George Whitefield (1714–1770), whose name is sometimes spelled Whitfield due to its pronunciation, may have been the most well-known religious figure of the eighteenth-century English-speaking world. In a little less than thirty-four years of ministry, it is estimated that Whitefield preached eighteen thousand sermons and was heard by as many as ten million people. He carried on an extensive preaching ministry in England, Ireland, and Wales, as well as making fourteen trips to Scotland and seven trips to the American Colonies.
George Whitefield was converted to Christ while a student at Oxford University. There he became friends with John and Charles Wesley and joined what was referred to as the “Holy Club”—a group of students who took Christian responsibilities very seriously and met regularly for prayer, Bible study, and fellowship. Whitefield was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England and began preaching that a new birth was necessary for salvation (see John 3:3).
Whitefield’s theology was thoroughly Calvinistic (a fact that caused some strain between him and the Wesleys), and his preaching style was something that had never been seen before. While most sermons of the time were delivered in the “plain style,” which often seemed more of a lecture, Whitefield’s sermons were more like a theatrical performance with oversized gestures, shouting, and jumping. His oratory was unmatched. It is reported that one well-known contemporary actor said he would give a hundred guineas if he could say, “Oh,” like George Whitefield.
Whitefield’s evangelistic message and the zeal with which he preached it were scandalous, and he was not readily accepted in the churches of Great Britain. As a result, he began preaching in any other venue that would have him as well as preaching in the open air.
His style of preaching was also a shock to Puritan New England, but it attracted people from all walks of life. Benjamin Franklin was an admirer of Whitefield, although he did not share his faith. Franklin reports that on one occasion George Whitefield was raising money for an orphanage, and Franklin had resolved not to give any money. But, as he listened to Whitefield preach, he decided he could give a few copper coins. As he listened longer, he decided he could give some silver coins as well. By the end of the sermon, he resolved to give everything he had with him. A friend who had taken the precaution of emptying his pockets before coming to the meeting attempted to borrow money in order to give.
George Whitefield’s ministry crossed denominational lines as he was willing to preach the gospel in an uncompromising way to any group that would have him. His ministry in the American Colonies helped to start the Great Awakening, and he is often seen as the father of American revivalism.
George Whitefield kept up a nearly unbelievable pace, speaking in public about one thousand times a year for thirty years. He loved to preach, and one biographer wrote of him, “His whole life may be said to have been consumed in the delivery of one continuous, or scarcely interrupted sermon” (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, 2:522). Among those influenced by Whitefield’s preaching were Jonathan Edwards and a young William Wilberforce.
The following quotes are from George Whitefield:
“What! Get to heaven on your own strength? Why, you might as well try to climb to the moon on a rope of sand!”
“Other men may preach the gospel better than I, but no man can preach a better gospel.”
“We can preach the Gospel of Christ no further than we have experienced the power of it in our own hearts.”
“I believe I never was more acceptable to my Master than when I was standing to teach those hearers in the open fields. I now preach to ten times more people than I would if I had been confined to the churches.”
“True conversion means turning not only from sin but also from depending on self-made righteousness.”
“Let my name die everywhere, let even my friends forget me, if by that means the cause of the blessed Jesus may be promoted.”