George Whitefield, 1714-1770, English Evangelist
Written by: Unknown Posted on: 03/13/2003
English evangelist. 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 Univer-
sity, 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
In 1743 he parted company with the Wesleys on doc-
trine and adopted a moderate Calvinism as correct Bible doc-
trine. 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.
BORN: December 16, 1714
DIED: September 30, 1770
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 amplifi-
cation--and, if we might add, before the days of
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 chil-
dren. 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
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
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 or-
dained him. He placed his hands upon his head--whereupon
George later declared, "My heart was melted down, and I of-
fered my whole spirit, soul and body to the service of God's
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 sur-
vived in any form.
The Wednesday following his first sermon, he re-
turned to Oxford where the B.A. degree was conferred upon
him. Then he was called to London to act as a supply minis-
ter 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
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 cou-
ple 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
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
One of his favorite preaching places was just out-
side London, on a great open tract known as Moorfields. He
had no designated time for his services, but whenever he be-
gan 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-re-
peated 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 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 demonstra-
tions, 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 sec-
ond 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
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 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
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
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 re-
spect 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 misap-
propriating 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 in-
curred 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
In 1756 he was in Ireland. He made only two, possi-
bly three, trips here. On this occasion, at age 42, he al-
most 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 minis-
tered 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 fu-
neral 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
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
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 in-
tended 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 re-
quested 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.
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