One Christian history web site states that George Whitefield was America’s first celebrity. After he arrived in Georgia in the late 1730’s and later began traveling throughout the colonies, historians believe that as many as eighty percent of all colonists heard him speak at least once.
In 1738 Whitefield traveled to Savannah, Georgia, and seeing a need, established an orphanage which would become his life’s work. After three months he returned to England to raise funds for the Bethesda Orphanage (as he named it) and began to preach to large congregations throughout England. However, his sermon delivery methods were not well received so he decided to experiment with extemporaneous sermons delivered outdoors. A sermon delivered to Kingswood miners in Bristol was his first open air meeting.
His oratory skills (remember, his theater background mentioned in Part One) were mesmerizing. Christianity Today described them like this:
These were no ordinary sermons. He portrayed the lives of biblical characters with a realism no one had seen before. He cried, he danced, he screamed. Among the enthralled was David Garrick, then the most famous actor in Britain. “I would give a hundred guineas,” he said, “if I could say ‘Oh’ like Mr. Whitefield.”
Once, when preaching on eternity, he suddenly stopped his message, looked around, and exclaimed, “Hark! Methinks I hear [the saints] chanting their everlasting hallelujahs, and spending an eternal day in echoing forth triumphant songs of joy. And do you not long, my brethren, to join this heavenly choir?”
His return to America and his treks through the colonies in 1739-40 (he traveled over five thousand miles) were well-received – and well-publicized in newspapers of the day (one source indicates that Whitefield himself the publicity). The first city he visited was Philadelphia, then probably the most cosmopolitan city in the colonies. Large crowds came to hear him speak, so large that the services were moved outdoors. It was not uncommon for the crowds to exceed the population of the town or area where Whitefield was speaking.
These crowds clamored and jostled one another to hear him. One account states that the crowds “elbowed, shoved, and trampled over themselves to hear of ‘divine things’ from the famed Whitefield.” (Christianity Today) But once he began speaking, a hush would fall over the crowd. Even Whitefield himself was amazed at “so profound a silence.”
Maybe it was his somewhat “radical” (at least for that period of religious history) message of “new birth” that was so attractive and spellbinding. Remember, the Puritans believed that no one was guaranteed salvation so one would just try and be as good a person as possible and hope that was sufficient to ensure an eternity heaven. He had been friends with the Wesley brothers for years (“Methodism”), but his ideas and messages reflected those of a Calvinist.
Again, Christianity Today notes that “he never pleaded with people to convert, but only announced, and dramatized, his message.” Of course, Whitefield wasn’t the only evangelist of the day who was preaching a challenging message. He also preached alongside the likes of Jonathan Edwards, he also being capable of impressive oratory (e.g., “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). Perhaps Whitefield’s message was more widely broadcast because he wrote pamphlets and newspaper “sermons” as well. In particular, the Pennsylvania Gazette published several of them throughout the years following his first meetings in the colonies.
Sarah Edwards, Jonathan’s wife, once remarked: “He makes less of the doctrines than our American preachers generally do and aims more at affecting the heart. He is a born orator. A prejudiced person, I know, might say that this is all theatrical artifice and display, but not so will anyone think who has seen and known him.” Some people would be so enraptured with his oratory they would collapse under the weight of spiritual conviction.
His voice was said to have been projected well enough for it to be heard clearly a mile away. Apparently none other than a young Benjamin Franklin discovered this was true. At one meeting in Philadelphia Franklin joined the thronging crowds, but instead of stopping to listen, deliberately walked further and further away. He discovered that Whitefield’s voice could still be heard, and was also able to prove that the seemingly unbelievable newspaper accounts of crowds exceeding twenty thousand were possible. This is how Franklin deduced it:
Imagining then a semicircle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were filled with auditors to each of whom I allowed two square feet, I computed that he might be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconciled me to the newspaper accounts of his having preached to twenty-five thousand in the fields.
Whitefield was perhaps the first minister to preach to slaves, although one source believes he didn’t necessarily consider himself an abolitionist as noted later in this article. England, at that time, was still aggressively involved in the slave trade. William Wilberforce, the most well-known British abolitionist largely responsible for bringing an end to the practice, wasn’t born until 1759. Still, Whitefield had a passion and calling to spread the gospel, and some believe that perhaps his efforts in reaching out to the slave population in the New World were the beginnings of African-American Christianity.
His messages and the resulting conversions throughout the colonies came to be known as “The First Great Awakening” or “The Great Awakening of 1740″. When Whitefield returned to England in 1741 he continued to preach, but his popularity was waning due to his constant attacks and challenges to Anglican theology and clergymen. Again, he turned to open air meetings. His ministry took him to Scotland on fourteen occasions – one service continued until 2:00 a.m.
He returned to the colonies in 1744, although finding a distinct cooling of religious fervor was in the air. The Puritans had organized themselves as Congregationalists and in many instances wielded a great deal of influence. He was rejected by some ministers who opposed the “Awakening”, not unlike what he had experienced in England. After being shut out by the Congregationalists he reached out to Baptists and Presbyterians who were receptive to his message.
Whitefield continued to raise money for Bethesda, but during attempts to secure permanent funding he accepted a donation of slaves – and then bought some for himself. The slaves would work in Georgia with the generated income going to the orphanage. This could be considered a “black mark” on an otherwise impressive and laudatory ministry. Although he had previously been somewhat opposed to slavery, he was embracing it more fully in order to fund his orphanage.
After returning to England in 1748 he, as always, continued to preach throughout England, Ireland and Scotland (along with more journeys to the colonies). He made his final trip across the Atlantic in 1769, although his health had begun to decline. One goal had been to establish a college at Bethesda, but that never came to pass.
On September 29, 1770, after falling ill, George Whitefield had prayed for strength to preach just one more sermon in Newburyport, Massachusetts. That sermon, two hours in length on the subject of faith and works, was indeed his last. After returning to the parsonage where he was staying, he experienced a severe asthmatic attack and died on September 30. According to his wishes, he was buried in a crypt beneath the pulpit in the Old South Presbyterian Church.
Not long before his death, while continuing his relentless itinerant speaking schedule, he had remarked, “I would rather wear out than rust out.” One could say that he was the Billy Graham of that day, for during his lifetime it is believed he preached over eighteen thousand times to perhaps as many as ten million.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!