1902 Encyclopedia > George Whitefield

George Whitefield
English preacher
(1714-70)




GEORGE WHITEFIELD (1714-1770), one of the most eloquent of pulpit orators, was born on 16th December 1714 at the Bell Inn, Gloucester, of which his father was landlord. At about twelve years of age he was sent to the school of St Mary de Crypt, Gloucester, where on account of his skill in elocution he was chosen to perform in a piece acted before the corporation of the school. He also became very fond of reading plays, a circumstance which probably had considerable influence on his subsequent career, for his eloquence was essentially dramatic in its character. At the age of fifteen he was taken from school to assist his mother in the public-house, and for a year and a half was a common drawer. He then again returned to school to prepare for the university, and in 1733 entered as a servitor at Pembroke College, Oxford. There he came under the influence of the Methodists (see WESLEY), and entered so enthusiastically into their practices and habits that he was attacked by a severe illness, which com-pelled him to return to his native town. His sincere and enthusiastic piety attracted the notice of Dr Benson, bishop of Gloucester, who ordained him deacon on 20th June 1736. Having in the following week returned to Oxford and taken his degree, he began an evangelizing tour in Bath, Bristol, and other towns, his eloquence at once attracting immense multitudes. In 1736 he was invited by Wesley to go out as a missionary to Georgia, and went to London to wait on the trustees. Before set-ting sail he preached in some of the principal London churches, and so rapidly did the fame of his eloquence spread that crowds began to assemble at the church doors long before daybreak. Several of the sermons which he then preached were published "at the request of the hearers." On 28th December 1737 he embarked for Georgia, which he reached on 7th May 1738. After three months' residence there he returned to England to receive priest's orders, and to raise contributions for the support of an orphanage. He was, however, coldly received by the clergy generally, and began to preach in the open air. At Bristol his addresses to the colliers soon attracted crowds, which were latterly estimated to exceed 20,000 persons. Whitefield's voice was so powerful that it penetrated to the utmost limits of the crowd. His fervour and dramatic action held them spell-bound, and his homely pathos soon broke down all barriers of resistance. " The first discovery of their being affected," he says, "-"'as by seeing the white gutters made by their tears, which plentifully fell down their black cheeks." In 1738 an account of Whitefield's voyage from London to Georgia was published without his knowledge. In 1739 he published his Journal from his arrival in Savannah to his return to London, and also his Journal from his arrival in London to his departure thence on his way to Georgia. As his embarkation was further delayed for ten weeks he published A Continua-tion of the Rev. Mr Whitefield's Journal during the time he was delayed in England by the Embargo. His unfavour-able reception in England by the clergy led him to make reprisals. To Dr Trapp's attack on the Methodists he pub-lished in 1739 A Preservative against Unsettled Notions, in which the clergy of the Church of England were rather bitterly denounced; he also published shortly afterwards The Spirit and Doctrine and Lives of our Modern Clergy, and a reply to a pastoral letter of the bishop of London in which he had been attacked. In the same year ap-peared Sermons on Various Subjects (2 vols.), the Church Companion, or Sermons on Several Subjects, and a recom-mendatory epistle to the Life of Thomas JIalyburton. He again embarked for America in August 1739, and remained there two years, preaching in all the principal towns. While there he published Three Letters from Mr White-field, in which he referred to the " mystery of iniquity" in Tillotson, and asserted that that divine knew no more of Christ than Mohammed did.
During his absence from England Whitefleld found that a divergence of doctrine from Calvinism had been intro-duced by Wesley ; and notwithstanding Wesley's exhorta-tions to brotherly kindness and forbearance he withdrew from the Wesleyan communion. Thereupon his friends built for him near Wesley's church a wooden structure, which was named the Tabernacle. In 1741, on the invita-tion of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, he paid a visit to Scotland, commencing his labours in the Secession meeting-house, Dunfermline. But, as he refused to limit his minis-trations to one sect, the Seceders and he parted company, and without their countenance he made a tour through the principal towns of Scotland, the authorities of which in most instances presented him with the freedom of the burgh, in token of their estimate of the benefits to the com-munity resulting from his preaching. From Scotland he went to Wales, where on 14th November he married Mrs James, a widow. The marriage was not a happy one. On his return to London he preached to the crowds in Moor-fields during the Whitsun holidays with such effect as to attract nearly all the people from the shows. After a second visit to Scotland, June to October 1742, and a tour through England and Wales, 1742-44, he embarked in August 1744 for America, where he remained till June 1748. On his return to London he found his congregation at the Tabernacle dispersed; and his circumstances were so depressed that he was obliged to sell his household furniture to pay his orphan-house debts. Having, however, made the ac-quaintance of the countess of Huntingdon, he soon found his pecuniary affairs on a better footing. The countess appointed him one of her chaplains, built and endowed Calvinistic Methodist chapels in various parts of. the country, and erected a college for the training of candi-dates for the ministry. The remainder of Whitefield's life was spent chiefly in evangelizing tours in Great Britain, Ireland, and America. It has been stated that "in the compass of a single week, and that for years, he spoke in general forty hours, and in very many sixty, and that to thousands." On his return from America to England for the last time the change in his appearance forcibly im-pressed Wesley, who wrote in his Journal: " He seemed to be an old man, being fairly worn out in his Master's ser-vice, though he had hardly seen fifty years." When health was failing him he placed himself on what he called " short allowance," preaching only once every week day and thrice on Sunday. In 1769 he returned to America for the seventh and last time. He was now affected by a severe asthmatic complaint; but to those who advised him to take some rest, he answered, " I had rather wear out than rust out." He died on the 30th September 1770 at Newbury, New England, wdiere he had arrived on the previous evening with the intention of preaching next day. In accordance with his own desire he was buried before the pulpit in the Presbyterian church of the town where he died.
Whitefield, says Lecky, "was chiefly a creature of impulse and emotion. He had very little logical skill, no depth or range of knowlege, not much self-restraint." He possessed neither Wesley's organizing power, nor his personal authority and influence. His one talent was his gift of popular oratory, the secret of which was his command of clear and direct English, his remarkable elocution-ary and dramatic skill, and his passionate fervour and simple pathos. His printed works convey a totally inadequate idea of his oratorical powers, and are all in fact below mediocrity. They ap-peared in a collected form in 1771-72 in seven volumes, the last containing Memoirs of his Life, by Dr John Gillies. His Letters, 1734-70, were comprised in vols, i., ii., and lii. of his Works and were also published separately. His Select Works, with memoir by J. Smith, appeared in 1850.
See also Philip's Whitefield's Life and Times, 1837 ; Tyerman's Life of Whitefield,
1876-77 ; and Lecky's History of England, vol. ii. (T. F. H.)








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