by Tamera Lynn Kraft
There were many men of great achievement in Colonial America in the years before the Revolutionary War. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and the Adams brothers were becoming known for their criticism of taxes. The Wesley brothers preached throughout America and had a great following. Even George Washington had made a name for himself during the French and Indian War. But the most popular man in 1700s America was George Whitefield, the fiery Great Awakening revivalist that changed the colonies forever.
Well known actor of the time, David Garrick said, "I would give a hundred guineas, if I could say 'Oh' like Mr. Whitefield." Newspapers called him the "marvel of the age". When he preached for the first time in Philadelphia, even the largest churches couldn't hold the crowds of 8,000 people every night. Every city he preached in would bring out crowds larger than the population of the city. He was also one of the first to allow slaves to attend his meetings. It is estimated in his lifetime he preached 18,000 sermons to over ten million people.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the crowd who attended the services in Philadelphia and was greatly impressed. Franklin was a deist and believed God didn't personally interfere in the lives of men. Even though he never converted, he became a lifelong friend of Whitefield's and even handled the publicity for the evangelistic crusades. After one of Whitefield's messages, Franklin wrote, "wonderful... change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From
being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the
world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town
in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of
Even though he was popular, Whitefield did face opposition. Some complained about him allowing slaves at his meetings. Some Calvinists were angry with his close relationship with the Wesley Brothers, strong Armenians. Others felt his emotionalism and appeal for everyone to have a personal relationship with Christ was over the top. When he first started preaching in England, the leaders of the Anglican Church wouldn't even assign him a pulpit. That's when he began preaching in open fields and parks. Through it all, the great response to the Gospel every time Whitefield preached drown out any backlash. Of the opposition, he said, “the more I am opposed, the more joy I feel.”
He was in no way an ordinary Anglican preacher. His messages were powerful. He was said to portray Bible characters in a realistic way. Jonathan Edwards's wife, Sarah, remarked, "He makes less of the
doctrines than our American preachers generally do and aims more at
affecting the heart. He is a born orator." During the revival service. Once while preaching about eternity, he stopped and said, "Hark! Methinks I hear [the saints] chanting their everlasting
hallelujahs, and spending an eternal day in echoing forth triumphant
songs of joy. And do you not long, my brethren, to join this heavenly
The spiritual revival Whitefield ignited, the Great Awakening, became one of the
most formative events in American history and forged the spiritual character and unity or the soon to be nation. His last sermon, in 1770 shortly before his death, was given at Boston Commons before 23,000 people, the largest
gathering in American history to that point.