangelist came in February 1739 when he preached in the open air to 200 Kingswood colliers. This daring irregularity made his name and soon he was preaching to thousands. He first used extempore prayer in 1738, giving up the surplice in America, where he also exchanged pulpits with dissenters. His championship of predestination interrupted his friendship with Wesley in the late 1740s and the breach between calvinist and arminian methodists remained unhealed. From 1741 Whitefield's London base was Moorfields tabernacle, with other tabernacles at Norwich (1751), Bristol (1756), and elsewhere. In 1744 he met Lady Huntingdon, proving no match for her ‘tip-top gentility’. He is said to have delivered 18,000 sermons, preaching 40–60 hours a week. He visited Ireland, Scotland, and Wales as well as America, where he died, worn out, at Newbury Port, New Hampshire, in September 1770. Fair, stout, irritable, orderly, and punctual, with an inimitable voice, his weakness as an organizer has obscured his lasting influence as the evangelical revival's greatest preacher.

Clyde Binfield

Whitefield, George

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Whitefield, George

WHITEFIELD, GEORGE. (1714–1770). Anglican evangelist. George Whitefield (pronounced Whitfield) was closely identified with John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, until 1741 when he began to espouse Calvinistic views. Whitefield made seven trips to America before the Revolution. He was appointed minister of Savannah, in the newly founded colony of Georgia, and in 1739 established an orphanage called Bethesda some ten miles from the city. He toured the colonies from Georgia to New Hampshire several times, with the avowed purpose of raising money for his orphanage. Hugely popular on his first itinerancy in 1740–1741, he preached to enormous numbers of people in the open air, and sparked what contemporaries believed was a revival of interest in religion so overwhelming that it could properly be called a "great awakening." His popularity declined as the number of new souls to be saved diminished, and as some established clergy came to view his revivals as overwrought displays of emotion and enthusiasm. Nonetheless, if we believe the figures he gave for the numbers who heard him preach, he was seen by more people in more places than anyone before him in British colonial America. By showing people in widely distant places that they shared an interest in the revival of religion, he contributed to eroding the insularity and provincialism that had hitherto isolated colonial Americans.


Lambert, Frank. "Pedlar in Divinity:" George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

                             revised by Harold E. Selesky

Whitefield, George

views updated May 18 2018

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.

Whitefield, George

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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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George Whitefield

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