Christian History Home > Issue 38 > Heavenly Comet
As George Whitefield blazed across England, Scotland, and America, his dramatic preaching caused excitement bordering on panic.
Perhaps no eighteenth-century religious figure was better known than George Whitefield. He was termed the “marvel of the age”—a preacher capable of commanding mass audiences (and offerings) across two continents, without any institutional support, through the sheer power of his personality. Whitefield wrote best-selling journals and drew audiences totaling in the millions. White and black, male and female, friends and enemies—all flocked in unprecedented numbers to hear the “Grand Itinerant.” Wherever he visited, people could do anything, it seemed, but stay away.
Yet time has not been so kind. Today few people have heard of Whitefield, or if they have, they have little sense of his significance. Whitefield founded no movement or denomination. No college or seminary bears his name. Indeed, he deliberately rejected all attempts to found a movement, preferring instead to serve alone as a self-confessed “fool for Christ.”
Who was George Whitefield? What was his significance?
Mother and Theater
We begin in the urban center of Gloucester, England, where Whitefield was born on December 16, 1714, the youngest child of Thomas and Elizabeth Whitefield. Whitefield’s father died soon after, and his mother remarried. The marriage proved disastrous and culminated in a divorce, leaving Elizabeth with seven children and ownership of the Bell Inn.
Of Whitefield’s childhood, two facts stand out: his mother’s influence and his infatuation with the English theater.
From his mother, Whitefield inherited a strong ambition to be “somebody” in the world, most likely in service to the established Anglican church. He recalled how his mother “endured fourteen weeks’ sickness after she brought me into the world but was used to say, even when I was an infant, that she expected more comfort from me than any other of her children. This, with the circumstance of my being born in an inn, has been often of service to me in exciting my endeavors to make good my mother’s expectation, and so follow the example of my dear Saviour, who was born in a manger belonging to an inn.”
From the stage, Whitefield inherited a dramatic presence that he would later take into the pulpit. As a boy he read plays insatiably and often skipped school to practice for his schoolboy performances. Later in life, though, he would repudiate theater as a false competitor of the church.
But beneath the rejection lay a born actor whose intrinsic need and special gift for dramatic self-expression never disappeared. He would apply the methods and ethos of acting to preaching with revolutionary results. More than any of his peers or predecessors, Whitefield turned his back on the academy to concentrate on perfecting what today we would call “body language.” Passion would be the key to his preaching of traditional spiritual truths.
Through the efforts of his mother, young Whitefield was granted a “servitor’s” spot at Pembroke College, Oxford: He would put himself through college by waiting on the wealthier Oxford students. The experience of being a mere servant proved humiliating, but Whitefield soon fell in with a group of pious “methodists” led by the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. Soon Whitefield was lost in the rigors of methodist devotions that culminated in a highly personal and emotional “New Birth.”
He determined to use the pulpit to bring others to a conversion experience. At Oxford it became clear to Whitefield he was no scholar, but equally clear he was a communicator without peer. With encouragement from the Wesleys he determined to be a missionary to the new Georgia colony.
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