George Whitefield (1715-1770), English evangelist, prominent figure in America’s Great Awakening, was born in Gloucester, England to an innkeeper’s family. The family’s limited means led a family friend to step forward to provide Whitefield enough money to begin his education at Oxford University’s Pembroke College. There Whitefield came into contact with a small band of pious students lampooned by their fellows as the “Holy Club.” He was greatly influenced by the group’s leader, John Wesley, and eventually underwent a profound religious awakening that convinced him of his need to reach others with the necessity of the New Birth. Although he would stay on friendly and supportive terms with Wesley, Whitefield remained a Calvinist on such issues as free will and predestination.
In 1737 he was ordained a preaching deacon in the Church of England and immediately took to the road as an itinerant evangelist. What was particularly new about his methods was that he opted for preaching outside of ecclesiastical settings in the open air in town and countryside. Another innovation was his effective use of newspapers, leaflets, and pamphlets to stimulate interest in his arrival. And, unlike the clergy in the Anglican Church, Whitefield preached without the benefit of notes, believing that extemporaneous discourse made one more open to the Spirit’s promptings and was closer in preaching style to that used by the biblical prophets and apostles. Observers marveled at his dramatic style and rhetorical flourish: the famous English actor David Garrick is reported to have exclaimed that he “would give a hundred guineas” if he could only “say ‘oh!’ like Mr. Whitefield.”
Whitefield took his first trip to America in 1738 and there founded his famed orphanage, “Bethesda,” just outside Savannah, Georgia–subsequent preaching tours would all raise funds for this enterprise over the years. Whitefield’s second American preaching tour of 1739-1741 was a smash success, gaining strength as he travelled from the South northwards through Philadelphia. As he toured the towns and cities of New England in 1740 he reaped the benefits of generations of Puritan preaching and Jonathan Edwards’ recent revivals. Crowds estimated at ten, twenty, and more thousand flocked from all over New England to hear him preach.
Over the next thirty years Whitefield made five more trips to America, as well as numerous excursions through the English countryside and into Wales and Scotland. By the time of his death in 1770 Whitefield could be credited with establishing evangelical Protestantism on both sides of the Atlantic through the thousands of souls who experienced the “New Birth” under his preaching, and the legion of preachers he inspired to follow in his footsteps.
For further reading see Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1991).