Whitefield, George

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Whitefield, George (1714-1770): English Theologian.

One of the greatest evangelists of the Great Awakening, Whitefield was the sixth son and youngest child of Thomas Whitefield (d.1716) and his wife, Elizabeth Edwards (d.1751). Though he came from a long line of clergyman, his father was a wine merchant in Bristol and later keeper of the Bell Inn in Gloucester, where George was born. His mother, who remarried in 1724, sent him in 1726 to the St. Mary de Crypt School, where he showed a fondness for drama; however, he left before age fifteen and worked for over a year in the inn. In 1732 he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, where he was a servitor, waiting on more prosperous students at meals. At Oxford he met Charles and John Wesley, whose “methodism” he admired and emulated. In 1735 he joined their “Holy Club” and experienced religious conversion. He assumed a leadership role after the Wesleys departed for Georgia later that year and founded a similar group in Gloucester. He was ordained a deacon in June 1736, received the B.A. in July, and quickly embarked upon a career of itinerant preaching. Though criticized by staid Anglicans, he was immensely popular—particularly among the poor—because of his intense enthusiasm, his eloquent style, and his habit of speaking without notes. While he concentrated initially on London and western England, he soon extended his range to Scotland, Wales, and America, achieving much more success in the latter than the Wesleys. In February 1738 he sailed to Georgia, the first of seven trips to America, from which the Wesleys already had returned for good. Like John, he kept a journal. In Georgia he established schools and began planning an orphanage. Returning to England later in the year, he was ordained priest in 1739 and began to attract aristocratic supporters, most notably Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, whose chaplain he became in 1748.

Though the Wesleys strongly influenced him, Whitefield actually anticipated their work in some respects, and he differed with them on certain points of doctrine. It was Whitefield who first adopted the practice of field preaching, which John Wesley at first abhorred, though he adopted the practice at Bristol in 1739. Whitefield also publishing his journals (1738) before John (1740); though they sold well, they were more controversial, as increasingly were his sermons. Embracing predestination put him at odds with the Wesleys, who believed in free will; though they were personally reconciled in 1742, this disagreement permanently split the methodist movement between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. He held the first conference of Calvinist Methodists at Watford in 1743, over a year before John Wesley’s first London conference. He was less loyal to the Church of England than the Welseys and sometimes preached in non-canonical garb. He was threatened with excommunication in 1739 for preaching without a license, and during his career he was often in trouble with Anglican authorities and found himself barred from some dioceses and many individual churches. During his second visit to America in 1739-41 he ran afoul of Alexander Garden, the Anglican Commissary stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, who suspended him in 1741. While he had limited success in the South, where he often preached in the fields or Presbyterian chapels, in 1740 he did establish his orphanage at Bethesda, which he heavily subsidized with his own money. Moreover, he was well received in the North, especially in Philadelphia, where he attracted huge audiences and won the admiration of Franklin, Benjamin (who became his friend and his printer), and in New England, where Edwards, Jonathan and others had prepared the way for his style of evangelism.

Returning to England in 1741, he established his first tabernacle in London, which was replaced by a new building in 1753. Having unsuccessfully proposed marriage to Elizabeth Delamotte of Kent in 1740, he married Elizabeth James (formerly Burnell) on 14 November 1741. The couple had one child, John, who died in infancy. Whitefield maintained his whirlwind schedule of preaching, producing over 7,500 sermons. He traveled to America again in 1744-48, 1751-52, 1754-55, and 1763-65, and preached in England, Scotland, and Wales in the intervals. He established another tabernacle at Bristol in 1756. Though often involved in disputes with other dissenters, he refused to adhere to any one sect and preached to any who would hear him, priding himself on appealing to sinners. His wife died on 9 August 1768, and he made his final voyage to America in 1769. He died on 30 September 1770 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he is buried. He was widely mourned, by John Wesley among others. This admittedly ugly evangelist, with the permanent squint (the result of childhood measles) and unorthodox manner, left behind many converts and not a few imitators.

Further Reading:

Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival, 2 vols., 1970, 1979.

John Pollock, George Whitefield and the Great Awakening, 1972.

William B. Robison

Southeastern Louisiana University