Anyone looking for the burial site of George Whitefield, the bigger-than-life 18th-century evangelist who paved the way for American revivalists from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham, needs to have good eyes and perseverance to find it here in the small seaside city of Newburyport, Massachusetts.
That's because no signage exists to help visitors locate his tomb beneath the pulpit of "Old South" First Presbyterian Church, which organized in 1742 in response to a Whitefield-led revival in a nearby field. Newburyport's chamber of commerce doesn't list the crypt among its historic sites. Only an 8.5 x 11 inch computer printout, taped to a side door of the church, tells Whitefield fans that they've reached their destination.
Lack of tourist infrastructure, however, doesn't keep crowds away. Anywhere from 700 to 1,000 visitors, mostly evangelicals from as far away as California and the United Kingdom, make a pilgrimage to Old South's crypt each year. Over the past two years, travelers from 41 states and 22 countries have signed the tomb's guest book. So brisk is the visitor flow in warm-weather months that more than one of every ten church members is trained to give tours.
"If you're into spiritual renewal or revival, and a lot of conservative people are, then this is where you come," says Old South pastor Rob John.
Evangelicals walk a fine line in journeying to pay homage to Whitefield (pronounced "WIT-field"), a Calvinist who scorned pilgrimage and veneration of relics as so much "works righteousness." "Human beings collect relics and associate with tombs," says Tom O'Loughlin, a pilgrimage expert at the University of Wales-Lampeter. "So you have the classic pilgrimage basis there, but it's for a preacher who would have been shocked ...1
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