When George Whitefield stepped ashore in Savannah, Georgia, in May 1738, he had already preached to throngs in Bristol and London — preaching which ‘startled a nation’, as his biographer Dallimore put it.
He came to Savannah in response to John Wesley’s plea for missionaries to Georgia, at which ‘my heart leaped within me’, Whitefield later said.
His initial stay was brief, lasting only a few months. Yet it was long enough for him to have concluded: ‘America is not so horrid a place as it is represented to be’. By August, he was sailing back to England, determined to secure a charter and money for what would become the Bethesda Orphanage.
When he returned to America in October 1739, he had by then moved his ministry into the ‘open air’, in what C. H. Spurgeon called ‘a brave day for England’, as he preached to thousands and tens of thousands.
He came to an America well prepared to meet him. Revival fires were already burning. Spiritual awakenings had already begun among the German Protestants of various kinds in Pennsylvania; among the Dutch Reformed in New Jersey, under the ministry of Theodorus Frelinghuysen (1691–1747); in the Middle Colonies among the Presbyterians, led by William Tennent (1673–1745) and his sons; and in New England under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758).
Moreover, American newspapers had given considerable publicity to Whitefield’s work in England, adding to the eager anticipation of his return.
Three days after arriving, he began preaching in Philadelphia to crowds of about 8000, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. After nine days he moved on to New Jersey, then New York, and back to Philadelphia.
For weeks he preached to thronging crowds and faced growing opposition. As in England, when not allowed in the churches, he preached in the open air. His ministry attracted the attention of one Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin observed the visible impact that Whitefield had in Philadelphia: ‘It was wonderful to see the 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 every street’.
Leaving Philadelphia area, he travelled south on the overland route to Georgia. At each stop along the way, however remote, thousands came to hear him preach (10,000 heard him in White Clay Creek, Delaware).
He arrived in Savannah on 10 January 1740, 43 days after leaving Philadelphia, having traversed the continent, fanning the revival fires. The early months of 1740 were spent in Savannah developing the Bethesda Orphanage, a cause which would burden Whitefield for the remainder of his life.
As Spring arrived, Whitefield sailed north, landing in Newcastle, Delaware, on Sunday 13 April 1740. Word quickly spread of his return and vast crowds gathered to hear him preach: 15,000 in Philadelphia on the following Sunday, though the population of the city was only about 12,000.
Franklin left behind an often cited testimony to Whitefield’s persuasive powers. The evangelist had begun collecting funds for Bethesda, and Franklin, unconvinced of the wisdom of the endeavour, determined not to contribute.
‘I happened, soon after, to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three of four silver dollars, and five pistols in gold.
‘As he proceeded, I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that, and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all’.
His preaching continued throughout the Spring, primarily in and around Philadelphia, but also in New York. A Boston newspaper discussed the impact: ‘The alteration in the face of religion in Philadelphia is surprising. Never did the people show so great a willingness to attend sermons, nor the preachers greater zeal in performing the duties of their function.
‘No books are in request, but those of piety and devotion. Instead of singing idle songs and ballads, the people are everywhere entertaining themselves with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. All this, under God, is owing to the labours of Mr Whitefield’.
By June, Whitefield was writing, ‘O what wonderful things God is doing in America’. In July, he travelled south again, beginning a ‘summer tour’ of Charleston and surrounding area (2-25 July), and in the autumn returned to New England.
Vast crowds gathered in Boston during his 21-day visit, including an estimated 23,000 on the common for his farewell service. ‘Surely our Lord intends to set the world in a flame’, he exclaimed. Whitefield had become a national phenomenon.
Dr Benjamin Coleman (1673–1747), minister of the Brattle Street Church, wrote to Isaac Watts (1674–1748) of the impact in Boston: ‘The very face of the town seemed to be strangely altered. Even boys in the streets left their usual rudeness, and taverns were found empty of all but lodgers…
‘Our lectures flourish, our Sabbaths are joyous, our churches increase and our ministers have new life and spirit in their work’.
Whitefield travelled west to Northampton, Massachusetts, to preach to the congregation of Jonathan Edwards. ‘Both minister and people wept much’, Whitefield observed of the response to his preaching. ‘A sweeter couple I have not yet seen’, he reported of Mr and Mrs Edwards.
Edwards left this account of Whitefield’s ministry: ‘Mr Whitefield preached four sermons in the meeting-house (besides a private lecture at my house). The congregation was extraordinarily melted by each sermon, almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of the time’.
Whitefield said admiringly of Edwards: ‘I have not seen his fellow in all New England’. Together they visited Edwards’ aging parents, Rev. and Mrs Timothy Edwards. Two days later, Whitefield preached in Middleton, to about 4000 people.
An unlettered farmer named Nathan Cole recorded an account of the visit. Upon hearing that Mr Whitefield was to preach, he immediately dropped his farm tool, hurried to get his wife and horse, and off they rode, frantically racing twelve miles to hear the evangelist’s ‘sarmon’.
He describes a great cloud of dust rising from all the men and horses running, and ferry boats running back and forth with loads of people. At last he arrived and saw Mr Whitefield.
‘He looked almost angelical, a young slim slender youth before thousands of people and with a bold undaunted countenance & my hearing how God was with him everywhere as he came along it solemnized my mind and put me in a trembling fear before he began to preach, for he looked as if he was clothed with authority from ye great God and a sweet solemnity sat upon his brow and my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound & by God’s blessing my old foundation was broken up & I see my righteousness would not save me’.
Whitefield preached at both Harvard and Yale, with some controversy of course, but with significant effect. Again, Benjamin Coleman said of Harvard: ‘The college is entirely changed. The students are full of God. Many of them appear truly born again.
‘The voice of prayer and praise fills their chambers; and joy, with seriousness of heart, sits visibly on their faces. I was told yesterday that not seven, out of the one hundred in attendance, remain unaffected’.
Likewise, Edwards recorded of Yale: ‘This awakening was … for a time very great and general at New Haven; and the college had no small share in it. That society was greatly reformed; the students in general became serious, many of them remarkably so, and much engaged in the concerns of their eternal welfare … There have been manifestly happy and abiding effects of the impressions then made on the minds of many of the members of that college’.
During his 45-day tour of Massachusetts and Connecticut, Whitefield preached 175 sermons, reaching almost the entire population of New England.
The great year, 1740, drew to a close with Whitefield returning to Georgia, spending that Christmas in Charleston, and boarding a ship bound for England, departing American shores on 24 January 1741.
Dallimore estimates that ‘far more than half of the total population of the Colonies heard him preach’. He was but recently turned 26 years of age.
He returned for his third visit, landing at York, New Hampshire, on 26 October 1744. There would be four more visits (September 1751; May 1754; August 1763; September 1769).
Over time, the controversies surrounding Whitefield’s ministry died down, but not the enthusiasm for the ‘grand itinerant’. Year after year, he drew great crowds wherever he preached.
When he died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1770, he was, according to Harry S. Stout, another of his biographers, the greatest English-speaking preacher of the age, and perhaps the greatest evangelist since the days of the apostles.
Dallimore speculates that the burden of sustaining the Bethesda Orphanage exhausted Whitefield, contributing significantly to his death. Yet his impact on North America was remarkable.
Thousands were added to the churches. He was directly involved in the founding of three American colleges: Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth — all now Ivy League institutions. He also laid the groundwork for what would become the University of Georgia.
He was the first colonial celebrity, whose travels tied together the 13 Atlantic seaboard colonies, giving them a sense of identity not previously attained and laying a foundation for the unity that would be necessary for a successful quest for independence.
The author is senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, USA.