Birthplace: Gloucester, Gloucestershire, England
Location of death: Newburyport, MA
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Old South Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, MA
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Evangelist, early Methodist
English religious leader, born on the 16th of December 1714 at the Bell Inn, Gloucester, of which his father was landlord. At about twelve years of age he was sent to the school of St. Mary de Crypt, Gloucester, where he developed some skill in elocution and a taste for reading plays, a circumstance which probably had considerable influence on his subsequent career. At the age of fifteen he was taken from school to assist his mother in the public-house, and for a year and a half was a common drawer. He then again returned to school to prepare for the university, and in 1733 entered as a servitor at Pembroke College, Oxford, graduating in 1736. There he came under the influence of the Methodists, and entered so enthusiastically into their practices and habits that he was attacked by a severe illness, which compelled him to return to his native town. His enthusiastic piety attracted the notice of Martin Benson, Bishop of Gloucester, who ordained him deacon on the 20th of June 1736. He then began an evangelizing tour in Bath, Bristol and other towns, his eloquence at once attracting immense multitudes.
In 1736 he was invited by John Wesley to go out as missionary to Georgia, and went to London to wait on the trustees. Before setting sail he preached in some of the principal London churches, and in order to hear him, crowds assembled at the church doors long before daybreak. On the 28th of December 1737 he embarked for Georgia, which he reached on the 7th of May 1738. After three months' residence there he returned to England to receive priest's orders, and to raise contributions for the establishment of an orphanage. As the clergy did not welcome him to their pulpits, he began to preach in the open air. At Kingswood Hill, Bristol, his addresses to the colliers soon attracted crowds, and his voice was so clear and powerful that it could reach 20,000 folk. His fervor and dramatic action held them spellbound, and his homely pathos soon broke down all barriers of resistance. "The first discovery of their being affected", he says, "was by seeing the white gutters made by their tears, which plentifully fell down their black cheeks." In 1738 an account of Whitefield's voyage from London to Georgia was published without his knowledge. In 1739 he published his Journal from his arrival in Savannah to his return to London, and also his Journal from his arrival in London to his departure from there on his way to Georgia. As his embarkation was further delayed for ten weeks he published A Continuation of the Rev. Mr. Whitefield's Journal during the Time he was delayed in England by the Embargo. His unfavorable reception in England by the clergy led him to make reprisals. To Joseph Trapp's attack on the Methodists he published in 1739 A Preservative against Unsettled Notions, in which the clergy of the Church of England were denounced with some bitterness; he also published shortly afterwards The Spirit and Doctrine and Lives of our Modern Clergy, and a reply to a pastoral letter of the bishop of London in which he had been attacked. In the same year appeared Sermons on Various Subjects (2 vols.), the Church Companion, or Sermons on Several Subjects, and a recommendatory epistle to the Life of Thomas Halyburton. He again embarked for America in August 1739, and remained there two years, preaching in all the principal towns. He left his incumbency of Savannah to a lay delegate and the commissary's court at Charleston suspended him for ceremonial irregularities. While there he published Three Letters from Mr. Whitefield, in which he referred to the "mystery of iniquity" in Tillotson, and asserted that that divine knew no more of Christ than Mahomet did.
During his absence from England Whitefield found that a divergence of doctrine from Calvinism had been introduced by Wesley; and notwithstanding Wesley's exhortations to brotherly kindness and forbearance he withdrew from the Wesleyan connection. Thereupon his friends built for him near Wesley's church a wooden structure, which was named the Moorfields Tabernacle. A reconciliation between the two great evangelists was soon effected, but each thenceforth went his own way. In 1741, On the invitation of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, he paid a visit to Scotland, commencing his labors in the Secession meeting-house, Dunfermline. But, as he refused to limit his ministrations to one sect, the Seceders and he parted company, and without their countenance he made a tour through the principal towns of Scotland, the authorities of which in most instances presented him with the freedom of the burgh, in token of their estimate of the benefits to the community resulting from his preaching. From Scotland he went to Wales, where on the 14th of November he married a widow named James. The marriage was not a happy one. On his return to London in 1742 he preached to the crowds in Moorfields during the Whitsun holidays with such effect as to attract nearly all the people from the shows. After a second visit to Scotland, June to October 1742 (where at Cambuslang in particular he wielded a great spiritual influence), and a tour through England and Wales, 1742-44, he embarked in August 1744 for America, where he remained until June 1748. On returning to London he found his congregation at the Tabernacle dispersed; and his circumstances were so depressed that he was obliged to sell his household furniture to pay his orphan-house debts. Relief soon came through his acquaintance with Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who appointed him one of her chaplains.
The remainder of Whitefield's life was spent chiefly in evangelizing tours in Great Britain, Ireland and America. It has been stated that "in the compass of a single week, and that for years he spoke in general forty hours, and in very many sixty, and that to thousands." In 1748 the synods of Glasgow Perth and Lothian passed vain resolutions intended to exclude him from churches; in 1753 he compiled his hymn-book and in 1756 opened the chapel which still bears his name in Tottenham Court Road. On his return from America to England for the last time the change in his appearance forcibly impressed Wesley, who wrote in his Journal: "He seemed to be an old man being fairly worn out in his Master's service, though he had hardly seen fifty years." When health was failing him he placed himself on what he called "short allowance", preaching only once every weekday and thrice on Sunday. In 1769 he returned to America for the seventh and last time, and arranged for the conversion of his orphanage into Bethesda College, which was burned down in 1773. He was now affected by a severe asthmatic complaint; but to those who advised him to take some rest he answered "I had rather wear out than rust out." He died on the 30th of September 1770 at Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he had arrived on the previous evening with the intention of preaching next day. In accordance with his own desire he was buried before the pulpit in the Presbyterian church of the town where he died.
Whitefield's printed works convey a totally inadequate idea of his oratorical powers and are all in fact below mediocrity. They appeared in a collected form in 1771-72 in seven volumes, the last containing Memoirs of his Life by Dr. John Gillies. His Letters (1734-70) were comprised in three volumes of his Works and were also published separately.
Wife: Widow James (m. 14-Nov-1741)
University: Pembroke College, Oxford University (1736)
Converted to Methodism 1736
Risk Factors: Asthma
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