It is an undoubted truth that every doctrine that comes from God leads to God; and that which doth not tend to promote holiness is not of God. –George Whitfield
George Whitfield (1714-1770) was an English Anglican cleric who helped spread the Great Awakening in Britain and, especially, in the American colonies. Born in Gloucester, England, he attended Pembroke College, Oxford University, where he met the Wesley brothers. He laid the foundation of Methodism and of the evangelical movement generally. In 1740, Whitefield traveled to America, where he preached a series of revivals that came to be known as the “Great Awakening”. Whitefield was quite possibly the most famous religious figure of the 18th century. He exercised influence over thousands in Great Britain and America by his oratory. He preached at least 18,000 times to perhaps a total of 10 million hearers.
He was the seventh child of Thomas Whitefield and Elizabeth Edwards who kept an inn at Gloucester. Because business at the inn had become poor, Whitefield did not have the means to pay for his tuition. He therefore entered Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of students at Oxford. In return for free tuition, he was assigned as a minister to a number of higher ranked students. His duties included teaching them in the morning, helping them bathe, taking out their garbage, carrying their books and even assisting with required written assignments. He was a part of the “Holy Club” at the University of Oxford with the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. He became the leader of the Holy Club at Oxford after the Wesley brothers departed for Georgia. An illness, as well as Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man, influenced him to cry out to God for salvation. Following a religious conversion, he became passionate for preaching his new-found faith. The Bishop of Gloucester ordained him a deacon.
Benjamin Franklin attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was greatly impressed with Whitefield’s ability to deliver a message to such a large group. Franklin had previously dismissed, as an exaggeration, reports of Whitefield preaching to crowds of the order of tens of thousands in England. When listening to Whitefield preaching from the Philadelphia court house, Franklin walked away towards his shop in Market Street until he could no longer hear Whitefield distinctly. He then estimated his distance from Whitefield and calculated the area of a semicircle centered on Whitefield. Allowing two square feet per person he computed that Whitefield could easily be heard by over thirty thousand people in the open air.
Franklin admired Whitefield as a fellow intellectual but thought Whitefield’s plan to run an orphanage in Georgia would lose money. He published several of Whitefield’s tracts and was impressed by Whitefield’s ability to preach and speak with clarity and enthusiasm to large crowds. Franklin was an ecumenist and therefore approved of Whitefield’s appeal to members of many denominations, but was not, like Whitefield, an evangelical. In his autobiography, Franklin famously wrote that he was a “thoroughgoing Deist,” which precludes the idea that God is personal, though some suggest that Franklin was actually a bit more traditional in his views, e.g., his speech at the Constitutional Convention where he recited the verse that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without God’s notice; how then could the Constitution convention hope to succeed without God’s careful oversight? After one of Whitefield’s sermons, Franklin noted the:
wonderful… change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
In terms of theology, Whitefield, unlike John Wesley, was a supporter of Calvinism. The two differed on eternal election, final perseverance, and sanctification, but were mostly friends and co-workers in the salvation of souls.
Whitefield chastised other clergy for teaching only “the shell and shadow of religion” because they did not hold the necessity of a new birth without which a person would be “thrust down into Hell.” In his 1740-1741 visit to America (as he done in England), he attacked other clergy (mostly Anglican [Calvinists]) calling them “God’s persecutors”. He said that Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London with supervision over Anglican clergy in America, knew no “more of Christianity, than Mahaomet….”
In 1740, Whitefield published attacks on “the works of two of Anglicanism’s revered seventeenth-century authors, John Tillotson and Richard Allestree.