George Whitefield :18th century celebrity, Oh and a preacher!

Welcome to another 18th century bibliography on probably the most important or at least one of the most famous people of his time.  He was known to at least Eighty per cent of the population in the American colonies, he attracted crowds of 30,000, with his highest being 100,000 people in one place.  So who was his famous man, a King? An actor?  Perhaps a famous playwright? Or maybe an artist?  No, this was a preacher, surprisingly.  Hopefully this post will go into his life, which started 300 years ago last year!

Whitefield did not come necessary from a rich family, his dad died when he was young, and he had to take a large responsibility in running the inn with his mother.  He therefore had to enter Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of students at Oxford.  This allowed him to study at the University in return for free tuition.  The job meant that he was to be assigned to a number of upper class, richer and posher students whom probably didn’t treat him very nice. His duties included helping them bathe, taking out their garbage, carrying their books and even assisting with required written assignments.  I kind of wish we had that now, would make university life so much easier would it not!  I jest, but still, it couldn’t have been a pleasant experience of Whitefield.

Now George Whitefield was a man of the church, specifically the Church of England, however, he was and is more closely linked to the Methodist movement, being part of the Holy Club back at Oxford University and became great friends with the Wesley brothers (remember I wrote a post last year about one of them?).  He was descried as an enthusiast, which now seems very weird, surely you would want to be an enthusiast to be preaching!  But back then, it wasn’t seen as the right thing to do, so most churches shut their doors to him.  He was therefore, one of the founders of open air preaching, going out to the villages, towns, and preaching, mainly on the subject of spiritual rebirth to people of all classes, whether rich or poor, it mattered not.

Whilst doing some research on this, I came across Whitefield describing his own first open air sermon.  In his Journal, he wrote: ‘I hastened to Kingswood. There were about 10,000 people to hear me. The trees and hedges were full. All was hush when I began; the sun shone bright and God enabled me to preach for an hour with great power, and so loudly that all, I was told, could hear me. The fire is kindled in this country and I know all the devils in hell shall not be able to quench it’.  Some interesting words from Whitefield, but also for his first meeting, 10,000 people came to hear him that is an incredible number!  He had confidence and this is shown by his writing.  It must also be noted that it was at this sermon that miners, who had just left the mines, listened and ‘the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.’

He travelled, to Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Gibraltar, and America more than once.  In fact in one of his departing sermons, he drew a crowd of 25,000 people in Boston, which was bigger than Boston’s population at the time.  It’s an incredible amount; imagine what would have happened if people could have travelled with today’s technology, it would have been a staggering number.

I found one interesting event, (many happened in Whitefield’s ministry, but I can’t go into them all can I!),   When looking online, one of His most dramatic visits to Scotland was his second, in the small town of Cambuslang.  His evening service in the town attracted thousands as was usual, but the staggering thing is that it continued until 2:00 in the morning. Whitefield said that “There were scenes of uncontrollable distress, like a field of battle. All night in the fields, might be heard the voice of prayer and praise.”  He certainly caused quite a stir in rural and urban life in Britain, the key thing that I want to point out is that this is happening in the era of revolution and trouble in Europe, whilst in Britain, nothing of the sought happens, except for religious revival under the Methodist movement.  I find the social impacts of Methodism to be huge, it’s a game changer, in fact it is in my mind, one of the most important events to happen in the 18th century.

Some revisionist historians such as Stout claim that Whitefield was more like a TV evangelist as we see today, playing on emotions and such to get a reaction.  I reject this approach entirely, granted Whitefield had some acting talent, but he was more passionate in his message and desire for people to understand it than anything else.  He engaged his audience, he spoke clearly and with expression, when you read his sermons and his diary, you do not see a man wanting to entice people for fun, or money, in fact Whitefield was quite poor, with most of his money going to an orphanage in the American colonies.

Whitefield also made the slave community a part of his revivals, though he was far from an abolitionist.  His aim as he saw it was their souls, rarely did Whitefield ever get involved in political affairs, and this is an example of this.  He did however, search for audiences of slaves and wrote on their behalf. He got a huge response from them, so much so that some modern historians class it as the real start of African-American Christianity.

Whitefield and John Wesley did have some disagreements, especially when it came to the theory of Calvinism.  Whitefield was a firm believer in Calvin’s theory, whilst Wesley was Arminianism.  This basically meant that they differed strongly in pre-destination and election.  To explain this further, Wesley believed in that God allows His desire to save all to be rejected and resisted by an individual’s will (Arminianism), whilst Whitefield believed that God’s grace is irresistible and limited to only some (Calvinism).  This difference though did not hinder their great respect and friendship with each other.  They had agreed to differ!  It must be noted that Whitefield asked John Wesley to preach at his funeral, they were friends and not enemies.

So I find his end of his life fascinating, he died in 1770, only 55 years old, however, he was preaching in the colonies as though he was a young man, he claimed that “I would rather wear out than rust out.” He seemed ignorant or didn’t really care about the signs that he was in poor health, it was clear to all that he had difficulty” in breathing. His last sermon took place in the fields, atop a large barrel.  He was no doubt preaching to a mass of people eagerly hanging on every word.  “He was speaking of the inefficiency of works to merit salvation,” one listener recounted for the press, “and suddenly cried out in a tone of thunder, ‘Works! works! A man gets to heaven by works! I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand.'”  Interesting imagery, though in the sermon, it appeared as though he knew his death was coming as he talked about heaven nearing, he was quite correct, the following morning he died.  He would be lost to history until the 20th century, the celebrity, the preacher, the actor and a dedicated man whose desire to preach, most likely killed him, not that Whitefield cared much.


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