GEORGE 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
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 amplifi- cation--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), strug- gled 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 tru- ancy 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 him- self 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:
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-conformist religious societies in London. However, these buildings 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 viv- idness that crowds listening would stare through tear-filled eyes as he spoke. Once,
while describing an old man trem- bling toward the edge of a precipice, Lord Chesterfield jumped to his feet and shouted as
George walked the man unknowingly 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 accompanying him from
Philadelphia to Chester. Here he preached to thousands with even the judges postponing their business un- til 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 re- vival 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 enthusiasm. 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 frequent 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 position 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 possessions 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,
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 improve. 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."