Rev. George Whitefield was an early leader of the Methodist movement in England, but he split from it over theological differences. With no pulpit officially assigned to him, he preached from wherever he felt the urge – and he was a master.
His sermons in England drew thousands, and his listeners were moved emotionally. They also were moved to generosity when he passed the collection plate.
Whitefield came to the American colonies in 1738 and helped ignite the First Great Awakening. He made 13 trips to the colonies, and died here in Newburyport, Mass., in 1770 at age 55. The cross-eyed preacher was a master of self-promotion, using handbills and public printings of his sermons to drive attendance at his events.
His sermons were a fiery blast of Biblical rhetoric and personal philosophy, and he became a powerful and influential figure, never hesitating to mix politics with religion.
For instance, Whitefield supported slavery. When it was outlawed in the colony of Georgia, he worked to have it made legal again – which was successful in 1751. He used slaves to run his orphanage there, and he used his oratory skills to raise money for the endeavor.
Benjamin Franklin took in one of his fundraising sermons, and was surprised to discover that he, and his money, were not beyond the reach of the minister’s charms. In his autobiography he wrote:
“I happened soon after to attend one of his Sermons, in the Course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a Collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my Pocket a Handful of Copper Money, three or four silver Dollars, and five Pistoles in Gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the Coppers. Another Stroke of his Oratory made me ashamed of that, and determined me to give the Silver; and he finished so admirably, that I emptied my Pocket wholly into the Collector’s Dish, Gold and all. At this Sermon there was also one of our Club, who being of my Sentiments respecting the Building in Georgia, and suspecting a Collection might be intended, had by Precaution emptied his Pockets before he came from home; towards the Conclusion of the Discourse, however, he felt a strong Desire to give, and applied to a Neighbor who stood near him to borrow some Money for the Purpose. The Application was unfortunately to perhaps the only Man in the Company who had the firmness not to be affected by the Preacher. His Answer was, At any other time, Friend Hopkinson, I would lend to thee freely; but not now; for thee seems to be out of thy right Senses.”
Growing up in Newburyport, Mass., in the 1790s, Sarah Anna Emery’s mother recalled some of the most important events and colorful stories of her age. Among them, she remembered how her sister was attracted to the fiery preacher and decided to defy her father’s wishes to go and hear the Rev. Whitefield.
Hearing George Whitefield
“The fourth parish in Newbury, like its predecessor at the river side, and the parent society at Old town, belonged to what might be termed, the low church wing of Congregationalism. The Rev. William Johnson had been strongly opposed to the more rigid views of some of his brethren in the ministry. He would not admit the renowned Whitefield into his pulpit, and the great revivalist was obliged to preach in a private house.
“I have often heard my great aunt Sara Noyes describe the sensation produced by the eloquent divine. My great grandfather, Deacon John Noyes, fully sympathized in the disapproval evinced by his pastor, and he issued a strict edict forbidding any of his family attending what he termed “those disorderly assemblies.” Aunt Sara, then a girl in her teens, entertained, as was natural, a strong desire to see and hear one whose name was on every tongue, and whose words and their effects were the chief topics of conversation on every side. At last, after much fear and trembling, she mustered courage to make a clandestine attempt to satisfy her curiosity. An evening meeting was to be held at a house in the vicinity, and she determined to brave her father’s displeasure, if her absence was discovered, and go. It was a dark, cheerless night, when, with a throbbing heart, stealing down the stairs and noiselessly opening the door, she ran lightly down the gravel’ walk. Her hand was on the latch of the front gate, when a voice, in an authoritative tone, exclaimed ‘Go back!’ Startled, affrighted, she stopped, turned, and peered on all sides into the darkness.
“No one was in sight. Through the uncurtained window she could see her father and the other members of her family seated around the bright wood fire. Concluding that, owing to the nervous timidity which this disobedience to paternal mandates had caused, imagination had conjured up this voice, with another long and searching look around, she opened the gate. ‘Go back!’ reiterated the voice, even more decidedly than at first, just in her ear.
“What could it mean? Again she stopped, waited, looked and listened. Nothing unusual could be seen, and not a sound could be heard save the wind sighing through the trees. Sara Noyes was a resolute girl, not easily turned from any purpose she had deliberately formed, neither had she much belief in the supernatural. Thrusting back her fears, with a strong will she stilled her throbbing heart, and with a firm step, she again started forward. ‘Go back, go back,’ thundered the voice, in such a powerful and authoritative tone, that, thrilling in every nerve, the astonished girl, completely subdued, hastily turned, and fled into the house. Though she lived to a great age, and could never be reckoned a credulous person, to the last hour of her life she firmly believed that this was a Divine interposition to keep her from evil.”
With thanks to Jessica Parr, author of the new book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, who corrected several errors.
Professor Parr adds:
George Whitefield believed he could remain part of the Church of England, despite theology and outdoor preaching that was incompatible with Church of England practices.
This is one of a number of miscalculations Whitefield made over the course of his career.
George Whitefield arrived in New England at a critical time when Puritan influences were fading in civil life and the region was becoming more commercial. Plus, New England’s religious culture had always been deeply fractious. The decision (by Benjamin Coleman and others) to invite Whitefield to New England was deeply controversial. Some of the older guard clergy like Charles Chauncey didn’t like the disruption he created. They thought he undermined the authority of the clergy. Christopher Grasso’s book, A Spoken Aristocracy, might be helpful on this point.
But (as I argue in my book) George Whitefield ought to be understood in the context of the contestation over toleration on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s important not to oversimplify the effect he had on New England as just a matter of “conservative” or “liberal” clergy.
This story was updated in 2021.