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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Evangelists and Apologists > George Whitefield

George Whitefield
Sensational Evangelist of Britain and America
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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George Whitefield

"I would give a hundred guineas, if I could say 'Oh' like Mr. Whitefield."
— Actor David Garrick

Largely forgotten today, George Whitefield was probably the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century. Newspapers called him the "marvel of the age." Whitefield was a preacher capable of commanding thousands on two continents through the sheer power of his oratory. In his lifetime, he preached at least 18,000 times to perhaps 10 million hearers.



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Born thespian

As a boy in Gloucester, England, he read plays insatiably and often skipped school to practice for his schoolboy performances. Later in life, he repudiated the theater, but the methods he imbibed as a young man emerged in his preaching.

He put himself through Pembroke College, Oxford, by waiting on the wecaptionhier students. While there, he fell in with a group of pious "methodists"—who called themselves "the Holy Club"—led by the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. Under their influence, he experienced a "new birth" and decided to become a missionary to the new Georgia colony on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

When the voyage was delayed, Whitefield was ordained a deacon in the Anglican church and began preaching around London. He was surprised to discover that wherever he spoke, crowds materialized and hung on every word.

These were no ordinary sermons. He portrayed the lives of biblical characters with a realism no one had seen before. He cried, he danced, he screamed. Among the enthralled was David Garrick, then the most famous actor in Britain. "I would give a hundred guineas," he said, "if I could say 'Oh' like Mr. Whitefield."

Once, when preaching on eternity, he suddenly stopped his message, looked around, and exclaimed, "Hark! Methinks I hear [the saints] chanting their everlasting hallelujahs, and spending an eternal day in echoing forth triumphant songs of joy. And do you not long, my brethren, to join this heavenly choir?"

Whitefield eventually made it to Georgia but stayed for only three months. When he returned to London, he found many churches closed to his unconventional methods. He then experimented with outdoor, extemporaneous preaching, where no document or wooden pulpit stood between him and his audience.

Spellbound crowds

In 1739, Whitefield set out for a preaching tour of the American colonies. Whitefield selected Philadelphia—the most cosmopolitan city in the New World—as his first American stop. But even the largest churches could not hold the 8,000 who came to see him, so he took them outdoors. Every stop along Whitefield's trip was marked by record audiences, often exceeding the population of the towns in which he preached. Whitefield was often surprised at how crowds "so scattered abroad, can be gathered at so short a warning."

The crowds were also aggressive in spirit. As one account tells it, crowds "elbowed, shoved, and trampled over themselves to hear of 'divine things' from the famed Whitefield."

Once Whitefield started speaking, however, the frenzied mobs were spellbound. "Even in London," Whitefield remarked, "I never observed so profound a silence."

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