George Whitefield
1714 - 1770

English Evangelist

Written by: Unknown

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.

George Whitefield 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 his behalf.

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-con- formist religious societies in London. However, these build- ings 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 un- knowingly  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 accompa- nying 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  Calvinistic Methodism.

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 enthu- siasm.  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 fre- quent  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 mod- erator for the Calvinistic Methodists in Wales,  which posi- tion 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  posses- sions  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 im- prove.  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 found-- he 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.

[ Thanks to: Believer' ]

Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. - Psalms 119:11