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Thursday, June 23, 2011

George Whitefield - Colonial Celebrity

If I'd lived in colonial America, one of the people I'd have wanted to see was George Whitefield, "the boy preacher." If I had, I'd have ridden the wave of the Great Awakening, that incredible revival which began more than 200 plus years ago.

George Whitefield makes an astonishing preacher sans hero. Born in England in 1714 , he preached from 40-60 hours a week and crossed the Atlantic thirteen times to minister to America. Huge crowds gathered to hear him speak and he was so wildly popular, even in his early 20's, that his heartfelt prayer became, "O Heavenly Father, for Thy dear Son's sake, keep me from climbing."

We can learn so much from godly heroes of the past, men like John and Charles Wesley, Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland, and John Cennick who were also converted about this time. Granted, none of them were perfect but we can focus on their fine points and how they changed history. Here are some fascinating facts about Whitefield and the early state of Christianity in America:

*The term Great Awakening (meaning conversion or salvation) refers to a religious revival in America beginning in 1734-1750
*In colonial times, most pastors simply read their sermons to their congregations in church buildings; Whitefield preached extempore, without notes, in the open air to crowds of many thousands who could hear him clearly
*As a young man he began a lifelong habit of reading the Bible on his knees
*He was slight in stature but had a voice like a trumpet
*He arose each morning at 4 am
*He was plagued with poor health throughout his life
*He had a great sense of humor
*He was a part of the "Holy Club" while at Oxford
*He was close friends with Benjamin Franklin who printed many of his sermons, thereby helping spread the gospel, though Franklin himself was a Deist
*He had a heart for orphans and the poor
*Whitefield said he would "rather wear out than rust out" which he did in 1770

Another powerhouse preacher had this to say about Whitefield, "He lived. Other men seem to be only half alive; but Whitefield was all life, fire, wing, and force." ~Charles Spurgeon

Here are a few of my favorite Whitefield quotes taken from his Journals:

The weather was cold, and the wind blew very hard; but when the heart is full of God, outward things affect it little. (January 15, 1738)

Had great comfort in reading the Scriptures. Was afterwards a little inclined to heaviness but drove it off by a long intercession. Prayer is an antidote against every evil. (January 18, 1738)

If it were not for the corruptions of my own heart, which are continually stirring, what have I to disturb my peace? But as long as those Amalekites remain in my soul, I shall never be perfectly at ease. (April 7, 1738)

Lord, teach me in all things simply to comply with Thy will, without presuming to say, even in my heart, "What doest Thou?" (August 13, 1739)

My favorite books about Whitefield:

George Whitefield, Volumes I and II: Arnold Dallimore
Journals: The Banner of Truth Trust
George Whitefield's Daily Readings: Edited by Randall J. Pedersen

Have you heard of George Whitefield? What historical figure would you most like to meet today if you could? From any century?


  1. This is a wonderful post about a fascinating man and period of history, thanks so much for sharing this. It had such an impact on colonial thought.

    Many of my ancestors from Newburyport, MA got to hear him preach and I wish I had been there, too. Sometimes I wish we could time travel!! The Old South Church in Newburyport was built for him and he died 30 years to the day of his first visit there at 6 am Sunday morning Sept. 30, 1770. He had preached from the staircase of a home the night before "until the candle, which he still held, burned away, and went out in its socket." What a great example of dedication to the gospel and his calling. He's buried under the pulpit of the Old South Church in Newburyport.

  2. Carla, I thought of you as first came across Whitefield, knowing he was buried in your area. Love that your ancestors heard him preach! And I treasure the details you provided about his final hours. I'm really thankful he's buried in America as he really loved it here but am surprised the British haven't tried to get him back!

    I apologize for taking the post down briefly and that it's a bit strangely formatted. One of my pictures disappeared and I had to go hunting for it and put it back up.

    Bless you for taking time to read. He was an amazing man and I really think he had a double portion of the Spirit.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful post. I was inspired by him and others like him, who traveled up and down the Great Wagon Road, to include a character in my second MS who helps bring my hero to the Lord.

    What a divinely inspired man. If only we could be as on fire for the Lord as he was!

  4. Carrie, I'm so thankful you're including one of these evangelist-type characters in your MS! That sounds so intriguing. Like you, I wish we could all be more like Whitefield. His Journals are so fascinating I can hardly put them down. They read like the book of Acts! I think the Lord is teaching me much through them. Bless u for commenting!

  5. Love this post! What a fascinating man of God.

  6. Very cool! I've heard of George Whitefield, but didn't know much about him. Thanks

    The first character that comes to mind would be Abigail, King David's wife. She is such an interesting woman, and I'd like to know more about her.
    Thanks so much!!

  7. I have most certainly heard of George Whitfield, and I agree that he is a most inspirational man. Loved the journal excerpts.

  8. Renee Ann, So glad you're here:) I was away for most of the day so it's fun to log back on and see you, Kristen, and Faye! George was a man after God's own heart, like David. I think I may have to create a hero like him...

  9. Kristen,
    Oh YES, Abigail! Love that you mention a woman as so often only those strong Biblical men come to mind. Have you read Jill Eileen Smith's Wives of David series? One of her titles is Abigail:) But something tells me you already have. Bless you!

  10. Faye, Oh, it thrills me to hear that George W. is no stranger to you:) I am sad it has taken me so long to find him but thankful I did! I love the journal excerpts, too. These are just some of many that are noteworthy. He was as eloquent a speaker as he was a writer. Wish I could have heard him preach! Bless you for your comments and taking time here.

  11. I first read about Whitefield in either Gilbert Morris's "House of Winslow" series or Peter Marshall's "The Light and The Glory", I can't remember which I read first. He was an interesting character.

    John Quincy Adams is another man who fascinates me. He was quite the servant who returned to the Senate after his term as president. He is sometimes referred to as "the last Puritan".

  12. Pegg, I've always been fond of those Adams:) But I didn't know John Quincy was referred to in that way - quite a compliment in my book! The Puritans definitely had an influence on George Whitefield. I need to get my hands on some of their writings as well as Matthew Henry's fine commentary. And I'd really like to read a fictionalized account of him like you mention here by Morris or Marshall. If I remember correctly, Morris's series was quite large!

    Thanks so much for taking time here. I will remember these historical gems you've given me!

  13. I first learned of Whtiefield when I took colonial history in high school. One didn't just take history; one separated out the classes, and I took one of my US History credits on the colonial era. Always fascinated me and surprises me that CBA fiction is so focused on the nineteenth century and Amish, when the eighteenth century saw something like 250,000 people converted from going to church because it was the right thing to do at the time, but to true salvation. I actually had to explain to a group of Christian writers that the Great Awakening was in the eighteenth century and not the nineteenth.

    And, since my undergrad alma mater is named for him, please let us not forget Francis Asbury in this time period, too. Whitefield still may be the most fascinating of them all, though.

  14. Laurie Alice, Are you a grad of Asbury in KENTUCKY?! If so, I'm thrilled:) I need to brush up on Francis as he sounds fascinating. Excellent point about the 18th-century and the CBA focus on the 19th-century. No kidding - what a wealth of stories to be mined based on the Great Awakening aspect. I think the publishing powers that be must be asleep! It will be interesting to see if colonial fiction grows as I'd really like to get back to it after this series. I know I have some HUZZAHS here about that;)

  15. I really loved reading about George Whitefield. I confess to hearing more about John Wesley. What great men of God. I realized upon reading this that Mr. Whitefield and I have something in common. I too, read my Bible on my knees (though I'm not comparing myself to him in any wise), but not every time, because sometimes I can't get down there, or if I do, I have trouble getting back up.:-) I have a bum knee that goes back to athletics in high school. I love the fact that even though he suffered in his body he still had a great sense of humor! As Carrie said, would that we were so on fire as this great man of God! What an interesting post...

  16. Yes, Laura, I graduated From Asbury in Wilmore, KY.

    Maybe we're just not marketing the books to the CBA publishers with an emphasis on The Great Awakening and its significance to the eighteenth century, pre-American Revolution.

    England was so incredibly godless, at least in the upper classes, at this time, I've often believed their open debauchery contributed to the desire to split the colonies into our own country.

    The Great Awakening, thanks to the Wesleys and Whitefield, did reach many in England, too, but not usually the upper classes.

  17. I know it's late, but I had to stop in and tell you what a great post, Laura. Things have come together (God's work) where all of a sudden I've been led to taking more notice of the preachers in early started with Muhlenberg, the Lutheran preacher noted for opening his robe from the pulpit to reveal his patriot's uniform beneath. They did a scene in "The Patriot" based on this event.
    Then, from him I discovered Whitefield. He was amazing; I've read a little about him, but have yet to read his work. Right now, I'm in the middle of reading "Bonhoeffer" (that takes us to WWII, I know), but Whitefield comes next for sure after reading this post! These men led such incredibly devoted and heroic lives.
    I think I'd like to meet Peter's wife--she was crucified in Rome, shortly after her husband. (never knew that) Blessings on your week--and your writing!

  18. Diana, Love that you read your Bible on your knees, at least some of the time! The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak - so understand that:) I don't want to get too graphic but Whitefield had these violent vomiting spells frequently even as a young man. I wonder now what was wrong with him and how he would have had one of these spells and then gotten on a horse and ridden twenty miles to preach 3-4 hours!! This sort of "thorn" as he calls it, persisted all his life, or so I'm finding in my reading.

    Like you, I have bum knees from being a "flag girl" in high school (one of those crazy gals who dressed in jockey silks from the Kentucky horse farms and waved a flag around in 100 degree weather most of the year with the band!) Little did I know how I'd suffer for that bit of folly years later;) Thanks so much for your comments here. They sure bless me.

  19. Laurie Alice, I think you've zeroed in on a need - someone should write an irresistible book with a Great Awakening type hero. I'm so tempted. I never realized just how very godless England was until coming across Whitefield and all the opposition he faced. The clergy, many of them, were so spiritually bankrupt that many spent a lot of their time gaming in taverns, etc. They denied their pulpits to the Wesleys and Whitefield but were such hypocrites themselves.

    I feel Whitefield turned those colonials in a new direction and ushered in God's favor, enabling us to win the Revolution as a way of humbling England. He really was a Patriot at heart and was certainly fearless and gutsy despite his many limitations.

  20. Pat, So glad you're here - and thank you for your insights! Interesting that we're being drawn to those early American preachers at the same time. Mine began this spring with a book on great Christians of history which had a chapter devoted to George Whitefield (among others). I was so intrigued that I Googled him and then ordered some his Journals, etc. And am I glad I did! I feel the Lord is trying to teach me something through them and I don't want to miss a single lesson. I sense you feel the same.

    I didn't know about Muhlenberg - so fascinating! Now I'll have to look into that, thanks to you. And I do know a bit about Bonhoeffer and have always been sad he died young though the Lord used him mightily.

    Nor did I know about Peter's wife. I think he may have asked to be crucified upside down out of respect for the Lord? That is so moving - both of them. Bless you, Pat, for this!

  21. Men like George Whitfield inspire me. Laura, the reason why I love the Colonial era is because of the way God worked through men at that time. I think we'd do well to return to the fervor of those people.

    This post is definitely in league with my passion. :)

    We know George Whitfield well. God used him and others. There are many people who were actually thrown in jail during this period and earlier for preaching the true Gospel.

    Our Vacation Bible School this year centered around the colonial period and the fight for liberty. The skits showed how the men of that time came to an understanding of freedom of religion from the Bible and how the development of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights evolved from men who knew the Bible and based these powerful American documents on what is taught in Scripture. The narrator of the skits was Patrick Henry who volunteered his services to Baptist ministers confined in the Spottsylvania Jail--he spoke on their behalf.

    Other great preachers that influenced leaders like Thomas Jefferson were John Leland (Thomas Jefferson attended his church); John Hart, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence; John Gano, a firm friend of George Washington and who convinced Washington of believer's baptism and who did baptize him; Isaac Backus and many other preachers played a distinct role in the events leading up to and during the War of Independence.

    George Washington declared that "Baptist Chaplains were among the most prominent and useful in the army."

    Only a fool would deny God's hand in the formation of this country.

  22. It's been wonderful reading everyone's comments. Great discussion!

    Lynne, what an awesome VBS theme. I want to go!!

  23. Lynn, I'm so glad your VBS honors such a worthy theme and I know some of those kids may well develop a passion for the colonial period and it's godly heroes because of it. Like Carla said, I want to go!

    Glad, too, that you are already acquainted with Whitefield. So unusual that a man can be dead for 25 or so years and still speak volumes to us today. Love what you said about recapturing the fervor from that time. That's what I enjoy so much about this blog - that by posting on oft forgotten topics, we keep it alive. I learn so much from you and others here. Your last sentences are ones I wished I'd known during the writing of TCL. I had killed my army chaplain off, sadly, to emphasize the bleakness of the fort in my story. Being a Baptist, I treasure Washington's quote! Bless you!

  24. Whoops, make that 250 years! I wish he'd only been dead 25 years as we'd have loads of film and photos of him:) Please forgive my typos!

  25. Laura, great bit of history here. Hey, can't wait to win a copy of The Colonel's Lady. I've been sitting on pin and needles in anticipation.

  26. Hello,

    I'm from Brazil and I read a lot about the life of George Whitefiled.

    You guys know how many hours per day Whitefield prayed? Know something of the habit of prayer life of George Whitefield?

    I have this constant doubt.

    Hugs from Rio de Janeiro.

  27. To Paulo Sollo...I'm not sure why you doubt or what you doubt, but I'm assuming it's the accuracy of the details of George Whitefield's life. I wasn't alive during the time of Jesus Christ, but I have the Bible, which is full of accounts of people who walked with Him and knew Him and wrote of Him; ex. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and I believe what they spoke of Him. So there has to be accurate accounts of Mr. Whitefield's life; friends, acquaintances, and family members, etc. People were really big on keeping journals in those days and I'm sure he even kept one himself. We have all heard that George Washington knelt in the snow and prayed at Valley Forge, so much to the fact that none of us doubt that, though we were not there. It is so much easier for us to believe the bad things about people than the good for some reason...which I'm not saying you are doing that...just talking about human nature in general. Maybe some people did embellish the facts about Mr. Whitefield, but what reason would they have for doing so? If some of the facts were a little distorted one thing we do know...that he was a great man of God! If he wasn't we would have surely heard it!

    I'm not sure if I addressed the concerns that you have (like I said I don't know wherein your doubts lie that you speak of), but may God bless you mightily!

  28. Kim, So good to see you here! And so happy you're counting down till TCL with me, only I keep calling it TLC;) Praying your little guy is much better today!

  29. Paulo and Diana, Bless you for your thoughtful comments:) I don't think I have much to add as Diana has covered it so well! In fact, I'm getting ready to close the laptop and read some more Whitefield after supper. It makes such wonderful reading that I know why Paulo likes it. Bless you both!

  30. Ok, so I posted a giveaway in a couple of places and, drum roll, the winner is: Kim D. Taylor. Congrats, Kim! The Colonel's Lady will be yours! Thanks for stopping by!

  31. Wow, Laura...I was studying George Whitfield and came across your blog. I read the article & then saw your name! Great summary of his life. Read this sermon of his this morning:


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