One of the most famous clergymen and evangelists of the colonial period, George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England. TUthough many of his ancestors had been clergymen, George’s own father was an innkeeper. By his early teens George was already a pious Christian, and when he went to Oxford in 1732, he came under the influence of Charles and John Wesley, the founders of Methodism.
The transforming moment of Whitefield’s life came during an illness in 1735, when he was filled with a sense of oneness with God and experienced what he called a “new birth.” From that point on, he would work to convince others that such an experience was vital to becoming a true Christian. In that sense, he was the founder of “born again” Christianity.
Whitefield soon embarked on the career that would make him famous, a life of constant preaching in any available site, as well as a humanitari- an who ministered to the sick and the poor.
As an evangelical preacher, he was quite unlike most clergymen of his time; he employed the voice and manner of an actor to excite his audience. Because he did not conform to the teachings of the established Church of England, he would spend the rest of his long career under attack from conventional Christians.
In 1738, Whitefield made his first trip to America, landing at Savannah, Georgia,which was then a new colony. Here he began his preaching in the colonies, and started the first of his numerous endeavors to foundorphanages and schools.
The following year, the Great Awakening religious movement began, and Whitefield became one of its most prominent leaders. Whitefield’s preaching represented the more outward and emotional forms of the Awakening, while its somberand scholarly aspects were presented by Reverend Jonathan Edwards (see no. 81).
For the next 30 years, Whitefield traveledback and forth frequently between England and the colonies. Whenever he was in America, he moved up and down the Eastern seaboard giving hundreds of sermons. Whitefield was not an easy person to satisfy or get along with.
He became increasingly more rigid in his religious views, and he quarreled not only with other colonial clergymen, but even with John Wesley, the Methodist who had first inspired him. Whitefield was also a man of his time in that while he advocated the humane treatment of slaves, he saw nothing wrong in owning some on his plantation in South Carolina.
Whitefield was a man of extraordinary energy whose preaching engaged people from all walks of life. He died in Newburyport,Massachusetts, near the end of one of his frequent tours of the colonies.