The following biography appears in the 1894 edition of the Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.George P. Landow scanned, adding paragraphing, formatted in html, and linked the text.]
Whitfield preaching in Moorfield AD 1743.. E. Crowe. Exhibited in the 1865 Royal Academy. Click on image to enlarge it.
George Whitefield, a pre-eminent evangelist and founder of the Calvinistic branch of the Methodists, was a native of Gloucester, England, in the Bell Inn of which town (his father being a tavern-keeper) he was born, Dec. 16, 1714. His father having died while George was yet young, the boy's education devolved solely on his mother, whose pious instructions and example had a powerful influence in imbuing his infant mind with strong religious impressions. Having resolved to cultivate the superior talents with which she saw George was endowed, she sent him to a classical school. At the age of fifteen he had distinguished himself by the accuracy and extent of his knowledge, and by his taste in Greek and Roman literature. But his mother not succeeding in the hotel, and becoming reduced to poverty, the progress of George's education was stopped, and, being driven to undertake some menial place about the establishment, his manners and morals were much injured byhis association with irreligious servants. Happily his religious impressions revived, and, having been confirmed? he received for the first time the sacrament of the Lord s supper.
His mother's circumstances improving. she sent him to Pembroke College, Oxford, and there he joined in forming a small select society for mutual improvement in religious knowledge and personal piety along with the Wesleys and a few college contemporaries of kindred spirit. Dr. Benson, bishop of Gloucester, who was acquainted with his rare talents and piety, resolved to grant him ordination, and the solemn ceremony was performed at Gloucester on June 20, 1736. His first sermon, preached the following sabbath, produced an extraordinary sensation. From Gloucester he went to London, where he preached alternately at the chapel of the Tower and at Ludgate Prison every Tuesday.
In 1737 he joined his friends the Wesleys as a missionary at the Georgian settlement; but he had only been four months resident there, when he returned to England both to obtain priest's orders and to raise subscriptions for erecting an orphan-house in that settlement. On his arrival in London, he found an outcry raised against him on account of Methodism. Bishop Benson disregarded it and ordained him a priest. But he was denied access to the pulpits of many old friends; and hence he commenced the practice of open-air preaching in Moorfields, Kennington, Blackheath, and other quarters, where his ministrations were attended by vast crowds. Having raised a fund of o£ 1000 for his orphanage, Whitefield returned in 1739 to the American continent. At Savannah immense crowds repaired to hear him, and extraordinary scenes of excitement were enacted. On March 25, 1740, he laid the first brick of the orphan-asylum; and when the building was completed, he gave it the name of Bethesda.
Although his ministry was very successful at Savannah, he sighed for his native land ; and accordingly, in 1741, he returned once more to Britain, where he continued with indefatigable diligence to preach the Gospel. In prosecution of that object, he made a tour through England, Wales, and Scotland, preaching in many places, and always in the open air, to immense crowds. While in Wales, he married Mrs. Jones, a widow to whom he had long cherished a warm attachment; and shortly after his marriage he repaired to London, where, it being winter, some of his admirers erected a wooden shed in which he preached, and which he called the Tabernacle. He was under the patronage of the countess dowager of Huntingdon, to whom he was chaplain, and whose benevolence he shared especially in the support of the community of which he was the head. At the death of that lady, her place was filled by lady Erskine. In the beginning of August, 1744, Mr. Whitefield, though in an infirm state of health, embarked again for America. At New York he was taken exceedingly ill, and his death was apprehended; but he gradually recovered and resumed his arduous and important duties. He was still very much inconvenienced with pains in his side, for which he was advised to go to the Bermudas. Landing there on March 15, 1748, he met with the kindest reception, and traversed the island from one end to the other, preaching twice every day. His congregations were large, he there collected upwards of c£100 for his orphan-school; but as lie feared a relapse in his disorder if he returned to America, he took pas- i sage in a brig, and arrived in safety at Deal, and the next evening set off for London, after an absence of four years.
On the return of Mr. Whitefield, he found his congregation at the Tabernacle very much scattered, and his own pecuniary circumstances declining, all his household furniture having been sold to pay the orphan-house debt. His congregation now, however, began to contribute, and his debt was slowly liquidating. At this time lady Huntingdon sent for him to preach at her house to several of the nobility, who desired to hear him; among whom was the earl of Chesterfield, who expressed himself highly gratified; and lord Bolingbroke told him he had done great justice to the divine attributes in his discourse. In September he visited Scotland a third time and was joyfully received. His thoughts were now wholly engaged in a plan for making his orphan-house (which was at first only intended for the fatherless) ^en-unary of literature and academical learning. In February, 1749 he made an excursion to Exeter and Plymouth, where he was received with enthusiasm, and in the same year he returned to London, having travelled about six hundred miles in the west of England; and in May he went to Portsmouth and Ports, at which places he was eminently useful; many at that time, by the instrumentality of his preaching, being turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God." In September he went to Northampton and Yorkshire, where he preached to congregations of ten thousand people, who were peaceable and attentive; and only in one or two places was he treated with unkindness. In 1751 Mr. Whitefield visited Ireland, and was gladly received at Dublin; his labors there were, as usual, very useful. From Ireland he proceeded to Scotland, where he also met with great encouragement to proceed in his indefatigable work. On Aug. 6 he set out from Edinburgh for London, in order to embark for America. On Oct. 27 he arrived at Savannah, and found the orphan-school in a nourishing condition.
Having suffered formerly from the climate, he determined not to spend the summer in America, but re-embarked for London, where he arrived in safety. His active mind, ever forming some new plan for the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom, now turned towards the erection of a new tabernacle. The foundation was laid March 1, 1753, and was opened on Sunday, June 10, 1754. After preaching in it a few days, he again left England for Scotland, embracing every opportunity of preaching on his road till he arrived at Edinburgh; and after travelling twelve hundred miles, he returned home on Nov. 25, and opened the Tabernacle at Bristol, after which he returned to London, and in September, 1756, opened his new chapel in Tottenham Court Road. His labors were immense. He preached fifteen times a week; hundreds of persons went aw^y from the chapel without being able to gain admittance. By his unremitting attention to his congregation, at the two chapels in London, his strength was much reduced. About the end of the year, finding his health improved, he, however, determined on again visiting America. Towards the end of November he left England, and arrived at Boston the beginning of January. After spending the winter pleasantly and usefully in America, he once more embarked for his native shores and landed in England, and on Oct. 6,1765, opened the countess of Huntingdon's chapel at Bath. Shortly after his arrival in London, Mrs. Whitefield was seized with an inflammatory fever, and became its victim on Aug. 9; and on he 14th he delivered her funeral sermon, which was distinguished for its pathos, as well as for its manly and pious eloquence.
He now prepared for his seventh and last voyage to America, where he arrived in safety on Nov. 30; but his sphere of activity was fast drawing to a close. His complaint, which was asthma, made rapid inroads upon its constitution, and, though it had several times ;threatened his dissolution, it was at last sudden and unexpected. From Sept. 17 to the 20th this faithful laborer in the vineyard of Christ preached daily at boston; and, though much indisposed, proceeded from hence on the 21st, and continued his work until the !9th, when he delivered a discourse at Exeter, N. H., in^a he open air for two hours; notwithstanding which, he et off for Newburyport, where he arrived that evening, intending to preach the next morning. His rest was much disturbed, and he complained of a great oppression at his lungs; and at five o'clock on Sabbath corning, Sept. 30, 1770, at the age of only fifty-six, he entered into the rest prepared for the people of God. According to his own desire, Mr. Whitefield was interred t Newburyport. He and Wesley, though one in heart, we divided in their theological opinions, and hence in tie early part of their career their paths diverged. The friendship existing between them was not of an ephemral character, but remained steadfast to the end; Wesley preached a funeral discourse commemorative of his virtues and usefulness.
' Mr. Whitefield was not a learned man, like his contemporary, Wesley; but he possessed an unusual share the hearts of his congregations. He "was benevolent and kind, forgiving and gentle; but he was zealous and firm, and seldom allowed his feelings to overcome his judgment. He was eminently useful in having excited a greater degree of attention to religion; and millions have doubtless blessed his name, as tens of thousands revere his memory.
Whitefield was no common preacher. Parties of the most opposite character and principles, such as Franklin, Hume, and John Newton, have united in bearing testimony to the beauty and effectiveness of Whitefield's^d's pulpit oratory. Dr. James Hamilton, of London, describing Whitefield, said, He was the prince of English preachers. Many have surpassed him in making sermons, but none have approached him as a pulpit orator. Many have outshone him in the clearness of their logic, the grandeur of their conceptions, and the sparkling beauty of single sentences; but in the power of darting the Gospel direct into the conscience, he eclipsed them all. With a full and beaming countenance, and the frank and easy port which the English people love, he combined a voice of rich compass, which could equally thrill over Moorfields in musical thunder or whisper its terrible secret in every private ear; and to his gainly aspect and tuneful voice he added a most expressive and eloquent action. None ever used so boldly, nor with more success, the higher styles of impersonation. His thoughts were possessions and his feelings were transformations; and if he spoke because he felt, his hearers understood because they saw. They were not only enthusiastic amateurs, like Garrick, who ran to weep and tremble at his bursts of passion, but even the colder critics of the Walpole school were surprised into momentary sympathy and reluctant- wonder. Lord Chesterfield was listening in lady Huntingdon's pew when he described the sinner under the character of a blind beggar led by a little dog. The dog escapes, from some cause, and he was left to grope his way guided only by his staff. Unconsciously he wanders to the edge of a precipice; his staff drops from his hand, down the abyss too far to send back an echo; he reaches forward cautiously to recover it; for a moment he poises on vacancy, and — 'Good God shouted Chesterfield, 'he is gone,' as he sprang from his seat to prevent the catastrophe. But the glory of Whitefield's preaching was its heartkindled and heart-melting Gospel. Without this all his bold strokes and brilliant impersonations^ would have been no better than the rhetorical triumphs of many pulpit dramatists. He was an orator, but he only sought to be an evangelist. Like a volcano where gold and gems maybe ejected as well as common things, But where gold and molten granite now all alike in fiery fusion, bright thoughts and splendid images might be projected from his pulpit, but all were merged in the stream that bore along the Gospel and himself in blended fervor. Indeed, so simple was his nature that glory to God and good-will to man had filled it, and there was room for little more. Having no Church to found, no family to enrich, and no memory to immortalize, he was simply the ambassador of God, and inspired with its genial, piteous spirit — so full of heaven reconciled and humanity restored — he soon himself became a living Gospel. . . . Coming to his work direct from communion with his Master, and in the strength of accepted prayer, there was an elevation in his mien" which often paralyzed hostility, and a self-possession which made him, amid uproar and confusion, the more sublime. With an electric bolt he would bring the jester in his fool's cap from his perch on the tree, or galvanize the brickbat from the skulking miscreant's grasp, or sweep down in crouching submission and shame-faced silence the whole of Bartholomew Fair; while a revealing flash of sententious doctrine, of vivified Scripture, would disclose to awe-struck hundreds the forgotten verities of another world or the unsuspected arcana of the inner man. came to break your head, but through you God has "broken my heart" was a sort of confession with which he was familiar; and to see the deaf old gentlewoman, who used to utter imprecations on him as he passed along the street, clambering up the pulpit stairs to catch his angelic words, was a sort of spectacle which the triumphant Gospel often witnessed in his day. When it is known that his voice could be heard by twenty thousand, and that ranging all the empire, as well as America, he would often preach thrice on a working day, and that he has received in one week as many as a thousand letters from persons awakened by his sermons — if no estimate can be formed of the results of his ministry, some idea may be suggested of its vast extent and singular effectiveness."
Whitefield published a number of sermons, journals, etc., and his entire works were printed in London in 1771-72 (7 vols. 8vo), including a Life by Gillies. For other literature, see Allibone, Diet. of Brit. and Amer, Authors, s. v. The best biography is by Tyerman, Life of George Whitefield (Lond. 1876, 2 vols. 8vo).
M'Clintock, John, and James Strong. Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894.
Last modified 30 April 2010