Whitefield was educated at St. Mary de Crypt School in Gloucester and Pembroke College, Oxford University; in 1735 he was converted, while a member of the same Holy Club, in Oxford, to which John Wesley and Charles Wesley belonged. At the invitation of John Wesley, Whitefield visited Georgia in 1738, and on his return to England, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England. He found many churches closed to his "evangelical" ministry, but he preached where invited, as well as in the open air, and persuaded Wesley to follow the latter practice.
Whitefield was a preaching evangelist who could address thousands in the open air and command rapt attention. He was indefatigable, often preaching three and four times a day for hours at a time. He preached throughout Scotland, Wales, and England and in addition made seven journeys to America. He gave impetus to the First Great Awakening in the American colonies around 1740. He collaborated with his Jonathan Edwards, who had started a revival in 1736 in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was founder and chief supporter of an orphanage in Oglethorpe, Georgia. As an imperial figure he united the people of the American colonies.
In 1756, he founded the Old South Church (Newburyport, Massachusetts).
Whitefield, unlike Wesley, was Calvinistic in his theological views. The two differed on eternal election, final perseverance, and sanctification, but were reconciled as friends and co-workers, each going his own way. Whitefield was not primarily an organizer but a man of profound experience, which he could communicate through clear expression infused with passion. During his later years he was patronized by the Countess of Huntingdon, who was the center of a group of Calvinistic Methodists until her death in 1791. She gave generously of her time, energy, and means to build chapels and found a seminary and, to prove her loyalty, separated from the Church of England in 1779. Whitefield died in Newburyport, Mass., on Sept. 30, 1770, and was buried there.
The Anglican Church had not assigned him pulpit so he began preaching in parks and fields in England on his own, reaching out to people who normally did not attend church. Like Edwards, he had developed a style of preaching that elicited emotional responses from his audiences. However, Whitefield had charisma, and his voice (which according to many accounts, could be heard over vast distances), small stature, and cross-eyed appearance (which some people took as a mark of divine favor) all served to help make him the first American celebrity. Thanks to the use of print in colonial America, perhaps more than half of all colonists, heard about, read about, or read something written by Whitefield. Whitefield used print extensively. He sent advance men to put up broadsides and to distribute handbills announcing his sermons. He also arranged to have his sermons published (a common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).
Whitefield's reconciliation of humility and power contributed much to the creation of democratic thought in the American colonies. The First Great Awakening democratized religion by redressing the balance of power between the minister and the congregation. Rather than listening demurely to preachers, people groaned and roared in enthusiastic emotion; new divinity schools opened to challenge the hegemony of Yale and Harvard; personal revelation became more important than formal education for preachers. Such concepts and habits were a necessary foundation for the American Revolution.
Franklin admired Whitefield, who first visited the colonies in 1738. Franklin saw Whitefield as a fellow intellectual, but thought Whitefield's plan to run an orphanage in Georgia would lose money. Franklin published several of Whitefield's tract. He was intrigued and himself moved by Whitefield's ability to preach and speak with clarity and enthusiasm to crowds ranging in the thousands. Franklin was a ecumenist and approved of Whitefield's ability to appeal to members of many denominations. Franklin was not moved by the Methodist evangelist's revivals, but did conclude that religiosity was a good thing for other people, so at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he proposed a prayer for divine intervention to aid the troubled proceedings.. After one of Whitefield's sermons, Franklin noted the:
- "wonderful...change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."
A lifelong close friendship developed between the revivalist preacher and the worldly, secular humanist. Looking beyond their public images, one finds a common charity, humility, and ethical sense embedded in the character of each man. True loyalty based on genuine affection coupled with a high value placed on friendship helped their association grow even stronger over time.
- Lambert, Frank. "Pedlar in Divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770. (1994). 238 pp.
- Stout, Harry S. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. (1991). 301 pp.
- "I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher!" The Life and Ministry of George Whitefield: Living and Preaching as Though God Were Real (Because He Is) by John Piper
- Nancy Ruttenburg, "George Whitefield, Spectacular Conversion, and the Rise of Democratic Personality." American Literary History 1993 5(3): 429-458. 0896-7148
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p.104-108; Samuel J. Rogal, "Toward a Mere Civil Friendship: Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield." Methodist History 1997 35(4): 233-243. 0026-1238