George Whitefield

George Whitefield

In my last blog, I ended by mentioning the man who first introduced John Wesley to field preaching in England, George Whitefield, the famously cross-eyed evangelist extraordinaire. On our trip – should you choose to do so – you will actually have opportunity to view a thumb of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield!

Whitefield was a man of many firsts. In 1738, Whitefield followed John Wesley as pastor to the Georgia colony after Wesley had fled back to England following the Sophie Hopkey mess. Whitefield returned to England in 1739 on a fund raising mission for his new orphanage. While there, he first introduced Wesley to field preaching in Bristol. Whitefield returned to America in 1740, where he continued preaching to raise money for his orphanage project. Here, he popularized and legitimated patterns of extemporaneous, expressive, open-air preaching. He showed the power of itinerant evangelists to stir conversions among diverse peoples and across confessional lines in America. He made theatrical revivalism the prototypical American religious style, which would later be copied by the likes of Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and others. He pioneered in promotion, self-promotion, and use of the press, all for evangelistic purpose. And Whitefield gave Methodism its first American hearing.

It is not hyperbole to describe George Whitefield as a star celebrity. If he lived today, he would be the equivalent of a Billy Graham, and he would appear on the covers of People and Time magazines and be interviewed on TV’s 60 Minutes and Good Morning, America. He would be a master of the use of social media in service of the gospel. Whitefield was the “Grand Itinerant,” the traveling preacher with no home church (a troublesome point for American clergy) who toured the colonies seven times from the 1730s to the 1760s, delivering open-air sermons that left his huge audiences spellbound, penitent, and with souls “awakened” (thus the term “Great Awakening”). He also impressed Benjamin Franklin, who describes in his journal the immediate and dramatic effects of Whitefield’s preaching on colonists ⎯ including Franklin himself ⎯ shortly after Whitfield’s arrival in 1739.

Whitefield, noticing the large number of orphans in the Georgia colony when he first came to America, determined to build an orphanage (which we got to visit on our Chapelwood learning ministry pilgrimage to Savannah in 2009). To raise money, Whitefield began preaching up and down the eastern seaboard. Benjamin Franklin, while agreeing with the need for the orphanage, thought it ought to be built near Philadelphia, and the children brought there – conditions in Georgia being so difficult. When Whitefield refused Franklin’s suggestion, ole Ben refused to financially support the project. However, in his journal, Franklin records what happened next:

“I happened soon after to attend one of his Sermons, in the Course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a Collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my Pocket a Handful of Copper Money, three or four silver Dollars and five Pistoles [Spanish coins] in Gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the Coppers. Another Stroke of his Oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the Silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I emptied my Pocket wholly into the Collector’s Dish, Gold and all. At this Sermon there was also one of our Club [Junto literary club], who being of my Sentiments respecting [opinions concerning] the Building in Georgia, and suspecting a Collection might be intended, had by Precaution emptied his Pockets before he came from home; towards the Conclusion of the Discourse [sermon], however, he felt a strong Desire to give, and apply’d to a Neighbor who stood near him to borrow some Money for the Purpose.”

So yes, George Whitefield preached a few Benjamins out of the wallet of Benjamin Franklin!

Next, I’ll write some more about Rev. Mr. Whitefield and how it is that we came to have his thumb to look at! Then we’ll move on to look some more at the influence of Pietism on the very earliest Methodists in America.

(Sources: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt; Franklin’s Journal quoted on pds/becomingamer/ideas/text2/franklinwhitefield.pdf)

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