George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England on December 16, 1714, the illegitimate son of an English barmaid.
Whitefield was converted through a Bishop who directed him to John 7:37 “Let the thirsty come to me”. To which Whitefield exclaimed aloud, “I thirst!” This admission of his own hopelessness led to an assurance of God’s grace for him.
His ordination message, at age 22, touched the hungry souls and irritated those hardened by religion. Two years later he was attracting huge crowds to his church in Bermondsey, during that time of Evangelical Awakening (1738) , but noted that more than a thousand people stood outside and the combined stink of the crowd was appalling.
Whitefield decided to begin “field preaching”, but his friend John Wesley thought it insane. It was also illegal to preach outdoor except at public hangings.
A hanging was to take place at the coalmining town of Kingswood, Bristol, where the population was totally illiterate and uncouth. When the accused committed suicide the miners dug up the corpse and partied.
Whitefield’s heart was broken for these people and he walked into their gathering and preached about the blessing on the poor in spirit. The people responded to his love for them. Whitefield wrote that as he preached he saw “the white gutters made by their tears down their black cheeks” (covered by coal dust).
Though Anglican pulpits were immediately shut to him, 10,000 people gathered at Kingswood the following Sunday. Whitefield was internationally famous from that day on.
Historians tell us that this man of God preached between 40 and 60 hours a week, a total of more than 18,000 sermons during 34 years of ministry. He crossed the Atlantic 13 times and ministered extensively in the New World American colonies.
Coupled to these amazing statistics are the sizes of the crowds which flocked to hear him. Preaching in the open air to crowds of 10,000–20,000 was not uncommon. “It has been estimated,” writes K. Hardman, in The Spiritual Awakeners, page 90, “to more than 100 million persons…”
Benjamin Franklin, who heard him preach many times in Pennsylvania, declared that he had a “voice like an organ”.
Whitefield and the Wesleys parted company in a controversy over predestination, but they were reunited in fellowship before Whitefield died. John Wesley preached at Whitefield’s memorial service in England.
George Whitefield, that prince among evangelists, died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on 30 September, 1770, at the age of 56, and is buried beneath the pulpit of the Newburyport Presbyterian Church.
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com