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 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 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
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
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 survived in any form.
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 he 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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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 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."