The Rev. George Whitefield (1714–1770) was a contemporary of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. He was an English Anglican preacher who spent most of his life spreading the gospel by preaching in the open air and was one of the major instruments God used in the 18th century Great Awakening in Britain and the United States.
He was probably the best known preacher in Great Britain and America during his lifetime and was considered one of the founders of Methodism. He drew great crowds when he preached, had amazing oratory skills and a voice which carried over long distances. Benjamin Franklin, when listening to Whitefield, once estimated that he could be heard by over thirty thousand people at one time in the open air.
Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England, Dec. 27, 1714 and died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Sept. 30, 1770. He was the son of an innkeeper. At the age of twelve he was placed in the school of St. Mary de Crypt at Gloucester in 1732. He eventually graduated after a year’s intermission of his studies so that he might be drawer of liquor in the inn (kept by his mother since his father’s death in 1716).
He entered Pembroke College, Oxford. The religious impressions which he felt on different occasions had been deepened while he was at school and at Oxford he fell in with the Wesley’s. He joined the “Holy Club,” and observed its rules rigorously, being the first of the Oxford “Methodists” to profess conversion (1735). Due to poor health, he left Oxford for a year, returning in March, 1736.
On June 20, 1736, Bishop Benson ordained him. Whitefield preached his first sermon the following Sunday. It was at the ancient Church of Saint Mary de Crypt, the church where he had grown up as a boy and was consequently well known. He described this occasion 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 during the first sermon.”
He took his B.A. in the same year. He spent much time among the prisoners in Oxford, preached in London and elsewhere and quickly rose to great prominence as a pulpit orator. He continued in active service until the end, preaching for two hours at Exeter, Mass., the day before his death, while it was his regular custom to preach every day in the week, often two and four times daily.
George Whitefield and John Wesley were close friends but had sharp theological differences over predestination and the degree of the work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of men. Following his friend’s death, the story is told that John Wesley was timidly approached by one of the godly band of Christian sisters who have been brought under his influences and who loved both Whitfield and himself:
“‘ Dear Mr. Wesley, may I ask you a question?’
“‘ Yes, of course, madam, by all means.’
“‘ But, dear Mr. Wesley, I am very much afraid what the answer will be.’
“‘ Well, madam, let me hear your question, and then you will know my reply.’
“At last, after not a little hesitation, the inquirer tremblingly asked, ‘ Dear Mr. Wesley, do you expect to see dear Mr. Whitefield in heaven?’
“A lengthy pause followed, after which John Wesley replied with great seriousness, ‘No, madam.’ “His inquirer at once exclaimed, ‘Ah, I was afraid you would say so.’
“To which John Wesley added, with intense earnestness, ‘Do not misunderstand me, madam; George Whitefield was so bright a star in the firmament of God’s glory, and will stand so near the throne, that one like me, who am less than the least, will never catch a glimpse of him.'”
May such humility towards ourselves, and exaltation of others, be our pattern of life.
Soli deo Gloria!