The Thumb of George Whitefield

GeorgeWhitefieldGrave
George Whitefield Grave, Newburyport, MA

In my last blog post, I mentioned Rev. George Whitefield, who introduced John Wesley to field preaching, and himself became important in the first “Great Awakening” in America and as such, important to the emergence of Methodism in America. In this blog post, I’ll write about how it is that we get to see the thumb of “The Great Itinerant,” as he was often called.

In 1738, Whitefield went to Savannah, Georgia, as parish priest when John Wesley fled back to England (Charles having already returned earlier). While there he decided that one of the great needs of the area was an orphan house. He decided this would be his life’s work. He returned to England to raise funds, as well as to receive priest’s orders. While preparing for his return he preached to large congregations. At the suggestion of friends he preached to the miners of Kingswood, outside Bristol, in the open air. Because he was returning to Georgia he invited John Wesley to take over his Bristol congregations, and to preach in the open air for the first time at Kingswood and then Blackheath, London. This was shortly after Wesley’s famous “Aldersgate” heart-warming experience.

In 1739, Whitefield returned to England to raise funds to establish the Bethesda Orphanage, which is the oldest extant charity in North America. On returning to North America in 1740, still working to raise money, he preached in local churches which turned into a series of revivals that came to be known as the Great Awakening of 1740. He preached nearly every day for months to large crowds of sometimes several thousand people as he traveled throughout the colonies, especially New England.

Whitefield had charisma, and his voice (which according to many accounts, could be heard over five hundred feet), his small stature, and even his cross-eyed appearance (which some people took as a mark of divine favor) all served to help make him one of the first celebrities in the American colonies. We saw in the last blog post how Whitefield even came to be admired by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

Whitefield died in the parsonage of Old South Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770. It was John Wesley who preached his funeral sermon in London, at Whitefield’s request. He was buried, according to his wishes, in a crypt under the pulpit of this church (pictured).

There is where the story begins to take a strange turn that leads to our seeing his thumb.

In 1775, when the American colonists in Boston were preparing to battle the British in what would become known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, they thought they could fend off the British if they only had some cannon to mount on top of the opposing hills overlooking Boston. They hatched a plan in which Benedict Arnold — yes, THAT Benedict Arnold — and Ethan Allen of Vermont’s “Green Mountain Boys” would travel to Fort Ticonderoga in New York, take the fort (and eventually others as well as they made their way to Quebec), and drag the cannons back to Boston. This they did. But along the way, they stopped at the grave of the famous evangelist, George Whitefield, opened his grave and took some of his bones and clothes with them for good luck, or divine favor, or whatever.

Rev. Samuel Spring was the chaplain to the troops of Benedict Arnold. As described in J. T. Headley’s, The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution, the scene at Whitefield’s tomb unfolded like this:

There sat the fearless Arnold, the bold rifleman, Morgan, and a host of other brave men, who, notwithstanding their dauntless courage, felt that the perils of the untrodden, mysterious wilderness, they were about to penetrate, might be too great for human energy and endurance, and the hour come, that their only hope would rest in the God whose spirit the chaplain [Samuel Spring] invoked as their guide and stay. The citizens, who crowded the gallery, never forgot that sermon. It became the talk of the place, and was the cause of his eventually settling over them as their pastor. In speaking of the circumstance afterwards Mr. Spring said, “I preached over the grave of Whitefield. After the service the general officers gathered around me. Some one requested a visit to Whitefield’s tomb. The sexton was hunted up, the key procured, and we descended to his coffin. It had lain in the tomb six years, but was in good preservation. The officers induced the sexton to take off the lid of the coffin. The body had nearly all returned to dust. Some portions of his grave-clothes remained. His collar and wristbands, in the best preservation, were taken and carefully cut in little pieces, and divided among them.” The chaplain, with the haughty Arnold, the chivalrous Morgan, and group of officers, gathered in the dark vault around the tomb of Whitefield, formed a scene worthy of a painter. The clank of steel had a strange sound around the sainted sleeper, while the hallowed atmosphere filled all hearts with solemn awe and reverence.

Perhaps it was at this moment that Whitefield’s thumb left his body. As history records, the colonists DID succeed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. I’m not sure what part Mr. Whitefield’s bones played in that event.

History doesn’t tell us what happened to all the bones the colonists took of Mr. Whitefield’s. But we do know that the Methodist Center at Drew University today contains what purports to be the dessicated thumb of the famous evangelist. The thumb has also been featured in Christian History and Biography (Winter 2004) and The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 28, 2005) magazines. Nobody knows for sure how it got there, though as noted above, various ‘relics’ of Whitefield were pilfered from his tomb. The thumb lives in a glass display case which we will get to see.

(Source: Wikipedia entry on George Whitefield and a blog post by Jennifer Woodruff Tait, former Methodist Librarian. For the description of the recollection of Rev. Spring, see http://users.drew.edu/gpollick/methodist_relic.html)

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