The Innovative Awakener: George Whitefield and the Growth of the Evangelical Revival
Few evangelists ever touched the masses like George Whitefield. Benjamin Franklin recalled his unparalleled impact on Philadelphia: "It was wonderful to see the Change soon made in the Manners of our InhabitantsÃ¤It seem'd as if all the World were growing Religious; so that One could not walk through the Town in an Evening without Hearing Psalms sung in different Families of every Street."
Whether leading citizens like Benjamin Franklin, coal miners in England, or townspeople in the colonies, George Whitefield moved them all. Unquestionably, he was the greatest evangelist of his time. Before Whitefield was 26, he had become the most popular figure in England and the colonies. Over the next generation, no one spoke to larger crowds or saw more converts, earning him the title Grand Itinerant.
How do you explain such a man? No doubt gifts and calling have a lot to do with it, but there was more to Whitefield's success than natural gifts. Simply stated, Whitefield was an innovative awakener, devising new methods for communicating the gospel and expanding the evangelical revival.
Whitefield was born December 16, 1714. Little is known about his early life except what he records in his Journals. The young Whitefield grew up in a very different environment than John and Charles Wesley whose father was a parish minister. Whitefield's parents operated the Bell Inn in Gloucester, which was hardly an ideal place to raise any child, much less a future minister.
The inn exposed the young Whitefield to the full cast of life's characters--traveling merchants, actors, gamblers, prostitutes, drunks, pickpockets, politicians, and clergy. He learned how to win the favor of people different from himself. In this diverse audience, Whitefield began to cultivate the art of conversation and storytelling.
Although the Whitefield family had been members of the petty aristocracy in the 17th century, their fortunes had sunk to the point where their position in the community was tenuous. In addition, George's father died when the boy was only 2, and his mother's second marriage ended in divorce. So George grew up without the security that comes from having a strong father figure and a stable family environment.
The major influence on the boy was his mother Elizabeth, a woman who possessed none of the qualities that made Susannah Wesley the figure she was in the lives of her children. His parents were nominal Christians at best, and even though George's mother encouraged him to enter the ministry, she seemed to be more motivated by a desire to recover the family's sagging social status than by anything spiritual. The combination of the family's precarious finances and the absence of a strong male role model left George with a deep sense of inferiority and a strong need for affirmation that hounded him throughout much of his life.
George began grammar school at age 12. He was an indifferent scholar who seems to never have improved as a student. Whitefield's real gifts began to emerge early on. He showed considerable skill in elocution and declamation, as well as an exceptional ability to memorize dialogue. In short, George Whitefield was a born actor and starred in many of his school's plays.
Not surprisingly, Whitefield became immersed in theater, studying the passions--anger, love, fear, jealousy, joy, etc. In time, the evangelist would become an unrelenting opponent of the theater, but the lessons he learned about movement, gesture, and voice were never lost to him.
By today's standards, the young Whitefield was something of a juvenile delinquent--drinking, stealing, and getting into frequent scrapes with his mother. After one quarrel, his frustrated mother consented to his leaving home to live with his brother.
As he neared 18, George seemed to think more seriously about his future. With encouragement from his principal and mother, Whitefield sought entrance to Oxford as a servitor--a scholarship student who made his way by serving as a house servant to wealthier Oxonians.
Whitefield was at the bottom of the social ladder at Oxford. The wealthier students never socialized with servitors, and even though Whitefield's ingratiating personality made his life better than most, he was still isolated and lonely. At Oxford he met Charles Wesley who reached out to George and brought him into a group of earnest seekers, which came to be known as the Holy Club. Organized by John Wesley and others, the Holy Club existed to seek a more experientially and morally meaningful faith.
THE NEW BIRTH
The members of the Holy Club aggressively pursued the Christian life, meeting weekly for prayer, Bible study, and mutual support. They engaged in extended prayer vigils and frequent fasting in hopes of discovering the key to a more vital brand of Christianity. Whitefield pursued the goals of the group with special vigor. He fasted twice a week and wore plain clothes. During one Lenten season, he embarked on a 40-day fast that threatened his life and permanently weakened his health. Some of his teachers feared that he had lost his mind and considered expelling him from the university.
Whitefield grasped the meaning of the new birth more quickly than any other member of their circle. It came while reading The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal. Whitefield wondered what Scougal meant when he wrote: "Some falsely placed religion in going to church, doing hurt to no one, being constant in the duties of the closet, and now and then reaching out their hands to give alms.Ã¤" If that wasn't true religion, what was? Whitefield recalled: "God soon showed me; for in reading a few lines further, 'that true religion was a union of the soul with God, and Christ formed within us,' a ray of divine light was instantaneously darted in upon my soul." Although Whitefield did not have all the light, he soon found that he had been delivered from the oppressive weight of sin and realized that salvation involved a new birth. His conversion caused him to redefine the nature of salvation, the meaning of the church, and his own mission in life.
When he graduated from Oxford in 1736, Whitefield briefly considered settling in a parish, a course of action he quickly rejected. One can hardly imagine a person of Whitefield's temperament finding satisfaction in the routines of a parish priest.
His early experiences as a preacher seemed to confirm that Whitefield belonged on a larger stage. The young man was an overnight sensation. Within 18 months, Whitefield found himself preaching to crowds that greatly exceeded the capacity of most churches and were larger than any that had ever gathered in England to hear a preacher. Additional services were often scheduled to accommodate those who could not find seating.
Yet, the youthful superstar did not fit later celebrity stereotypes. Of medium height, his round face became increasingly pudgy with age. On top of that, because of a childhood bout with the measles, one of his eyes was permanently crossed, making him a somewhat comic figure. But Whitefield's unusual appearance did not inhibit him a bit; in fact, his cross-eyed stare seemed at times to mesmerize his audiences.
Popularity and success in preaching were not enough. Whitefield looked for bigger worlds to conquer. He found one in America, learning of the opportunities in far away Georgia from the Wesleys who had gone to the infant colony in 1735. They had failed miserably, leaving before Whitefield arrived in 1738. With his easy and adaptable manner, Whitefield was an instant hit. The colonists loved him, and Whitefield was captivated by the colonies, eventually crossing the Atlantic 13 times. In addition to preaching, he founded an orphanage which he named Bethesda. It became the love of his life, occupying far more of his time and energy than his wife Elizabeth.
WHITEFIELD AND THE GREAT AWAKENING
In October 1739, Whitefield returned to the colonies to begin a barnstorming tour that ended 11 months later. He traveled the length of the colonies, speaking in every city or town of any size, often preaching two or three times a day. Everywhere Whitefield went, he spoke to crowds that would be impressive in our day and were unheard of in his. His last service in Boston (population at the time, 17,000) drew more than 20,000 people.
The era of colonial revivals did not start with Whitefield, but his tour became the catalyst for a new phase of development. Revivals had been occurring in the Middle Colonies and New England for nearly 15 years, first among the Dutch and Scotch-Irish settlers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A few years later, a revival started in Northampton, Massachusetts, under Jonathan Edwards that spread to more than 30 towns in the Connecticut Valley. These early revivals had a powerful impact with several thousand people experiencing new birth. But these revivals were largely regional or local affairs, and their leaders were isolated from one another.
Whitefield's tour changed that. Because of his success, revival became an intercolonial event, indeed, the first truly national event up to that point in American history. Whitefield's services made news everywhere he went, and he became the first "American" celebrity. Although some Christian leaders fear the dangers of celebrity evangelism, there can be no doubt that Whitefield's celebrity status gave the cause of revivalism a visibility that helped galvanize the revival forces in America.
Whitefield redefined revivals. Jonathan Edwards had described the revival in Northampton as "a surprising work of God." But for Whitefield, revivals were neither mysterious nor surprising. He believed they could be organized and promoted. As a result of this new philosophy, Whitefield became the progenitor of a distinctive approach to revivalism that practically assured large, eager, responsive crowds wherever he went.
A NEW PREACHING STYLE
The size of the crowds and the resistance of most of the Anglican clergy caused Whitefield to move his preaching from the church to the marketplace. He was not the first to abandon the traditional venue of the pulpit, but he grasped the importance of shifting locations as did few others in his time, or since. One could hardly find a place in England in the 1730s where more than 10 percent of the population attended church services. Preaching only from pulpits, however eloquent or compelling, could only reach a very small slice of England's population. Whitefield opted for going to where the people were, or to where they would come--the marketplace, open fields, and coal mines.
Whitefield also recognized that preaching had to change in order to be heard in the marketplace. The early 18th century marked the advent of the consumer society and the impersonal marketplace. People made purchasing decisions based on appeal and price rather than on personal relationships. It was a new world--less traditional, less hierarchical, and more competitive. Persuasion was becoming increasingly important. Whitefield knew that the traditional sermon could never compete with actors and peddlers for people's attention.
With his flare for performance, Whitefield developed a new form of preaching--more dramatic and visual, appealing to the emotions rather than to the mind. He frequently took on the persona of a Bible character. He laughed. He wept. He climbed trees. Whitefield became his message and transformed preaching into a dramatic event.
Little wonder the crowds loved him as they did. Whitefield brought biblical characters and themes alive. The most acclaimed actor of the time, David Garrick, said, "I would pay two guineas to say 'Oh!' like Mr. Whitefield." As historian Harry Stout observed, Whitefield "showed how religion could be popular."
"THE PEDLAR OF DIVINITY"
One of Whitefield's critics labeled him, "the pedlar of divinity." George Whitefield was a born promoter. He recognized that promoting revival entailed more than preaching; it required marketing, and no one ever did it better.
Inspired by the effect newspaper reports had on the size of his crowds and his popularity, Whitefield adopted a "print and preach" strategy for extending the evangelical revival. The first edition of his Journals, an account of his life and ministry, was printed in 1740 when he was 25. This may seem as egotistical as some young athletes today who write their life stories before they really have one. Whitefield never intended the Journals as autobiography but saw them as promotional tracts to encourage the growth of revivalistic religion and to serve the need for advance publicity. In 1742, he launched Christian History, a monthly periodical to report the successes of his revivals and revivals of others.
The entrepreneur in Whitefield knew he would need financing to achieve his goals. George had a knack for winning the favor of wealthy and influential people who gave generously to support his evangelical ministry and the orphan house. He not only solicited funds from individuals but developed a system for translating contacts into regular supporters. This is not to imply inappropriate behavior on Whitefield's part; he simply loved people and had an uncanny ability to gain their support. He was passionately devoted to the cause of revival and never seemed hesitant to ask for money.
An almost compulsive networker, Whitefield, through his preaching, personal contacts, and writing, became the most significant force in transforming evangelical revivalism into an international movement. Because of his catholic and irenic spirit, he brought, almost singlehandedly, disparate people together across denominational lines on two continents, although he remained Anglican.
Revivals have always been controversial. Whitefield's were certainly no exception. At times, he seemed to court controversy, going out of his way to antagonize clergy critics.
At a deeper level, Whitefield offended those who exalted reason and disparaged all emotion in religion. He was often the target of scurrilous attacks in the press and by some of the clergy. His crossed eyes inspired one critic to dub him "Dr. Squintum." The famed artist, William Hogarth produced a caricature of a cherubic Whitefield delivering a message to "St. Money-Trap." The young Whitefield usually responded in kind. To the criticisms of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he declared that the prelate "knew nothing more about Christ than he did of Mahomet."
Controversy forced him to refine his understanding of the new birth and of revival. He benefited from his critics by evaluating his own motives and methods, so that the older Whitefield became a more mellow and gracious figure.
There has never been a revivalist, or any other minister for that matter, without a few blind spots. Whitefield was no exception.
The young Whitefield was quite full of himself. The press releases he wrote during his early years offended many. To his credit, maturity and controversy brought him to a more realistic self-appraisal.
Whitefield's social vision was underdeveloped. He was personally compassionate but socially conservative. Bethesda was Whitefield's personal response to the tragedy of orphaned children in Georgia. But his attitude toward black slavery shows his superficial understanding of social issues. He loved the slaves and took pains to spread the gospel to them. Yet, Whitefield encouraged the trustees of Georgia to introduce slavery to the struggling colony to foster economic development. On the slavery issue, Whitefield is a good illustration of the fact that effectiveness in evangelism is no guarantee of universal competence or insight.
Finally, Whitefield never could handle money, as his management of the orphan house attests. He was frequently in debt, borrowing heavily to finance his transatlantic ventures and to keep Bethesda afloat.
EXITING THE STAGE
Whitefield pushed himself mercilessly. The years of ceaseless exertion and constant travel finally caught up with him. By the time he reached his midfifties, his health was all but gone. Suffering from heart disease and knowing that his time was short, the Grand Itinerant wanted to make one more tour of his beloved colonies. He arrived in Charleston in November 1769. Unbelievably, despite his steady loss of strength, he made it as far as Exeter, Massachusetts. He died, at age 55, the morning after preaching his last sermon on September 29, 1770.
George Whitefield often suffers by comparison to his friend and contemporary John Wesley. Whitefield's critics point out that despite his strenuous efforts, the Grand Itinerant left nothing behind, unlike the organizationally-minded Wesley who left the Methodist church.
It is true that he possessed none of Wesley's organizational genius. His management of the orphan house and frequent financial difficulties provide abundant testimony to this. Apart from the multitudes of people who came to saving faith under his preaching, Whitefield may have made his greatest contribution to the spectacular surge of revivalistic religion in the 18th century by serving as the primary catalyst for the creation of a transatlantic evangelical network. This may be his most enduring achievement.
Whitefield (and the rest of us) should not be judged by the accomplishments of others but by faithfulness to his (and our) own gifts and calling. George Whitefield was an evangelist, and for 33 years he gave himself unsparingly to that call. He traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and preached more than 18,000 sermons. Whitefield defined the term evangelist and became the prototype, inspiring a multitude in his time and in the two centuries since his death.
Lambert, Frank. Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Stout, Harry. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.
Whitefield, George. Journals. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960.