On this day, May 3rd in 1738, George Whitefield (pronounced Whitfield) arrived in the American Colonies on the first of his seven trips wherein he would become the most popular religious figure of his day, and possibly the most significant character in colonial religious history.
But George Whitefield spawned no movement. There are no “Whitefield-ites,” and his lack of publications beyond sermons and diaries give us little insight into any particular theological reflections. Yet he is perhaps the most important figure in the history of nascent American Evangelicalism in the Eighteenth century. To understand his impact on the growth of a distinctly American evangelical subculture, we should properly understand both the character of Whitefield and the state of the church in the colonies in his day.
Whitefield was born 1714 in Gloucester, England and raised in the Church of England, eventually reading for a degree in theology at Oxford. It was there that he met John and Charles Wesley and was influenced by their prayer groups modeled after the small conventicles popular in the wake of Philip Jakob Spener and the German Pietism movement.
He was instantly popular upon arriving to America in 1738.
Whitefield was renowned as a dynamic preacher, and his criticisms of the rich and powerful (as well as most anyone else) found him quickly run out of the local parish. Banned from pulpits by the Church of England, he began to preach itinerantly, reportedly attracting great crowds. David Hume, the famed skeptic, stated that Whitefield was “the most ingenious preacher I ever heard: it is worthwhile to go twenty miles to hear him.”
He was instantly popular upon arriving to America in 1738. It has been reported that he would preach to groups of up to 25,000 people and would preach extemporaneously without notes for hours. Historians have calculated that he preached on average of 1,000 times a year for over 30 years and that every colonist would have likely seen him at least once. He was not only the first American religious superstar; he did so in an age that was not marked by faithful church attendance. Despite halcyon dreams that portray everything in the past as golden, colonial America was remarkably irreligious. In 1740, church membership was estimated to be about 17% (compared to roughly 60% today).
There are several reasons why that number was so low; notably, it is essential to remember that religious refugees made up a small percentage of those immigrants from England before the War of Independence. Records from the 17th and 18th centuries reveal that while religious freedom was motivation for some to immigrate to the Colonies, economic opportunities and Enlightenment optimism seemed more prevalent reasons. The Mayflower pilgrims came from the Netherlands to set up a trading colony for English businesses. It was in this context that Whitefield’s fiery sermons convicted so many who felt a twinge of a libertine’s guilt in the new land of plenty. Stories abound of Whitefield’s ability to strike the fear of God into his listeners and melt even the coldest of hearts. One famous story involves a man who upon hearing that Whitefield was a master at separating men from their money with the collection plate, emptied his pockets at home before the service. He admitted, however, to being so moved that he borrowed money from his companion to put into the plate. To Whitfield’s credit, his life was one of frugality with his money going to his various projects from schools to orphanages.
He is significant, not as a founder of his own movement, but for setting the procrustean bed of the particularly American church with its dogmatizing yet broad ecumenical stances.
It is a credit to Whitefield’s character that he was so staunch in his beliefs (possibly to a fault), yet maintained broad relationships across the ideological spectrum. He had long-lasting relationships with many luminaries of the Enlightenment including the Wesley Brothers, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, and David Hume. A few of his biographies recall a story in which he envisioned a future heavenly conversation with Abraham in heaven in which he asked if there were any Methodists in heaven. “No” was Abraham’s reply, “there are none Calvinist, New Side, Old Side… but all Christian.” This was remarkably broad coming from a man who reported publicly in his newspaper on the heterodoxy of other contemporary preachers. Unfortunately, the American religious tradition of ministers saying “do as I say, not as I do” has an unfortunate genesis here as well. His pro-slavery views make him, like everyone since Adam, an imperfect saint under the curse of creation.
He is significant, not as a founder of his own movement, but for setting the procrustean bed of the particularly American church with its dogmatizing yet broad ecumenical stances and iconoclastic and populist impulses. In a time of plenty, he was a prophet of repentance for a group of colonies he feared had gone prodigal. He embraced the new media of the day, from cheap printing to mimicking the dramatic inflection of the modern theatre. If the colonists prized their own material goods and political independence, this English-born emigre warned them of their own mortality, sin, and death. But rather than simply see him as another fire and brimstone preacher in the oft-caricatured style of colonial America, Whitefield was a flawed sinner and saint who knew his only hope lay in the blood of Jesus.
On September 29, 1770, more than 30 years since first landing off the coast of colonial Georgia, Whitefield preached his last sermon. Standing on a barrel, he preached for two hours on a brisk New England autumn afternoon. That evening, before heading to bed in a loaned parsonage in Newburyport, he complained that he felt unwell. Whitefield was found, having died in his sleep, at 6 am on the morning of the 30th. A story was later told, that when Whitefield was asked what role his good works might play on the day he met his maker, he replied that he would trust in them as one might climb to the moon trusting a rope of sand, his sufficiency was in Christ alone.