George Whitefield was a minister in the Church of England and one of the leaders of the Methodist movement. He was born on December 16, 1714 at the Bell Inn, Gloucester, and died in Newburyport, Massachusetts on September 30, 1770. 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.

Whitefield preached his first sermon in the Crypt Church in his home town of Gloucester. In 1738, he went to America, becoming minister of Savannah, Georgia. Returning home in the following year, he resumed his evangelical activities, preaching in the open air when 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. Later the society meeting at the second Kingswood School at Kingswood, a town on the eastern edge of Bristol, was also called Whitefield's Tabernacle. His legacy is still felt in America, as well. 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; his tomb remains there to this day. Some of his followers joined the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion", spreading a Calvinistic form of Methodism in Wales, and Whitefield became the Countess's chaplain. 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. He owned slaves who worked at the orphanage, and these were bequeathed to the Countess of Huntingdon when he died. 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. It is difficult to say wherein the effect of his preaching lay; certainly not in his language or logic, for his printed sermons contain nothing remarkable; it must have been by earnestness and charm of voice that he could attract to him the rich as well as the poor.

Resources

  • A. A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth Century, Volumes 1 & 2, Banner of Truth (1980).

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